Pro Writer versus Pro Academic (Updated)

Hmmm, I wonder if Holly Black would be interested in editing an anthology on that topic? It’s almost as catchy as Zombies versus Unicorns. *cough*

@ronnidolorosa said that she’d “be really interested to read about your experiences in academia, and how it compares to being an author.”

I was raised by two academics. Two lovely, smart, politically engaged and engaging, argumentative and enthusiastic academics. They both have PhDs. I kind of thought everyone got a PhD when they grew up. It’s the main reason I have one. The majority of adults I knew when I was little were academics teaching and researching in universities around Australia and sometimes the world. I don’t know when I first realised there were people in the world whose jobs were not to teach and argue and write about ideas. But it was a bit of a shock.

All I ever wanted to be was a writer of stories, not of academic tomes, but I didn’t know anyone who was a full-time, professional, could-live-by-writing alone writer. Thus I didn’t believe it was possible. But I knew plenty of people who were academics and wrote on the side. They’d use their long summer holidays to write. It seemed like the ideal solution. I like reading and researching and arguing and writing. And that’s a huge part of what you do as an academic. At least so I thought.

What I hadn’t factored in—despite having lived, for many years, with actual academics working in actual universities—is that reading and researching and arguing and writing are not, in fact, the biggest part of being an academic. Administration, politics, grovelling for money in the form of applying for grants,1 and teaching are what takes up the lion’s share of most academics’ lives. I really hate administration, politics, meetings, grovelling for money, and teaching.

Okay, I don’t hate teaching. It’s just that I’m not very good at it. Let me recalibrate, I’m a good teacher if you’re enthusiastic, smart and engaged with what I’m teaching. I’m absolutely terrible if you’re not. Someone who’s only good at teaching the people who want to be taught, the people who are not struggling with the subject, is not a good teacher.

As a professional writer my life consists of writing and reading and researching.

It’s everything I loved about being an academic with almost none of the stuff I hated. There are very few meetings in my life. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had even one this year.2 The admin is a pain but not nearly as bad as when I was an academic and it’s mostly taken care of by my agent. I don’t have to write any grant applications. On those rare occasions when I teach it’s people who want to learn more about writing and/or publishing.3

Back when I was an academic money was a huge issue. Funding was going down, class sizes were getting bigger, tutorials were being phased out. It was a really depressing time to be an academic. In the many years since I quit it’s gotten worse. Money is even tighter, class sizes bigger. The morale of staff is worse than when I left. And it was pretty bad back then.

In contrast Young Adult publishing is booming and has been booming for more than a decade now.4 It’s an exciting business to be part of. Morale is mostly pretty good. Even with all the seismic shifts in publishing caused by the beginning of the ebook boom and the concurrent growth of Amazon and various forms of independent publishing. Publishing in ten years time is not going to look much like it does right now. Even so most YA writers are happy and enjoy what they do.

I mean, yes, we get angsty and doom laden, but we’re WRITERS. Writers are neurotic. However, compared to the academics I know. Well, there is no comparison.

So, no, I don’t miss the world of academia because I’m doing all the stuff I loved about it plus no ENDLESS MEETINGS.

I’m also aware that I’m incredibly lucky. The vast majority of writers of novels, no matter what they’re genre, cannot do so full time and still pay their rent etc. If not for my extraordinary luck I would probably still be an academic, writing on the side. It wasn’t really that bad. It’s only in comparison to my ridiculously fortunate life now that I’m so down on it. I’m sure when the YA boom ends and I go back to being an academic I’ll remember everything good about it.

Update: I forgot to mention that before I became a full-time novelist being an academic was BY A HUGE MARGIN the best job I’d ever had.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there are happy, content, non-angsty academics out there who get all the funding they need and teach very small classes. I’m talking only about my experiences. I only really know how things are in Australia and the USA and only at a handful of universities therein.

  1. Of all the genres I am absolutely terrible at, the grant application is right up the top. []
  2. Unless you count me and Scott over dinner and wine discussing the novels we are working on. []
  3. Occasionally a few of those people will want me to tell them that they’re geniuses and should be published without any editing or further work on their manuscripts. But even those tend to get over themselves. []
  4. I’m not stupid though I know the YA boom will end. Just as every other genre boom has ended. E.g. Horror in the eighties. []


  1. Heath on #

    Grant application is absolutely a genre. 🙂

  2. Kaethe on #

    Correction, Heath: Grant application is the toughest genre.

    • Justine on #

      Kaethe: True fact.

  3. Kaethe on #

    A character in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl keeps saying “true fact.” I am amused.

  4. Lili on #

    I’m finding that the academic world and the writing world are actually pretty similar. In both I apply for grants. In both I spend a lot of time talking to people about writing (either teaching uni students, or visiting schools). Writers tend to be a bit less insecure, but I think that’s because our editors are MUCH nicer than horrid blind peer reviews. Writing fiction is definitely more fun, but that’s because we can make stuff up and don’t need to supply references.

  5. Ashley Hope Pérez on #

    I’m glad that I was a public high-school teacher first before arriving at the university setting. Compared to teaching 200 18-year-olds daily in three subjects with only an hour to prepare, university–meetings and all–seems like a breeze. I feel like, as long as I’m fiercely protective of my time outside of teaching and office hours and “academic” writing, I can still keep my creative projects going.

    That said, though, four weeks as a full-time YA writer this summer showed me that, with nothing else on my plate, I can finish a novel a helluva lot faster. I wonder if that would still be true if I didn’t know that the beginning semester was about to come crashing down on my head like a grand piano in a cartoon.

  6. Justine on #

    Lili: Oh, definitely! Being a postgraduate student is very much like being a full-time writer. But being a full-time teaching academic? Not so much. There’s so little time for research and writing. It’s really frustrating.

    Ashley Hope Pérez: You’re exactly right. Being a high school teacher is so much harder! Every time I do a school visit I think I’m going to die it’s such hard work.

    What I didn’t say in the post and should have is that before I became a full-time writer being an academic was by far the best job I’d ever had. I think I’ll update it to add that.

    I find that knowing that if I don’t finish a novel on time I will be unable to pay bills etc is a very effective motivator. I admit I struggled with the transition from academic to full-time writer but almost ten years later—injuries aside—not so much.

    I do have friends though who really could not write once they became full-time writers and went back to the paid workforce.

  7. Ronni on #

    Thanks for answering my question! I was interested in part because I am currently a postgraduate student and can see a lot of similarities between being an author and being a postgrad. (Being a professional academic still seems to be a very stressful, admin-filled experience, judging by what I’ve observed.)

  8. Ashley Hope Pérez on #

    Loved the story you linked above re. the disastrous first freelance attempt… Also that being an academic was the second-best job for you as a writer… courage for me now! I do find teaching energizing, and teasing out the best from the most reluctant is one of my greatest pleasures.

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