Academia and Ghostwriting Don’t Mix, Part 2

Back in 2005, I wrote a long post about why I won’t ghostwrite student essays. I will—the professor permitting—help graduate students with editing and formatting theses for readability and conformity to style guides, and I will help academics revise their theses for publication as books. I don’t get that much call to do this, in part, I suspect, because of the very marginal salaries paid to academics and the comparatively high fees I charge. (And the better university presses may still have enough editorial staff available to provide support for their authors.)

I’m also talking to my colleague Max Hansen about helping entrepreneurs write articles for business journals. He has done this before with some success. Most of these journals are published by academic institutions, but the people we would be working for are not academics. If they were, they wouldn’t need help to be able to write in an academic style. Instead, they’re real-world experts who want to share their hands-on knowledge with an academic audience. They don’t need ghostwriters to be their brains, only to be their interpreters.

Researchers within the academy can no doubt benefit from good editors—many write jargon impenetrable even to their peers—but the condition of promotion in an academic job is the production and publication of original research. Original. As in, you do it yourself. Depending on your field, you might actually be doing it with a team of junior assistants, but at the very least you are directing that team.

I was trained as a classical philologist. That means I studied Greek and Latin language and literature. It’s not a discipline that accepts multi-authored papers for considerations of tenure. You and the primary sources and the secondary literature to which you are attempting to add have to sit down and wrestle your way to a new and preferably useful perspective on works more than 2000 years old. This can on occasion be a tiny bit challenging, so philologists seize eagerly on every fad in literary criticism—usually about 10 years after the English department has declared it passé. I thought I had a pretty good angle, myself (examining Greek and Roman drama through the lens of modern performance), but had to leave the profession about ten years ago with my dissertation unfinished and my hypotheses unproven.

Academia is a tough row to hoe. Entry-level jobs set assistant professors Sisyphean tasks: they are supposed to simultaneously teach, publish, and do committee work. Even if they do all of this and have respectable peer-reviewed journal articles and a monograph by the time they’ve made it through six years, the university may decide to deny them tenure so it can hire someone cheaper rather than promoting them, and they’ll have to leave and start over somewhere else. That’s if a newly-minted PhD can get a job in the first place, of course. Small surprise that I know an English PhD working for a web design firm, a Latinist at ILM, and a Greek scholar building Lotus applications.

Today I received an offer of work from a desperate young philologist whose name I won’t mention in the hopes that this person will see sense and opt out of career self-immolation. Let’s call this person “Ou Tis.” (Classics joke. If you don’t get it, read the Cyclops scene in the Odyssey.) Due to extreme pressure to publish, Ou Tis wanted to hire me to write articles for peer-reviewed journals, and eventually a book. Because of my background, Ou Tis thought I would be qualified to produce work of sufficient quality.

Never mind the fact that I left academia in 1998 and am decidedly behind on current scholarship. I do live near an excellent research library. I could, in theory, catch up.

But I won’t.

First, I respect my former colleagues far too much to help someone I don’t even know get out  of doing the work they had to do in order to get ahead in the profession.

Second, though I think there are real problems with the tenure system and the expectations placed on junior faculty, cheating is not the way to fix it.

Third, I can pretty much guarantee that Ou Tis doesn’t make in a year what it would cost to have me write an academic book, and it’s not as though the publisher is going to provide a huge advance. (The retail price of academic books is shocking, in part because print runs are so small, and in part because of the cost of photo permissions and other copyright clearances. Scholars do not get rich publishing books for other scholars.) So it’s not as though Ou Tis can even offer me a fee of a size that would provide me with an ethical dilemma.

Read my lips, folks. No medical ghostwriting. No academic ghostwriting. There are times when you have to do your own work.

If you want help popularizing that original research, now—then we can talk.

Academia and Ghostwriting Don’t Mix

Every time I look at the writing gigs listed on Craigslist, I see headlines like the following:

  • Publicity & Rewards For AMAZING Admission Essays & Personal Statements
  • Model Essay Writers Needed
  • Individuals Needed to Help Students Write and Edit Essays
  • Do You Love School and Writing?
  • Looking for help on writing essays for business school applications

And those are just the ones from the essay factories. The ads posted by students are even less subtle: “Were you a straight-A student?” or “Write my college paper.” To add insult to injury, the students usually want the paper written overnight for little or no pay.

Selling student essays is big business, and the Internet makes cheating of this kind simple for both buyer and seller. Not that it was by any means impossible for students to cheat before the advent of the World Wide Web, but they’re no longer limited to their own classmates as sources of better writing skills.

Craigslist being what it is, a number of people have posted responses to these ads blasting the would-be cheater. (The lower the amount of money offered, the more forceful the response.) Yet someone presumably responds to them often enough to make it worthwhile for the repeat posters.

The Professor’s Perspective

I work as a ghostwriter. In most cases, I’m perfectly happy to write something that someone else gets credit for as long as I receive appropriate payment in exchange for my work.

