I’ve spent the past five and a half years as a professional ghostwriter of essays for college students. In that time I’ve written for business students, psychology students, nursing students, even theology students. Undermining the integrity of higher education may not be Bond-level villainy, but it is an interesting gig. Here are 6 things I’ve learned from it.
You Can (Sort of) Become an Expert on Anything
I’ve always been a bookworm, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that my B.A. in anthropology was only going to take me so far in writing about healthcare policy analysis, or clinical psychology, or negative pressure wound therapy. Writing about those things, I realized, would require significant research.
Now, from what I understand (it’s a little fuzzy after five and a half years), ordinary people are often intimidated by the research process. After all, a college paper is supposed to reflect hours of study and a thorough reading of the course material, right? Right?
Well, not so fast. What I learned was that with a can-do attitude, a full measure of gumption, and extensive consultation with Dr. Google, you can find everything you need to write practically any essay in very little time.
The conceptual hurdle you have to overcome is the idea that it takes an enormous investment of time and effort researching beforehand to write about, say, Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development, or modernization theory in the context of East Asia.
Here’s my research process for a typical assignment: first, I read the prompt to figure out what I’m being asked to do, and which keywords I need to pay attention to. Then I hit up Google Books, and sometimes the database EBSCOhost, for source material. I also use Google and Wikipedia to find definitions of any unfamiliar terms, and to find summaries of any complex ideas.
I really can’t stress enough how important keywords are to this process. In addition to using the keywords to retrieve useful sources, at least on Google Books I can also search for them within a given source. From there it’s just a matter of reading what I’ve found and writing the paper.
But isn’t reading scores if not hundreds of pages a drag? Well, that’s just it…
There’s a Cheat Code for Reading
When I first started out in the business, I spent a lot of time researching, reading, and note-taking. I used to pore over the pages, and I would produce whole documents of notes and relevant page numbers. Eventually, though, I learned how to do away with all of that, because I discovered a cheat code for reading.
You see, books and articles may take a certain number of pages and even whole chapters to explain this or that concept, but that doesn’t mean you have to read all of that material to find the “juicy bits” that you need to support your paper on, say, Hegel’s views of freedom and the state. Remember what I said about keywords? The right keywords can help you zero in on exactly the right part of a book.
This also gets into why I absolutely love textbooks: they frequently present material in a “predigested,” easy-to-access format. You don’t have to read the whole of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics if you can find a textbook that summarizes his views.
Of course, that still leaves the question of how to actually write on a topic you’ve only just sat down to research. The thing of it is, though…
It’s Surprisingly Easy to Improvise an Essay
When I say “improvise,” I mean you don’t have to actually sit through a whole class on, say, political science to write about the impact of the European Union on the individual citizen well enough for a typical assignment on the subject.
This is precisely why I designed my research process the way I did: I learned I needed to get to the right information quickly so that I could incorporate it into the paper. I’ve become adept at paraphrasing phrases and sentences from source material, often merely rewording them slightly and giving the appropriate citation.
The other bad habit I’ve picked up in my time doing this is “padding” my essays. I don’t do this as much anymore, but for a while I used a mixture of repetition, ponderous explanations, and boilerplate words and phrases to make my page counts.
You Can Write Like Mad if You Have To
How many pages can you write in an hour? I once wrote a 20-page paper in about three and a half hours. On another occasion I produced over 120 pages in a continuous span of perhaps thirty some-odd hours. It was two nights and a day of writing non-stop.
If you’re asking what kind of madness I was running on, the answer is desperation, and enough coffee to hospitalize a rhinoceros. My research methods helped me to find ways to write faster and with (comparatively) less effort, but writing enough pages to make a living from means writing a lot of essays.
I’ve found I still need “down time,” as in days where I don’t have to write 5-10 pages, but that in turn means more work on the days with longer page counts. Between needing time off and simply procrastinating, I’ve put myself in a lot of situations where I needed to crank out a lot of pages in a short period of time.
Granted, I’ve produced plenty of absolute dreck doing this, but I’ve also produced a lot of material that’s a great deal better. I’ve also had plenty of repeat clients. On the subject of the people I’ve been writing for…
Our Education System is Broken
Our institutions of higher learning have a big problem when it comes to student achievement. I’m aware of the irony of this statement, given everything I’ve done to contribute to that problem, but it’s true nonetheless (and hey, don’t shoot the messenger, even if you really want to).
With a lot of the people I’ve “helped” over the years, it’s fairly obvious why they wanted the services of someone like me: most of them were in well over their heads. Not only were they not up for the task of writing about, say, biological and social influences on gender differences between men and women, in many cases it has been apparent to me that their comprehension of the material was very poor.
I know, big shock: students who hire ghostwriters to do their essays aren’t the best and the brightest. All the same, it is the kind of thing that makes me ask “How the hell are some of these people getting into college in the first place?”
I’m not just talking about the admissions process, either. How is it that so many young people reach college age without acquiring the skills and the motivation they need to master new academic subjects and write essays?
I will say, though, that it’s not simply the American education system that’s at fault. Many of my clients have been foreign exchange students with obvious language barrier issues. Even beyond those language issues, though, it has been apparent to me that a number of them have not understood the material either.
But as cynical as this whole business is, and for all that I’ve seen of the ways in which higher education is not working, I’ve come away with the feeling that…
A Real Education is Priceless
One of the biggest reasons I not only entered this line of work but stayed with it for five and a half years is that I love learning. A lot of the credit for that has to go to my parents, who taught me at home for many years. One of the most important things they helped me to discover is the joy of learning more about the world.
In addition to the corner-cutting research I do for my essay-writing gig, I read a lot for fun. I’ve had a passion for history since… probably middle school, and since then I’ve also come to find political science and evolutionary biology consummately fascinating. I have an Amazon book-buying habit, and I usually read a few different books at any one time.
So ironically enough, helping students get out of their education has actually helped me to appreciate and deepen mine all the more. I’ve even purchased and read, or put on my never-ending Amazon wish list, books that were given as assigned readings for some of my essays.
I get that ethically speaking, my line of work is indefensible. I’m helping students to cheat, thus undermining the integrity of the whole academic system.
That said, if you’re feeling angry or embittered about the existence of people like me, I want to encourage you to channel those feelings somewhere productive: namely, stopping people like me. If you really want to beat the people like me, by which I mean an entire industry that exists to supply ghost-written essays, you’re going to have to teach students to value learning.
It’s elegantly simple in concept, though I realize it’s sooner said than done, but there it is: students who value their educations enough will be motivated to put in the work rather than hire someone to do it for them. I don’t think there are any silver bullets here, and I don’t have a lot of faith in the “policy initiatives” that seem to be our society’s inevitably-recurring answer to concerns about poor test scores and undereducated young people.
Obviously I’m no educator, but I suspect that solving this problem is going to require building the right kinds of relationships between students, parents and teachers so that students actually learn to love learning itself.
As for me, I’m trying to get out of this business. It was an interesting ride for a while, but I’m working on doing more positive things with my career than helping students avoid learning more about the world.