It’s not as profound as you might hope, but I’ve figured out the most important question you can ask when you’re writing or editing someone’s work:
What are you trying to say?
For whatever reason, we often don’t write what we want to say. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something and thought: “That’s a lot of words that don’t mean anything. I have no idea what I just read.” Sometimes it happens because we think what we have to say is offensive. Sometimes we’re trying to hide bad news with pretty words. Sometimes we just don’t know what we want to say. No matter the reason, the result is always reader confusion and a lot of wasted words.
Nearly every time I’ve asked someone this question, they’ve been able to give me a coherent answer that makes a lot of sense. I always respond with, “Write that.” And their writing always improves. Simple question, impressive results.
What are you trying to say? Write that.