Is That Clear?

Awhile ago I was going through a manuscript I had copyedited a few weeks before, reviewing the author’s responses to my queries. I came across one spot where my query had been “This doesn’t seem quite clear to me,” or something to that effect. The author’s response: “Seems clear enough to me.”

Was the author unwilling to consider that there might be a problem with the sentence? Or was my own query about not being clear, ironically, not as clear as it might have been? Well, perhaps a little of both.

It’s a delicate art, this process of querying. If I see a problem that could potentially detract from the reader’s understanding or enjoyment, it’s my job to point it out. But I don’t want my comments to come across as too commanding or critical—this book is the author’s baby, almost literally. And I don't want to miss my deadline by writing an essay explaining every proposed change. On the other hand, a query that’s vague or timid may not communicate the problem or how to remedy it.

In this particular case, I repeated the query in a memo to the author. This time I explained why I found the sentence confusing—as perhaps I should have the first time around. It was still up to the author to decide whether and how to change the sentence. But at least I felt more confident that I’d made my case.

Now let's look at this situation from the author's point of view.

I know perfectly well how an author feels when told “This isn’t clear to me.” I feel the same way myself. If I ask someone to read my work and give me feedback, I’m hoping—maybe even expecting—that they’ll tell me how wonderful it is. If instead I get “This isn’t clear,” my first reaction is to think Of course it’s clear—weren't you paying attention? How could you not get it?

When you know what you’re trying to say, the meaning of your words seems obvious. It’s tempting, therefore, to dismiss a “this isn’t clear” comment. She just didn’t read it carefully enough, you think, or Well, if he’d gone on to read the next paragraph, it’s all explained there.

But consider this: When you've asked for feedback on your manuscript and get back a comment like “This isn’t clear,” maybe you'd better pay attention. It means that at least one reader, who presumably was making a sincere attempt to follow your narrative or your argument, got momentarily tripped up. Instead of gliding along smoothly, your reader encountered a bump or a pothole and stumbled over it. Okay, perhaps the reader should have been more careful. But you might want to patch the road anyway.

Is that clear? If not, please tell me—I'll listen.

Have you ever been puzzled by an editor's query? What kinds of queries do you find most helpful? Leave a comment to let me know.

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