Vintage WD: The Best Job on Earth

This 1958 WD article gives a behind the scenes look at the life of a magazine-editor-turned-freelance-writer, plus it offers insights into the gendered stereotypes of the day.
Author:
Publish date:

By Kirk Polking

Writer’s Digest December 1958

Kirk Polking Quote

Every morning for a year I have waked to a wonderful thought—this is my day. All mine. Is there any greater feeling?

There are very few jobs in this world where you are your own boss. Bartenders are. Bums are. Farmers are independent. But they may plan carefully and still be wiped out by a swarm of grasshoppers. For the writer, the world’s in the palm of his hand.

This gleam of freedom, this chance to make the world over my own way, was the thought that egged me on to take the plunge.

For six years I had been the circulation manager of The Farm Quarterly, a holiday-size magazine for the farmer who earns $10,000 a year or more. I was one of only three women in similar executive positions in the country, I had the daily ego boost of a retinue of employees, the flattery and attention of salesmen who wanted my business. Each day someone would help me do my job.

An envelope salesman drops in and wants to know what I’m going to do for an Xmas mailing this year. An editor tells me some fact that reveals to me a little more clearly what makes the farmer buy. Gently prodding, they all help me think creatively about my job; force me to accomplish something each day. I was doing a good job. I was appreciated. But it wasn’t enough. Honestly, hogs bored me.

Everyone wants the feeling of completeness about his work. In many jobs like the one I held, you are helped by many people whose own success depends partly on you. As a writer, your fate is yours alone. If you fail, no one else can be blamed. If you succeed, the glory’s all yours.

But can you work if no one puts a nickel in your slot and jogs you along to your duty? Will you keep a working schedule with nothing but your own sense of discipline for help? Will you get despondent with a rash of rejections and no one to compliment you? Why give up security for so uncertain, so lonely a job?

You already know my answer.

What Do I Need?

Well, then, what qualifications do I have to be a freelance writer? I have an inquisitiveness about the world and how it works. What makes a plant grow? How does a dam work? What makes a human being laugh? Where is the 20th Century’s universal man?

Curiosity then, about things and ideas was a start. Next problem was whether I could write. For some magazines, yes. But not well enough for others. As a teenager, I had been crushed when my submissions to The New Yorker were returned with a speed beyond the wildest dreams of Postmaster Summerfield. My metier, then were Sunday school magazines and Sunday newspaper articles like “I am a Teenage Animal Tamer!”

From such beginnings then, to basically the same article on an adult level (“My Business Is Going to Pot”—about a young vet who built a successful business with artificial plants) I sold, on my spare time, articles to various trade journals and how-to-do-it-magazines. My income from these ventures over the years had been a little over $2,000. I was confident that if I quit my job I could find ideas and places to sell twice that much a year!

OK then, let’s get down to business. How much money will it take to indulge this private dream?

I shared a basement apartment with a friend; liked good food and drink. I wanted enough clothes to be dressed tastefully even if not in the latest fashion. I could count on local males for some entertainment; would have to buy some of my own. I needed my car for trips and local interviews.

My estimated expenses for 1 year of freelancing: 

Rent: (Half of a shared apartment) ………………... $360.00 

Telephone (excluding special long distance).….… 40.00 

Food ……………………………..…… 390.00 

Car expenses ……………………… 400.00 

Insurance ………………………..…… 75.00 

Stationery ………………....………… 35.00 

Stamps ………………………………… 35.00 

Newspaper, magazine subscription ………………….. 75.00 

Photo supplies …………………… 100.00 

Clothes, miscellaneous ……..…. 50.00 

Entertainment ……………………… 

Total ……………..… $1,735.00

Like most budgets, this one forgot a few things, too. My car, a 1949 Chevrolet my teenage nephew calls “the green beetle,” sprung a few gaskets, requiring some unexpected expenses that amounted to $89.93. I discovered I needed a better light over my desk. My roommate decided we needed some new drapes. I had a bout with the flu which meant a doctor and drug-store bill. After a busy career with people, I found that being alone all day every day made me want to entertain more in the evening. That meant the food and liquor bills went up. The microphone on my tape recorder went bad. That’s $2.50 more. I missed my estimate by some $232.00. So much for the red side of the ledger.

