To Query or Not to Query

John Muellner

The relationship between author and editor is like a couple in an arranged marriage. The two have seen each other around, maybe they’ve even made small talk, but they don’t really know what makes the other one tick. This is why query can be so difficult. There’s a sensitivity that must surround these situations because of this. The natural way the editor speaks may be too rough for the author, or they might like asking many thorough questions, but the author would rather not be bothered at this stage in the publishing process. There’s just no way of knowing beforehand if the person editing your work is going to have chemistry with you. In the second chapter of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn lays out tips for proper editing etiquette, from tone and how one might phrase their ideas for the piece without offending the writer, to when it’s acceptable to speak to the author instead of making changes by oneself. These are all guidelines to help editor and author meet in the middle, but even with these tips I’m still concerned about my future interactions with an editor because of the generation entering the field and my control issues.

Einsohn says, “treat the manuscript, no matter how poorly written or prepared, as though it were the author’s ugly newborn. That is, no matter how ugly you think the baby is, you would never say so to the new mother or father” (45). I appreciated her advice, as I’m sure many other writers who have been burned by a peer editing situation gone wrong do as well. For one of my English classes last year I wrote a fictional piece where a woman in her early twenties tries to leave her small town to get away from her abusive father. A few days before she’s supposed to leave she goes to the bank to get her money and close her private account. However, while she’s there she discovers she can’t leave because almost all of her money is missing, as her mother had gone into the private account and withdrawn the money for the main character’s brother. I brought the story into class where my classmates and I swapped papers to peer edit each other’s work, and after class while flipping through my paper I noticed a comment made by the girl who sat next to me, “This isn’t how a bank works…”

The ellipsis enraged me. Maybe she wasn’t implying that I was stupid, and I was making a big deal out of nothing; I’ve been known to do this, but this is how I received the comment. She went on to say that it wasn’t possible for parents to withdraw money from their grown daughter’s private account. The fact is, this portion of the story was based on the life of my great grandmother who went through the same situation in the early 20th century, the same time period I set my story in. I wasn’t frustrated in the fact that my classmate brought up the strangeness of the situation, but rather in the way she presented her concern.

Einsohn specifically examines how the tone of editors is important when they express themselves in person or on the page. For example, instead of saying “I don’t find this convincing,” you could say, “Will readers trained in structural analysis accept this conclusion as stated?” to help maintain a civil and respectful relationship. One thing I noticed in the examples she provides is that many of the revised statements end in a question mark, and by phrasing your suggestions as questions you are still leaving the author in charge of his or her own writing. This helps the writer to not feel stripped of their authority. Einsohn says, “Above all, queries should not sound as though you might be challenging the author’s expertise or intellectual ability” (43). If my classmate had written “Is this accurate with how banks operated back then?” on my paper, I would have respected her reservations about the detail. Saying, “This isn’t how a bank works…” immediately steals my authority as an author and gives it to the editor, who is suddenly claiming to be an expert on the subject. This is why I’m even more cautious with my own edits, as I don’t want to make someone else feel inferior for work they have a lot of pride in. If an actual editor had given me that feedback I wouldn’t be able to trust his or her judgement with any of the other comments made on the copy, and would have to take it elsewhere.

Personally, I don’t see this problem of inappropriate tone improving with new editors in future generations to come. This is the first generation to be required to attend school assemblies regarding cyberbullying. The connection I’m getting at? People gain confidence when they’re alone with their computer. It’s easy for some to forget that an author was captivated enough by an idea to write it down, and more than that, they want to share it with others. They cherish the idea, as Einsohn points out, like a newborn child. If an editor isn’t face to face with the writer, they may give harsher feedback because there’s no immediate rebuttal to what they have to say about the story or article. They don’t even have to justify their editorial choices if they don’t feel like writing them out. Along with this, social media websites like Twitter, have helped this generation become perfectly accustom to saying whatever they want to in a limited space, (though all Twitter users are certainly not editors, the grammar you can find there is pretty horrendous). There’s no room for sugarcoating things on Twitter, just the cold hard truth. I worry that many will carry this mentality with them as they enter the publishing field and are left alone with the manuscript.

