Sex robots, violence in Mosul and the plan for Queen Elizabeth’s inevitable death. Those were among the subjects of the best stories last year on The Guardian’s eclectic longform site, The Long Read.
“We don’t have a simple formula,” says commissioning editor David Wolf. “But we’re always looking for great stories — particularly those that take place in the world of ideas.”
The Long Read’s appetite for articles that illuminate debates often relegated to academia sets it apart from many publishers of narrative journalism. Editors’ favorite stories from 2017, for example, included think pieces on neoliberalism, statistics and “the age of banter.” But even idea-driven articles should rest on solid reporting and storytelling, Wolf says.
The Guardian has always published features off the news, but The Long Read was founded in 2014 to provide a dedicated home for magazine-length narratives. “As articles were getting shorter and the news was getting faster, there was in parallel a greater hunger for pieces that told the full story,” Wolf says.
Helmed by Jonathan Shainin, formerly the online news editor for The New Yorker, the London-based site publishes three pieces a week that run between 4,000 and 6,000 words. Around 20 percent or so are set in the U.K. Otherwise, any topic anywhere in the world is fair game. And if there is any one secret to breaking in, Wolf says, it’s writing well: “If we receive a pitch that’s arresting from the first sentence and feels like the writer has real control over the material, that overrules everything.”
Wolf shares other tips for pitching The Long Read below. We also take a close look at a pitch he received from Alex Blasdel for a profile of Timothy Morton a.k.a. “the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Is there much of a longform tradition in the U.K. compared to the U.S.?
The U.S. longform tradition is pretty unique, but there certainly has been a history of these kinds of pieces in the U.K. An example is Granta when edited by Ian Jack. The Independent newspaper also produced a lot of great feature writers who went on to cointribute to The New Yorker, like Ian Parker and Zöe Heller. Much of this “secret” U.K. longform tradition is either not archived or locked behind a paywall. Places like the London Review of Books publish longform today. But it’s much more marginal than in the U.S.
Do you see The Long Read as a British publication?
We cover the world, but we do want to encourage people to think of the U.K. as a rich subject for longform stories. We’ve tried to profile British institutions in a way they haven’t necessarily been written about before. One of my favorites was about a pub fighting back against developers trying to close it down; it contained the history and philosophy of the British pub. But The Guardian is a properly global publication: Our traffic is usually one-third British, one-third American and one-third rest of the world. So we try to find ways of telling stories, even about British subjects, that will be interesting and accessible everywhere. We apply the same rule to a pitch from Texas or Bolivia.
Looking at your roundup of favorite stories from 2017, what stood out about some of these?
The piece about the death of the Queen has an incredible sense of tone and atmosphere. It proceeds in a stately, calm way — the language is perfectly chosen for the subject matter. That genre — describing a thing that hasn’t happened — is one of the hardest things to pull off. In Dina Nayeri’s “The Ungrateful Refugee,” which is a mixture of memoir and argument, the writing is spectacular and there’s a controlled passion that’s immediately powerful. Stephen Buranyi’s piece about scientific publishing takes a subject that sounds unbelievably dull and makes it into an amazing business story with incredible characters. If you can convince us that something that doesn’t seem interesting at first is actually a wild world, that’s great for us.
Are there parts of the world or subjects you’d like to see more pitches about?
We rarely get pitches from Latin America. Surprisingly, we get few pitches from Europe, aside from Spain and Russia. In the U.S., if a great story appears in The New York Times, three reporters are going to look into it.
“If we receive a pitch that’s arresting from the first sentence and feels like the writer has real control over the material, that overrules everything.”In Europe, you have standard news and political reporting, but because there isn’t a culture of longform, there must be tons of great narrative stories that aren’t being told. One example is a story by our Spain correspondent, Giles Tremlett, about parents who adopted a Chinese girl then murdered her. The case was incredibly famous in Spain but unknown otherwise.
We rarely get pitches for business stories or company profiles. We’d love to do more stories like one we ran in March about the luxury stroller market.
How often do you work with freelancers?
Guardian writers do about one-third of the pieces, and the rest are written by freelancers.
How often do you assign stories based on cold pitches?
Assigning stories based on cold pitches is relatively rare, partly because they’re often not well tailored to our needs. Two that did work resulted in a story about a fake embassy in Ghana and one about a chef who was one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy and killed himself at age 28. A lot of stories come out of chats with writers we have relationships with or who we got in touch with after reading something they wrote. But if we get a pitch that’s promising, we often stay in touch with the writer. It’s worth sending a pitch even if you’re not sure it’s spot on.
