Quills and Queries

Quills and Queries

October 6, 2020 By Berna Ozunal

In 2018 at the Editors Canada conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, we were fortunate to have Yann Martel, author of novels such as Life of Pi, Beatrice and Virgil, and The High Mountains of Portugal, as the keynote speaker. Something he said during his address really stuck.

I hope he doesn’t mind me borrowing his metaphor, but he said that the first time he worked with an editor and got his manuscript back (in Microsoft Word using Track Changes), “it looked like a porcupine.” Indeed, this is a great visual of what happens when there are numerous queries in the margins with so many dashed lines extending from the text—they do look like the quills of a porcupine!

Of course, there are ways to “pluck quills from the porcupine,” like turning on and off reviewers and types of markup (for example, formatting, insertions/deletions), selecting the extent of markup (such as simple, original), reviewing markups in-line rather than in balloons, and so on. But continually toggling among these options can be irksome, and you can’t expect everyone who reviews editorial feedback to be prepared to do this.

I typically work on material that has input from multiple stakeholders, and we are all working on the back of this porcupine whether we like it or not. Even the cumulative work of one or two reviewers can birth a porcupine.

Let me back up though. I’m an editor who reviews the work of students and highly experienced and skilled editors alike. And I’m struck by seeing some of the same issues in querying across all levels of experience.

I think there are a few reasons for this. First, as far as I know, there is no deep formal training available in querying. It is just one facet of editing after all, and it doesn’t seem that important when we think about all of the other things that editors have to worry about.

There are a number of very helpful online posts about querying (for example, “The Beginner’s Guide to Queries” and “Writing Effective Author Queries” by Erin Brenner), sessions at conferences, and other one-off training opportunities like webcasts. I specifically remember going to a very good session called The Art of the Query with Ruth Wilson at the Editors Canada Conference in Gatineau-Ottawa in 2017.

But generally, I think each editor is pretty much on their own in learning how to query. What is querying? Querying is writing notes in the margins to resolve editorial issues. It’s writing precisely and plainly while expertly editing the writing of others. Editors edit, and often there isn’t much energy or time left over for anything else. So querying becomes an automatic thing. You do it to get the job done.

But it’s immensely important. In fact, for the student assignments in my class, I always base half of their grade on the quality of their queries and memos; after all, editors are helpers. Even if you have the most brilliant insights and revisions, if they aren’t conveyed in an immediately intelligible and actionable way, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Your value as a helper depends on how helpful you are. Writing queries such as “This would be better at the end” or “Correct as above?” is not helpful.

Asking reviewers to decode your notes is also not helpful. For example, by using pronouns in your notes (“Should this be expanded?”) instead of the exact text in question, it is unclear what exactly should be expanded—and why. The same goes for asking reviewers to jump around in the document or go looking for other notes you’ve written, like “See my note on page 12 about this” or “Same change here as above.” These types of queries can easily get lost after reviewers do a cursory search and give up. 

So, I’d like to share some of the things I do when writing queries to try to be more reviewer- and porcupine-friendly. This is not an exhaustive list, but I think these efforts can reduce some of the issues I’ve seen.

I try not to overexplain.

Querying should not be about giving grammar lessons or extensive rationales. You have to be able to justify your revisions, but only if someone asks you about it afterwards. Some editors provide all kinds of information because they think educating the writer will make editing their work easier in the future, but this is misguided. Your job is to make their life easier, not the other way around! Or they think reviewers expect this and it conveys that you are knowledgeable, which I do not agree with. The fact is that hardly anyone will be as interested in ablaut reduplication as you are (to use an example from the enjoyable Grammar Arcana ACES webcast with Lisa McLendon earlier this year). And your knowledge should be evident from the quality of your editing. People these days are experiencing cognitive overload to the point of exhaustion. This will be no different for the people reviewing your queries. You should not expect anyone to get excited by unsolicited grammar lessons.

I try not to underexplain. 

I copy and paste the term, sentence, or whatever it is that I am questioning into the balloon. I will typically italicize it to identify it as the text under discussion, then I leave a space before I start my query about it. This is so much more helpful than writing something like “This is a truism” in the balloon that points to something in the text. As a reviewer of editorial notes, I find myself following those dashed lines into the text trying to figure out what they’re pointing at (never mind the other question of what the heck I’m supposed to do about it once I figure that out). It’s so much easier if you just tell me in the note. And I’m an editor, so the porcupine is my natural habitat. What if you’re working with someone who is not used to working with Microsoft Word Track Changes? It can be exasperating for them. I will also use markers like section numbers, subheads, item numbers, and so on in the balloon to help reviewers locate the text in question. 

I try to state the issue briefly, and I provide only one concrete solution.

I provide the exact wording. I offer the best solution I’ve come up with after tinkering with it and deciding it’s the best one, given the context. If it’s not rewording that is needed, but advice, I try to be unequivocal about it. I do the research, look everything up, and validate it. The idea is to boil everything down to the bare necessities in the notes. Balloons are not places for long monologues or soliloquies. They are places for your final and best solution. Everyone reviewing your editorial changes will appreciate this. Typically, they will use your solution. One solution is easy and helpful. I used to work with an editor who would provide about eight solutions for the reviewers thinking that that was even better and even more helpful. I disagree with that approach. See “Choice Overload,” episode 8 of The Happiness Lab podcast for more on why.

I try to edit my queries as I write them. 

But you can go back and do it afterwards as well, and you should do this anyway. Apply all of the expertise you’ve just applied to the material you’re working on to your queries. Are they immediately actionable? Have you provided one very good solution, either with new wording or with a concrete example of a solution? Are you using active verbs and active voice? Are you writing in plain language? If there are multiple reviewers, color-coding your queries can be very helpful as well. Now, a lot has been said about how important it is to be tactful and polite in your tone and language when querying. And this can’t be repeated often enough. But simply saying “Please clarify” might seem sufficient—you’ve said please, after all. But being polite more than anything else means taking the time to give reviewers what they need to do their jobs. Taking the time to write concise and actionable queries is all part of the editor-as-helper package. 

I try to resolve it first.

Deciding whether to make the change or to query it is something that all editors have to think about. This can be tricky and requires judgment. What you do will vary, based on things like the reviewers, the scope, the context, and so on. But going back to the editor-as-helper tenet and the reality of the porcupine, the basic idea is to help as much as you can by making the changes you feel very good about, querying what you simply can’t resolve yourself, and knowing what to leave as is (arguably, knowing when to leave things as they are is the most important part of editing). Being helpful means thinking critically about everything and doing all the work you can without ever forgetting the reviewers who will have to navigate through the pesky porcupine and act on your queries.

Header photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash.

Recent Posts

Interview with an Editor: Lourdes Venard

AP Stylebook Updates Technology Terms

#ACESChat: Diversity and Inclusion in Editing