What I found most controversial about querying was how Einsohn often suggests not speaking to the author for every issue. She cautions the reader, “Query too often, and the author may become frustrated with the amount of time needed to read and respond to all your questions, comments and explanations” (40). Maybe it’s the control freak in me, but I, as the author would want to be involved in every detail my editor wanted to share. If I sent something out to be published for the whole world to see I would want my editor to run everything past me because I want the finished product to be as close to perfection as possible. I’d like to be saved the embarrassment of having my future in-laws point out a typo in something I wrote. Einsohn acts as though once a manuscript has been sent out, the author immediately loses interest in their own piece, and while I’m sure some authors feel that at this point their work is done, I’d like to challenge that idea because I want writers to have more pride in their work. If I already labored over the piece I submitted, I wouldn’t suddenly lose interest in it, or be bothered by attentive feedback from my editor. Minimal contact seems especially ridiculous to me if the manuscript comes from someone who is a writer for their occupation. If the piece comes from someone who has a day job and wrote an article or novel in their spare time it is understandable that an editor wouldn’t bombard them as frequently, because they won’t have the time to check in as often, but if it was my job to write books I would make the time to see the piece through. That being said, I understand that every grammatical change doesn’t need to be discussed with the author for efficiency reasons.

If we read a book we don’t like, it’s easy to go online and post a negative review, listing what irked us the most, but this isn’t what editing is. The editor is not there to tell the authors that their book is terrible, or that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Their job is to think about the future readers of this piece and if there is enough clarity to follow the authors thought process. While I have a lot of respect for the work editors do, I believe that they should, after being told by the publisher what level of editing must be done, ask how involved the author is looking to be in this process, as this manuscript is ultimately, his or her newborn, not the editor’s.

Work Cited

Einsohn, Amy. “Basic Procedures.” The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys. Third ed. Berkeley: U of California, 2011. 29-67. Print.

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5 Comments

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  1. I want to start off by saying what an engaging, fun opener you used. It’s a connection that I wouldn’t have immediately thought of, but fits perfectly here. Moving forward into your paper, I’m glad you brought attention to Einsohn’s quote in which he explains that an editor must treat an author’s manuscript “as though it were the author’s ugly newborn.” Just pause for minute and revel in Einsohn’s humor; it’s his humor that strikes a cord. It relates us back to a time in which we’ve experienced this very awkward situation, forcing us to remember how we handled it. I’ve been on both ends of this situation myself, the editor and the editee. When you’re the editor, you feel a certain power, as if your pen is truly as mighty as the sword. One slash and you can effectively change the course of the paper or maybe the tone of the chapter. As the editee, it’s easy to feel vulnerable and self-conscious. Why wouldn’t you? You’re expressing yourself in words and those words are, well, like your baby, probably beautiful to you, potentially hideous to someone else. It really boils down to how you handle the situation. Were you harsh? Or did you consider how that all cap query would be received? Perspective really is everything when dealing with and eliciting queries. I’m glad Einsohn addresses this situation, because I think it’s something that editors deal with frequently and is more or less inescapable.

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  2. Dear John,

    I am really fascinated by the subject and the content of your paper. After you read it aloud in class it made me think a lot about my day to day life when it comes to editing. I read a quote once (which I’ll paraphrase) that said that when writer’s give someone else their writing, they are basically “Handing the person a stake, stepping down into their own grave and saying, “I’m ready when you are.”” The pieces that we write are our babies, and though we want to help them ‘grow up’ we want it to be done peacefully, even though I would definitely say we want to be challenged. I’m taking an Advanced Creative Writing class and much of the critique that we give there is additional, in the sense that “I like what you have so far, add more of this,” while in my job at TommieMedia, it feels more centered around “I like what you have, but take this out/revise this.” Revision is implied in the creative writing class because that’s what is expected to happen anyway. But the “add more” tonally always feels more gentle, because it implicitly/explicitly begins with ‘I like what you have here.’ In creative writing classes, even notes on revision feel soft handed, “I’m not sure what’s happening here? Are they fighting?” Creative writing, I would argue, can sometimes be constructing and molding a piece that has a better sum than all the parts involved. When it comes to journals and articles, even if a voice is allowed to come through, the purpose is to communicate a message, and that tends to delineate into the “all meat no fat” kind of writing. I think that this tends to yield more queries that could be seen as harsh. While I strongly prefer constructive criticism, I do think that the more it airs on the side of criticism, the more careful the editor needs to be in presenting it. I don’t think sugarcoating does anyone favors when it comes to assisting those who crave these edits and want to know what needs to be fixed, but like you said, it is very easy to be discouraged when you get a negative edit. It makes it feel as though the person didn’t even take the time to realize how hard you worked on your piece. Not to suck up or anything, but I think that’s why it is extremely beneficial when editors also teach classes or have taught classes, so as to get a sense for what is appropriate when trying to get students/scholars to improve.

