Institutional Juice: How to Keep Your Writing Career Going by Michael Erard

Michael Erard

Michael Erard

**Article obtained from The Chronicle for Higher Education**

I am sitting in a cubicle, talking into a telephone headset, asking rote questions of people who have applied for life insurance. Today it’s a woman, mid-20s, somewhere in New Hampshire.


“I’m self-employed.”

“What industry do you work in?”


Her obliqueness is costing me money, because I get paid per interview. But I play along. “Who do you entertain?”


“Men? Or gentlemen?”

I could hear her smirk. “Gentlemen,” she replied coolly.

I held this job for six weeks in 2002, at the start of the bleakest period of my writing career. When I wrote my first column for this site about leaving academe and starting to work as a freelance writer, I felt like a shiny quarter, bright with promise. Life was rosy. Then life became not rosy. Then difficult.

I didn’t yet have to strip for my supper, but I needed a gig that would provide a hard revenue stream — money from my freelance writing was too soft, too irregular. So, here I was, spending eight hours a day in a cramped cubicle, asking a list of required questions about intimate aspects of health, finance, and habits. Did you smoke? Why did you declare bankruptcy? Are you an exotic dancer or a topless dancer? Does the difference matter? (To the insurance companies, it does.)

I wasn’t supposed to deviate from the list, which led to bizarre exchanges, such as the time I asked someone’s sweet 85-year-old Georgian grandmother if she had ever been skydiving.

“Oh, no,” she laughed.

“Do you have any plans to?” Just doing my job, ma’am.

“Oh no,” she said. “The only time my feet will leave the ground is when the Lord comes to take me away.”

If you could have wheeled some device over my skull that interpreted the electrical patterns in my brain, you wouldn’t have seen me regretting my decision to leave a traditional academic career. I knew that was the right decision for me.

Yet you would have seen me a bit puzzled. After all, I had taken my own advice from my first column: I built relationships, I wrote with clarity, I put a lot of research into my freelance proposals. I had passion and a Ph.D.

So what was the problem? As I would eventually realize, I needed a better business model. That brain-reading device would have shown clumps of neurons groping blindly toward each other, hoping to trigger an insight that would get me one of those models.

A business model? In one sense, it’s exactly what it sounds like: the way you bring in revenue. There’s more to it, of course, but for me, the first step was realizing that this wasn’t a race; that I had to plan and measure my success according to sustainable parameters. Moreover, I could set those parameters; I wasn’t being judged from the outside. What I jettisoned first was my assumption that all of my income had to come from writing, or any one source. When I realized that I needed a mixed revenue stream, that was the beginning of getting a business model.

You don’t have to be a writer or an entrepreneur to have a business model; we all have one, most of us tacitly. The business model is the plan for how you integrate the parts of your life. It combines personal philosophy with economic facts; it’s the set of assumptions about how you want to be in the world upon which you make decisions. For me, the following factors were important: I had to decide whom I wanted to write for and whom I couldn’t afford to write for anymore. I had to decide if I was going to craft myself as a specialist in some area or write about many topics. I had to think about how I would leverage my Ph.D. to enhance my credibility, or whether I would leave it behind.

I knew I was a “freelancer,” but I construed it one way, as a monolithic autonomy, when in fact there are dozens of ways to be entrepreneurial. Each of them, however, involves articulating the assumptions about your preferences and talents. Your friends with “regular” jobs get to leave those assumptions unspoken. (What seems so offensive about tenure is that it enables the ultimate tacitness: the deliberate ignorance of the future.)

Things got much worse on my way to a business model, however. While I worked the cubicle job, I was revising some old fiction and still writing pitches, calling editors on my bathroom breaks. Finally, one of my pitches succeeded, and I was off to California and Missouri to write about a federal prisoner who was resisting medication to make him “mentally competent” to stand trial.

With that assignment in place, I announced at the insurance company that I was quitting, and became a minor hero. I had gone from a bumbling trainee to someone seizing his destiny. As I walked out those doors, life looked rosy again. Then it became not rosy. Then difficult.

And then things improved. After some struggles and some waiting, I began piecing parts together. I found a half-time job working as an editor at my old alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. Now I spend every afternoon there editing grant proposals and research articles written by faculty members, and consulting on writing-related curricular issues.

Being able to have a job where the work comes to me, rather than my having to hunt for it, is an immense relief. It also gives me what a friend once called “institutional juice”: health benefits, library access, gym access.

Most important, I have enough time left over to write, and more than half my monthly income comes from writing. I am writing about a broad array of topics for top newspapers and magazines. I am able to write about what interests me — right now I’m on a jag about religion and technology and am fascinated with theories of social capital. Luckily I don’t have to write articles about the fastest way to sexy abs, and I don’t have to grind out stock reports (a job done increasingly by software, which I am also writing about).

I’ve traveled some, interviewing interesting people in various fields. And my work is getting read by millions of people, a thrill I’ll never lose.

My most exciting news — and the biggest sign that my business model is working — is that my agent is shopping my proposal for a book about verbal blundering, tentatively titled Wonderful Blunderful. That’s the goal I’ve been working toward: the opportunity to write about language and linguistics (which I studied in graduate school) for a mainstream audience.

My business model has allowed me to create continuities between what I studied as a graduate student and the issues of the day, between my doctoral expertise and my ex-academic identity. I have also realized something valuable about myself: I need to write for multiple audiences, and I want my writing to do multiple types of work in the world, from teaching to persuading to entertaining.

When I wrote on this site back in 2002, I boasted that former colleagues seemed to envy my path. “Other professor friends love to hear what I’m working on now; I wish I could figure out a way to live off their need for vicarious thrills,” I wrote.

People still inquire, but I can’t claim to know their motives. I’m too busy trying to keep this thing off the ground, to see how far I can go.

Michael Erard, a Ph.D. in English, has left academe to pursue a career as a freelance writer.


When I was 14 years old, my father called the editor of the local newspaper. “My son writes all the time,” he said. “Could you give him a job?”

That summer I tagged along with the court and police reporter, down to the mayor’s office, the police station, the fire station. Then we went back to the newsroom, where I found an empty desk — it was an afternoon paper, so everyone cleared out after the deadline at 11 — and typed short essays for the Saturday supplement on an electric typewriter. It gave me a taste for smelling the ink, working with editors, talking to people about their lives, and seeing my name — and my words — in print.

Now I write mainly about language, languages, and the people who use and study them, but I also write about culture and technology. My essays, reviews, and reportage have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Science, Wired, Slate, The Atlantic, New Scientist, Reason, The Morning News, and many other magazines and newspapers.

I am a contributing writer at The Morning News and Design Observer and have a blog at Psychology Today. My first book, Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean (Pantheon, 2007) was a natural history of things we wish we didn’t say (but do) as well as a cultural history of what happens when we do. My second, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012), is a search for the upper limits of the ability to learn, speak, and use languages.

After graduating from Williams College, I lived overseas, teaching English, then finished an MA in linguistics and PhD in English, with concentrations in rhetoric and linguistics, from the University of Texas at Austin. I am also a senior researcher and metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a research non-profit based in Washington, D.C.

Of course, telling my story on a website, I can make this path seem straight and uninterrupted, but it wasn’t.

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