Editors at Work: The Best Question to Ask a Writer

By Jack Limpert

I talked with a lot of aspiring writers—after a few minutes of introductions, I usually asked, “What do you like to read?” Maybe a third of the time I got an answer that led to a conversation that gave me a sense I was talking with a writer who had an interesting mind.

Sometimes the answer to the reading question was a newspaper—the Washington Post or New York Times—but as a magazine editor, I was more interested in magazines and books. Asked about magazines, the answer might be just Time or Newsweek, a clue that the writer wasn’t much of a reader. Fairly often the writer would mention the New Yorker.

As a reader of the New Yorker, that gave me an opening to mention a few New Yorker writers—John McPhee, Ken Auletta, Jane Mayer, George Packer—to see where the conversation went. Maybe half of the time the conversation suggested that this was a writer who loved to read good reporting and writing.

Sometimes the writer said he or she liked to read the Washingtonian—not the answer I was looking for but again an easy opening to probe.

What books the writer liked was an equally good Rohrschach test—the answer gave clues to what kind of writing the writer liked and what subjects the writer found most interesting. Often the writer liked books I hadn’t read, but the books we both had read opened up interesting conversations.

All this relates to how I think someone becomes a good writer. Read a lot of good writing.

And it relates to how a magazine editor can find good writers. Look for people with interesting minds.
After I tweeted about this post, Mark Athitakis retweeted it with his own favorite question to ask a writer:  “Where’s your damn copy?”

My favorite answer after asking, “When will the story be finished?” was “It’s almost done. All I have to do is write it.”

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