The Best Editors Ask Good Questions

By Barnard Law Collier

From longtime editor and writer Barney Collier on the October 5th post “Why Editors Are Not on TV Talk Shows and Are Mostly Silent on Social Media”:

I have a feeling that many editors come off as mediocre on TV because editors, mostly, are in the suggestion business, and questions are the most powerful form of suggestion.

When I edited good writers my role was to ask questions about their work and stimulate their minds into poking about until something better than what they’d done could be found. “Is there a better word? A better way to say this?” usually elicited better stuff. Good writers caught the drift. Lousy writers put their heels in the mud.

Ben Bradlee was a savvy guy, and his mind was set to probe, to ask questions, to provoke responses which Ben knew well were coming because of how he’d framed the questions. His opinions were almost always curious, hot, and juicy, but often unsuitable for popular consumption. So, wisely, Ben and most other successful editors abide by the STFU doctrine that says you never learn anything when you are talking,

James Bellows, a fine and original editor, thought about everything he said, and asked some of the brightest questions in his era of journalism. But you sometimes had to love him to listen to him dance round the point enough to opine.

One of my editors at Harper’s magazine was aptly named Mr. Lord, and his questions were beautiful to behold, but his opinions weren’t. He knew it and stuck to cobbling supremely perspicacious questions that mostly got good answers from his writers.

Today the biggest problem for editors is that they work inside an empty space. Has anyone whose name is not a magic word among editors ever tried to reach one at any one of the major news operations? By email it’s worse than iffy. By telephone nearly impossible. Editors and now reporters are coddled away from the midnight and full moon callers, among whom are roughly half the American population.

The one editor I know of today who is even mildly successful at panel/TV/video/radio opinionating is David Remnick of the New Yorker. Brooke Gladstone, who edits On the Media for NPR, is even better and sharper; she can ask and opine with equal brilliance.

I read long ago that a study at the University of Michigan rated being an editor as the second highest occupation with regard to required intelligence. (Can’t recall what was first.)

In my opinion, to offer strong and successful suggestions demands a level of understanding that is elite and fairly unique. To be the taker of successful suggestions by answering well posed questions is a delightful experience, but good questions come first and the best editors ask them.

Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.

From Jack: I’d argue with Barney about editors having to be all that brilliant. First, there are different kinds of intelligence: See Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind and Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Writers I worked with could be very good at one kind of story and not so good on other kinds of stories. Feature writers and explanatory writers are very different, and investigative reporters are a breed apart.

Good editors have to be smart enough to push writers to do the kinds of stories they do well. I like to think of good editors as being like good point guards in basketball or quarterbacks in football—they get the ball to the right player at the right time.


  1. Barnard Collier says

    Dear Jack,

    I once asked my niece, a lawyer and one-time intelligence agency executive, what the word “intelligence” means in a non-espionage sense.

    She said: “The ability to take on many perspectives and apply many of them to most decisions.”

    We once counted her perspectives about some inane matter like drinking fountains; she wound up with dozens, including the conclusion that the drinking fountains of Rome are after all these centuries still the best in the world.

    (In Rome, Romans put their finger over a small hole in a copper pipe that is gently flowing water at a hydrant along the street. The stoppage causes pressure that sends a tall stream of cool aquaduct water upward onto one’s face or into one’s mouth.)

    Anyway, I didn’t rank editors, somebody from the University of Michigan did, probably someone who needed a good editor.

    I wish I could recall what #1 was . . .

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