When I used to live in France, I worked freelance for a while as an academic researcher, writer and editor for a number of private research companies. In theory, these companies provided model essays or primary research to students or lecturers, but in practice, I strongly suspect much of the work I and the other freelancers produced was handed in by students. Indeed companies like the ones I worked for got a lot of negative press in the UK at one time because of the rise in plagiarism from people abusing their services. I spent a certain amount of time writing primary research pieces for these companies but the dubious ethical situation increased (we would be asked to edit an essay, including content, in response to tutor comments, for instance) and there came a point beyond which I decided to only take on editorial, bibliographic or translation work from them. With one company, I stopped writing for them altogether after I was briefed to completely paraphrase an entire essay so that it was unrecognisable from the original (in other words, I was being openly asked to aid and abet plagiarism).
Whenever I look back on this time, though, I rather miss some aspects of it. And thinking about working on my writing portfolio reminded me of one of my favourite projects, which I did just before Lucy was born in the summer of 2009. And it really was just before she was born (I could hardly reach the keyboard, and I had to warn them I might not finish it if she arrived a week or two early). It was a one week deadline to research and write from scratch an 8000 word undergraduate dissertation on Gainsborough. I knew nothing whatsoever about Gainsborough; I had access to no UK research libraries; but it was a fantastic, fun and interesting project and, as the last piece of primary research writing I did for this company, it became symbolic of what that work had given me: I had inadvertently arrived at the weird situation where I had quite a useful set of skills to research pretty much anything at all from scratch (I had written university essays on everything from social work, Libyan politics, genital excision, bilingualism, album covers, the French Revolution, drug culture, Messenger skin design, childhood immunisation in Pakistan, as well as several other full-length art history dissertations.) I think I’ve held on to a certain research speed from that period. My PhD research had obviously given me the solid grounding in primary research and academic writing which makes this stuff come naturally after having done it for so long, but the surreal freelancing cranked those skills up to supernatural speeds. I still skim websites and journals very quickly and seem to be quite good at finding, and moulding into a recognisable written form, disparate source material and information and resources about any topic under the sun.
I hope I can put these skills to use again some day. More than anything else, it’s fun.