Event Review: The Art of the Query

Written by Susan Grant; copy edited by Emma Caplan

Review of the workshop The Art of the Query with Ruth Wilson (offered by Editors BC on March 19, 2016)

Ruth Wilson, who recently retired from teaching copy editing and substantive editing in SFU’s Editing Certificate program, was inspired to create her seminar, The Art of the Query, by the struggles of her students to query effectively. But as Ruth noted throughout her presentation, even more experienced editors can make beginners’ mistakes, to the detriment of their relationships with authors and publishers. Drawing on her own experiences and her observations of students’ struggles, Ruth developed this comprehensive seminar on the underrated and oft-neglected skill of the effective query.

Most of Ruth’s remarks related to the copy-edit stage and fell within two broad categories—knowing what (and what not) to query, and striking the right tone. Beginners commonly either over-query or don’t query enough, so Ruth provided a helpful list to guide those decisions. Certain changes are non-negotiable, like house style, so routine mechanical edits as well as grammar and usage corrections do not need to be queried. Errors of fact that are straightforward to confirm with an authority or reference also do not require a query; a comment to the author with the rationale is sufficient. You should consider whether asking the author to respond to a query will require additional text or structural changes that may not be feasible, depending on the stage of the piece. It is also appropriate not to query when time and budget don’t allow, for example in newspaper pieces.

So where is a query appropriate and necessary? This list includes inconsistencies in facts, apparent errors in mathematical operations or misordered steps, inconsistencies in timelines, incomplete text, and ambiguous or confusing punctuation. As always, the needs of the reader should be at the forefront of deciding what to query.

You may have a great relationship with your author, but it is critical to always mind your manners. Be tactful, be diplomatic, and be polite. Don’t allow time pressures to interfere with these golden rules of the query. To help editors strike the right tone, Ruth offered eight helpful tips:

  1. Frame your query through the lens of what the reader needs. This form of query can be especially effective with a technical writer who could be tempted to dismiss your query as failure to understand the material.
  2. Insert yourself in the query, as in “I’m having trouble with X” or “Can you please provide Y?”
  3. Say something positive; never be condescending. Point out good examples within the text for the writer to emulate in addressing the query.
  4. Don’t be patronizing, and continually guard against the corrosive effect of frustration on your tone.
  5. Don’t inject emotion into your query.
  6. Don’t be pedantic or quote excessively from authorities to support your query.
  7. Don’t make the beginners’ mistake of using imperatives in your query—always be polite.
  8. Communicate in a professional manner. That means no emoticons, no jokey language. The tone of your query should reflect your relationship with the author, but always err on the side of tact.

Ruth expanded on these tips with some additional advice. Ensure that you elicit information (not just a yes or no response) by asking an unambiguous question in your query. Be brief but clear, and take the time to reread your queries for tone and grammatical correctness before sending the edited piece to the author. An important step at the outset is to contact the author, the editorial coordinator, or both to establish expectations, including the mechanism for responding to queries.

Attendees at this seminar included early-career and experienced editors, as well as students in the SFU Editing Certificate program. With this thorough review of querying best practices, everyone took away some great insights to improve on this critical editing skill.

Susan Grant is a student in SFU’s Editing Certificate program and is excited to be shifting her career focus to writing and editing both fiction and non-fiction. Chasing adventure down under in New Zealand, Susan worked as a science writer for an international medical publishing house but subsequently pursued graduate research and business degrees, leading to various roles within the pharmaceutical industry over the past 15 years. 

Emma Caplan edits client-facing documents and takes pride in making them sales-ready and reader-friendly. She has additional experience in quality control and proofreading. For more than six years, Emma has worked in the business consulting and professional services sectors, producing documents such as reports, proposals, and project qualifications. She is currently enrolled in SFU’s Editing Certificate program, a complement to her bachelor’s degree in business management. In her free time, Emma enjoys hiking, travelling, and creating jewelry. Connect with her on LinkedIn, or browse through her shop on Etsy.

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