A Word on the Ethics of Ghostwriting

A link popped up in my Twitterstream to an article about the ethics of ghostwriting, namely whether or not freelance ghostwriting is ethical. It points out that ghostwriting is a common practice, and widely accepted in areas such as publishing and business. It leaves out other areas, such as speech writing and technical communication. Look at the User Guide or Quick Install Guide the next time you purchase an electronic gadget, and tell me where it lists the author of the document. Yes, the author of the document, not the manufacturer of the gadget or the company selling the gadget.

A keyword in the debate is “freelance,” which implies that those hired as full time employees maintain a higher ethical standard than contract, or “freelance” employees. Having been both, now, that assumption infuriates me. Whether or not I am a full time employee or a contract employee, I expect to be held to the ethical standard set forth by the company. And as a ghostwriter, I am fully aware that my name will not be used in publication. I am not being hired to tought my own thoughts and ideas, I am being hired to help another shape his or her thoughts and ideas. I am being hired to create content, not to pontificate on a subject (which is one reason I have this blog).

I’ve been a ghostwriter for most of my professional career. When I worked as an online marketing coordinator for a boutique Web development company in the Loop, I wrote content for its website as well as client websites, PPC ads and email marketing campaigns. My name didn’t appear as a byline. The only people who knew I wrote the content were the people at the company.

As a technical communicator before I got laid off, I only put my initials in the footer of the document in order to keep track of who was working on what part. I did something similar for a large content migration project that required a content entry manual, with no expectation that my name would appear in the final draft that was disseminated to the company at large. In essence, I was creating the initial document for them with the full expectation of turning over its updating and maintenance to them.

And now, I blog for law firms. I’ve come to think of it as doing the footwork, or the “heavy lifting.” Doing some of the “non-lawyer” stuff so lawyers can focus on what they do best: lawyering.

Using suggested topics and coming up with my own, then doing some research and writing a draft which they are free to edit and tweak as they see fit. I am no expert in a specific area of law, nor do I claim to be. As I say, I know enough about the law to be dangerous, but not deadly. To blog successfully for law firms requires being dangerous, not deadly, so it fits well. I am not hired to dispense legal advice, provide a legal opinion or perform any kind of “lawyerly” duty. I am hired to generate well-written, educational (perhaps insightful), user-and-search-engine-friendly content.

Many people, both ghostwriters and companies that hire ghostwriters, make the mistake of assuming they can just jump right in, that checks and balances are unnecessary. And this is when ghostwriting strays into “unethical” territory. People and companies get portrayed as something they are not, or they peddle results that are grounded in dollar signs instead of data. The medical profession got publicly chastised for that last year.

Both ghostwriters and companies that hire them need to establish checks and balances. A company should feel comfortable monitoring the work of a ghostwriter until it is clear the ghostwriter is not only comfortable with writing assignments, but consistently delivers in tone, style and substance. The ghostwriter should not feel insulted by this. It is not a knock against his or writing ability, it is the equivalent to the 90 day “trial” period experienced by every new employee. The two of you are getting to know one another. And yes, sometimes it can take more than 90 days. I’ve always found the 90 days to be rather nerve wracking as there was the chance of being let go. Once you’re enrolled in “benefits,” however, that chance diminishes.

If there are checks and balances in place, ghostwriting becomes a means for individuals like myself to earn a living while helping companies, be it Fortune 500s to small companies across a broad range of industries, maintain an effective and consistent presence.

And I’m fairly certain this will not be the end of the discussion on ghostwriting.

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2 Responses to A Word on the Ethics of Ghostwriting

  1. Tim Baran says:

    What an insightful post! I have a much clearer understanding about this subject. Helped me reconcile the unwarranted bias I had.

    Thanks!

  2. Gwynne Monahan says:

    Thanks for the compliment, and you’re welcome. Glad I could help clear up unwarranted bias and/or misconceptions. And thanks for the RT!

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