Making one's living as a professional academic writer can seem utterly glamorous from the outside. I've had more people than I can count tell me, upon learning what I do for a living, how lucky I am. They ask how they can get involved and find work as a professional freelancer, and imagine how enjoyable it would be to work from home, learn about all sorts of things, get to write about them, and make decent money in the process. Yet when I explain to them how they can find work, and give them sure-fire referrals and tips for being successful in this business, 99 times out of 100 it comes to nothing.
Why? Well, because this is a job like any other job. When people romanticize anything, they tend to lose the spark pretty fast when reality sets in. I certainly love this work, as do thousands of other professional freelance academic writers, but that's because I have never placed it on a pedestal and believed it was anything other than a job, with the pros and cons that come along with all jobs. Here's some of what I mean.
First, the good. I do get to work at home. Right now, I'm wearing stained jeans and a ratty tank top because Sunday mornings are my day to clean the parakeet cage. I'm also researching and writing a model paper that is due later this evening – in my ratty clothes, in my home office, looking out the window at a glorious New England morning. How lucky is that? It's also lucky that I was able to write that last sentence and then spend 45 minutes taking care of some emails and finding some articles, and you would never know it, other than I told you. That kind of flexibility with time is extremely lucky.
So how does the bad come in? Well, it's still a job after all. Writing is hard work! Locating and reading research materials takes serious brain power, particularly at the upper levels of study, and especially when timelines are short. Then, to take those materials and turn them into something readable, appropriate for the project, and in line with what the client needs and has requested – that's hard work as well. The bad category also includes such items as the difficulty inherent in finding new ways to say things you've said a million times before (e.g. finding a new spin on Othello, or figuring out new language to communicate the difference between qualitative and quantitative studies). It's possible – we do it all the time – but it can be hard. Such work can make the view out the window less a boon and a bit more like a tease.
And here we get to the ugly. The ugly comes, I believe, when a writer is in danger of burning out. Sometimes, writers do indeed burn out – sometimes they don't – but there is often that danger. Again, this is hard work – that is why most people who express interest in it fizzle out when they discover that. So, the ugly is about things like doing word counts after writing each sentence to see if you've met the goal yet. The ugly is about being a bit fast and loose with guarding against plagiarism. The ugly is about not caring too much if you make errors or use sloppy thinking in your work. The ugly comes when a client is rude to you and you respond exactly the way you would if you were not a professional.
I've never gotten to the ugly, but I've come close, and that's when I've employed a variety of tricks to make the work fresh again for me. Unfortunately, though, I've seen others embrace the ugly, and that's when I need to distance myself professionally from them and hope they find work elsewhere.
The main point is this. Professional academic writing is a job. Like all jobs, some parts are good, some are bad, and there's always the ugly lurking in the distance. But if this job is for you, then the good will far outweigh the rest.