Making It as a Freelancer: 12 Timeless Tips from John Bartlow Martin

By Ray E. Boomhower


John Bartlow Martin on life as a freelancer: “Champagne today, crackers and milk tomorrow.”

With his horn-rimmed glasses, bow tie, and mild manner, John Bartlow Martin looked more like a schoolteacher or a laboratory technician than a nationally known writer. He believed in hard work more than talent, saying, “Hell, I’m just a reporter.”

The Indiana-raised Martin had honed his observational skills as a police and city hall reporter on the Indianapolis Times in the late 1930s and as a contributor to such true-crime periodicals as Official Detective Stories and Actual Detective Stories for Women in Crime.

In the 1940s and 1950s he appeared frequently in the “big slicks”—the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Collier’s, Esquire, and Harper’s. He transcended the conventions of the fact-detective magazine genre, attempting to place his subjects in a social context. He avoided “the artifices, the false suspense and phony emotion,” of typical reporting about crime, and tried to preserve “the narrative value of the stories.”

Martin became one of the few freelancers able to support his family. A 1955 Time article estimated that out of the thousands who attempted to make a career in freelancing for magazines, only 70 or 80 managed a yearly salary of $10,000. When Martin hit his stride writing stories for true-crime detective magazines, he churned out a million words a year, selling many at two cents a word. By 1957 Newsweek cited Martin as one of the nation’s highest paid freelance writers, estimating his income at $32,000 in a good year.

“I like everything about free-lancing,” said Martin, “with the exception of the lack of security. Sometimes it’s four to six months between checks, and that creates problems for my grocer and everybody else.”

In his writing for magazines, Martin produced long, detailed drafts of his articles in a downstairs bedroom he converted into his workroom at his Victorian home in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, and at a cabin retreat he owned on Smith Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But when asked where he was from, Martin always said, “I’m from Chicago,” a city that often exasperated him but for which he never lost his affection. Although invited to join the East coast staffs of Life and the Saturday Evening Post on a full-time basis, Martin preferred to remain in the Midwest.

As a freelance writer (a profession he described as “champagne today, crackers and milk tomorrow”), staying in the area he knew well gave him an advantage. “The Midwest was where things happened, it was, almost, the locomotive of America,” Martin said. “And I as a writer almost had it all to myself, while in New York little happened and writers were scrambling all over each other.”

In March 1959 Martin received a letter from Jack Fisher, editor in chief at Harper’s, asking him for an article about the freelancing trade and his career. Martin declined the offer as he had other commitments, but the idea spurred him to jot down tips for those daring enough to embark on a career as a writer for hire. His tips included:

Keep away—but not too far away—from liquor, women, and politics.

Sit down in front of a typewriter and stay there.

Do not talk; listen.

Write only about things you love or detest; about nothing toward which you are indifferent.

Keep a schedule—any schedule.

Rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite.

Give yourself enough time.

Be sure.

Remember that the subject is everything, the writer nothing. Avoid the I. The subject, not you, matters.

You must believe what you write. And write what you believe. And write nothing else.

Keep a couple of ideas ahead so when an editor proposes a bad one you can counter with a good one of your own.

Writing gets harder, and so does legwork. Why? Because you see more. When younger, you see more clearly because you see less. When older, you see more and things become less clear—the man who 20 years ago would have seem thoroughly evil is now seen to be human too after all, and this must be taken into account too.
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 written biographies on such notable Hoosiers as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, and May Wright Sewall. His book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog was published in 2015 by Indiana University Press. He is now working on a book about the World War II writing from the Pacific by Time and Life journalist Robert Sherrod.


  1. Ray E. Boomhower says

    In March 1976, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Paul McGrath interviewed writer and political speechwriter John Bartlow Martin about the recent release of his biography on Adlai Stevenson. While talking about the coverage of elections, Martin had this to say about those covering the races that year:

    “They’re all relying too much on the polls. Why don’t reporters go out and report? Reporters ought to be out in bars and union halls and places where people are and find out what they’re thinking instead of just taking Gallup’s word for what people think.”

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