“We love technology, but we have to be sure to examine the harms it can do,” Streshinsky says. “It’s important to probe and ask the right questions.”
Yet Streshinsky is equally interested in pieces that explore how technology can solve societal challenges, from activists in Syria using sensors to warn residents about bombs, to a startup tackling the impending shortage of caretakers for the elderly. And she’s hungry for more stories that amuse and entertain.
“Every once in a while, you want readers to have a lot of fun and be delighted,” she says. “I think we could all use that.”
I spoke with Streshinsky about what makes a good Wired story, what she looks for in pitches, and how writers can build effective relationships with editors. We also took apart freelancer Eva Holland’s pitch for a feature on neonatal medicine and one family’s battle to keep their premature baby alive, which appeared in the April 2018 “Life” Issue. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Besides the obvious stuff, like Silicon Valley or gaming, what makes good fodder for a Wired story?
There are universal answers when it comes to magazine features. First, you have to have a story. We get a lot of pitches on topics, but they don’t have characters who will drive the narrative. Scenes are really important to meet the reader where they are and help them relate to the story.
For Wired specifically, the story has to be about something that is shaping the future and is driven by technology or science. Last year, Brendan Koerner wrote a story about a group called Xbox Underground that was doing more and more hacking that was less and less OK. It was a very Wired story because it was about young, brilliant hackers and told us something about the future and the world of video game creation. Wired also has a wonderfully nerdy history of being interested in science fiction, and we’re trying to build more around Internet culture.
Some stories that you’ve published, like Elizabeth Weil’s “The Curse of the Bahia Emerald,” don’t have a strong connection to science or technology. Is that an anomaly?
An editor once told me that 80 to 90 percent of what you publish should be squarely within your mission, and the rest should just be really good story. We also have this history of doing great capers: Was “Argo” a Wired story? The Bahia emerald story is a great caper with a touch of science.
What would you like to receive more pitches about?
We want more stories that go deep inside companies and really tell us how things happened and how systems work, so we can better understand our society. Places like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple shape our world. I think there are a lot of important stories to be done about artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Both have enormous consequences that could be good or bad. I know it sounds odd at this moment, but I think the Internet is not always a terrible place and has actually done a lot of good — I’d like to do more stories about that.
How original does a topic need to be?
It depends on the topic, and it matters that you have something new to add. There are topics we’ll keep coming back to. We’re not going to do another Xbox Underground story, but we’re going to do more stories on Facebook, Twitter, and emerging technologies having good and bad consequences. Anything shaping society through technology is important to us.
What kinds of international stories work for Wired?
We’re happy to have an international story if it informs where all of society is going and matters to a U.S. reader. We recently did a story on China’s social credit system, which is a possible harbinger of things to come elsewhere. We try to focus on stories that add forward motion.
How often does Wired work with freelancers, and what is the pitching process like?
We have a handful of contributors who each work with an editor on staff to develop stories. But we work with a lot of freelancers, and I’m always looking for more diverse voices. Writers should pitch a specific editor directly. If someone pitches a good enough topic, we’ll push her to find the story, the character, the arc, the scenes. That back-and-forth process can take a couple of weeks. Other pitches are already in good shape.
Once a month, we have formal meeting where editors review five to 10 pitches as a group. When an editor brings a pitch to that meeting, he or she is arguing for the story and believes the writer has done the due diligence and has the skills to make it happen. I realize it’s a tough process for the writers because they’re not getting paid, but it helps us know it’s going to be a successful story. I hope freelancers know that 70 percent of why pitches don’t work has nothing to do with the writer — it’s just too close to something else, or we can’t do it right now, etc.
How long should pitches be?
Pitches should be no longer than one-and-a-half pages, or two if they’re really dynamic.
How does someone become a contributor?
We have some writers on contract who contribute a certain number of stories per year. We add those by building relationships with writers who fit squarely in the Wired world and who we keep going back to. I’d like to continue to make that list more diverse. It’s also a budget question each year.
How often do you run stories based on cold pitches?
