Maybe my most important self-imposed guideline when I edit is “When in doubt, query.”
A query is an editor’s question to the author of the manuscript she’s working on. A query can be as brief as an “OK?” next to a suggested change that isn’t a matter of right/wrong, but it can be longer. When an author’s word or phrase doesn’t seem quite right, I may suggest a change and in a query offer a couple of alternatives. In the case of a dubious fact or unusual spelling, I sometimes include a URL to back up my alternative.
The odd thing about queries is that, although they’re person-to-person, I’m often addressing them to people I will never meet. Copyediting a book-length manuscript is strangely intimate, and intimate in a strange way. I’m among the first to become privy to whatever has occupied the writer for a year or two or very often more. After copyediting 30 pages of any author’s prose, I’m pretty sure I could imitate their style on any subject.
At the same time the author knows nothing about me, the anonymous person who’s making red marks in the ms. and asking all these damn questions. The author didn’t hire me. My relationship is with the production editor (PE) or production manager (PM) who offered me the gig.
So part of my job is to let the author know I’m on your side. I like what you’re doing. I hope I can help make it even better.
All the while knowing that plenty of experienced authors have had at least one really bad experience with a copyeditor from hell, and any copyeditor they deal with (usually in absentia) could trigger fear, loathing, and revolt with an unwarranted edit or a clumsy query.
Lucky for me, who is not especially tactful by nature, my very first professional (i.e., paid) editing job, for a big nonprofit in Washington, D.C., involved clearing manuscripts page by page, face to face with whoever wrote them. The writers were rarely professionals. Often they’d been drafted unwilling to produce a document that their office needed. I was green and they were touchy — it could have been disastrous, but usually it wasn’t.
I learned, really learned, to get myself into the writer’s head and persuade the writer that I was on his or her side.
And ever since, most of the time, I’ve been able to at least sense the living, breathing, probably uneasy presence on the other side of whatever manuscript I’m editing.
For years nearly all of my freelancing was done for publishers. More recently I’ve had many more individual clients. Some I’ve never met in person, others live on the same island I do, but I communicate with all of them directly, without intermediaries. I still type queries on their manuscripts, but we also have conversations by email or phone or even (gasp) face to face.
Hell, I even query myself. A lot. Every draft of my every manuscript has got queries in it: comments from members of my writers’ group, thoughts that have occurred to me while writing, rereading, or walking with the dog. Mostly I’m pretty tactful in those queries to myself, but sometimes you can tell I’m getting exasperated.