Querying the Author Effectively
January 16, 2001
Being a good editor requires more than dotting i's, crossing t's, and knowing "that" from "which." Your success as an editor depends just as much—if not more—on your ability to communicate effectively with your authors through queries. New BAEF chair Hilary Powers drove this point home during the January 16 meeting. She provided guidelines on writing queries that convey your integrity as an editor as well as your respect for the author's work—both of which are essential in landing repeat assignments.
Powers, a freelance trade nonfiction editor since 1994, said one of the most important things to keep in mind is that when you're editing, you're writing. Good editors, like good writers, know their audience—in this case, the author. When writers get back an edited manuscript, "they know something has happened and expect it will be bad," Powers said. Rule number one: Write your query for someone who doesn't want to read it.
Your queries should convey two things, Powers said: emotional overtones of respect and admiration, and the precise thing you need from the author. Build into the tone of your written comments that you like the writer, respect the work, and know your job. At the same time, be as clear as possible in communicating what you need. The best queries require no more than the author's "yes"; next-best queries request something the author can easily furnish—a piece of information, an interpretation of a specific phrase, or a revision.
Position yourself as a facilitator of the writer's wisdom. "Give authors control because they feel out of control," Powers said. The attitude your queries should transmit to authors is that "you 'adjust' what they do and they 'correct' what you do," she said. For example, if you fear an edit may change the meaning of the text, add something like "Please correct me if I've misstated this."
Powers also advises putting the best face on your queries. Rather than "This is wordy," offer an edit along with "Is this OK? It's more concise." Replace "This is vague" with "I was not able to interpret this." Rather than "This is contradictory," explain exactly how the text may contradict itself, and offer an edit that may more clearly represent the author's idea.
As garbled as the text may be, it meant something to the author when he or she wrote it. Respect this. Communicate that you've added a sentence because the reader may need help following the writer's logic, not because the writer's logic is flawed. Or, in another case Powers presented, it's not that a passage doesn't make sense, it's just that a few words appear to have been inadvertently deleted. Also, always include the reasoning behind your more controversial edits. "If you don't sell the edit to the author, it's dead," Powers said.
Stay away from using "you" and "I" in queries. Focus on the text and reader rather than the personalities of author and editor. This advice is particularly useful when you suspect the author will not be happy, such as when you edit a locution used cleverly but incorrectly. Ask "Is this acceptable?" rather than "Do you like this?"
To score points with authors you've never worked with, Powers suggests accompanying heavily edited manuscripts with a cover letter introducing yourself and describing your background, mentioning anything that proves you're qualified to handle the project. Let the author know you're a team player. Say that you're pleased to be working on the book. Explain your editing process. Sum up what you've done.
For extra credit, make sure to include "queries" only meant to please or amuse the author, such as "Clever!" or "I like that!" If a writer uses a word or turn of phrase frequently in the text, use it in your queries. "If you usually call it a framazoid and they call it a whatsis," Powers said, "call it a whatsis."
Editors in the audience also offered suggestions. When Jeanne Pimentel offers an edit along with "Can you write something like this but in your own words?" she finds the author often chooses to go with her edit. Kristi Hein says that if a book needs a major overhaul, she'll edit a sample chapter to send to the author for approval before digging into the rest of the manuscript. Another way Hein gives authors a sense of ownership is by couching her rewrites in queries rather than inserting them into the text. She'll also tone down her role as editor by advocating for the reader, beginning a query with "As a reader, I...."
For more on this topic, explore the tipsheet by Powers Sample Author Queries.