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What are queries, and how should an author respond?

Publishing can be a mysterious process to a first-time author. Philippa Tomlinson looks at what is expected of an author at the copyediting and proofreading stages of the editorial workflow: specifically, receiving and responding to queries.

    • What are author queries, and when are they raised?
    • What might a copyeditor/proofreader ask?
    • How should an author respond to queries?

*This post assumes there is a publisher, and that the copyeditor and proofreader are independent professionals commissioned by the publisher but familiar with the publisher’s house style etc. However, much the same will apply to an independent author employing a professional copyeditor
or proofreader.

What are author queries, and when are they raised?

Having submitted the final draft of their manuscript, a first-time author might think their work is done. But hold on, who are these new emails from and why all these questions? And what does AQ mean anyway?

Author queries (AQs) form an essential part of the editorial process and, as the name implies, require the active participation of the author. Yet it is a stage that often takes a first-time author by surprise.

The bulk of AQs will be raised at copyediting stage, but there will be another round at
proof stage.

The CIEP’s fact sheet on the publishing workflow explains where the copyediting and proofreading stages fit in.

Download The publishing workflow fact sheet

Queries at the copyediting stage

The copyeditor will be the first person to go through the manuscript in really close detail. They will be interrogating the text with a critical eye: not in the negative sense of finding fault or pointing out mistakes, but with the aim of making the text the best possible version of itself.

And this involves asking questions of the author – AQs or author queries – on anything the copyeditor can’t resolve themselves or on any changes they have made which need the author’s approval or confirmation.

A copyeditor will usually contact the author not long after they receive the manuscript, introducing themselves and explaining briefly what their role is. They may send a set of initial general queries. They will also give the author an idea of when to expect further detailed queries and when to send responses.

Queries at the proofreading stage

Once a text reaches proof stage, it’s looking pretty much like the final product. A first-time author might be tempted either to just admire the clean pages or, seeing their text in this new presentation, to embark on a series of changes.

But no, their role is to read and check, and to respond to another set of AQs, this time from the proofreader, who will be reading the proofs with a fresh and critical eye.

Again, the proofreader will make an initial contact with the author, introducing themselves, alerting the author to expect queries and giving a deadline for the author’s responses.

*Note that although we have assumed direct communication between the author and the copyeditor/proofreader, it may be that a project manager or desk editor is the point of contact between the parties during the editing and proofreading stages.

What might a copyeditor/proofreader ask?

Copyeditor

A copyeditor’s initial general queries may be establishing whether to refer to the main sections as chapters or units; asking the author to supply, say, missing concluding paragraphs to chapters X and Y; checking the author is happy for ‘data’ to be changed from singular (in the original manuscript) to plural (house style).

No two copyeditors will come up with the same list of queries on a given text. Typically, though, as they work through the text in more detail they will query if they:

  • think something needs more explanation
  • suspect something may be missing
  • consider the text may be assuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader
  • believe something could be better presented in a different way, such as a table or
    a diagram
  • genuinely don’t understand what the author is trying to say
  • spot inconsistencies or ambiguities
  • identify any inherent contradiction
  • want advice on preferred context if there is repetition.

All the time, the copyeditor will be putting themselves in the place of the reader,
anticipating anything that might diminish the usefulness, accuracy or enjoyment factor
of the published text.

The copyeditor will also decide what not to query and will use their skills and expertise to make small-scale, non-contentious changes or corrections to spelling, grammar, punctuation, facts such as dates and so on themselves – guided by the five ‘c’s of copyediting to make the text as clear, consistent, correct, concise and comprehensive as possible.

Here are some examples of a copyeditor’s AQs:

  • ‘Mouth movements’ and ‘Handwriting’ are now subheadings under ‘Movement’. Are you happy with this?
  • Robertson 2019 isn’t included in the references, but there is a Robertson 2018 listed. Please check dates/details and let me know any changes required.
  • The table isn’t mentioned in the text – where would it be appropriate to add ‘(see Table 1.1)’ (or similar)?
  • NICE guideline CG23 has been superseded by CG90 – please review and update this paragraph.
  • You use ‘mute’ here – do you mean ‘moot’?
  • ‘There are six variables taken into consideration’: only five variables are listed/explained. Please check/revise to include the sixth.

Proofreader

The proofreader will be picking up on anything that was missed at the copyediting stage (assuming there was one) or perhaps on some unforeseen knock-on effects of solutions to earlier AQs.

