Is Ghostwriting Ethical?I ghostwrite for several clients. I also publish work in various niche markets under pseudonyms. It never occurred to me that some people might consider ghostwriting unethical. Even in this age of transparency, ghostwriting is an accepted convention.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, what exactly is ghostwriting? Ghostwriting means writing something for someone else, with their name on it. The client receives all the credit, and the writer gets paid. Ghostwriting often pays better than bylined work, since you don’t get any recognition and can’t use the work in your portfolio.

A writer can ghostwrite:

Anything that can be written, can be written by a ghostwriter. Ghostwriting arrangements can work in a few different ways:

  • The client gives you a topic and you write the article based on research and references the client provides;
  • The client provides a title and outline, and you flesh it out into a complete piece
  • You interview the client and, based on the information he provides, you write the piece with his name on it.

Challenges of Ghostwriting

To be a successful ghostwriter, you must be:

  • able to adopt your client’s “voice;”
  • discreet; no one can know you created the work;
  • able to set aside your ego.

I remember the first time I ghostwrote an article. The client forwarded me an emailed conversation in which he received — and accepted — a compliment for the article. Seeing someone else take credit for my work stung a little at first but I realize that, by forwarding the email to me, he was passing the compliment on to its rightful owner. A good ghostwriting relationship is one in which a writer feels well-respected and well-compensated.

Is it Ethical?

Ghostwriting is an accepted business practice — but is it ethical for someone to pass your work off as their own? I believe so. Many intelligent professionals in a variety of field either can’t — or choose not to — write well. Some don’t have time; others lack the passion for it.

Ghostwriting is another form of marketing and is as ethical as writing ad copy. If your article directs traffic to the client’s website and, as a result, someone hires your client, the client is being selected on the basis of the services he provides–for his knowledge, not his writing ability. If I hire a bookkeeper, I don’t care if the person can write or not.

Of course, exceptions exist. It’s unethical to write a query letter for another writer. The person is being judged on their writing ability, and writing a query for another writer would be misrepresenting that person’s skills. Writing college papers for someone else is completely unethical, against college policy and possibly illegal, too.

Can you think of other situations where ghostwriting might be unethical? Would you consider ghostwriting articles to help a professional market a business? What about ghostwriting a book for a celebrity?

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10 Responses to “Is Ghostwriting Ethical?”

  1. Karen Swim says:

    I am also a ghostwriter and have ghostwritten business books (no longer offer that service), by-lined articles and other communications. The client is paying you for rights to the work including marketing it with their name sot I believe this is ethical.With by-lined articles, publications are made aware that it will be ghostwritten. I do have to say, however that it has made me view the book market a bit differently. As you noted when you are being judged on your writing – academic papers, admissions, contests – that the work should be your own. Great discussion!
    .-= Karen Swim shares: Positive on Purpose =-.

  2. Several years ago, I wrote a post on this topic that generated a very lively and interesting discussion: http://lillieammann.com/2007/04/11/ghost-writing-is-it-ethical/.

    Many of the comments are still relevant.
    .-= Lillie Ammann shares: Via Dolorosa =-.

  3. Dawn says:

    Lillie,
    Thank you for sharing! I read your post and most of the comments. So very interesting. I know this debate has been going on a long time.

    I agree with many of your points, but not with others. For instance, corporate blogging – I don’t see a problem with it. As long as the posts are written based on company materials and philosophy and the writer is drawing the information from experts within the company (for assistant director of marketing or even a marketing assistant), I don’t care whose name the company puts on it. Some CEOs have egos and want their name on material. Others feel like the words will carry more weight if it comes from the CEO — but the CEO is busy running the business and, as I said, doesn’t want to or can’t write. Neither is a crime.

    I subcontract work to several freelancers. It goes under their byline and my editors know about it. I also write AS a subcontract under those terms when colleagues have an overload of work. In fact, one subcontracting job turned into a regular client for me when the company got enough work to hire both myself and the writer who originally subbed me. Talk about an ideal arrangement!

    I take a cut IF I need to edit the work to make it fit my standards (and if the pay rate is high enough that my subcontractor gets a fair rate). For those writers who need a quick proofread, I don’t take a cut, or just a very small one for acting as go-between, sending out pay, and taking the responsibility for the job.
    .-= Dawn shares: Writing, Editing & Coaching Services =-.

  4. Dawn,

    When I was talking about corporate blogging in my long-ago post, I was thinking of situations where the company hires a blogger and gives little or no guidance. So the information and opinions are those of the blogger but are credited to the CEO or someone else. If the blogger is using information and ideas from or approved by the CEO, that is a different situation. I was responding some specific situations happening at the time I wrote the post, so that colored what I wrote.
    .-= Lillie Ammann shares: The Last Supper =-.

  5. Dawn says:

    Lillie,
    Once again, I thank you for commenting. I think we are mostly on the same page.

    I wonder how a blogger could do that — write a post about a company and sign someone else’s name without any feedback from the company? Not ethically — I mean, from a technical standpoint, I’d find that difficult if not impossible.

    I think you’ve touched upon something else important though — *intention.* When the intention is not to deceive, but to write something as if the person wrote it, had they had the time and/or talent to do so, then ghostwriting is ethical. When someone puts their name on something that they had absolutely nothing to do with, either to sell books based on the power of their name or to mislead customers — that’s wrong. If I encountered a ghostwriting situation like that, I’d turn it down.

    So far, I haven’t. I imagine they’re few and far between and that those type of unethical people attract equally unethical writers to do their bidding. :)
    .-= Dawn shares: Writing, Editing & Coaching Services =-.

  6. [...] Personally, I do not write adult material. It is something I am not good at, and do not believe in writing. Most people make this choice one way or the other, and that is a choice they must live with. After all, the adult market is lucrative and not lacking in opportunities. Yet I would not be comfortable doing so, and some writers would agree with me. Some would not. Dawn recently asked, “Is Ghostwriting Ethical?” [...]

  7. Tyler WEBB says:

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  8. Shin Sattel says:

    This page was not working this morning. i tried viewing it but it timed out 4-5 times now but i can access it now. Why did this happen? Am i the only one having this error?

  9. I believe that to have a book published under an author’s name e.g. Bill Cosby, Hilary Clinton and for there to be no acknowledgement that the book was actually written by someone else constitutes fraud. If you can’t write a book or don’t have the time to write a book and you want a book out in your name then ‘as told to’ or ‘with…..(ghost’s name)’ are fine because the buyer knows what they are are getting. I like sporting autobiographies and will only buy autobiographies that I know are written by the author (this limits the purchasing field considerably!). I am also very happy to buy ‘authorised biographies’. But I find any deception regarding authorship as offensive.

  10. [...] it is a form of lying to public or at least being deceptive. Others find it perfectly acceptable [and another link here]. And still others draw the line at novels saying that ghosting non-fiction is okay but fiction is [...]

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