Before I was a ghostwriter, however, I was a career scholar and a university instructor. That’s why, no matter how good the pay, I won’t write essays for students.

I can be fairly confident that my own students never paid someone else to write their essays—or at least, if they did, they didn’t get their money’s worth. (Or their beer and pizza’s worth, for that matter.) For one thing, the overall style and quality of the typed or printed papers they handed in matched the style and quality of the essays they wrote on exams where I and others were watching them. For another thing, whenever I had the option, I asked students to choose their own subjects. At the very least I would create a list of several possible themes, each specific enough that it would be difficult to find an already-written paper on the topic available for sale. And since the texts covered and the essay topics differed from year to year, students couldn’t sell successful essays. (It would in any case be a very foolish student who tried to re-use an essay from the previous year’s class of 15 people.)

I did once create a sample essay, however. This was when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, and after seeing some of the essays handed in by Classical Civilization 101 students, I realized that many of them, even the bright ones, knew very little about how to write this kind of a paper. So I wrote my own essay on the same topic they’d all been assigned and gave it to them—as well as to the professor I was working under and the other teaching assistants. In retrospect, it probably depressed them as much as it helped them, but there’s no way any of the professors would have believed it was actually written by a freshman.

College instructors are not stupid. If a student performs poorly in class and on exams but hands in a flawless essay, it’s going to look suspicious. And getting caught cheating is the fastest way to fail a course completely. You might get away with it at the time, but you’d better hope you never run for office, because someone will dig it up and use it to discredit you.

Why Students Need to Write for Themselves

In business, the purpose of writing is to communicate: internally, with vendors, and with customers. The important thing is the message. If a professional writer can convey that message more clearly than the CEO, then the CEO should hire a professional writer. Professional writers can also help experts get their hard-earned knowledge out to a wider audience.

In academia, the purpose of writing assignments is to help students learn about a subject and develop their critical thinking as well as their writing skills. A consultant who hires a ghostwriter to help with creating a business book already knows the material and can probably express his or her main points clearly when speaking. A student who asks someone else to write a term paper doesn’t know the material, or what to say about it, or how to say it.

Undergraduate essays rarely tell their readers anything new, at least as regards the facts. (They do sometimes include very creative interpretations of literature, however.) Their professors (or teaching assistants) aren’t reading these essays for their own edification. They want to know whether the students have understood the material and can synthesize it in support of an argument.

Twenty-page term papers are not intended to be instruments of torture. I always tried to make the topics I offered students interesting and to give them the opportunity to pick subjects they wanted to know more about. It’s true that some instructors assign the same reading materials and essentially the same essay topics year after year, but even the more obvious “Compare and contrast these two characters” essays serve a pedagogical purpose.

In order to produce a satisfactory essay, the student has to read the material closely, think about it, create a thesis, and provide supporting arguments and evidence for that thesis, perhaps reading and quoting from secondary literature as well. In doing so, students develop skills they need throughout their lives. By avoiding the work of writing the essays, the cheaters are pouring their tuition money down the drain. The purpose of going to college is not to get high grades, or even to get a degree. It’s to learn.

The penalties for an honest but unsuccessful attempt are lower in college than they are anywhere else. If you screw up your first term paper, you have a chance to make up for it with the next one. You might even be able to do an extra-credit assignment and come out of the course with a good grade after all. If you screw up on the job, there are at least a dozen people waiting to replace you, and you’d better have a compelling reason why your boss shouldn’t fire you for incompetence and hire one of them. Having someone else write your school papers isn’t just dishonest. It’s wasting the opportunity of a lifetime.

Getting Help with Academic Writing

So what avenues are open to students who know their writing isn’t up to their instructors’ standards? Rather than having someone else do the writing, look for help in improving your own writing. Take classes in English composition. Read books like The Elements of Style. Pay careful attention to the comments and suggestions you get on your term papers and exams. And ask the people who are already there to help you, paid for out of your tuition fees.

Professors (or at least their teaching assistants) should be available to provide you feedback on a first draft of an essay before you hand in the final version. If your professor doesn’t do this, check to find out whether there are any student-run services to help with term papers. (When I was a student, they were called Writing Fellows, and the application process to become one was quite competitive.)

U.C. Berkeley, for instance, has an Academic Achievement Program for students from low-income families who are the first generation to go to college, in addition to the Student Learning Center writing program which offers drop-in and scheduled tutoring as well as writing workshops.

If you are dyslexic, disabled, or not a native speaker of English, check with the programs for disabled students or international students. Universities will provide special accommodations (e.g. a quiet test-taking environment or extra time to complete an examination) for students with learning disabilities, psychological disabilities, and AD/HD, as well as assistive technology for those with physical disabilities.

Earning a B+ is a much greater achievement than buying an A+, and the value of it will last you far longer. Even if you pay someone else to write every word that comes out of you after you graduate, do your own writing while you’re in school. You’ll be glad you did.