They may also be querying a puzzling cross-reference, a mismatch between the wording of a chapter heading on the contents page and at the top of the chapter opener page, or perhaps suggesting a solution to an awkward page break or an overlong page.

Here are some examples of AQs on a set of first proofs:

  • ‘More recent proposals to make divorce easier would also not be concerning to the New Right’ – is this as you intended? Why the ‘not’?
  • Please add in the AO marks breakdown as necessary (cf. Book 2).
  • Date of the presidential election was given as 1 November 2020. I’ve changed this to 3 November – please check/confirm.

How should an author respond to queries?

There is no set way or format for recording and responding to AQs. The copyeditor/proofreader will describe their (or the publisher’s) preferred system and set out clear instructions about how the author should log their responses. Authors are advised to follow those instructions closely!

The most usual systems are listed below, but as technology evolves so will new and possibly more refined and efficient systems emerge.

An author query in a Microsoft Word comment

  • AQs logged in Word’s Comments in the edited version of the manuscript.
  • AQs embedded in the edited version of the manuscript, formatted in a distinctive style/colour.
  • AQs logged in the Comments bar of a PDF, tagged ‘AQ:’ or ‘Author query:’.
  • Any of the above and a separate Word document with the AQs listed as a table.
  • AQs logged in a spreadsheet.

In each of the above, the author will add their responses as instructed. The author shouldn’t make any ‘silent’ changes to the edited manuscript itself.

Author queries in an Excel spreadsheet

Here is an extract from a table of copyeditor’s AQs, including the author’s response:

ReferenceQuery/SuggestionResponse
Sub-lexical sound–spelling correspondences‘Jolliffe, … agree’: Is this just Jolliffe? (Or ‘Jolliffe et al … agree’?)Could we change the whole line to: ‘Joliffe et al, in their guidance for teaching synthetic phonics in primary schools, agree:’

Here is an extract from a table of proofreader’s AQs, again with the author’s
responses included:

ReferenceQuery/SuggestionResponse
p35 – KTAdd ‘of identity’ after ‘aspects’?Agreed
p35 – summaryTranspose points 6 and 7 to reflect order of content in the main text?Agreed
p41 – topCan this be updated now?Done, on my notes
p43 – ‘Dual-heritage …’ / p24These refs to ‘intermarriage’ and ‘intermarry’ are fine, and tally with the answer to KC3. However, on p24 ‘intermarriage’ is used (I think) in the other (and opposing) sense of the word. This could be confusing. I suggest changing p24 to read ‘marriage within their class/social group’ or similar. Please advise.I agree, change the ref on p24, if anything it should be ‘intramarriage’, but I think your suggestion is clearer.

Authors need to be as clear as possible in their responses. They should also check, double-check and look for any knock-on effects before returning them. Follow-up queries on unclear or problematic responses can add time to what may be a very tight schedule. At proof stage, authors must also be aware of space implications. And, of course, keep to the deadline!

A final word

It can be daunting for an author to receive a list of questions on what they thought was a final version of their text, and especially so if the publisher did not inform them in advance about this stage of the editorial process.

Furthermore, the process of going through the queries one by one can be tedious in the extreme. It can also be time-consuming, so authors are advised to check their own schedules to allow for this.

That said, AQs can be the main form of communication between author and editor, the basis of a fruitful working relationship, and a useful record of decisions made for further down the line. And the end result will most certainly be a more polished version of that final manuscript.

Querying: CIEP resources for editors

About Philippa Tomlinson

Philippa worked in-house as a desk editor and a commissioning editor before going freelance. She has edited and proofread fiction, non-fiction, reference, travel writing and educational materials, now specialising almost exclusively in the latter. She has also worked as a bookseller, a library assistant and a teacher of English as a foreign language. Philippa is a Professional Member of the CIEP.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: letter beads by Linh Pham on Unsplash; question marks by Gerd Altmann
on Pixabay.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.
 

 

The perfect partnership: the value of editing to an author

Working with an editor can be unlike any previous working relationship for a writer. In this article, Anna Cale explains how she has benefited from having her writing edited for magazines and a book.

As a freelance arts and culture writer, I think I am generally pretty good with words. But I also have to be professional. I always hit my word count, I submit my work to the agreed deadline and, importantly, I am open to feedback. Most of the time, anyway.