First Year Income

Since I had previously been successful in selling short bits to Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated, this field was naturally my first choice. The pay is a minimum of 10 cents a word—much better than one or two penny trade-journal markets. I watched the local newspapers, subscribed to the Sunday sections of the leading papers in two big cities nearby for leads of this type. Two examples of the 1-pagers I sold to Popular Mechanics are:

“T.V. M.D.” a picture story about a steeple-jack whose job it is to make repairs and adjustments at the tops of 1,000-ft. TV towers. “Autoboat,” the invention of a local Procter and Gamble executive. This is a catamaran that he can drive down the river or on a lake by hooking up to the driveshaft of his Packard. When he’s ready to come ashore, he beaches the craft, folds up the catamaran and drives away.

Since I could write easiest about things I knew, I drew on my business background to make some sales to Management Methods. One short article described a “Suggestive Selling” gimmick of nearby National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio. Another showed the way various industries use aromatic chemicals to help sell their products (“Sell with Smell”).

Because the area in which I live has a number of manufacturers in the porcelain enamel and pottery fields, I garnered news items, photos, and special product information from these firms for the trade magazine of this field, Ceramic Industry.

I learned how to sell everything but the pig’s squeal from the same story idea. A pharmaceutical magazine which bought a story of mine about a pet cemetery only used two from a series of some 24 pictures I had made to illustrate the 1,800-word article. I put together a picture series with fat captions and sold it to the rotogravure magazine section of the local Sunday paper, which had recently improved its pay schedule to encourage freelance submissions. A color transparency of the cemetery’s overall view with carloads of Sunday visitors I submitted to the “Interesting Places” section of the Chevrolet magazine, Friends.

Now, as you can see, most of these ideas are strictly reporting jobs of picture stories with a little descriptive copy. Not much creative thinking.

But I was thinking, too. In my new-found solitude away from a business office, I had been doing a lot of reading that I had always put off before. This sparked some article ideas that with extensive research and an angle I thought were possible for a top national magazine. I spent a great deal of time reading background material, interviewing in some cases and drafting what I thought were brilliant query letters. These pieces are still unsold. I don’t know if the ideas were bad, or if I am just caught in a web of editorial circumstances. (*See the end of this article for editorial feedback on these ideas.) I’d like to name three of them here.

Here they are:

1. “Are You Accident Prone?” After interviewing two accident specialists, and reading the scientific papers of a dozen others, I constructed a popularly written true-false quiz containing established facts on the subject.

2. “What Makes a Successful President?” If we grant that no president can at once be an able administrator and a manipulator of men, a voice of the people and a man aware of his moral responsibilities, a leader of practical legislation and a world symbol; then which qualities are most important in the long run for the welfare of the nation and the world? Cornell University’s Clinton Rossiter points out that Lincoln was a shabby administrator, but a great leader of public opinion; that Hoover is a much abler man than he was a present; that Jackson was truculent and a demagogue, but a man who stamped the presidential office with a new independence and authority.

I proposed to ask 10 leaders in various fields for their opinion on the two or three qualities that they think are the most important for a president to have and to name the man they felt was our most successful president. To avoid politicking or embarrassment, and because Mr. Eisenhower is still in the middle of a term of office, I would ask that he be excluded from evaluation. I realized that I would have to query 100 big names (even with the “in” of an assignment from a top magazine) to get 10 replies that I could use.

3. “The Loot They Leave Behind.” Each year a forgetful public leaves thousands of big, little, funny, and important personal items on trains, planes, busses, and in their respective terminals. In 1957, American Airlines alone picked up $1 million worth on its equipment. Most of it is claimed or returned without difficulty. In other cases, the human dramas make interesting anecdotes. I queried every major carrier for reference material for this article. The article would carry a thumbnail reference to the general rules most carriers have for how long they will hold merchandise, who gets it when it is unclaimed.

This effort for a $1,000 sale failed. No one wanted these three articles. Wasted time: one month.

I was not setting any fires in top magazine editor’s chairs. Grimly, I returned to the bread-and-butter markets. The local newspaper was the starting point.

I saw an announcement that a local hospital was going to have a Youth Day where 170 high-school boys and girls would help run the hospital for one day in a job of their choice. I spent the day there taking pictures; sold the story to a hospital magazine.

