Editing is usually a solitary pursuit (blissfully so, in my opinion). We correct grammar, we enforce consistency, we rewrite without explanation when we can. But querying is critical two-way communication. It’s often the only way for an editor to tell authors where text is confusing, meaning is unclear, facts contradict—essentially, where they could lose their readers.
A little honesty: Many of the carefully worded electronic comments can be translated to a few simple messages—“You’re writing in circles.” “You’ve said that three times already.” “This makes no sense!” But the editor’s task is to serve readability (not, as some authors might think, to hack away at text or, as some editors might think, to point out where an author is wrong). The author wrote the text; he or she must have thought that it did make sense. So it’s best to point out what is unclear (“Clarify who ‘they’ are”) or how it could be improved (“Confusing as is; could we say …?”). This shows the author that the editor is working hard on his or her behalf, trying to understand the text instead of giving up at the first sign of complicated syntax. Authors, for their part, should understand that the editor is on their side.
As you get to know particular clients, you can tailor your queries. Some may appreciate the hand-holding of “This is unclear; do you mean to say …” Some may bristle at any changes and need a blunt “These two sentences say the same thing; delete one.” Others may want you just to nudge them with an “Awkward; rephrase.” When in doubt, ask before a project begins, whether the client wants substantive changes made right in the text or suggested in electronic comments.
Queries should be thoughtful not to soothe authors’ egos, but to keep them engaged. Twice in my career, authors responded to my queries with the same word: “Duh.” (One even took the time to handwrite it in all caps with a few exclamation points.) Both of those suggested changes were valid, but the authors were sick of my queries and gave up. As a result, they didn’t just lash out at the particular remarks they didn’t like … they ignored other, indisputable edits. And that’s where I learned my lesson.
Queries are warnings that an outside reader is getting lost—fix this now so you don’t lose your larger audience later. Querying itself is an art form—practice it thoughtfully so you don’t lose your author.