Saturday, January 05, 2008

What's Does an Editor Mean by an Author Query?

Thanks, Xarissa, for flagging that in my previous post, since when an editor or a copy editor says "author query" they don't mean the same thing an author or an agent means when they say it.

The short-winded answer is that during a line edit, when an editor sees a point in a manuscript that requires clarification, citation, or expansion, s/he will flag it for the author in the manuscript. This way, when the author gets the manuscript to look at, s/he will be able to address these points efficiently. We put these queries in brackets (and often in boldface and/or capital letters, especially if we're typing) so it's clear to everyone who looks at them that a) the author didn't generate them, b) they're not to be typeset.

The long-winded answer (which, if you know me by now, you'll know I find utterly irresistible) involves breaking down the whole editorial process. These are the steps that usually happen after an author sends a baby into editing. We're going to assume that the manuscript is in an average state of repair/disrepair, which involves two rounds of edits (some books take many more than two rounds of edits, some take only one).

First, your editor will read your manuscript with an eye for large structural changes and write you an editorial memo. These include things like major thematic problems, plot holes, voice, etc. Things like "It's not really clear what Sandra's motivation for going to the store is in Chapter 5. Can you flesh that thought process out?" or "I wish you could work in more description of Bob's trailer throughout the book" or (this is a least favorite but a most frequent among authors) "As I think you know already, the ending really isn't working right now..." For nonfiction, we address argument inconsistencies, content organization, tone, and approach to target audience. The biggest problem in nonfiction is usually content organization--sometimes, it takes the author's tackling of the entire book for you both to realize that a different approach to organizing chapters and information is ideal. Fortunately, the hardest work is getting it down the first time.

You probably won't receive any author queries in this round, since in many cases, the editor won't touch the manuscript at all. No sense in polishing the silver if you're taking it back and exchanging it for a new set. But you will get a (hopefully very pleasant and sensitively worded) ed memo from your editor, and then usually you'll have a panicked phone call with your editor, and then she'll calm you down and encourage you and say repeatedly that it's really not as much work as it looks like in the memo. Then the two of you will agree on a redelivery date.

When you redeliver, you've done such an awesome job that no further "overhaul" is needed and your editor can address the smaller polishing points in a line edit. When editors line edit, they usually delete text, make small (line, sentence, or paragraph) moves, tweak grammar (although often they leave this for the copy editor), or add, at most, a new word or small phrase. It's important that a book be an author's, so this is where the querying comes in. Most of my queries run along the lines of "Can you please add a sentence or two here to explain what a peptide is?" or "Can you please add a sentence or two to explain why Linda just got promoted?"

The copy editor makes queries of a different nature, since s/he is plugged into fact checking and data integrity, while your editor was reading with an eye for art (or so we tell ourselves). Your copy editor will make queries like [AU: FIRST RECORDED USE OF BULLHORN WAS 1917. NEED A DIFFERENT WAY FOR COLONEL SMITH TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE OTHER SQUADRON?]. ("AU" points to something the author must address; they'll usually use the editor's initials or name for points the editor needs to address.)

During the editorial process, everyone has a different colored pencil (or a different "track changes" color in Word!). In some companies, that means the editor is green, the author is blue, the copy editor is red, the production editor is brown, the managing editor is purple (or whatever colors people chose). Your manuscript looks kind of cool at the end of that. We don't have production or managing editors so our manuscripts look slightly less cool, with only three colors.

11 comments:

Xarissa said...

Thanks for the response! That's about what I'd imagined. I bet writing those editor's memos is cathartic. I know I have a problem when I'm reading an already-published book and writing those in my head! At our magazine, we're not quite so forgiving to our writers. We make most changes without consulting the author, unless they're really big structural issues. Then again, we're writing about couches and flooring material, so this isn't likely to cause any serious author freak-outs.

LOVE track changes in Word. That discovery was a life-changing event. I like to use teal, myself, but rarely get to do so since by the time I see proofs, I'm making copy-edits on pages that have already been laid out.

Colorado Writer said...

Cool information. Thank you!

Charles Gramlich said...

A nice explication on the process. I for one appreciate it, although I've been through this a couple of times I was still rather bamboozled by somethings. This explains it nicely.

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

That was a brilliant and really interesting post, Moonrat! Thanks for a great explanation of process.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous, thank you!

McKoala said...

This is great information, thank you!

Jaye Wells said...

Great overview of the process, thanks!

Bernita said...

Very nice and succinct.
Word colour-coding is wonderful - once you get used to it.

angelle said...

hello my dear! i'm back!!! did you miss me? god i have so many things to post. including a few for book book. ugh. and u wrote way too much in the past 3 weeks that i fear i will not be able to catch up. le sigh.

Josephine Damian said...

Angelle! Long time, no see. I've been worried about you.

Moonie, thanks for the explanation. I've stopped reading 14 books since I started my 2008 Author Challenge, and wonder how many of these books fell apart due to author-editor/agent clashes. I'll be blogging more about that later.

Lisa said...

These posts on the mechanics of the business are so interesting and helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write them up. We use track changes all the time at my company and to be honest, I get a headache whenever I look at a marked up document I'm sure if I had to do it all the time, I'd get used to it.