It’s hard to say. Writers we know tend to know the process a bit better and get what a Wired story is. But we’re very open to new writers and always looking for more women and more diversity. We’re always looking for writers who have a good voice. Writers have been forced to move so fast these days, so we’re always taken by someone whose writing is lovely even in a short email.
What are some ways that writers who don’t know you well can effectively go about building a relationship?
The ideal version of me would want to meet someone for coffee. The realistic version of me right now can’t do that as much. What I would like is for someone to email a good idea with a clear sense of what a Wired story is and what the magazine has done lately. You need to look at what we’ve run in the last five print issues. It doesn’t have to be a full pitch, but maybe an interesting idea in two paragraphs. If someone writes me a smart-enough email that shows they’re a clear writer, has a good sense of story, has a good idea, and shows us some strong clips, then I will certainly make time to meet. But don’t be offended if I can’t.
How often should a writer follow up on a pitch, and when should she move on?
We try really hard to answer everybody, but I apologize in advance if we don’t. If you don’t hear back, follow up two weeks later. Sometimes I miss emails, and it’s not personal. If someone still doesn’t respond, say, “Thank you, I wanted to let you know I’m taking this somewhere else.” Make sure your email isn’t too long and is well-written. We’re also getting inundated with PR pitches that look more and more like story pitches.
How do you feel about simultaneous submissions?
Quite honestly, it’s hard. I’m 100% sympathetic to the fact that if you’re waiting for Wired to respond to you for over a month, that means you’re not getting a pitch in front of someone else. That’s where we need to be better at just giving a quick response: “Yes, we might be interested; let’s keep working on it.” A young writer recently mentioned in the pitch that he was also sending it to another publication, and I was frustrated. We already have a relationship, so at least give me a moment. If you know an editor, don’t pitch simultaneously. If you don’t, try one pitch at a time if at all possible. It feels a little less like you’re interested in Wired if you’re also taking it three other places.
What are your rates?
We generally pay $2 a word in print.
THE PITCH: Wired editor Maria Streshinsky worked with us to annotate the pitch by freelancer Eva Holland that led to “Saving Baby Boy Green,” which was one of the stories in the April 2018 “Life” issue. Storyboard’s questions are in red; Streshinsky’s responses in blue.
To read the pitch without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at top of your mobile screen.
Had you worked with Eva before, or had she written for the magazine? Was there a backstory to this pitch? She had not written for Wired, but I’d been wanting her to. I met her through friends of friends. She had pitched us before, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. I sent her and a group of other writers I work with a prompt for a themed issue that was going to grapple with how technology and science affects every stage of life, from birth to death. Eva came back with two or three ideas, each three-to-four paragraphs long, and this was one of them. What stood out about it? It’s well-written, it’s emotional, it’s got characters. It touches on something deeply important. I don’t even have children, and I could get swept up into the emotion and stress of the situation. We also needed to fill out the issue, and this fit squarely into the theme.
For babies born before full term, there can be a terrifyingly fine line between birth and death. It’s a line that has been pushed back steadily over the years with advances in neonatal medicine, and today, that line lies around 24 weeks. The pitch opens with general background on the topic, rather than a specific character or scene. How did that work for you? I actually love it, because she goes right to the heart of what we asked for in the call for pitches: how technology and science shapes stages of life. The first line is powerful and well-written, and it establishes the stakes right away. Then she tells us where the line is. She’s saying, “I’ve done a little bit of work to understand what the situation is today.”
A baby born that early can weigh less than a pound. It will appear to be fully formed, an infant in miniature, but on the inside its tiny lungs will not yet be functional. It cannot breathe on its own, and if it is going to survive it will need to spend weeks in a top-of-the-line incubator, hooked up to machines that keep oxygen flowing to its tiny brain. It will face high odds of blindness, cerebral palsy, physical disabilities and learning delays. It will be immunocompromised, and its parents may not know whether it will live or die for several months after it is born. Every cold, every flu, will be a potentially deadly threat. The full extent of the damage done by its early arrival may not be known for years. This paragraph has nice quick lines. It’s dramatic and visual. “An infant in miniature”—what a lovely turn of phrase.
