Three Tips on Writing Strong Queries

As a copy editor, you’re trusted to evaluate the quality of the writing, catch any inconsistencies, and errors presented in the manuscript. If the error is small, such as a missing comma, the copy editor can fix the issue without querying the author, but if there is a paragraph that is awkward and may be confusing to the reader, the issue has to be queried by the copy editor. Essentially, a query is a written message in the margin to the author, addressing an issue about a specific part of the manuscript. When a manuscript is returned to the author, it is up to the author to review each query to decide whether a change is needed or not. The trick is writing the query in such a way that you do not offend, frustrate, or dishearten the author.

Remember that a manuscript is the result of a writer’s blood, sweat, and tears. Unless they’re lucky to be full-time writers, authors are usually people working a nine-to-five job and have to write during their lunch breaks or stay up late into the night writing after their children have gone to bed. They’ve sacrificed their energy, time, and social life to write a book, and if a query is not handled well, they could see it as an attack on them and not as constructive feedback.

So how do you write a query without inadvertently insulting or frustrating the author? It’s in the tone and wording. The following are three important things to remember while copyediting a manuscript.

  1. Know when to query. Query too little, and there is a risk the author may not understand what needs to be fixed and why. Query too much, and the author may become discouraged or frustrated by the sheer amount. A query is a demand on the author’s time, as they have to review and respond to each one. Not every change needs to be queried, such as simple mechanical changes or changes in wording to fix a grammatical error. The only instances these may need to be queried is when the error seems to repeat itself; then it may be worth noting the first change. A query also may be needed in these instances if the change could potentially alter the author’s intended meaning.
  2. Be concise. Queries that are too long-winded can be demanding on an author’s time. It is best to be clear, specific and to the point. Write only enough to indicate what is needed and why. The query should help the author know what the problem is without confusing the issue or making the author feel attacked.
  3. Be aware of your tone and wording. Like in all writing, your voice is important and conveys messages of its own. If a query is written with a sarcastic or demeaning voice, the author will recognize it. Always be professional and polite when writing your queries. Along with voice, the phrasing of the query holds a lot of weight and can influence how the author reacts to it. For this reason, frame your queries around what the reader needs or wants. As an example, if the writer’s argument is unconvincing due to a lack of substantial evidence, the following may be a possible query: will the readers be convinced by this if the source is questionable and cannot be documented?

Queries are a channel of communication between the writer and copy editor, which is one of the reasons knowing how to write effective and professional queries is as important as knowing where a comma belongs in a sentence for a copyeditor. For more insights into how to write effective queries, visit Science Editor to read The Art of Writing Effective Queries by Diana Burke.