What Editors Look for in Writers: Let’s See What You’ve Written

By Jack Limpert

In an earlier post, I said the best question an editor can ask a writer is “What do you like to read?” That conversation helps an editor see what the writer is most interested in and what kind of mind the writer has.

In a second post, I said my next favorite conversation was trying to find out if the writer knew a lot about something. The best stories came from writers with deep knowledge and good contacts in some subject area: health and medicine, education, cops and crime, technology, sports, food, something.

If I was talking with a writer whose work I hadn’t seen elsewhere, I’d early on ask to see a few pieces the writer had written. The one thing a magazine editor—or most any editor—can’t do is bore the reader and I often read the first 300 words of a story and decided, “Not for us.” After 300 words, there has to be something that makes you want to go on. Good reporting and clear writing. Questions you want answers to. Maybe some narrative pull. A feeling that you want to keep on reading.

A caveat in judging writers by what they’ve written: An editor doesn’t know how much work had to be done to the piece before it was published. One clue is did the writer do more than one piece for an editor. If an editor uses the writer two or three times, that suggests it was a good relationship.

As for contacting editors at another publication, in 40 years of magazine editing I think I called or emailed another editor only a half-dozen times to check out a writer. How much did the writer do and how much did the editors have to do? Sometimes not doing it cost the magazine a kill fee and headaches all around.

What really surprised me was how seldom book editors called about giving a book contract to a writer based on a Washingtonian piece. In one case the writer was the wife of a man who had made big news and she wrote about how it changed their lives and the nation’s history. A very good story but it been written almost entirely by the magazine’s editors.

She then called to say she’d received a good advance to expand the article into a book. I congratulated her and thought: that book editor has no idea what he or she is in for.
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Next: Editors, writers, and money.

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