23 Hidden Meanings Behind a Book Editor’s Comments

Holly Slater


Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

The savviest editor understands the art of querying the author. If you’ve reached the thrilling and terrifying point in your writing career where you work with a professional editor, then you’ve experienced this before.

If you aren’t there quite yet, then let me warn you.

“Author query” can be a confusing term. We know how frustrating and delicate writing queries for agents or magazines can be, but this is a different circus: the query from the Other Side.

When editors refer to an “author query,” we mean comments and questions written to the author within the manuscript. These queries address areas that need clarification, added detail, citation, reorganization, cutting, revision for consistency…the list goes on. And ON. Editorial Ass (short for editorial assistant, of course) is a great blog for learning a bit about author queries.

But when your editor returns your document to your inbox and you find it bleeding with red marks and pummeled with comment bubbles, don’t fear. You’ll have to put in the work, but in the end, your baby will be more readable, clearer, and more concise.

A Good Editor Will Tell You What’s Wrong and Suggest How to Fix It

If you’ve hired a professional editor, and a whole lot of the queries read something like “Reword this section?” and nothing else, it’s time to fire your editor.

If you’ve managed to hire or are paired with a talented and useful editor, you will get diplomatic and helpful responses rather than vague ones. When I was a freelance editor, I spent extra time making sure my author queries were informative and concise, but at the same time, not curt.

But writers, BEWARE! Even the sweetest and most encouraging editors have a dark side. It’s not that we hate our job. It’s not that we think you’re a bad writer (unless we do). But editing can be a dry, tedious, thankless, mentally draining job. We read every single word carefully, and we do that for tens, hundreds or thousands of pages, all the time!

There’s a whole passive-aggressive undertone that goes along with many of your author queries. I would often find myself rolling backwards in my little black chair yelling, “What does that even mean!?” at my screen before trying to come up with the best way to query the author about the mysterious babble on the page.

You know what query accompanies such a reaction? One like this: “Your intended meaning is not quite clear,” along with another line addressing the specific confusion.

The Feelings Behind the Comments

Editors have feelings? Ha!

I joke! Seriously though, do you want some more top-secret views into the mind of an overworked editor? I’ve commiserated with several colleagues and have gathered an abundance of research. Here are twenty-three of my favorite queries and their hidden meanings.

1. Do you mean: = Here’s what you actually mean:

2. Edited to avoid repeated words = Thesaurus.com is actually free. There are loads of free thesaurus sites! I’ll just get you a thesaurus for your birthday.

3. This repeats earlier information and can be deleted = When you send me a signed, shiny copy of the finished book, it better be in a box with a bottle of wine. Maybe two bottles.

4. As per your requested style guide, place a comma before a conjunction when it connects two independent clauses = This is me providing a dry and boring technical query in order to assure you that I know what I’m doing. We just throw these in from time to time due to our own insecurities. We’re human, too.

5. Edited for consistency = Do you know what a style sheet is? They’re not just for editors, love.

6. Wording is a bit awkward here. Suggestion: = This is unintelligible. Use my brilliant suggestion. Please graciously accept this fresh viewpoint from someone who isn’t too close to the material and hasn’t read the scene a million times. You’re welcome.

7. This section could be strengthened by more description = I know, I know. You don’t want to interfere with the reader’s imagination. Minimalism is a thing, but this is just lazy.

8. Is the intended audience familiar with this term? = Cut the pedantic jargon. We all know you’re God. But make it readable, k?

9. There appears to be missing or wrong words here. I’m not sure what the intended meaning is. Please check. = It’s true! An editor’s job isn’t just to point out errors but to suggest how to fix them. But…huh? I can’t even guess at what it is…so this, I leave this to you, my friend. I wash my hands.

10. This doesn’t quite fit the tone. How about: = Your twenty-year-old hipster narrator sounds like my great aunt Beatrice here.

11. Is this phrasing intentional? = You are so EDGY, aren’t you? You are the epitome of avant–garde. But I literally fell asleep trying to decipher the meaning of this sentence. I just want you to be aware.

12. Plagiarism? Please check. = I know it’s plagiarism. I’ve mastered the complex inner workings of the Google search engine. So has your intended audience. Found it in two clicks, buddy. If you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to actually write.

13. Consider deleting. Too many adverbs/adjectives can sometimes weaken a line rather than add to it. = This is a two-parter. First, “Consider” doing something almost always means: “For the love of all that is readable, you HAVE to listen to this suggestion.” Furthermore, “Consider deleting x, y, and z” almost always means: “This is wordy and babbling, and you need to kill these precious little darlings ASAP.”

14. Consider deleting this line/paragraph/section/chapter. It doesn’t do anything to drive the plot/idea forward. = Nobody gives a crap. I know I don’t give a crap, that’s for sure.

15. This metaphor does not quite work. Perhaps something like: = Comparing the scent of a woman’s most intimate parts to a “flooded meadow of wildflowers” may throw readers. I know we’re in a subjective business. To each their own and all that. But you’ve over-extended a creative muscle.

16. Quite = A replacement for the F-word. As in, “Does not QUITE work.”

17. Please clarify = How drunk were you when you were writing this? I would do a better job editing this if I were drunk. I wish I were drunk.

18. Incorrect word usage = You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means…

19. Is this realistic? = To your credit, I guess it’s a good thing that you don’t seem to have ever killed someone and disposed of the body in real life. But believe you me, I know all about it (uh…because of reading about it). Time for you to research!

20. Show instead of tell = I know it hurts to hear. And I like to hurt…Just kidding! But really, no pain, no gain, so make an effort to incorporate this into your story in a more natural way that doesn’t put the reader to sleep.

21. Please refer to comment number # = I can’t. I can’t keep typing the same thing over and over. Go take a class.

22. Weave the exposition into the dialogue. Avoid “info dump.” = Refer to comment # 20.

23. Please confirm that I have not changed your intended meaning = I spent about twenty minutes trying to understand this one line. It’s a mess. The edits I’ve suggested here are absolutely fantastic; they follow your style, and now people can understand this grammatically sound sentence. I can’t be sure this is anything close to what you meant, but let’s be real, I don’t think you know what you meant either. I haven’t showered in two days. Accept the change and let’s be done with it.

Thank Your Editor Today

The list goes on. I think there’s enough material for a full-length manuscript on this topic, but this is a start at least.

I hope you enjoyed this quick visit to the Other Side, which is all in good fun. In all sincerity, if every writer produced perfection the first time around, where would that leave the hungry and sadistic editor whose passion is simply to help others write better?

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