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  3. It was so fun to hear you read your paper! Your personality really came out in it and as I’m rereading it I can still hear your voice. This is an awesome topic in general and I think you brought out the most important points about both editors and writers. I’m actually one of those people, much like yourself, that I want my writing to be as perfect as possible (even though finding enough time for this isn’t quite possible but I still try!). Einsohn’s analogy of the writer’s work as being the ugly newborn also resonated with me! Last semester when I studied Oscar Wilde, I asked my professor to give me as much feedback on every single draft possible, and while I appreciated every bit of it, I discovered for the first time just how painful it is to cut things in a revision process. Yet, it had to be to make the paper better. So I can definitely understand where you’re coming from. You crave the feedback to make your writing better, but it can be a painful process to do so. I agree though that the editor has a lot of power to make this process potentially less painful when suggestions are given with gentleness. I thought this was a really good thing to remind us of as we are trying to learn the editing process.

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  4. Morgan Alexander March 30, 2016 — 3:10 pm

    I enjoyed the point you made about editors and writers needing to “meet in the middle.” I think this is a really good way of describing the complex relationship between editors and writers because sometimes it is about compromise if each of them wants to take something in a different direction. You also draw attention to a good point of Einsohn’s that one must consider when it is appropriate to make changes and when it is important to discuss it with the author first. Errors in editorial judgment in this area can lead to tension between the two, which is obviously not ideal – just like in a marriage. It is important to remember the person behind the writing when you are editing because it is easy to harshly judge mistakes they may have made, but it is beneficial to imagine the writing as your own. Are you treating the manuscript how you would want yours to be treated?

    A good example of this is your anecdote about the ellipsis. I also like that you gave alternative examples of how she could have, and probably should have, worded the comment in a less offensive way. When she made the ellipsis on your paper, did she read it to herself to herself again before handing it off to you? Maybe not, because it can be read as very sassy. But only she can know the true intention behind her comment, and that is what good editors must remember. We must make queries that are neutral in tone so as not to be misconstrued as rude. You touch on this point in regards to Einsohn’s comments on tone, which I appreciated. We must keep in mind that we are all looking out for our own “babies.”

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  5. Hey John,
    You did a great job tackling some questions I have when considering whether to query or not. As you described it, the relationship between author and editor is usually fairly anonymous, making it difficult to understand one another properly. As we’ve edited in class I’ve been faced with situations that I had to approach with caution. Sometimes a sentence just doesn’t make any sense, but as editors it’s our job to fix that. It can be exceedingly difficult to query an author and convey to them that they’ve written a poor sentence without actually insinuating that directly. It’s not always easy to maintain a completely professional tone either when you’re so frustrated after pages of bad writing, but that’s an inevitability all editors must face and work through. Your example about the query in your own short story is a prime example of a query gone wrong. The ellipsis would’ve enraged me too, so you’re not alone. The quote you picked out from Einsohn about treating the author’s work as their ugly newborn child is perfect. It’s a great analogy and is very fitting with the message of your essay. And I agree about what you thought of Einsohn recommending not to query too often. I’d rather offend the author slightly with too many questions and ensure a quality piece than let some poor writing slip through my fingers because I was too afraid of offending them. In the end, no one’s writing is perfect. That’s why editors exist in the first place. Assuming we always maintain a professional tone and don’t overstep our boundaries I believe that writers taking offense to our suggestions and corrections is not a problem from our end.

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