Rabbit Hole Writers Guide
This guide outlines the kind of journalism Rabbit Hole does, the principles that are important to us, and the standards and practices we expect from everyone writing for us. Read this guide before you send us a piece or an idea for one.
This guide is not intended to be comprehensive; it cannot prepare a writer for every situation. Nor is it intended to be static; instead, this guide will be a living document, evolving to meet new challenges and growing along with the publication. Writers are encouraged to revisit it from time to time to refresh their memory of its contents and to keep abreast of new modifications.
Who we are
Founded in 2019, Rabbit Hole is a magazine of ideas for East Asia. It’s irreverent, fiercely independent, and answerable to no one and nothing save for the highest standards of journalism. It models itself on the best – The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Time (at its height) – and offers articles that are both timely and timeless.
What we do
It’s probably best to start with what we don’t do:
- Basic news reporting – If all a piece does is transmit information, we’re not interested.
- Overviews or summaries – Some outlets run supposed features or op-eds that are really just summaries of developments on a particular issue that anyone who’s been following it probably already knows. We don’t.
- Pieces that are just collections of different views on an issue without a clear thesis or debate
Instead, we offer:
- Features (exploring an issue in great depth)
- Analysis (breaking down and explaining an issue)
- Commentary (advancing a novel point or argument)
- Profiles and interviews (that break new ground)
- Humor (usually to advance a social critique)
- Personal essays (sharing a poignant experience)
- More literary pieces, including fiction and poetry
The key question we ask is “Does a piece provide value to a reader?” Does it make him think or see things differently? Does it teach him something new or offer an insight or argument he couldn’t have obtained elsewhere? If all you do is say something that’s been said before in another news outlet, you’re not adding value. And, in order to know what’s been said before, you have to do your research – at the very least this entails doing a comprehensive Google search of past articles and books on the issue.
Likewise, when it comes to interviews, we’re not interested in interviews of famous people that are done just for the stake of interviewing a famous person, i.e. where he’s asked questions he’s answered a dozen times before. Do your research and find a new line of questioning or don’t do it at all.
Our key geographical focus is East Asia. That said, we’re also interested in stories from other parts of the world. Keep in mind, too, that every piece should be written in a way that’s accessible to an international audience, who may not be familiar with a particular country, whilst also providing value to a local reader. So, for example, an article about the dynamics between Japanese political factions should be comprehensible to someone completely unfamiliar with the Japanese political system, whilst still providing value to a well-informed Japanese reader. Does that sound hard? It is!
As for subject matter, we’re open to pretty much anything. We say that there’s no such thing as an inherently stupid or boring topic; there are just stupid and boring ways to write about it. An account of a visit to a bar detailing the décor and the different cocktails you can get won’t interest us; an account of a visit to a bar offering a penetrating insight into human nature, including why we go to bars, or an analysis of the social dynamics between different kinds of patrons, might.
Probably the best way to get a sense of what we’re interested in is to peruse the articles already on our site. It’s usually also a good idea to pitch an article idea to us first, so you’re less likely to spend time writing something we don’t end up using.
Each piece should also be accompanied by at least one picture (the more the better). You should either own the rights to the picture, or have obtained it from Creative Commons or some other copyright-free source (if the latter, please include a link to the source of the picture). Each article should also be accompanied by an abstract. That abstract should either be a summary of the piece or a teaser for it. The shorter this is, the better – aim for a sentence or two.
How to go about writing for us
Here are the things we pride ourselves on.
All submissions to Rabbit Hole must be exclusive. Give credit to other sources when you use their material. Plagiarism, of course, is unacceptable.
Rabbit Hole is an intellectual brothel, so we want articles that are a pleasure to read. Because we recognize that each writer has his or her own unique voice and style, however, we only have a few rules for good writing.
1) Plan your pieces before writing them. It need not be super detailed, but a good plan will help keep you focused and coherent. It’ll help save you the anguish that comes from realizing you don’t really know where you’re going partway through writing your piece, as well as the time needed to rewrite large sections of it.
2) Never use two words when one will do just as well. Good writing is succinct, conveying as much as possible with the greatest economy of words. Our readers are busy people, so make sure every word they read needs to be there. That said, note the qualifier “just as well.” There are times when more words capture shades of meaning that would be lost if fewer were used, in which case, their presence is justified. More often than not, however, they don’t, and their presence isn’t.
3) Never use a more complicated word when a simpler one will do just as well. Good writers make complicated subjects simple. Conversely, bad writers make simple subjects complicated. Note again the qualifier “just as well,” though. There will be times, especially when you’re addressing a highly technical subject, when more complicated vocabulary is justified. But make sure that if a piece of writing is complicated, it’s because the subject matter is complicated – not because your writing is.
4) Use Oxford commas. Always.
Lastly, don’t send us anything until you’re sure it’s as close to perfect as possible.