What are common missteps you see in pitches?
The most common is not having enough familiarity with what we’ve published. Just mentioning a couple of pieces we’ve done immediately makes me think that this person has put some thought into why this story works for us. We also sometimes get pitches that say, “I’m from X country and this thing is happening. Would you like a report on it?” The best pitches are cognizant of the fact that the rest of the paper does news stories and short features, and a Long Read piece has to be distinct. We’re looking for big stories that unfold over time, rather than a report from a place. When it comes to pitching on subjects that have already received a lot of media coverage, it’s always a good sign if the writer can show how this particular story is different from the others. It’s surprisingly rare for writers to do this, and it helps the pitch stand out.
What’s your take on simultaneous submissions?
I’m definitely OK with it. That said, sometimes it might suggest you haven’t thought carefully enough about whether it’s a fit for us.
How much do you pay?
It varies quite a lot, but I will say it’s competitive.
Do you have a travel budget?
Yes, but we’ll only do a piece that requires extensive travel with a writer we’ve worked with before or who is experienced.
What are your preferences for writers corresponding with you?
We get about 50 pitches a week, and there are only three of us – me, Jonathan Shainin and Clare Longrigg. We try to respond to every pitch, but I’m sure there are times we’ve missed. If a writer hasn’t heard from us in a week, they should definitely follow up. I always ask people to email rather than phoning.
My questions are in red, Wolf’s responses in blue. To read the pitch without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find below the social media buttons in the top, right-hand menu.Did you know this writer, or was it a cold pitch? He had worked with Jonathan Shainin a few years earlier as an editor in India, so we knew him more as an editor than a writer. Do you run profiles often? What makes for a good subject? No, probably six or 10 pieces out of 150 a year. But we’re happy to receive profile pitches. There are roughly two kinds of profiles: One is of the person you’ve already heard of, like our profiles of France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, or scientist Richard Dawkins. The other is a person you don’t necessarily know already. The person should be personally fascinating and have an interesting story, but also illuminate a world. There has to be a reason beyond the extraordinary details of someone’s life story. In this case, the central figure was not only vivid and charismatic, but was also a way into the idea of the Anthropocene.
The environmental philosopher Timothy Morton wants us all to “fucking chill.” Was this in-your-face opening an effective way to catch your attention? You don’t expect a sentence that starts with “environmental philosopher” to end with “fucking chill.” This sentence immediately suggests that the writer knows what he’s doing: He’s got your interest and surprised you. If he’d started off with the idea of the Anthropocene right away, it could feel plodding. But the shock of the first sentence and scope of the second gives you a great one-two punch. It’s not what you might expect from a thinker whose increasingly influential work grapples with the cataclysmic forces – extreme weather, submerged cities, acute resource shortages, nuclear fallout – unleashed in the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which human beings are dramatically reshaping the planet. Had you heard of this philosopher? I was familiar with his name, but hadn’t read his work and didn’t really know what he was all about.
But the man who says that the arrival of the Anthropocene means realizing “there’s no exit” from the “charnel ground” we inhabit also finds in this predicament a carnivalesque liberation. “You think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure,” Morton recently tweeted. “Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house.” What did you think of including these quotes near the top? It suggests that the writer has already done quite a bit of work and is thinking about how to make the piece interesting to someone who isn’t already familiar with the subject. They also give you a glimpse of Morton’s personality.
