Catherine Quinn


Catherine is a freelance journalist who graduated in BA and MA English before becoming a full time writer. She now supplies travel, health and employment features to a large variety of national publications and is a published author on the subject of freelance writing.

What is your current occupation?

I’m a freelance journalist, covering travel, health, food and employment. I’m fortunate enough to write for all of the national broadsheet newspapers and a stack of magazines besides, and I’ve also just had a book published on the subject of freelance writing.

What did you study at Leeds?

I wanted to study English and Leeds wanted some of the highest grades, so I figured that meant that had the best department! Luckily I was right, and the English department at Leeds is genuinely incredible – something I only fully realise now I’ve done degrees at other institutions.

I also loved the way the campus was bound into the city centre, rather than being tucked away in its own little unit.

Tell us a little bit about your company and your role within it.

I’m self employed which ironically means I probably work harder than I would if I were on staff for a newspaper. My role is freelance feature writing, so I pitch ideas to newspapers to magazines, the ones they like they buy and then I write them up. It can be a fairly exciting job, particularly as travel is an element. I found out this morning I’ll be in Canada in a few weeks, for example, just because an editor came through with a commission. But it’s also really hard work and plenty of responsibility.

How did you end up setting up your own business after leaving the University of Leeds?

I was lucky enough to win a scholarship place on an MA English course in Brighton, thanks at least in part to my wonderful tutors. I’d already started writing the odd freelance feature for The Guardian whilst I was an undergraduate at Leeds and doing the MA gave me another year of student-length holidays to really build up that business. By the end of my time at Brighton I was making more or less a working salary, although I took a few months living back with my parents because I was a bit worried I might not make enough to pay full rent, but eventually moved back to freelance full time.

Ten years from my first published article and I’ve finally been persuaded to rent an office in a big Brighton style collective building which is great fun.

What skills and attributes did you gain from your course?

A deep and enduring love of all things eighteenth-century. Working with Vivien and Robert Jones in the English department made me see history in a completely different way, and I have never been happier than I was in the Leeds University library reading their books with a clandestine cup of coffee snuck in disguised in a plastic water-bottle.

I also learned a lot of study techniques which I’m finding very useful now I’m taking yet another degree (nutrition this time).

What skills and attributes did you gain from your co-curricular activities? (eg clubs, societies, volunteering)

I joined the Leeds student newspaper which helped me pick up a few news desk skills, and I also helped out with the Green Society’s little shop which helped me to proactively understand how to grow business. All the bargain access to sports and yoga also gave me good habits which I’ve managed to keep.

How do you think the skills you gained from your course and other activities helped you when it came to setting up your own business?

This is a tricky one. I’m of the opinion that a degree is learning for learning’s sake, and that’s what makes it such a wonderful experience. When you start looking for vocational things in a degree course I think you’re missing the point – why not just learn a trade?

So maybe I learned to be opinionated..! Undoubtedly I also honed essay writing skills, which theoretically at least probably have some relevance to writing newspaper articles, although they’re a bit of a different discipline.

Funnily enough I’ve only ever managed to sell one article on the basis of my degree. It was on masquerade balls and went as a cover piece in BBC History Magazine the year after I graduated. I remember my Dad proudly telling the woman in Tescos as he bought it “that’s my daughter!”

Looking back, are there any gaps in your skills set that you could have filled while at university?

Lots I imagine. Currently a background in research science would come in handy. I was and still am desperately bad at punctuality, and I would have liked to address that if only out of courtesy to the people I kept waiting.

What would you say were your main achievements at university (both within and outside your course) and how did these influence where you are now?

I got a first which I was very proud of, but I think more than the first I always felt very privileged to have the chance to give original insights on literature. Getting published in my third year was great, and I’m sure that great feeling of pitching an idea and winning the commission still keeps me going now when my job gets tough. Earning the scholarship for the MA was also a spectacularly happy moment.

My other huge achievements would be some of the friends I made who I still see at least a couple of times a month even now (more when they come down to Brighton!)

What advice would you have for students studying today?

A few things. Enjoy the amazing facilities of your course and really appreciate the money being lavished on you. It may seem as though you’re paying for your degree with fees, but you’re not, not by a long way, so enjoy the privileges of our hugely wealthy country and look on the bright side if you feel things aren’t perfect.