You know how boiled noodles either cling to the side of the pot or cement themselves at the bottom in a sticky, glutinous lump? The same goes for limp, overly soft queries.

Quality queries are an editor’s best tool for establishing a rapport with authors that allows them to reflect on your recommendations and use them as a springboard for their own inspiration and development. Everything you’ve heard about making respectful, nonjudgmental author queries during an edit is absolutely true. Track Changes is no place for brash attempts at humor, and unmitigated honesty is far from the best policy when you’re aiming for constructive criticism.

Most smart editors I know make a special pass at the end of an edit to review the tone and content of their comments. They soften. They suggest. But take heed: weaving too gentle a safety net of cautiously neutral suggestions can fall short of inspiring author confidence. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.

Business Is Business

When I started my editorial career as an editorial assistant at a trade magazine, I struck the collaborative jackpot. Our staff was a tight group—nearly thirty years later, we’re still friends—but business was business. You didn’t get snitty about an edit, whether it came from a colleague or someone higher up the food chain. You made the change, and you learned from it.

In that sort of environment, nobody takes edits personally. The only time I was left speechless by an edit was when an editor with a migraine fell asleep at her desk and drooled on my copy. This was back in the days of dot matrix printers; the last paragraph had become a blurry, illegible mess, and I had to bring the edit back to her to verify her intentions. Whenever our group gets together for the occasional lunch these days, the Drool Edit (“I don’t remember; just smooth out the ending here”—kinda like it looks now?) is one of the first war stories that gets pulled out after the first round of drinks.

Since then, I’ve worked on both sides of the red pen, often at publications where stories turned around too quickly for me to be anything less than brisk about edits. Rarely did writers get to review and make their own changes; mostly, I made the edits and sent the story on to the next step in the system. I felt frustrated when old-school editors approached me for changes in freelance articles I’d written; just fix it and move on already, right? But then I was hired at a publication that encouraged me to write long explanations along with my edits. I’d found my calling. I’d become a teacher and coach alongside being the staff editor—and that’s what nudged me into trying my editorial hand at fiction.

An Excess of Team Spirit

MoneyYet as soon as I started working in the fiction world, I found myself surrounded by advice to soften queries, to couch them gently, to entreaty and tempt and cajole authors with gentle encouragement. I learned to set up constructive criticism with a compliment first, despite the technique’s notoriety. I presented classic writing techniques in the guise of food for thought: “Have you considered …?” or “I see an opportunity here to …” I learned to macro my most frequent comments in carefully crafted neutral language. And most especially, I strived for a sense of teamwork: “We could try …” or “What would you think if we did …?”

These can all be excellent approaches to writing successful queries and feedback. But the end result didn’t feel genuine to me. All the carefully crafted questions designed to avoid raising authors’ defensive hackles left me wondering where they would find any sense of real professional guidance.

It wasn’t until I turned in a sample edit in a developmental fiction editing course that instructor Jennifer Lawler pointed out that the heavy dose of team spirit in my queries wasn’t doing me (or my authors) any favors.
“As a note, I generally try to avoid using ‘us’ when I mean the author (‘Let’s specify . . . .’ etc.),” she wrote to me. “You may be using ‘us’ and ‘we’ to communicate a sense of teamwork, but the writing was done by the author, not by the two of you, and the work of revision is the author’s job. It’s not something you’ll be doing together.”

You mean, go back to shooting straight? Jennifer had feedback for that as well: “Since ‘you’ can sound accusatory/combative (‘you need to fix this, you dunderhead!’) I usually duck the issue by avoiding pronouns when I can. So instead of ‘You veer into Helen’s POV here’ or ‘We veer into Helen’s POV here,’ I’ll use the more neutral, ‘The story veers into Helen’s POV here.’ I’ll use ‘This sentence probably isn’t needed’ instead of ‘We don’t need this sentence/you don’t need this sentence.’ Yes, this approach veers into passive voice on occasion, but we (ha ha) don’t have to worry about that in queries.”

The Editor As Trusted Advisor

That was the turning point for me. I’m a guide and a coach, not a helper or a teammate. I realized that the language I’d hoped would build team spirit risked overwhelming authors in an unsolicited partnership. I saw that turning every query into a question could leave authors feeling adrift among more options than they knew how to sort through on their own.

I took a huge step back from my feedback, dumped the overly saccharine macros, and dialed back the rest. What I ended up with was closer to the candid style I used in journalism, a style editor Carolyn Haley calls “polite, professional, and helpful” in an article at An American Editor.

“Some were so gentle and politically correct in their phrasing that, in my eyes, it undermined their authority,” she writes. “Somewhere there’s a happy medium between bullying and babying, and although everyone in the experiment found that middle ground, some conveyed their expertise and confidence better than others. If I were an author shopping for an editor based on these samples, it would have been easy to determine who best suited my preferences and needs.”

When you hear advice to take heed that this is the author’s book, that you are here to guide and suggest but not to rewrite, don’t step aside so far that you abdicate your role as trusted advisor. Authors don’t want you to beat around the bush; they are relying on you to cut through the fog. Don’t be afraid to put the responsibility for fixing issues squarely on their shoulders, but do so with an air of calm, professional confidence that lets them know you’re there to back them up with ideas, resources, and guidance. Let them know that this is all part of the process.

This Needs More Clarity

Recent feedback from my authors is letting me know that they appreciate the new balance I’ve struck with my queries and guidance. I’m still a huge fan of sharing “magic words” among colleagues on editorial forums, but I’ve taken down the sticky notes around my monitor reminding me to use sugary lead-ins. Instead, I’ve posted a new round of reminders that place more responsibility on author’s shoulders. I pull out my two current favorites once I’ve completed an initial edit and established a solid rapport with an author:

This needs more clarity.
You can word this more compellingly.

That’s really all an author could ask for, isn’t it? Clarity and a compelling message. You can’t provide either without offering guidance in a way that inspires confidence—confidence in your professional recommendations and ideas, and confidence that with your help, authors can navigate their own way to a stronger manuscript.

Lisa Poisso is a charter member of AIPP. More than twenty-five years as a writer and editor have convinced her that working directly with emerging authors is her creative sweet spot. When she’s not at the keyboard, she has her nose in a book or volunteers with a greyhound rescue group.