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Queries: Skilled Negotiation Required

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Beginning copyeditors don’t always realize how important negotiating skills are in our work. The pushback we can get from an author or a supervising editor can be startlingly harsh. After all, we’re only doing what’s best for the manuscript. Can’t the author or supervisor see that?

But we copyeditors are not the ultimate owners of a manuscript; the author and publisher are. As such, they have the right to dictate the final outcome of the manuscript. Worse, they have opinions. Sometimes these opinions are well-informed, sometimes not.

How do you guide your author or supervisor to get the answer you desire from your queries?

Start by doing your homework. It’s tempting to dash off a query, but the more queries you make, the more work the author (and, later, you) has to do. Bury the author in queries, and you might find your author stetting everything in self-defense.

Make sure you’ve tried to solve the problem first. You’d be surprised by how much you can resolve on your own with 5 to 10 minutes of research.

Not everything is so easily resolved, however. When you must query:

  • Adopt a helpful attitude. A professional, helpful attitude can work wonders. As Barbara Wallraff said of copyeditors in a workshop years ago, “We aim to serve.”
  • Use your manners. Set aside the jokes and be respectful of the author’s work. Say “please” and “thank you” when appropriate.
  • Educate the author. Particularly if the reason for your change seems opaque, tell your author why you want to make the change.
  • Be concise. The longer the query, the more work involved in answering it. If you need more than a couple of sentences, consider putting the query in a cover letter.
  • Query from the reader’s perspective. It’s easy for the author to dismiss what you don’t understand; it’s harder to dismiss what readers won’t understand.
  • Limit choices. If you offer your author a series of choices (two is best), make sure all the choices are acceptable.
  • Make acceptance easy. Frame your queries in a way that makes it easy for the author to answer it and, preferably, accept your changes. Be wary of yes/no questions.

Negotiating the complexities of English and personal style is no easy task. Keep these tips in mind with your next edit!

A version of this article was originally published on on March 5, 2013.


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