It’s all in how you ask the question

By Michele Callaghan, manuscript editor

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.


The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.

―Claude Lévi-Strauss

Anyone who raises kids, lives with a spouse or a roommate, or reads pop psych books knows that the response you get is directly related to how you ask the question. “Do you want to go to the mall looking like trash?” might not get the same reaction as “Your red top is so much more flattering to your figure. How do you feel about wearing it instead?” It is similar when you are trying to tell someone that what he has written doesn’t make sense to anyone but himself or that she has repeated the same idea four times already. In editing, this is called the art of the query.

Queries can point out mundane issues, such as unintentional repetition of words or ideas. Here’s an example: “I deleted this because it repeats language on page 3. Let me know if you would rather delete there.” Queries can tease out details that the author may think are understood but are not obvious to the reader. Here is one that I directed to an author on physics who had written that Isaac Newton’s work on differential calculus was the most powerful invention in the intellectual history of science and mathematics—something I thought was a bit hyperbolic. First, I changed the word “science” to “physics.” Then I wrote, “I made this change because one could argue for equally important concepts in other branches of science. Also, can we say that up until then it was the most powerful? What about Einstein?”

It doesn’t matter whether the book is about physics or psychiatry, math or medicine, history or natural history. The editor’s job is to help smooth out pacing by avoiding repetition, to help clarify things by bringing to the forefront ideas that the author has half-written, and to decide what may need defining and what the readers can look up for themselves. (See my November 26, 2012 blog post, “A defining moment,” for more on this topic.)

As editors, we wear two hats: We represent the authors and help them find their voices. We also represent the readers and strive to make sure that the author’s vision translates into something the reader can understand. The word “query” used as a question dates to the early seventeenth century. An earlier definition meant complaint. Our goal is to help without making a complaint. We don’t want the author going to the proverbial mall looking like that. So when you read a query, authors, realize that your editor has your best interest at heart. Be open to suggestions, and you will garner more readers and a greater audience for your ideas. But editors, you will catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar, as our mothers used to say. You don’t want to alienate your authors. You just want them going out in public looking their best.