If you hire a ghostwriter, does that make you a fraud? What about if you are a ghostwriter – are you committing fraudulence in expertise?
I ran across a 2013 article from Demian Farnworth on the Raven blog on the brutally honest truth about ghostwriting, in which he chronicled his personal demise as a result of putting his “everything” into content that others were getting the credit for.
It struck a chord of course because if you’re hiring a company like mine, you’re hiring ghostwriters. In fact, I can’t think of any content service you’d hire for where ghostwriting wasn’t a part of it, from in-depth articles to Web copy, ebooks and beyond.
Whether you realize it or not, ghostwriting is a staple in many of the beloved speeches, screenplays, songs and other creative works we encounter daily. Calling ghostwriting unethical would mean you believe that some of the things you love are totally fraudulent — and that you’re not OK with that, either.
Heck, even some of the most well-known hip-hop artists whose street cred is earned in part by their ability to rap were made popular by others’ words.
There’s a Way to Go About It
Over at Forbes, one contributor discusses the ethics of ghostwriting, and argues that ghostwriting itself isn’t unethical, but claiming you don’t have a ghostwriter is.
While some industries have become very comfortable with the concept of ghostwriting, there are some circles within certain sectors that believe ghostwriting is a dirty word.
But there’s a way to go about it so that it feels good for everyone involved; keeping in mind that it starts with the right mindset about what ghostwriting is.
Here’s how I see it: we’re providing a marketing service for brands and executives who need to be a part of the conversation; they have great ideas and experience to share, but no time to sit down and write them.
There is a process that goes along with this that ensures not only that the expert’s ideas are being extracted effectively, but also that the brand is being upheld (whether personal or company).
It’s the way I’ve done it for years, and it’s how I’ve established the operational process at bizbuzzcontent. It all starts with a collaboration of ideas. And if the person/company is too busy to contribute even 15 minutes of their time to this collaboration, then a ghostwriter probably isn’t a good idea.
I know I personally wouldn’t feel good about pouring my ideas and concepts into a piece of content that the other person – the bylined author – had no hand in creating.
This is the story that Demien chronicled at the Raven blog, and if I were on the other side of the service as the bylined author, I would feel somewhat fraudulent having my name on that piece, too.
Here at bizbuzzcontent, we’ve been in situations where we were asked to stretch a little further than usual to create ideas out of thin air, and the result was always that it inherently felt inauthentic.
My primary goal is to ensure our clients shine by showcasing their ideas, their expertise and their personality. Which brings me to another point: personality.
The Forbes article I linked to previously, discusses checkpoints for ethical ghostwriting, one of which is the following:
“Does the communicator use ghostwriters to make himself or herself appear to possess personal qualities that he or she does not really have? In other words, does the writer impart such qualities as eloquence, wit, coherence and incisive ideas to a communicator who otherwise possesses none of those traits? The ethicality decreases with the degree of the ‘stretch.””
This small detail is a key consideration with authenticity. We won’t manufacture stories, wit or perspective without the bylined author’s input. The bylined author needs to be solely responsible for infusing him or herself into the piece, whether through the review/editing process, direct conversations on the ideas or story leading up to the thing we’re writing about or whether it’s the ghostwriter picking up on the personality and conversational style of the bylined author over time.
What About When It’s Not Ethical?
A year or so ago, I got a phone call from a guy who said he ran a “content marketing” shop. He had somehow forged relationships with columnists at publications like Forbes online that would allow articles to be written under the columnist’s name that promised to mention my clients’ products or services, and link to them from the article for a fee.
First. trading money for links is a no-no in Google’s book and can get your website into a lot of trouble. Even trading money for a mention seems grotesque — but maybe I’m being too conservative in my thinking there. Celebrities get paid to leverage their authority in the way of endorsements all the time, and we know damn well that [INSERT CELEB NAME] is not using [PRODUCT TYPE] at home.
Truth is, in a world where so much is driven by dollars and exposure, it’s hard to know where opportunity ends and sleaziness begins.
Apparently, Forbes may be aware that this or some form of this is happening, as the article I linked to prior points out that “in the case of the Forbes Contributor community, ghostwriting is expressly and even contractually forbidden. In fact, the publishing interface periodically requires contributors to re-verify ‘the words on this page are my own content, my own words and my own opinions’ before they are allowed to press ‘send.’”
Writers Need Checks and Balances, Too
I remember when I was writing for Search Engine Watch as a contributing reporter. More and more, I was being assigned topics on paid search (aka online advertising, pay per click, etc.). As a reporter, I could easily write about almost any topic in digital marketing because I have direct experience in the online marketing industry so I understand the issues being discussed.
But that doesn’t mean I have experience in online advertising specifically. Nevertheless, I was increasingly being solicited to speak at conference events and comment in publications on matters related to online advertising the more I wrote about the topic for Search Engine Watch.
My skills and experience were greatly confused, even though my byline went to an author page that discussed my background, my company and what we did. I wasn’t a contributing expert to Search Engine Watch on the topic of online advertising; Search Engine Watch was a client of mine that hired me for my reporting services.
There’s a fine line that needs to be drawn by the ghostwriter if they are concerned about ethics, too. Some ghostwriters might jump on opportunities like those I just described to put themselves into the spotlight as an expert, and eventually claim to be practitioners in something after they’ve written and researched a topic over time.
Sure, anyone can be self-taught and become a practitioner in something, but it’s not until you have — what do they say? 10,000 hours actually practicing something that you are an expert? (Of course, others refute this).
In my opinion, just because we do something that could be a distant cousin to a high-demand skill set, doesn’t necessarily make us qualified to do that high-demand job. As ghostwriters, sometimes you retain information and other times you are simply a conduit.
Probably one of the most valuable pieces of advice I can give to other ghostwriters is to put as much heart and soul into your own writing as you do for your clients, or else you can end up getting burnt out, fed up and questioning your services.
And for those who hire ghostwriters, expect to put in the collaboration time. Yes, you’re busy, but it’s the only way to ensure a level of authenticity for yourself and your company’s brand. The small investment in time will save you significant hours of writing and pay dividends to your marketing strategy.