I watch a Sunday afternoon polo match, discovered one of the players was a veterinarian who was the local race track vet and a specialist in horse surgery. I sold the story to a veterinarian’s magazine.

I spent hours going through the Writer’s Market, Writer’s Yearbook, Gebbie’s House Organ Directory; issues of the Digest, just to keep myself aware of the large variety of magazines published and to spot possible markets for which I could quickly and easily solicit material.

A Ford Motor Co. house organ said they were looking for pictures with fat captions of Ford trucks used for unusual purposes. I sent a photo of my veterinarian’s Ford F-100 ½-ton truck which he had compartmentalized for his veterinary supplies and surgical equipment. I called local Ford dealers for leads on other unusual buyers of Ford trucks. Ditto Dodge and GMC.

My veterinarian had a Motorola short-wave radio communications set-up in his truck. I wrote to Motorola’s house organ with a photo of the vet using his set; queried a local service agency for mobile communications equipment to learn if there were any other sets in town being used in a unique way.

Mundane?

Yes.

Four cents a word?

Yes. And, I kept telling myself, I became a little more adept with each sale.

There are other leads a new freelancer can follow up. Although most of the fraternal organizations—Elks, Lions, Rotarians, Legionnaires—have a club secretary who sends local news to their national magazine editor, there are often hidden stories in individuals who happen incidentally to be an Elk and have accomplished something special. If being an Elk helped them, so much the better. A little digging will uncover these.

Sending a letter to the President of each of these organizations paves the way for your later follow-up calls. The same procedure is good to use for other organizations which offer possibilities for trade articles. The successful merchandising of trade journal information was ably covered by Robert Latimer in Writer’s Digest, for August, 1958, so I won’t go into it here except to say that if you work hard at it the income is there as he showed. But I don’t really want to work hard at that kind of article. I’ll do it to learn but not as a career.

What Is My Goal?

I want to learn to write clearly, entertainingly, and with honesty. There is a simple way to say everything. I want to find it. Reading is one of the few civilizing pleasures left. I don’t want to help kill it by writing that forces readers elsewhere. But I don’t want to turn a clever Time-like phrase at the expense of truth.

I would like to write fiction that would make the reader’s heart beat a little faster, his understanding a little deeper, his faith in his own powers a little stronger. But this is beyond me. Desire and ability pass each other every day without ever meeting. I don’t know how to tell a good, moving story.

But with reasonable intelligence and persistence I think anyone can become a good freelance magazine article writer. I want to tell the top nonfiction markets.

Among Writer’s Digest readers, I imagine, are many persons like myself who find no trouble hitting the medium markets but fall short of Harper’s or The New Yorker or Sports Illustrated. Why?

I asked one of the editors who was paying me five cents a word for trade-paper interviews what he thought of my style.

The answer, like vodka, left me breathless, and I pass it on. Perhaps you can apply it. He said:

“You’re logical all right, and that’s what you concentrate on. To the creative writer, the logic of the piece, the story line, if you please, flows easily out of him. As he sits at his typewriter, or lies on a couch thinking up his next sentence, his mind spins off to those unique and original words and expressions that always simmer within him and now, must yes absolutely must, find their way on to paper.

“There are a whole host of writer’s words—words that in a million years would never appear in a letter from a reader of Modern Romances to Henry Malmgreen, or in the average office typist’s letter if she were asked to do one herself.

“These words are part of all our reading vocabulary and we respond to them, but the point is these words are part of the writing vocabulary of a creative writer.

“I do not suggest that you can step up the octane rating of a story by substituting such words for routine ones after the story is written. Rather I mean that the creative writer is something like a baseball infielder with one runner on base and no one out. He constantly things about a double play. It’s there, uppermost in his mind. So with the creative writer. The better word, the right word. Is inside him all the time champing at the bit to be used. You know the words I mean here are five: indelible, patiently, seer, cunning, floatilla.

“And, too, the creative writer is a killer. He wants to knock the reader out and he doesn’t care too much who suffers. It’s not only the reader he’s after, but a character or a person or an idea. But there he is, club in hand, lurking for the kill.”

I’m not sure yet if he told me off, or just told me.

Some of the Problems

With a year’s experience as a freelancer behind me, I have learned some of my weaknesses. I don’t work hard enough. A friend calls you and says, “Since you’re not working now, how about a game of tennis this afternoon.” Your family calls and says, “If you don’t have anything real important to do this afternoon, would you run me over to see Uncle Joe in the hospital.”

