I recently had a prospective client ask about ghostwriting services. Said client turned out not to want that, but it got me circling in a rut I've gone down before, namely: How exactly do you advertise that you're a ghostwriter? It's like being an assassin -- you're only good at it if no one but your client ever knows you did the work, and your client has every reason not to tell.

I mostly get around the problem on my résumé by listing it under 'research assistant' or 'copyeditor', both of which are kind of true. If I'm doing the source-chasing on my own for someone else's thing, then I am assisting them with research, and if I'm taking notes or just something incoherent and making it human-readable, that is technically the mother of all editing jobs. Plus I find that people are much more willing to give accurate feedback about the speed and accuracy of my work if they know the party at the other end of the telephone line is assuming that 'research assistant' means 'sent her off to the library to track down obscure sources and summarize them for me'.

How I got into this in the first place is kind of amusing, and, like many of the strangers things in my life, involves Moggie. Mog and I were working at the university computer lab at our alma mater one day just before Thanksgiving, when one of our co-workers stumbled in looking like the C- term project of a first-year necromancy student. We asked him whyfor he looked like lightly-toasted death when he came to the desk for his printouts, and he explained that he was attempting to juggle two or three research papers and work a second job, and possibly even sleep once in a while.

"I'll give you a hundred bucks if you can dig up enough sources for me to finish my last paper while I work on this one," he said.

I did, and still generally do, refuse to outright do other people's homework for them. Commercial ghostwriting is one thing; that's someone buying a product wholesale to slap their own label on it, so they can sell it to someone else. The point is to bring into being a reasonably high-quality whatzit that makes money. I get paid, they get paid, the world is happy. Academic work is quite another. Other people are supposed to be rating your brain on that, and if you don't write it, it's not your brain they're rating. On a more practical note, it's a serious ethics violation at basically every university that has ever existed. I may like you, but I sincerely do not care enough about your grade to risk having something like that on my record.

Doing the research part, on the other hand, does not bother my conscience at all. You still have to read that and let your brain macerate it until a paper comes out, thus making the paper a product of your own reading comprehension and reasoning and so on and so forth. It teaches you the important real-world skill of taking a wobbling stack of photocopies from a stranger who is not attached to your project and has absolutely no interest in what happens to the information once they've dropped it off, sorting through the mess for the useful stuff, and dumping the rest in the bin.

[Mog and I happened to have been eyeing some overpriced fruit liqueur while discussing what dessert to make that year for our Thanksgiving of the Dispossessed, so naturally we took the money. I believe it went towards the purchase of some Chambourd, which comes in a fantastically rococo bottle that Moggie immediately began calling "the Pope Ball". We used it to make bourbon balls, by which I mean we used about a quarter cup to make something vaguely like bourbon balls and poured most of the rest into my sidekick, who declared that it tasted "like jam, only burny".]

That zombie co-worker may have been the easiest client I've ever worked with, despite the diabolically short turnaround. He handed us the instruction sheet for the assignment, which included a basic grading rubric and specified the format for citations, told us what topic he'd picked, and gave us an exact due date. He even told us what he was pretty sure his thesis was going to be, barring some sort of catastrophic miscalculation where we got halfway through the research and discovered that his argument didn't exist.

I also offer a number of strange services. I specialize in doing what amounts to skip-tracing weird and obscure media, for one. I also have specific rates for translating research materials into English from languages I don't speak. These sound completely twitterpated right up until you start collecting your sources and discover that you desperately need to know the contents of one particular paper on locomotion techniques for humanoid robots (von Doom, V. [1967]), which turns out to have been published in an obscure Eastern European journal that folded after two issues, and is available only in Latverian.

Oddly enough, the main bottleneck in translating from languages I don't speak isn't how complicated or obscure the language is, but whether it uses some variation on the Latin alphabet. Grammar is grammar is grammar, and I hit the point where I can work out of a textbook balanced on my knee while I type in about the same amount of time with everything. That leaves me with a structure for which I have little vocabulary. How much I can do with this, and how quickly, depends mostly on how easily I can cross-check myself with Google Translate or WordReference.com. If I can type it directly, or if there's a good transliteration system, I'm solid. If not, I have to use an on-screen IME of some kind, or stab blindly until I figure out what character is on what key of a QWERTY keyboard. Greek is all right, as the keyboard mapping generally preserves the correspondence between the Greek letters and the Roman ones they evolved into. Arabic is a nightmare; no QWERTY key generates an Arabic letter that sounds, looks, or functions even vaguely like its Latin equivalent.

Comments