Can women handle 10,000 words?


Frozen out…

By Caitlin Kelly

Just a taste of the obstacles so many women writers still face.

This, from Vox, quoting the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, which is considered one of the most prestigious outlets in American journalism:


It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.


I really don’t have a lot to add to this.

I will say that any woman, like me, who has already written and published a non-fiction book — mine are each around 100,000 words — is fully capable of producing a terrific magazine piece one-tenth that length.

This kind of gate-keeping is annoyingly prevalent, and the magazines still deemed career-making in choosing and promoting their writers are extremely difficult to penetrate. When top editors are male, many keep choosing the guys they know already, not the fantastically talented proven women beyond their narrow purview.

His comment, not surprisingly, provoked a torrent on Twitter. The women writers I know, admire and respect flung up their hands…business as usual.

Here’s an analysis of it from The Cut:

You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’s archives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)

It’s also painfully obvious that some of the most interesting magazine-style journalism is happening, of course, at places that don’t have cover stories. The Atlantic is the most Establishment of the Establishment magazines, and the fixation on a print cover story as the sacred, locked tabernacle to which only a few are granted a key is revealing of a certain value system. (As is the notion that high word count correlates with quality or importance.)


If this issue is of interest to you, to see how many women are getting their work published, read the VIDA reports; VIDA is a 10-year-old organization founded on the principle of getting more women published.



8 thoughts on “Can women handle 10,000 words?

  1. Remember “The Big Chill”? One of the characters was a writer for People magazine and he told his friends they wanted their stories to be just long enough to read through in one trip to the bathroom. That’s what they want and I think they don’t really care who they get it from.
    Editors who think you have to be a member of a particular social group in order to put out ten thousand decently publishable words, in this case white men, belong to the same group of idiots that likes to postulate that white men can’t jump, dance, compose music or cook spicy food. This kind of thinking serves neither the editors nor the publications they produce. Far from it. If it was me, insulting as it is, I really think I would just let this go. Going to the office of some stodgy old duffer with your fresh new voice and your hat in your hand is tantamount to beating your head against the wall. They want John Updike and that ain’t you. This is what I like to call the mark of the dinosaur.
    My wife subscribes to a whole lot of magazines with women and men who contribute some really great material. I don’t know how lucrative a magazine article is (I’ll bet you do) but I’m pretty sure there is room at the table, so I say go where the future is.
    So, being that it’s really a matter of opinion, unsupported by any objective standard, what’s the point? You can’t make them like you, or your stuff, and nobody should be allowed to force the issue.
    Thanks very much for a really good bit.

    1. Thanks.

      I don’t wake up DYING to write for The Atlantic, that’s for sure — and ironically, just spent 30 minutes this morning on the phone w one of their digital editors in London who called ME.

      But this is how bad it is; years ago I applied 4x to become a writer at Newsweek (when that was a VERY good job and a very big deal) yet Time and Newsweek positively reeked of testosterone and Ivy League privilege. In one of my Newsweek interviews I was asked this, exactly: “Do you write for The Atlantic?” What an absurdly exclusionary question. Game over, again.

      I per se don’t care — but when you are a smart, talented and ambitious writer (who happens to be female) — this shit is both enraging and career-limiting for many of us.

      1. I completely understand intelligence, talent and ambition, I’ve got plenty. I’ve been shot down and shut out more times than I can count, mostly because people had a hard time liking me. It hardly seems fair, since no one ever asked me how I felt about my co-workers, but no one has to care what I think any more than I do about them and that is scrupulously fair. What would not be fair is if I, a white southern man, the proud descendant of a Confederate soldier, whipped up a big fat shitstorm because Ebony didn’t want to publish my submission. It’s their magazine and they can do what they want. Success comes from perseverance and resilience, as well as the knowledge that you don’t get your money back if your dreams don’t come true.

      2. Hmmmm.

        Well, as someone who already had 2 ideas rejected by 10:30 this morning, that’s not the issue at all! I would never pitch Ebony (which notoriously doesn’t pay its writers anyway) because….Caucasian. I don’t care about rejection. I care about ***exclusion*** — which is a much tougher issue.

        But to suggest that women, because of our gender, are .000005% less capable than a man at the = skill level? Absurd. And sexist gatekeepers make sure that many talented women are not getting a fair shot; look at the VIDA stats.

  2. It’s that problem that when a white, middle class man in the second half of his life is convinced that only a white middle class man of middling years can deliver, everyone else becomes invisible to them. They don’t believe we exist, or that we could be as good or better than them and that disbelief is hard to push back against. Part of it is that they like people who sound like them – we see it in the UK with the white Oxbridge men and their tendency to publish other white Oxbridge men….

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