How Writers Work: “Never End a Day Written Out, With Nothing More to Say”

By Ray E. Boomhower

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John Bartlow Martin: His peers called him “the best living reporter.”

During the 1940s and ’50s one name, John Bartlow Martin, dominated the pages of the “big slicks,” the mass-circulation magazines. Writing mostly for the Saturday Evening Post, Martin produced multi-part articles on such topics as mental illness, divorce, abortion, and desegregation in the South.

A former reporter for the Indianapolis Times, Martin was one of the nation’s few freelance writers able to support himself from his magazine work. His peers called him as “the best living reporter,” the “ablest crime reporter in America,” and “one of America’s premier seekers of fact.”

What really set him apart was his concern for the common man. “Most journalists,” he said, “make a living by interviewing the great. I made mine by interviewing the humble—what the Spaniards call los de abajo, those from below.”

Martin treated freelancing like a regular job, working from nine to five with a half-hour break for lunch. He took Saturdays off and spent his Sundays dealing with correspondence and “other accumulated afflictions.”

Pitching ideas to editors, Martin didn’t cover breaking news. “I won’t touch a story when it first breaks because all the reporters are there, all asking questions trying to outdo each other,” he said. “After that’s all over, I feel that I can get closer to it.”

When he began his “legwork,” as he called it, Martin always worried that the people he’d be interviewing knew so much, while he knew so little. When he worked for a newspaper, he felt he had the right to ask questions because a newspaper “had an inherent right to keep the public record,” but as a magazine writer, he didn’t believe he had that same privilege. “The only way to cure my hesitancy was to master the facts—to study the public record until I knew more about the case than anybody directly involved,” he said.

Spending from two weeks to six months on a story, he kept digging until he had all the facts he could gather, especially the human details that “made the bald facts real.” Writing and editing were important to a story, he said, but “in the end everything depends on reporting.” All that digging was necessary, he said, because a lot of bad reporting stems from a writer’s reliance on a single source.

Digging for facts—one friend called him “fact-obsessed”—Martin developed a few tricks of the trade. Whenever possible, he talked to a subject at his or her home; the person would be “at ease there and the objects that surround him will suggest questions to you and remind him of details.” He used a notebook, and spurned tape recorders. He usually kept the notebook out of sight when beginning an interview. To get it out of his pocket, Martin often asked a question requiring a number for an answer—such as “When were you born?”

He said, “You should always try to establish an understanding, a sympathy even, with everyone you interview, even the villains; they’re not totally evil, only human, and what you want to discover is why they behaved the way they did.” If a subject was reluctant to talk, Martin often began relating his own experiences. “Tell him your story,” he said, “pretty soon he’ll likely tell you his.”

He preferred doing interviews face-to-face and aimed at talking for at least two hours “because you’ll waste the first 45 minutes, you’ll get your best stuff between then and 1½ hours, and you’ll waste the last half hour.” Martin realized he couldn’t possibly collect all the facts. “A writer has to be selective,” he said. “Complete objectivity is impossible. He’ll pick the facts as he sees them and write them in the light of his own experience. That’s really all he can do.”

On his travels Martin usually went by plane in spite of being apprehensive about flying. He often rented a car but liked to walk. “If I’m doing a story on slums,” he said, “the best thing to do is walk around. . . . Any story is made on the street.”

Early in his freelance career, Martin organized his material on three by five note cards. During his investigation of the Centralia, Illinois, mine disaster in 1947, he had to come up with something new because of all the information he had collected. For the article, published in Harper’s, he went through his notes and documents, gave each a code number, and then numbered the pages.

When he came across an item he wanted to use, he typed it out, triple spaced, and keyed it to code and page numbers. “I then cut up the typing line by line into slips of paper,” said Martin. “I moved the slips around, arranging and rearranging them.” When he had all the slips arranged to his satisfaction, he pasted them together, resulting in a long scroll that he rolled up, placed on his typing table, and consulted as he began writing. When he came to the end of the scroll, he had his rough draft finished.

Martin dropped this system when one of his scrolls measured more than 150 feet long, “running out of my room and out the front door and across the lawn.” He went back to organizing his research on note cards, this time using some five by eight in size.

He pounded out rough drafts of stories on a typewriter in his office, or “workshop,” as he called it, at his home. Usually starting his work at 8:45 a.m., he took a cup of tea with him into his office, closed the door, and worked until lunch, which often consisted of a bowl of consommé and a tuna fish sandwich. Martin often wrote 50 pages a day, sometimes finishing a story in the morning and starting another that afternoon. The room was often littered with notebooks, reference books, and memorandums.

Martin never ended a day “written out, with nothing more to say.” He finished by typing out a half page of notes about what was coming next so the next morning he could take up where he had left off. Martin said getting started on a story or a day’s work was the hardest part of writing.

Before computers and the easy storage of information, Martin made a carbon copy of everything he wrote. He didn’t keep the copy in his house, worried about what might happen if a fire ever broke out. He said knew of a writer who had worked two years on a novel in a cabin in the Minnesota woods; the cabin burned down and, with it, the only copy of the novel.

After doing a rough draft of a story, Martin did a “heavy rewrite,” moving sentences and paragraphs around until little from his rough draft survived. It took him as long to rewrite as to write the rough draft. Martin’s system worked for him, but he said, “There is no ‘right’ way to write; there is only your way.”

In his writing, Martin concentrated on what he called the “three C’s”—conflict, characters tightly related to conflict, and the controlling idea. “I sometimes made a conscious effort to get a fictional effect out of a fact story, inventing nothing, simply handling the material as a novelist might,” he said, adding he probably was “a frustrated novelist.”

Many of his stories went through as many as six rewrites. Writing, to Martin, was “more like carpentry than art.” He considered writing to be a solitary profession, the reason it was “both so hard and so rewarding.” When he wrote he said he imagined someone reading over his shoulder and if he was tempted “to overwrite a sentence, or leave one loose, or collapse upon a cliché, or otherwise write something idiotic, the imaginary reader would frown; I would fix it.”
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Ray E. Boomhower is senior editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press, where he edits the quarterly popular history magazine Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. He has also written biographies on such notable Hoosiers as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, and May Wright Sewall. Boomhower’s book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog was recently published by Indiana University Press. He is now working on a book about the World War II writing from the Pacific by Time and How  journalist Robert Sherrod.

Comments

  1. When editing a Washingtonian piece that was badly organized but so good it had to be saved, I sometimes used a coding system similar to the one Martin had. I’d read the piece, think about how it was organized, and then come up with an outline, breaking the story into sections.

    I thought it was easiest for the reader if there were line breaks, similar to chapters in a book, every 500 words or so, and I numbered each of those sections. Then I’d go back to the story as submitted, put numbers next to various parts of it, and move that content into the right section, trying to give the piece more logic and better flow.

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