Turning an editorial question into an editorial query

It’s very common for newer dev editors to write editorial queries that say things like, “What is Joe’s motivation?” but that does not give the author sufficient guidance to do the revision so it is not an effective editorial query. But it is a perfectly fine place to start.

The first thing to do is to turn the question into a statement.

“What is Joe’s motivation?” becomes, “Consider showing Joe’s motivation.” That’s better but . . . .

Is the problem really that Joe’s motivation needs to be shown? Is it really a question of “We don’t know why Joe robbed the grocery store?”

If the answer is, yes, we don’t have any understanding of why Joe robbed the grocery store, then, yes, showing his motivation is probably going to help us understand his character better.

But if Joe’s motivation is shown, it just doesn’t seem to be sufficient to the demands of his actions, then the problem isn’t that his motivation isn’t shown, it’s that his motivation isn’t sufficient. Those are two different problems with two different solutions.

In other words, if Joe desperately needs infant formula for his orphaned baby nephew but he doesn’t have any money and no one will help him, then we can see why he might rob the grocery store and all that’s needed is for this motivation to be conveyed to the reader.

But if his motivation is that the cashier shortchanged him by fifteen cents, that’s not sufficient motivation. Ordinary people don’t rob stores just because they’re annoyed about a petty loss. So the motivation itself will have to change, in which case merely showing the motivation isn’t enough.

Or maybe the problem is that Joe’s characterization and his motivation don’t match. If Joe is characterized as a wealthy patent attorney, we’re not going to believe that he would hold up a grocery store just to get some infant formula, even if he thinks the price is too high. But if it’s a very important plot point for Joe to steal the formula, then the author needs to characterize him in such a way that this is clearly something he would do. Maybe his motivation isn’t that the price is high but because his life is so boring he is seeking a thrill.

In this case, “Consider sharing Joe’s motivation” isn’t the answer. The answer is, the author needs to characterize Joe in such a way that we can believe he would steal the infant formula even if he is a wealthy patent attorney.

All of these are different aspects of the situation that won’t be revealed if you merely rely on the question, “What is Joe’s motivation?” to do the editorial work for you.

This is why I often say that turning questions into statements helps you become a better editor; you learn more about the problem because you’re digging deeper into it. But now I also want to talk about another reason to stop using questions in the queries. This is about unpacking your assumptions about stories and how they’re told.

At some point in your editorial career, you shift from doing novice work, where you don’t always notice what’s going wrong or can’t always say exactly what it is, to what I call “practitioner,” which means you are competently able to identify most developmental problems mss typically have and provide some suggestions for ways that authors can address these problems. Most people can get there pretty quickly, if they love stories and are willing to learn.

But to move from practitioner to expert, you have to do more than understand the application of technique. You have to have a theory, a framework for your decision-making.

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