I am often too close to my work. I need someone else’s eye for detail, for spotting whether I have gone off track a little. I need a good editor. This is not something that comes easily, but I have always tried to remain open-minded and not too defensive. However, in my experience of writing articles, and then recently my first book, the role of an editor in the process has differed significantly.

Knowing your audience

When writing short-form articles for magazines, my interaction with an editor is quite limited. I pitch an idea in an email to the person who has the power (and budget) to commission. This is usually a hook that sums up the idea, with a short paragraph providing a little bit more detail of how the article would explore the idea. If the editor says yes, then we talk terms. Once the agreed article is written, it is sent to the editor for review, and you work together to form the final piece for publication.

You need to know the publication well before pitching an idea, identifying their style and what they usually commission, to have a chance of having your article idea accepted. It is a fast-paced and competitive environment, and there is some advantage to doing your research. This also really helps when it comes to the editing process, and hopefully shortens it considerably.

Sometimes you build a good working relationship with a particular commissioning editor, and that helps to make the process easier. You can start to second-guess what they want. But turnaround can often be quick, even for monthly magazines, and you don’t actually have much opportunity to build a connection. Both sides want the process to be as quick as possible.

Becoming a book author

When it came to writing my first book, however, the entire editing process was significantly different. My copyeditor was assigned to me by the publishers once I had submitted my final manuscript. I suspect this varies as each publishing company will work differently, but in my case that meant I had no interaction with an editor until that final stage, over a year after signing my contract to write 70,000 words.

I had done my research before putting together my original proposal for the publisher. Not just on the subject matter, but on the style of book the publishers usually release. I knew I would have to tailor my style a little to their audience, without compromising my own identity as a writer.

I was always going to be very protective of my book. It had been my baby for a long time. Friends had looked at drafts at various points, and my poor husband had read the entire thing twice. There was frustration along the way, as I realised just how much I use certain phrases (I’m looking at you, ‘of course’) or made the decision to alter sections significantly. I knew it was in a decent state at the point of submission, but I still didn’t feel prepared for editing and what that would entail. It was a complete mystery to me.

I was therefore rather apprehensive about the work involved in the editing process, but my editor guided me through it. Receiving a warm and friendly introductory email from her really helped, as she told me what the next steps would be. It felt like a fog had finally lifted. She was in control of the coordination of the various iterations of editing the manuscript, and I had confidence in her approach from the start. For me, as a debut writer, this feeling of trust was invaluable.

Working together

My experience of the editing process was a positive one. It felt like a constructive working relationship built on respect, with a balance of acceptance and compromise to reach a shared goal. We both had the same thing in mind – for me to produce the best book I possibly could.

It was about respecting each other’s knowledge. I was the subject matter expert on the topic, but my editor was the expert on how to present that idea for publication. Any spelling, punctuation, formatting or grammar changes she made were a given for me. I knew my editor would be bang on with that stuff, and I accepted those changes largely unchallenged. Anything more substantial was raised with questions or suggestions. I didn’t always accept those ideas, but did explore them within the context they were given to me.

It was a long process. We navigated the journey from rather long Word document to typeset PDF, with considered discussions over how best to present the appendices, the bibliography and filmography. The index was a pain, and I realised along the way that my grasp of the alphabet was not as hot as I had previously thought.

Respectful cooperation

For me, the main thing was consistent, open dialogue and communication. My editor clearly set out the process for me from the start, but I also felt empowered to approach her with questions or concerns. I finally had someone who was there to help me navigate this strange experience of writing a book when, during the previous months of researching and writing, that link had been sadly missing.

We had a shared willingness to understand each other. I did sometimes push back – our positive and understanding relationship gave me the confidence to do that. I did not feel uncomfortable or threatened by her input. I felt comfortable asking questions when I didn’t understand a comment, and equally, my editor seemed happy asking questions when she wasn’t sure about the subject matter or significance of something. We had respect for each other, the end result was something beautiful, and I feel we created it in partnership.

About Anna Cale

Anna Cale is an arts and culture writer who specialises in classic film and television. She has written for a number of publications and websites, including Little White Lies, Film Stories and the British Film Institute, and has also appeared on Radio 4.

