Another Good Question an Editor Can Ask a Writer

By Jack Limpert

Last week I put up a post about my favorite question to ask a prospective writer: “What do you like to read?” In asking that, I was trying to find out if the writer had an interesting mind.

My next favorite conversation was trying to find out if the writer knew a lot about something.

In exploring that question, a writer sometimes would say, “I can write about anything.” That’s okay for lots of routine writing jobs but not at a magazine where the editor is trying to get readers to pay good money for really good journalism.

I worked with a few feature writers who could write interesting pieces about almost anything but they were maybe one in a hundred. Often what they were best at was writing profiles or light stuff. That kind of writing talent is the equivalent of a pitcher in baseball who can throw 95 miles an hour. I always thought those writers were almost born with that ability—the Tom Wolfe or Dave Barry kind of talent.

For most writers, it’s a big plus if you know a lot about something: health, education, government, politics, law, crime, technology, sports, food, something.

As an editor, I found that the best stories didn’t come out of editors sitting in the office brainstorming ideas. They came from writers who were out talking with people in their field of interest and discovering what was new, what people were talking about, what might make a good story. Almost all the great pieces in the Washingtonian came from writers who knew a lot about something.


  1. Jack-

    Not sure if humor writers were born with that 95-MPH heater, or had it simmer and grow in that pot of boiled angst stew known as growing up. Many humorists credit being surrounded by storytellers and weird relatives, plus a heavy dollop of guilt and insecurity, as the best atmosphere for humor.

    Early on, I learned the five words I most wanted to avoid hearing from you. The phrase was also a great piece of advice for writers who think their sense of humor will do the heavy lifting for them.

    I wrote on many topics for which I was not an expert, including airports, teenagers, cats and dogs, Metrobus woes, and each required a ton of research. The reason was the more material you have to be funny with, the less likelihood you’ll have to strain to make something funny that is not.

    That way I most avoided hearing the dreaded: “It feels a bit thin.”

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