Writing for Cracked

Let’s talk about Cracked.  Although I doubt the magazine’s founders could have predicted this way back in the prehistoric 50s, the insitution’s title has proven weirdly appropriate: the site is both addictive (Crack) and instructional (Ed.).

What many casual readers do not realize about the site is that Cracked accepts articles from anyone and everyone… but only after an intense, Darwinian comedic selection process.  The highly evolved super-articles you read on the site stand on a mountain of corpses, both of their own primitive ancestors and countless other pitches mutilated in their wake.  The engines of Cracked are bloody, joyless and without mercy.

As a service to readers of the blog, I’d like to offer my advice on how to construct a successful Cracked article, and in tribute to the site I will do so in the form of a list:

1. Play By the Rules

Once you’ve created your account and joined the writer’s board, I recommend you take some time to adjust to your surroundings.  Look at the rules for pitching articles.  Take a look at “Pitches We’re Considering” to see what sort of material gets accepted.  Don’t write a whole darn article about “5 Most Sensuous Textures of Tree Bark” and expect it to be embraced in perfect, embryonic form: the editors will politely and patiently tl;dr you, and you’ll have wasted a lot of time and energy on an essay that might never had made it past the pitch stage anyway.

It may also be useful to engage with the community.  Many internet discussion boards are focused on the anonymous critique of animes and presidents, and this is reflected in the quality of their discourse; Cracked is a filled with writers trying to be published, and so its members are unusually friendly and helpful.  Take a look at others’ pitches and offer feedback or a related example if you have one.  Someone might eventually return the favor. 

2.  Start With Examples, Not the Concept.

The first article I published on Cracked was entitled  “7 Useful Genetic Experiments That Are Creepy As Hell.”  I enjoyed the science articles on Cracked, and wanted to write something similar.  What I did not realize was that I was setting myself up for like two months of fruitless googling, trying to find scientific atrocities against God that were weird and obscure enough to justify their inclusion.

In contrast my second article, titled “The 9 Most Offensive 9/11 References in Pop Culture,” began when I read an article on Motherboard.tv about how a popular children’s videogame series featured a play area inspired by Ground Zero.  That struck me as incongruous, which gave me the idea for the pitch… which was accepted and published in much less time than the last one.  This brings me to my next point:

3.  Hoard Examples Like A Dirty Packrat

The examples are the DNA of a Cracked article: they determine its length, its audience, its tone.  An article without examples is like a person without DNA, and I don’t even know how that would work, they’d just be a big greyish lump I guess.  The best way to find these examples is not through dedicated research on a particular subject, but through hunting and gathering.  Just read.  Read everywhere.  Fringe science blogs, the “wacky news” section of popular news sites; wherever you might find information that could serve as the basis for an article.  I have a complex filing system on my desktop, filled with links.  If I find I have a couple on the same subject (like psychology, or robotics) I group them together and move them to a new file.  Over time, I’ve built up long lists of items, and found some surprising connections: I could never have gotten here if I just researched one topic at a time.

4.Find Many, Many More Examples Than You Think You’ll Need

Cracked features list-based articles.  The format is always something along the lines of “X Weird/Strange/Crazy/Sexy/Cool Examples of Something You Wouldn’t Expect.”  Usually a pitch needs at least six examples, but sadly six is not the magic number – for every example I’ve gotten past editorial there are two or there more rejected.  The “Terminator” article I recently published, for instance, was inspired by a video of a super-tough robot arm, which scientists tested by attacking with a mallet.  I thought the video was pretty neat, and pretty much everywhere that linked to it made a Terminator joke either in the text or in the comments.  Yet no matter how I wheedled and cajoled the editors, they weren’t impressed.  This editorial scrutiny is what makes Cracked superior to any number of other wacky-list sites – it means every article you read is filled with interesting and surprising information.  Yet at the same time, those standards make your job as a writer much harder.  Be prepared.

5.  Prepare, Like Abraham Before the Lord, To Kill Your Children:

If a pitch is coherent and well-written, you can expect feedback within the first week or so.  But sadly not all pitches are ready for primetime.  Editors can give you useful feedback, but after the second or third iteration it’s probably time to move onto something new.  It’s easy to convince yourself, after weeks of effort, that your mutant stepson of a pitch is only a tweak or two away from being accepted.  Instead, recognize when you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, and take your beloved pitch behind the barn with a shotgun.

6. Never Ever Mention Pokémon In an Article Because On the Internet Pokémon Trainers Are Legion and Thirsty For the Blood of Heretics

Earlier I mentioned a children’s videogame that included a space based on Ground Zero in New York.  The game was Pokémon: Black and White, and that was the genesis of my article on silly 9/11 references.  Now as a fastidious reporter, I wanted to be certain of my accusations, so I did a little additional research, and stumbled on a Poké-conspiracy beyond my wildest imaginings.

So in this game, fake-Pokémon-Ground-Zero was caused by a meteor, right?  But the developers probably didn’t want to reference 9/11 directly, because that would raise the troubling question of how Islamo-facism would develop in a world where God is a magical deer creature that can be captured and enslaved.  So the designers said it was caused by a meteor crash, and that raised my journalistic hackles.  I played these games when I was a kid, and I knew if there was a suspicious happening, chances are there was a powerful Pokémon behind it (these games imagine a dystopia where ecological catastrophe, triggered by cartoon God-monsters, is as frequent as rainfall).  So I looked to see if there were any new characters that came to earth in a meteor, and found this ugly-looking sonufagun.

The smoking gun was the monster’s height.  According to its article, this sucker was 3 meters tall, which in sensible American numbers measures as 9 feet, 11 inches.  Enormously proud of myself for discovering an insane, probably translation error-derived conspiracy in a children’s videogame, I submitted my work, and the article was published.  But I was wrong, and I would be informed of my wrongness with vigor and boundless rage.

The comments section of the article was swarmed with Pokémavens who furiously informed me that 1) Kyurem landed in Pokémonworld in a different meteor, somewhere near Pokémon-Ithaca, completely distinct from the 9/11 meteor incident and 2) the monster’s height of 3 meters had been miscalculated, and was correctly listed in the games as 9 feet 10 inches.   I was repeatedly chastened by angry men who took their pseudonyms from cartoon space rabbits, and who used pictures of a bikini-clad Princess Peach assuredly not approved by the Nintendo corporation as their visual avatars.  If there is any sort of internet criticism more devestating, I pray I never feel its sting.

I’m not certain if there is a moral, here.  But I’d like to apologize to Kyurem, and officially disassociate myself from any allegations suggesting a connection between it and the September 11th attacks.  God bless Pokémerica.




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