I was 21 when I found out that a friend was ghostwriting recipes for a celebrity chef. The recipes were published in a highly respected U.K. magazine, which really shocked me at the time. In my naïveté, I could barely comprehend that the chef wouldn’t take time out of his day to sit and write his own recipes. It was almost as crushing as finding out the truth about Santa Claus.
At that point, I vowed to never enter what I saw as the seedy underworld of ghostwriting. Of course, years later, I conveniently forgot that promise as I found myself working in a PR agency, drafting comments and opinion pieces on behalf of so-called “thought leaders.”
Guest posts, op-eds, thought leadership—regardless of the terminology, we tend to think of these as staples of a CMO’s repertoire, a chance for executives to offer advice based on their experiences and show off their personality. In that case, shouldn’t the opinion piece be written by the person who gets the byline?
Ethically speaking, this practice still makes me deeply uncomfortable when I have to forge someone else’s thoughts. It probably goes back to the time I received a reply to my letter to the British queen when I was seven years old and was disappointed to find it was written by her “ladies in waiting” rather than the Queen herself. To use a very British expression, I was pretty gutted.
Ghostwriting isn’t just an issue in journalism and blogging. Song lyrics, novels, autobiographies, letters—plenty of people propel their careers forward on the momentum of other people’s words. But whether we see it as morally kosher seems to depend on the industry.
Let’s look at academia, where using someone else’s writing is absolutely off limits. If you’re caught paying a shady essay mill to write your paper, you’ll probably be suspended and may face expulsion. You didn’t do the research. You didn’t write the paper. Your academic reputation would be in tatters.
Somehow, these consequences don’t apply in a professional setting. Instead, if you pay someone to write your professional guest post, your reputation could be bolstered instead. What about if I paid another freelancer to write this article under my name, would that be ethical? No, not really. Plus it would be weird. Society’s rules on this front are pretty arbitrary.
Across the publishing world, I believe we should give more thought to whether it’s okay to continue ghostwriting without any sort of disclosure. Apart from walking away entirely from ghostwriting opinion articles, which a lot of us can’t afford to do, this is an opportunity to reassess how we put them together.
A collaborative ghost
Even though ghostwriting is misleading by its very nature, some assignments are better than others. The difference often comes down to collaboration. Is it a question of making someone’s existing thoughts sound prosaic or are you doing all of the work yourself without any of the credit?
Inventing opinions for other people can be demoralizing if you do it for long enough, and it’s even worse when the person getting the byline doesn’t have anything new to say. If you want to fabricate something from scratch, writing fiction is probably a lot more fulfilling (although there’s less money in that).
But in many cases, clients should be willing to share some thoughts. Make time to meet in-person or over the phone to discuss the topic. Get into their heads, note the way they speak, and ask where their business is headed. Pay attention to their senses of humor. All of these factors will typically lead to more accurate representations of someone’s voice, which smooths out some of the moral wrinkles and could lead to more repeat business.
Once you finish the draft, it also helps to get feedback from the client. Hop on the phone and ask what the person really thinks of the piece. Do they disagree with any major points? Would they say a phrase differently? Is there a personal anecdote they can provide that adds to the narrative (and makes your job easier)? You may have to go through a rewrite or two, but doing so will make the piece stronger.
Collaboration can certainly help some of the issues with ghostwriting, but changing the creative process for the better still doesn’t fix the end result. At some point, most ghostwriters probably think: What if I wrote this for myself? What if I got the recognition for my effort?
For now, there’s no way for ghostwriters to get paid the same rates and get credit for a thought leadership byline. But a minimal tweak could change that.
When some celebrities sign book deals for memoirs, co-writers are included in the byline, just in a smaller font. It might seem strange at first, but why couldn’t bloggers use this same system? Or at the very least, put some sort of disclosure at the bottom of the story to acknowledge the name of the person who actually wrote the post.
While marketers may have a reputation for being manipulative, we do also have a duty to call bullshit. If you’ve been in the game a long time, it’s easy to justify your decisions instead of thinking about ethics and morality. I find myself in constant conflict over this, and I think it’s important for us to give the pros and cons of ghostwriting some serious thought.
To be clear, I’m not calling out freelancers who take on the work. We have the ability to flesh out ideas relevant for a wider audience, easier to understand and more shareable. Ghostwriting assignments often pay well and can be a good way to make connections with executives. They also let us work on our brainstorming and writing skills without the fear of negative criticism on social media and comments sections.
But just make sure you’ve made peace with what you’re writing. Otherwise turn down the money, and protect your personal voice. You’ll sleep better for it.