I first met Jessica Montague when I was an intern at madison, and even after I left I followed her career as she progressed from editorial coordinator, to production, features writer, and finally the Features Associate, which saw her oversee plenty of the magazine’s editorial content. I was devastated when the magazine closed, but was glad to watch Jessica resurrect her writing career and transition into freelancing. Read about how she did it below.
After spending the majority of your magazine feature-writing career working on a title, how does it feel now to freelance?
I’m optimistic. It’s been two months and I’ve already done so much – and more importantly, enjoyed myself so much. Naturally, I was devastated when madison closed, but I consider myself a bit of an optimist so started my freelance career the Monday after we wrapped up. I’m really glad I did this instead of giving myself a forced holiday. I just kinda thought, “If you’re going to give it a crack, give it your best go.” Initially I said I’d give myself two months working freelance as a “trial”, but I’m loving it so much I think I’ll be sticking with it for a while.
Do you feel like you have to work a little harder to get your work out there to editors who you’re not liaising with in a working environment every day? That is, is it more of a struggle to sell a story because you’re not in a features meeting?
I don’t think it’s harder, but I definitely think you have to be more savvy and selective. Quality definitely rules over quantity. There is absolutely no point sending through five story ideas when deep down you know only one has legs. Features editors are time poor – whether you’re emailing them or speaking to them in person. I also think you have to have the confidence to back yourself. In terms of features meetings, when I used to hold them at madison, it didn’t matter if my team brought 10 ideas to the table or just one – as long they were passionate and believed in what they wanted to write. So I guess in a roundabout what I’m trying to say is a story has potential it’s going to get published either way (but writing a good pitch definitely helps).
What are you loving and loathing about freelancing?
I love the flexibility and the balance that working from home allows me. I’m a morning person, so I start my day off at 7am and finish about 4pm – and possibly head to yoga in the middle of the day. I am also pleasantly surprised how productive I am. When you don’t have people interrupting you every five minutes, it’s amazing how much work you can get done. There’s nothing I really loathe (except perhaps that my all my high heels are sitting in boxes in my laundry). The thing that has been a challenge though is not having people around to constantly bounce ideas off. For this reason, my colleague from madison (Fiona MacDonald) comes over every Thursday and we work together – sometimes collaboratively editing each other’s work or brainstorming ideas. We loved working side-by-side at madison so we decided to continue the dynamic.
You left mags a little bit for a stint in PR. What were the similarities and differences on ‘the other side’?
I did. I left mags when I was 26 because I was so burnt out. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep writing so thought I’d give PR a shot for a while. PR and mags are like yin and yang; I think it should be compulsory for everyone to do a year in the others’ shoes! While they’re not the same, there are elements that apply to both – like knowing strong news values, good talent etc. The differences, on the flip side are more varied (mainly when it delves into the marketing side of things). But in saying that, the skills I developed in PR have put me in good stead for current projects. Especially when I’m next to girls who’ve only ever worked in editorial and never dealt with clients or people on a corporate level.
What ended up making you want to return to magazines?
I missed writing. After 12 months in PR, I learned I was good at it, but didn’t enjoy it as much as tapping away at my keyboard. I found myself wanting to write some freelance and the passion flooded back from there.
You’ve spent the majority of your writing career at madison. While plenty of Australian readers like me were devastated at the announcement to close it, you would no doubt have felt it a little more, having started out as the editorial coordinator and working your way up to Features Associate. What do you miss most about madison?
Two things: the team and the content. Unlike many other magazines, the madison team was very close and extremely supportive. Those last six months were hell in terms of what we had to produce on such little budget, so in that time we all just stuck together and soldiered on. I don’t think anyone outside those walls knew what we were up against and we became so much closer in the face of it. In regards to the content, that last issue made me so proud because of the quality of stories in there. I was so lucky to have two award-winning journalists on my team (Clair Weaver and Fiona MacDonald), and their stories in the last issue were just amazing. They were local and they were relevant. I hope I had something to do with encouraging them to push the boundaries and “aim high”*
*That was our features motto. It later became “Aim high and get excited” because Fiona always gushed how excited she was about stories, so it kinda stuck.
I’m loving your gorgeous new website. Do you think it’s important for writers these days to have a web presence or portfolio?
I think so. If anything it’s just easier to have all your pdfs in one place. Gone are the days of lugging round a portfolio. You also have to think as yourself as a “business” and your website has to naturally reflect the values of your company.
What has been the biggest adjustment to working from home? Do you have a routine? Are you easily distracted? Do you work in your PJs or ‘dress for work’?
I’m a control-freak so I’m very structured. I’m currently working on a contract at News Life Media for two months, but when I’m at home I love routine. I work best in the mornings, so I try and churn as much as I can before the afternoon when I suffer a slump. I currently vary my outfit between sports clothes or the glamorous ensemble of track pants and a polar fleece top (can’t believe I’m confessing this!). One time Fiona and I were so cold on a Thursday, we got up on our matching polar fleece tops and did some on-the-spot aerobics. It’s a glamorous biz this freelancing.
What are some of your writing goals? Or projects that you now have more time to turn your attention to?
Probably my current project – I’m editing my first magazine: Pink. It’s the official magazine for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. This year it’s going to be a 68-page online doozie (with interactive features) linked to body+soul. I really want my first mag to be beautiful to look at but more importantly, inspiring to read.
Ten in the Hot Seat:
- Describe yourself in one word: Tenacious. I am not the most talented writer but I’ll always give something a go and try my best.
- Biggest accomplishment to date: Project managing this year’s 100 Inspiring Australian Women feature story for the 100th (and final) issue of madison.
- You wish you wrote: Half the stuff I read on Daily Life.
- Can’t leave home without: My iPhone – but purely for music. I’m the person who bops while they’re waiting for the lights to change.
- One thing you are currently writing: An update on online dating trends, comparing where Australian were five years ago to now.
- First thing you wrote: A real-life piece for Dolly when I was at uni (naturally, it was for free).
- Addicted to reading: Anna Karenina, but that’s only because it’s been on my bedside table for six months and I’ve still got 200 pages to go. Otherwise, anything by Anna Funder.
- Top spot on your goals list: To become a strong, intelligent editorial leader for either a print or online publication.
- If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: I’d like to think I have a little Julia Flyte in me…and that if I had lived in that era I’d have a bit of her gumption.
- The best thing about being a wordsmith: It’s challenging but at the same time makes me so incredibly happy. There’s never a day I don’t want to go to work.