And because you’re a human being, sometimes you just like to sit in a park.

That’s all right. It’s one of the reasons you quit a regular job. But unless you have an independent source of income, you can’t do it long.

I had to make several rules to assure myself of an income exceeding my expense; and to develop as a writer as well as a person:

1. I will get up every morning at 7:30 and be at work no later than 9:00.

2. Each day, something must go in the mail.

3. Each week I will write at least 1,000 word just to improve my style and facility.

4. Because pictures are so important to many articles and they add to the writer’s income I will learn to improve my photography.

5. To organize my time, I will line up interviews on the same day, library research on another, and telephone calls another, so I can writer uninterruptedly for longer periods.

6. I will get some exercise each day if only a walk—to keep healthy and get a change of pace from mental work.

7. Since I no longer have the social contact of an office, I will find other ways of meeting people, cultivating friends outside “the trade.

There is one other bonus in my new job. I have become more womanly. As a business executive I acquired a clipped telephone voice. I gave orders and they were filled. Some of these traits slipped over into my social life. They are not ones that men appreciate.

As a freelance writer working from home, I am more relaxed, have become a creative cook and in general a more simpatico companion. Every new good-looking guy I meet wants to come over and make love in the afternoon!

At the end of this first year, I am not so cocky but still confident. I sent out 182 article ideas to some 65 magazines; saw, 19 accepted and paid for. My income for the year was $2,062. After deducting my regular expenses and special traveling expenses, I had to take $616 from my savings. This is half the sum I’d been saving as a career girl while enjoying new clothes whenever I felt like it, cream in my coffee instead of half and half, and a basketful of minor luxuries that I took for granted. You don’t become a career girl easily. You start as a typist. Form letters, Billing. When I started, $50 a week was good pay. By the time you double your original wage, you’ve learned there’s another difference between men and women. In careers, men get five to ten thousand more for the same job, the same work. They have families, children, education to pay for. You are a career girl and the job itself is supposed to be part of the reward.

As a freelance writer, you earn equal pay for equal work. Nobody cares how old you are, where you live, or a whit about your personal life. You are what you are because of what you produce. White or black, man or woman, it is the creativity you produce that fetches both buyer and price.

I now admit I am not ready for the $1,000 sale. I will have to spend a little more time in the lower pay markets; continue to dig ideas of national interest and learn to write well enough for the bigger magazines.

I know I can do it. Any salesman can tell you if you knock on enough doors you will be a success. Freelance article writing is no different. I like that feeling of freedom I have when I wake up in the morning. I don’t want to prove that John D. Rockefeller was right when he said most people don’t know what to do with it. It takes most new businesses more than a year to get a good start. To me, that $616 loss for the first year is an inexpensive ticket to the most wonderful and exciting year of my life. 1959 is the year I get over the hump. Watch me.

_______________________________________________________

* C.B. Roberts, article editor for This Week, after reading these three queries from Miss Polking, commented to us:

“Yes, her queries do make sense to me. We have used an article on lost and found—it is a pretty standard subject, I believe. We also ran a piece by Eugene Burdick, the sociologist, on what makes a successful President. I have seen queries on accident proneness, too, but never a good quiz on the subject.

“It becomes evident that there are a good many more reasons for turning down a suggestion than the single one of not liking it. We have had something somewhat similar, or we may have, for example, just too many quizzes on hand to encourage another. The fact that freelance writers can overcome such obstacles earns my unfailing admiration.”

Harriet La Barre, associate editor of Cosmopolitan, commenting on the same queries says:

“I’m writing in reply to your wire to our editor, John O’Connell, re the three queries by Kirk Polking, all of which we feel fall short: The first query falls short because the questionnaire simply establishes a fact and goes no further. The second poses a question that is merely academic, and the third, since the subject isn’t basically exciting, would depend largely on the anecdotes which would have to be excellent. In this last case, the writer would have to offer more than simply a query.”

Learn more about Kirk Polking, who eventually became editor-in-chief of Writer's Digest here.

Pitch your writing for the most success in today's marketplace with this Writer's Digest University online course.

Pitch your writing for the most success in today's marketplace with this Writer's Digest University online course.