Unless you’re writing a fiction or a humor piece for us, you’re practicing journalism. A journalist is supposed to tell the truth, as best he can, and he has his credibility, or he has nothing. Draw clear distinctions between facts and opinions. Represent something as a fact only when you’re certain; deal in probabilities and possibilities otherwise. If you report an incident you didn’t witness firsthand, outline how you pieced together what happened. Include references (preferably in the form of hyperlinks) where appropriate. If you realize you’ve made a mistake somewhere and a correction or elaboration is in order, get in touch with an editor immediately. Any significant corrections or elaborations will be acknowledged in an editor’s note. It’s also often wise to record interviews and exchanges on sensitive topics.
On this front, it’s hard to do better than the Washington Post’s Policies and Standards guide, part of which we’ve shamelessly borrowed and reproduced in italics below (with minor stylistic changes).
Sources often insist that you agree not to name them before they agree to talk. Be reluctant to grant their wish. When we use an unnamed source, we are asking our readers to take an extra step to trust the credibility of the information we are providing. We must be certain that the benefit to readers is worth the cost in credibility.
In some circumstances, you will have no choice but to grant confidentiality to sources. We recognize that there are situations in which we can give our readers better, fuller information by allowing sources to remain unnamed than if we insist on naming them. We realize that in many circumstances, sources will be unwilling to reveal to us information about corruption in their own organizations, or high-level policy disagreements, for example, if disclosing their identities could cost them their jobs or expose them to harm. Nevertheless, granting anonymity to a source should not be done casually or automatically.
Named sources are vastly to be preferred to unnamed sources. You should press to have sources go on the record. Persistently pushing sources to identify themselves actually works – not always, but more often than you’d initially expect. If a particular source refuses to allow us to identify him or her, you should consider seeking the information elsewhere.
Editors have an obligation to know the identity of unnamed sources used in a story, so that editors and writers can jointly assess the appropriateness of using them. Some sources may insist that you not reveal their identity to your editors; resist this. When it happens, you should make clear that information so obtained cannot be published. The source of anything that is published should be known to at least one editor.
We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence. Our obligation is to serve readers, not sources. This means avoiding attributions to “sources” or “informed sources.” Instead try to give the reader something more, like “sources familiar with the thinking of defense lawyers in the case,” or “sources whose work brings them into contact with the county executive,” or “sources on the governor’s staff who disagree with his policy.”
Note that reporting on certain meetings taking place under, say, the Chatham House Rule may require exceptions to this policy.
Never write anything you don’t understand. Don’t write about a topic until you understand it as close to perfectly as possible. This is a high bar. If you don’t completely understand something, research or ask questions to get the details until you do. If something sounds unlikely to you, try to get to the bottom of it, and write that it is if you still feel that way. If someone says something untrue, call it what it is. If a story has more than one side to it, get all sides wherever possible, and weigh them against each other for our readers.
This means you should strive to be as fair as possible, even to people with whom you vehemently disagree. Try to see beyond any biases you might have, and give them credit where it’s due. Don’t take their quotes out of context. Don’t misrepresent their position or make a straw man out of their arguments. If you’re writing something negative about someone, get in touch with him and offer him a chance to have his say. Disclose any conflicts of interest you might have in the piece itself, and certainly to an editor when you submit the piece.
Being objective, however, is not the same as being neutral. We don’t require neutrality, and you’re free to take a clear position on an issue after having carefully considered it. If someone says two plus two equals four, and another says it equals six, you’re not required to say it equals five to split the difference.
Good journalists operate without fear or favor. The people you interview are your sources or your subjects, not your friends; accept no payment from them or any gifts that might compromise your independence.
Never take anything out of a piece to please a source. When dealing with inexperienced sources (i.e. those who aren’t used to talking to journalists), start by telling them you’re a journalist who’s working on a story, and that anything you see, hear, smell, or perceive with any of your other senses can and may be used as material, and that they should expect no favors from you. Refuse to keep anything off the record unless you agreed to do so before that person shared it with you. In negotiating terms of engagement with sources, be prepared for your exchanges to go public – and make sure you can defend your position if it does.
Never trade your independence for access. If you’re writing about someone and want that person to speak to you, give no guarantees that he’ll come out of it looking good. If he refuses as a result, that’s fine – a true writer will be able to write a good story even without access to that person. Also, a good way of getting a reluctant source to speak to you can be to tell him you’re gonna write that story anyway, and that he’ll probably end up looking better if he shares his side (and keep your credibility by following through, whether he speaks to you or not).
Before conducting an interview, ensure your questions are reasonable and that there’s a public interest in their answers, but once you have, stand by them. If your subject dodges an important question, hold him to it until he either answers or expressly declines to. If he takes issue with your line of questioning and threatens to walk out unless you change it, let him.
True journalists know it’s not their job to make anyone look good, but to pursue the truth, wherever it leads, and whomever it offends. Those with fame and power know they cannot be used or bought, which is why they often regard them with wary respect, sometimes even a little fear. Stay true to these principles, and perhaps one day they’ll come to fear you too.