Her writing subjects are wide-ranging, but she has an interest in British cinema of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and in particular, showcasing the role of strong female voices in film culture. Her first book, The Real Diana Dors, will be published on 30 July 2021 with White Owl, a Pen and Sword imprint.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: writer’s desk by Nick Morrison; Together by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Editing Fiction: An addiction or bête noire?

IMG_2080Fiction is a vast subject area. There’s no escaping this fact. Unlike non-fiction and academic texts, which have certain conventions, reference formats and factual, checkable details to fall back on, fiction is essentially ‘something that is invented or untrue’ (OED). Not only that, but the medium itself encompasses a plethora of categories: romance, thrillers, erotica, science fiction, fantasy, literary works, and so on … not to mention children’s fiction versions of most of these as well, albeit with additional considerations for the age group concerned, language levels and appropriate content!

Faced with such a behemoth, many editors of my acquaintance choose not to edit or proofread fiction. Of those who do indulge, nearly all shy away from children’s fiction altogether, deeming it too problematic, or limit themselves to particular fictional genres, usually mirroring their own reading preferences. So, with that in mind, where does one start when thinking about editing fiction?

As editors we are ethically constrained from commenting on the content of academic material, even if we know it to be wrong. Unless we are experts in that particular field of study, often we have no idea if the facts presented are invented or true. And, quite honestly, that is not our concern as long as the text reads convincingly and is grammatically correct, properly referenced and so on.

To play devil’s advocate, if fiction really is a work of ‘invention and untruth’, as long as it reads well, is it really that different from the above? And should it be treated with so much circumspection?

I understand that many editors may find fiction’s apparent lack of clearly defined boundaries extremely daunting, preferring the relatively controllable realm of non-fiction and academia. But although I do edit non-fiction and academic material on a regular basis, the thing that draws me repeatedly to fiction is, indeed, the very fact that I never know what I’m going to find in a narrative. Authors continue to surprise, delight, even frustrate me … but editing fiction is never dull.

Without question, fiction incorporates an unparalleled arena of realistic or fantastical landscapes, remarkable or mundane individuals, and gripping or bathetic scenarios, where anything — or sometimes even nothing much — goes, and everything is possible. There is a book for every occasion and mood, a genre to suit most people, and while fiction’s breadth and variety are undoubtedly its greatest challenge  — and a huge potential hurdle with regard to editing — they are also its most rewarding features.

So, are there things that connect and bind all of these vagaries together, and can provide a would-be editor of fiction with a starting point when tackling their first novel, irrespective of the genre? All books are predicated on certain elements, in terms of structure, characterisation, pace, plot and presentation. In David Lodge’s novel Therapy, beleaguered sitcom writer Laurence Passmore states: “Each one [each book] is different, but the same themes and obsessions keep cropping up: courtship, seduction, indecision, guilt, depression, despair.” And this is largely true.

Conversely, there could also be an argument to suggest that one should not edit fiction, as it could be perceived to compromise the author’s original creation. However, Terry Pratchett asserts: “… the fact that it is a fantasy does not absolve you [the writer] from all the basic responsibilities. It doesn’t mean that the characters needn’t be rounded, the dialogue believable, the background properly established, and the plots properly tuned.” So, subtle, constructive editorial assistance is still required, and usually welcomed, to ensure that what the author thinks they have done is actually the case on the page.

Essentially, fiction still involves the basics of our trade: punctuation, spelling, grammar (although this can be less rigid), textual fluidity, narrative cohesion. Even fact-checking exists: if an author states that the Empire State building has 97 storeys you can and should check that detail (it has 103!); and don’t get me started on incorrect spellings and missing accents with regard to foreign words. After all, erroneous details only provide a would-be reviewer with ready ammunition, which is something all fiction editors should bear in mind.

The characteristic that sets fiction apart from other media, making it simultaneously rather problematic but also intriguing, is the element of ‘story’, which has to be plausible within its own context and setting. As long as a reader believes the events of a novel to be feasible and credible, albeit fantastical, and the characters to be rounded, creditable individuals, then the author and editor have done their jobs.

Gale Winskill

Gale Winskill

Gale Winskill is a freelance editor who enjoys variety, and will edit most things within reason (www.winskilleditorial.co.uk). A half-Italian, dim and distant relative of William Shakespeare, she has travelled and worked abroad, finally residing in Scotland, where she plays tennis inconsistently, gardens by benevolent neglect, and is still occasionally flummoxed by Scots vernacular.

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Originally published May 2014; updated June 2021.