Last May, Kate Morgan joined ASJA as a full professional member—just in time for the 2018 Annual Conference. Since then, as a result of a pitch slam, she snagged an assignment for Woman’s Day and is working on several other conference-cultivated leads as well. Along with doling out large doses of contagious enthusiasm about freelancing, Kate lets little, if any, grass grow under her feet. She graduated in 2012 with a degree in journalism from St. John’s University in New York City, and as a student, she served as an intern for Billboard and Rolling Stone. A freelancer since 2016, she’s gathered no moss but has acquired some impressive clips, including New York Mag’s Science of Us, CNN, USA Today, The Slate, The Washington Post, O Magazine and others. . She’s also done radio segments for the Transom Traveling Workshop and MIT’s Undark Podcast and currently lives in Pennsylvania.
Tell us a little bit about your “absolute beginning” as a writer.
The Billboard and Rolling Stone internships were incredible; I learned so much although my father couldn’t understand why I was not getting paid for my work! Part of it was luck and happenstance, meeting the right people and having the right conversations at the right time. After graduating college, I wanted to report hard news and work my way up. I thought I wanted to be a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. But I left New York City and instead was hired by a weekly newspaper in Princeton, NJ, where I wrote stories and took photos on just about everything that was going on in the community, which was a lot. It was pretty much trial by fire: after two years, I was feeling burned out and thinking about taking some time off.
How did you make the transition from full-time reporter to freelancer?
It didn’t happen right away. Instead, I ended up as a staff writer/editor for a regional magazine in south New Jersey, where I wrote hundreds of articles on a wide range of topics, from A-list celebrity profiles to holiday shopping guides. That was my first taste of being a generalist… and I loved it. While I’d taken some magazine courses in college, I hadn’t much passion for it, until I actually started writing features. It also helped that I had a wonderful editor-in-chief, an amazing mentor who provided constructive criticism and encouragement in all the right places. Looking back, that time helped provide the foundation for becoming a successful freelancer. Not only was it the kind of work you can only really learn by doing but it also provided the tools and research skills to help me write authoritatively on many topics.
What are some of the challenges you faced when you started freelancing?
I’m not going to lie…The first year was hard, especially financially. I felt like I was writing all the time but could never get a toehold, because I wasn’t landing anything big. I also felt insecure because I felt that my lack of national clips prevented me from querying bigger publications. Most of my income came from the regional magazine I’d just left.
Loneliness was another big issue. I knew nothing about ASJA and other writing organizations and online support groups. No one else around me was freelancing, so there no one to ask about invoicing or taxes. My family and boyfriend were incredibly supportive but I had just moved two hours away from my hometown. So there I was, home all day, everyday with just my thoughts and not enough work to keep me busy.
Then finally I got my first break, editing guidebooks for national parks. They were my first real client and I was actually managing a team of freelancers, one of whom became a close friend. The tide started to turn and I began to feel more confident. I was lucky that it lasted only about a year.
So many freelancers today are opting to write about a particular topic or are focusing on a single area, such as content writing. Why did you decide to become a more of generalist?
Many of my college professors were veteran newspaper titans who worked at The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, places like that. So they instilled traditional ideas in me, including the ability to recognize a good story idea when I see one, regardless of the topic. I also realized that I could write in variety of voices and tones, yet still retain my individuality. Writing is a lot like handwriting analysis; there are certain stylistic things you can’t change. Yet you can successfully write to different audiences.
Right now I’m covering science, health, food, travel and people but sometimes wonder if I should develop a niche. But after you’ve done things like hunting turkeys with an NFL player, digging for fossils with a paleontologist and hanging out with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, it’s kind of hard to try to fit that into a box.
What advice would you give to writers considering freelancing?
I’m starting to get more accustomed to the ebb and flow [of freelancing], so am less prone to panic when things slow down. I also do self-imposed deadlines, regardless of how busy I am. If I say, “Today I’m going to send five stories to five editors,” I won’t be wasting the time by binge-watching shows on Netflix. And every night I make a to-do list for the next morning. This prevents assignments from falling through the cracks and helps manage multiple deadlines.
The biggest thing, however, is meeting other writers and finding a community. This is where ASJA and online writer’s groups have been incredibly helpful. ASJA in particular is great about providing support and I can’t give them enough credit. It’s rare to find a group of professionals who are so willing to help each other, but by doing this we are also elevating our own careers. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all ships.