That tweet was characteristic of Morton’s philosophy, which sets out from the self-evident, but then veers wildly off the beaten track. His idiosyncratic body of thought – devouring everything from Romantic poetry and cutting-edge sound art, to superdeep boreholes and Blade Runner – is now breaking into the mainstream. Morton was recently named one of the fifty most influential living philosophers. His work has been reviewed at length in the US edition of Newsweek and cited in the New York Times. The co-director of the Serpentine, Hans Ulrich Obrist, recently told readers of Vogue that Morton’s books were the most important cultural works out there. Did this external affirmation of his importance sway you? How important is a timely hook? The writer is obviously conscious here that this guy isn’t a household name. Obviously, reviews in Newsweek and Obrist’s comment help answer the “why this guy” question. We work on fairly long lead times, at least a month but usually two to four months, we’re not generally looking for hooks per se. We want everything we publish to have a feeling of urgency—this is something that matters now—without necessarily being pegged to something. This list of the ways in which he’s percolating in more mainstream culture felt like a good way of saying, “This person is current and matters.” But if someone is appearing in a movie coming out next week, that wouldn’t work for our timing. When I spoke to Morton about the possibility of profiling him, I asked which songs would be in heavy rotation at the hypothetical disco in his house. Is it important or necessary to secure access in advance? It depends, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential. If it’s an academic who isn’t constantly barraged, it’s worth seeing if you can give them a call and schedule reporting opportunities, but it’s certainly not the case that we’d expect you to. If you’re pitching a profile of a well-known person or someone at the center of a news story, it’s not essential, but it’s worth considering if you’re likely to get access. There are many things we’d go for in principle, but if you want to profile Beyoncé, you have to show us you’re likely to spend quality time with her. At the top of his set-list was “Hyperballad” – he specified the Subtle Abuse mix – by Björk, with whom he shares a long correspondence and a co-author credit. Although he’s currently writing a scholarly work attempting to fuse Marxism and dark ecology, he also has a book forthcoming from Penguin, Being Ecological, which is meant to enchant the general public. The first sentence, he told me, is: “This book contains no ecological facts whatsoever.” Why was it effective to include these details? This tells you exactly what kind of nerdy music guy this is. It reassures me that the writer will get the character element of the profile. He’s got to be able to not only animate his ideas, but make me come away feeling like I’ve spent time with this person and seen the world through their eyes. This aside makes me think the writer is good at noticing little things.
In many ways, the development of Morton’s thought has tracked his own personal story. Born into a family of English bohemians, Morton went on to do a PhD in Romantic poetry. At some point, he was diagnosed with depression. Trying to cope opened Morton to a range of experiences, from psychoanalysis to Buddhist meditation, and his writing began to range more widely. He compares living with depression to living with the tragic knowledge of the ecological catastrophe we have created: you have to admit “that you’re malfunctioning, and this malfunctioning doesn’t go away, because malfunctioning is actually part of how things are.” After that acceptance, Morton says, you can move, on occasion, to something that looks more like play. Why was it important to include some of Morton’s personal story, and was this a good spot for that background? Structurally, this comes at a nice moment. The pitch started off by grabbing your attention and giving a sense of this guy’s big ideas and why he matters, and now it tells his story. The writer also does a good job of connecting this guy’s ideas with his personal life. In the best profiles, someone’s ideas and life story often go hand in hand without the connection feeling overdetermined or clunky.
Morton’s position – that the ecological catastrophe many of us fear has “already occurred” and that flourishing in the anthropocene era means accepting the limits of our capacity to control the world – sets itself against virtually every other environmental approach going. This has not made him popular with his fellow scholars. Some professional philosophers see him as a curiosity at best, and a fraud at worst. One scholarly review pointed to something “of the snake oil salesman in Morton’s prose.” Another thinker has claimed that Morton and his small cohort of philosophical confreres, who are active bloggers, have only succeeded in generating “an online orgy of stupidity.” Others argue he is fatally out of touch with the environmental catastrophes facing the global south: it’s all well and good for an Oxford-educated, university-tenured middle-aged white man to advocate wind-powered discos and buddy up to Björk – but how the hell is play going to help farmers in the world’s new dust bowls? Why was including the voices of critics important? There’s a tendency when pitching profiles to hype up the figure a bit. This paragraph immediately signals that the writer has a critical eye and is looking at this guy in a removed way. He’s aware of the criticism, and the piece isn’t going to call this guy the best thing since sliced bread and swallow all his bullshit. I feel like I’m in safe hands. This also brings in conflict: Some people are saying this guy is a brilliant thinker and illuminating problems of our age, and others are saying he’s an idiot and fraud—this sounds interesting.
Ultimately, though, I see this profile as a chance to profile a thinker whose ideas reflect and shape how the culture at large thinks about the current state of the world, and to tell the story of an idea – the anthropocene – which captures the precariousness, scariness and weirdness of what it’s like to be alive right now. What did you think of this closer? After a few paragraphs about his life story and critics, it’s helpful to have a reminder of the bigger picture and the idea of the Anthropocene. It reminds me that it’s about more than just this one guy. What happens after you get a strong pitch like this? We usually have a phone call or meeting with the writer and send logistical questions. Then we’ll either say yes or we’ll ask the writer to sketch a plan of the story as they see it.