I know all this because two members of my social circle, newlyweds, recently brought their son into the world at just 24 weeks. Owen is a miracle baby, born at the furthest limit of doctors’ ability to save him, kept alive in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Vancouver for five months before he was permitted to go home. His bare survival was in question for nearly three months of that time. His longterm impairments are unknown. His twin, Maia, didn’t make it. When does it make sense to have a personal perspective in a pitch, and when is it extraneous or a conflict of interest? I often want there to be a personal side to a story. When I was at Pacific Standard, I worked with Amanda Hess on her piece “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” which won a National Magazine Award. The fact that it was about her personal experience being harassed and stalked on Twitter really advanced the story. For our story on Kim Wall, [the journalist murdered in Copenhagen while reporting on a submarine inventor], it really mattered to us that someone who knew Kim tell the story. For many stories, the personal is not appropriate. It can’t be someone trying to work out a grudge. And the personal story has to have national importance. Eva didn’t put herself in the story—she made it about the couple and helped the reader understand their experience.
The interventions required to keep him alive were extreme. At times, especially early on, his mother wondered if she was being cruel or selfish, subjecting him to it all, leveraging all the expertise and technology of modern medicine to force his tiny body to breathe – almost, it seemed, against his will. She lived in a dorm on the hospital grounds, learned to speak the language of the NICU, learned the routines of rounds and tests and levels in his blood, waited in line to see a postpartum counsellor. She’s a bit of a granola type – eats organic, practices acupuncture, doesn’t like what you might call the hospital industrial complex. But her months in the NICU changed her views. She left there grateful for the extraordinary care she and Owen had received. She has agreed to speak on the record about her experience. Does this pitch represent the level of pre-reporting you’d like to see? I think it’s great. She had the advantage of knowing this couple, so we already know she is going to have an emotional connection to them and they’re willing to talk. She lives in the same small town as these people, and they’re in her social circle, so she’s going to be able to lay the groundwork and set the scenes—she’s not helicoptering in. And she’d approached the hospital about access.
I’d like to write about the science of saving extremely premature babies for WIRED. Owen and his parents would be a way into the story, providing some scenes, emotional weight, and a potential narrative framework, but the meat of it would be the how. What goes into keeping such a drastically premature baby alive? How do doctors decide who can be saved, and who is past saving? How did we come as far as we have – and are there hard limits on how much further back we could push that line? The writer asks questions in this paragraph but doesn’t answer them. How do you feel about that? We often say that we don’t assign questions—we assign answers. But that’s not always true, and there are shades of gray. Here, she’s asking questions but has already established that she’s done some work, like knowing the line has been pushed back to 24 weeks. In the next paragraph, she shows us where she’s going to get these answers. After getting the pitch, we asked her to find historians of neonatal medicine and top researchers in this field to explain more about why the line has shifted and whether it could change again. We sometimes get the kind of pitch that says, “I want to find out how the Twitter algorithm works.” That’s not a story pitch. Instead, you’d need to say “I know that the Twitter algorithm works in these ways, and I have access to this person who can help me fill it out.” We’re not going to assign questions unless we feel the writer has a sense of the answer or knows where to get it. The pitch doesn’t really include a “why now.” Was that less important because of the themed issue? Yes, you’re totally right about that. For a regular issue, it would’ve been really important to have a team of scientists about to change things or another “why.” But it was a good emotional story and did well on its own, even online outside the context of the print issue. I like getting pitches on things that happen every day and I never think about, if someone has something new and thoughtful to say. Amy Wallace and Virginia Heffernan do this well.
I have approached the hospital where Owen was born about access – my goal would be to interview NICU medical staff and researchers, and if at all possible, to spend time on the ward itself. If the Vancouver hospital isn’t willing to grant that access, I’ll search for another that will. I’m confident that I will be able to find a facility that is willing to shed some light on the science of the NICU. She mentions that she has approached the ward for access but not confirmed it. What kind of access is needed at the time of the pitch? Also, she doesn’t mention whether this ward is special or cutting-edge in any way. Was that important? Doing the story was contingent on getting access. Sometimes having a conditional green light from a publication can help you get the access. This ward happened to be the most advanced in Canada, and women like her friend were flown there from all around the country.