Why I use statements, not questions, in editorial queries

Some editors ask authors questions in the editorial queries (the comments an editor makes on a ms.) For these editors, a typical query/comment might be, “What are you trying to accomplish here?” or “Do you mean for Martha to sound so cruel?”

Often such editors feel that they’re prompting their authors to think about what they’re doing but I find this a less effective approach than other methods. Naturally an author will experience such questions as the opening of a dialogue and they’ll respond to the editorial query with an explanation rather than revising the manuscript. As far as they can tell, no revision has been suggested and no specific problem has been identified.

I’ve seen editors on Twitter trolling writers for answering the questions they have posed in the queries: “You’re not supposed to answer me! You’re supposed to think about what I’m saying!”

But I don’t see how an author can be expected to know this.

If an editor is coaching an author or has committed to several rounds of development with them and there actually is a conversation happening, then the question approach could work. But overall it is very confusing for authors and doesn’t give them sufficient guidance.

I rarely structure a query that way. If I do ask a question, I will also provide any needed guidance: “AU: Did you intend for Martha to sound so cruel here? If not, you might consider having her ask Jeremy if he spilled the milk instead of screaming at him about it. If you do want this moment to feel cruel—if you want the reader to experience this nasty side of Martha’s character—then I recommend showing other flashes of her meanness throughout the ms so that it becomes part of her character development.”

This way, the author knows what to do whether they intended Martha to be mean or not.

Writers hire me for my feedback on their work, for me to tell them what, in my informed opinion, is working well and what’s not working so well. They want and need guidance about how to address the problems I’ve identified. They’re hiring me to give an opinion. If I say, “Author, do you think Sara’s decision to enter the army could use further explanation?” I’m not doing my job as an editor. I’m shifting the editorial burden back to the author. I assume that if the author felt that Sara’s decision needed more explanation, the author would have given more explanation in the first place.

That means that while I try very hard to be diplomatic, my feedback can seem direct: “In my opinion, you have a problem; here is how I suggest you fix it.”

This approach is not for everyone, but these are the reasons why I do it this way.

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