The Best Question an Editor Can Ask a Writer

By Jack Limpert

As a magazine editor, I probably averaged talking with one aspiring writer a day for 40 years. Usually it was the equivalent of speed-dating: Is this a relationship with some potential?

The question that best helped me find the answer was “What do you like to read?”

I never liked to judge a writer too quickly—slow thinkers often make the best writers, fast talkers often were big disappointments—but about half the time is became clear fairly early on that our magazine and the writer weren’t a good match.

We’d usually started talking about magazines: Which ones do you like? If you like the New Yorker, what kinds of New Yorker stories? What kind of New Yorker writers? The Atlantic and New York magazine also were popular choices. Liking People magazine or Cosmopolitan wasn’t a deal-breaker—they get lots of readers, too, more than the New Yorker.

I always read a lot of magazines so we usually were able to talk about things we both might have read.

We’d then often move on to books. I often hadn’t read the same books as the writer but we’d still have good conversations about what’s worth reading. If you like Tom Wolfe or Susan Orlean, which of their books did you like best?

The editor’s goal in this 20 or 30 minutes of conversation: Does this aspiring magazine writer have an interesting mind?

If we both thought there seemed to be a potential relationship, we’d then talk about a first date: What kind of story would you like to write?

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