The Querying Conflict

Querying, Vol. V.

By Susan Holzman

As an editor, I have often been asked to have a look at part of a manuscript, a chapter, a section, to get an idea of what the work will be like. I usually make every attempt to return the text, as soon as possible, filled with my erudite suggestions for reorganization and deletions, language usage and so on. I need to impress the potential client with my abilities and knowledge. I want the client to know that I know about writing; I know about grammar; I know about genre; I know about semantics; I know about collocations; I know about corpus linguistics; I know about sociolinguistics; and I know how to make this text the best it can be. I want the client to be certain that I work quickly and clearly. My queries are often lengthy; sometimes they contain links to internet dictionaries, grammar explanation pages or usage sources. I explain that I came to editing from teaching English language and teaching academic writing, and I, therefore, consider myself to be an educating editor, an editor who understands writing and can teach the author a thing or two while we collaborate on the text.

If, in a text about food in Vietnam, the author writes about the “watery gravy” surrounding the fish, I will query if the author’s opinion of the gravy was negative; did he want to say something pejorative about the gravy? And if the answer is “no,” then I will go into an explanation of the corpus and its use in finding appropriate collocations. I will explain that when searching the corpus for nouns following “watery,” I did not find “watery gravy,” but I did find “watery soup.” A further check of “watery soup” revealed soups in hospitals, prison camps and bad restaurants (in the company of soggy spaghetti): So, based on corpus evidence, I would suggest to the client, use “thin” gravy, not “watery.”

Richard Adin, author of The American Editor blog, agrees with me. In his post on The business of editing: The art of query, he says: “One way we convince clients to hire us again or to recommend us to colleagues is by demonstrating our knowledge.…” He says that we should “identify the problem” and then “explain why it is a problem.” The third step is to “provide solutions.” These steps show that the editor is reading carefully and thinking about the manuscript. Most importantly, it shows that the editor is knowledgeable.  Then it is the author’s decision about what to do with the suggestion. Richard Adin looks at queries as a way to impress his clients:  “Well-crafted, informative queries…are like a billboard advertising my skills.”

On the other hand, the “audience” reading these queries is the author, the creator, the architect of the text, and, at the moment of reading the queries, is probably not so interested in the advertisement of the editor. In the 2014 issue of the 21st Century Text, Batya Shai wrote about the Writer-Editor Affiliation:

The moment has arrived. With trepidation, you open the editor’s email attachment. You can’t believe what you see — more balloons on the page than you blew up for your granddaughter’s birthday party, only these are courtesy of Track Changes and hardly a cause for celebration, you think. The colors, the comments — you feel like you’re living one of those troubling dreams where you are just about to give your acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, only to suddenly become aware that you are standing shoeless at the podium, and the big toe of your right foot has managed to somehow stick out of a huge hole in your left sock.

So querying is a complicated issue and tactful effective querying might be one of the keys to being a successful freelance editor. A number of blogs have been written on the subject. I have already mentioned Richard Adin, The business of editing: The art of the query. There is a blog posted on a site called Cypress Editing entitled “The art of the query” which suggests that editors do some checking before they query. This advice is echoed by the blog “The beginners’ guide to queries.” Deanna Hoak, writing about “Queries and copyediting.” tells about how she checked inside a book she had edited a few years ago by “looking inside” the book on the Amazon site to see if they had followed her important suggestion made in a query. Lo and behold, they had not. She admits that she queries “more than the typical copyeditor,” but this, nevertheless, was a disappointment.

This sent me off to Amazon to check the “watery gravy.” Lo and behold, it is still there. Like Deanna Hoak, I was disappointed.

Avieli, N. (2012). Rice talks. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 18.


Being a good “querier” is probably similar to being a good conversationalist with someone whom you have just met and are stuck sitting next to for the next three hours. Be polite, show knowledge of his subject and ask questions that the author will want to answer.

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