15 key questions to help writers get back on track

These insightful queries are great for editors working with stymied authors, but they’re equally helpful for your own writing.

How editors can help writers get unstuck

Your writer is stuck. The piece seems hopeless.

How can you get them unstuck? Probably by asking a question.

It’s best to ask these questions in a conversation, in person or on the phone, rather than in editorial comments. That leads to a dialogue. It makes the writer think—and that leads to solutions to writing problems.

So, here’s a list. Keep these in your back pocket—choose to suit the writer, the problem and the deadline.

You might even ask them of yourself when you feel daunted.

1. What’s the main idea here?

Keep asking until you get a clear, simple statement. Then make that the theme and thread of the piece; suggest removing unconnected themes and putting them into a different document.

2. What the best order for these three (four, five, six) ideas?

Sometimes rearranging things shakes up the writer’s ideas and makes them fit together better.

3. I like this story. What would happen if we started with it?

Starting with a story engages readers. Then step back and explain what it means and why it’s important.

4. Who is this for?

Confusion about audience leads to confused prose. Clarify that, and a lot of other problems may disappear.

5. If this piece was half as long, what would you keep?

If the writer has a good answer to that, try keeping what she suggests and ditching the rest. The results will probably be better.

6. Why are you so sure?

This helps surface proof points for impassioned, but unsupported, arguments.

7. I don’t believe this. How would you prove it?

This is a good question to elicit case study stories, statistics or quotes.

8. Can you draw a picture of that?

If you can sketch a picture, then you can create a graphic, and that might clarify things in a way the text never could.

9. Which of these metaphors is the strongest?

Drop the rest. One metaphor is enough.

10. Which of these five (10, 20, 50) exclamation points do you really need?

Because we’re getting rid of the rest of them.

11. Who’s doing this?

A good question to ask when authors are enamored of passive voice.

12. What does this mean?

This works best when accompanied by a quizzical look. It helps writers figure out how to replace jargon and technical explanations with something simpler.

13. What do you believe?

The writer will respond with a statement that includes the word “I.” Put that statement in the text. The resulting direct tone can transform the document, if the writer follows it through to the end.

14. Could we turn this into a list?

A bulleted or numbered list is often easier for the reader to follow.

15. Why are you against the Oxford (serial) comma?

Just kidding. Don’t ask this unless you like arguing. It will waste a lot of time and get you nowhere.

What are your favorite editorial questions?

Josh Bernoff is a writer based in Massachusetts. A version of this post first appeared on Without Bullshit.

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