This is a guest post from Patti Podnar, a writer, content strategist and member of the nDash Content Community.
September 1796, Philadelphia: George Washington’s presidency – the presidency that will set the bar for all administrations to follow – is coming to a close, and he’s facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge: To come up with a farewell address that will not only cement his legacy but inspire and guide the fledgling nation for generations to come. And he knows expectations are high – people will demand more than a few mumbled words from the guy who led the troops to victory in the Revolutionary War, played a major role in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, and served as America’s first president.
There’s just one problem. George has writer’s block. So he sits there staring at his computer screen twiddling his quill pen and trying not to throw his mouse lantern through the window.
You won’t find this story in history books. Why not? Because it didn’t happen. Washington’s farewell speech was ghostwritten, a collaborative effort between James Madison, who wrote the first few paragraphs, and Alexander Hamilton, who penned the rest of the speech. And thus began a tradition that continues to this day.
Ghostwriting has now extended far beyond presidential speeches. From emails and blog posts to whitepapers and bylined articles, there’s a whole army of unseen writers working quietly in the shadows, writing the words that others – not just presidents, but business owners and thought leaders, too – will claim as their own. There’s just one question: Is it ethical?
“Ghostwriting” is defined as writing something that will be credited to someone else. It can also include writing that is credited to no one – like product descriptions, web copy, some business blog posts, etc. Typically, unattributed writing is a concern only when a reader is worried about credibility. (It’s hard to determine whether you can trust a source if you don’t know who it is.) But the real ethical concerns arise when a work is attributed to someone other than the person who actually wrote it.
So is ghostwriting ethical or not? As with many things in life, the answer is, “It depends.” Let’s take a look at some of the factors from the perspective of the various parties involved.
This one is a non-issue. We’re not talking about plagiarism; we’re talking about a business transaction. If I sell my TV on Craigslist, I don’t have any say in what the buyer watches. The same is true for ghostwriting – selling full rights means selling full rights. The buyer can do whatever he wants – including slapping his own name on there. And it’s up to writers to set their prices accordingly. A byline has a capital value – links, Google authorship, SERP ratings, a portfolio, etc. – and that’s precisely why I charge more when I don’t get one. I’m sure there are writers who don’t take that into consideration, but that’s a choice – there’s nothing about ghostwriting that’s inherently unfair to writers. The key is to see it for what it really is: Selling a product.
The Credited Author
When it comes to the person who hires the ghostwriter, there are a several issues at play:
The unspoken premise of ghostwriting is that the content and words authentically reflect those of the person given credit. I’ve worked with a lot of brilliant people – including a number of MBAs – who couldn’t write a coherent paragraph if their lives depended on it. Many were visionaries; others needed only minutes to analyze a spreadsheet that would leave me staring into space and drooling. But they just couldn’t write. So my writing actually reflected their ideas more than their own writing did. There’s nothing unethical about that. The same is true when somebody uses a ghostwriter because they’re busy doing things that are more business-critical. I’d just as soon have a CEO concentrate on running the business rather than sweating a whitepaper – especially if I’m a shareholder.
Ghostwriting can become unethical, however, when there’s a mismatch. Sometimes that’s intentional, as when a person uses a ghostwriter to demonstrate skills, knowledge, talent, etc., they don’t actually have. If I hire somebody to write blog posts or articles demonstrating my skills as a business analyst, that’s deliberate deception – because, while I’m pretty good at business, I stink when it comes to analyzing spreadsheets. If I hire somebody to write blog posts about writing or content creation because I just don’t have the time, that’s not unethical.
Ethical concerns can also crop up when the credited author isn’t playing the role of gatekeeper. It’s unethical to just publish a ghostwriter’s work without carefully reading it for accuracy, voice, etc. It’s the difference between delegation and abdication. I take great pride in the work I do, but I’m not perfect. Even if my facts are 100% accurate, my writing could still convey the wrong message. Just think about the difference between, “A full 49% of Americans say they’re trying to lose weight,” and “Only 49% of Americans say they’re trying to lose weight.” Same facts, completely different message. So the person hiring the ghostwriter has a responsibility to vet the material before publication. Not doing so is unethical.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Ultimately, deception is a matter of perception. We can safely assume that most people know presidents don’t write their own speeches, so there’s no deception involved. But what about blog posts, whitepapers, e-books, etc., “authored” by a CEO or trusted thought leader?
From my perspective, it’s just branding. I never assume that something was actually written by the person whose name is on it any more than I think celebrities design and hand-stitch their own clothing lines or that Rachel Ray designs and makes all of those kitchen tools sold under her name. But that might be because I’ve worked in the field for 25 years. I know what goes on behind the scenes. But what about readers who assume they’re getting authentic pearls of wisdom straight from the brain of the credited author, rare insight that only that person can impart? That’s a little bit harder to answer. I think the word “unethical” is a little harsh, but it’s certainly risky, because some readers might see it as a violation of trust. It’s up to the person hiring the ghostwriter to weigh the pros and cons.
Academic writing has some pretty clear standards: It’s expected that professors actually write the material that’s published under their own names. In business, it’s murky. A textbook used by the University of Oregon School of Journalism boils it down to this:
- Why is the credited author hiring a ghostwriter? Is there an intent to deceive?
- Is the audience aware of how commonplace ghostwriting is? In other words, can it be assumed that the audience believes the credited author wrote the material personally?
- How involved is the credited author? Is it delegation or abdication?
The only thing that’s clear is that, with the emergence of content marketing and the resulting demand for high-quality writing, ghostwriting is as common as people walking into light posts while playing Pokemon Go. It’s everywhere, whether readers realize it or not. Sure, there’s an ethical line to be crossed, but it’s more a matter of perception than reality, and equally ethical people can see it very differently. Want to weigh in? Comment below to let us know what you think.
To learn more about Patti’s writing or to hire her to contribute to your content, check out her writer profile at nDash.co.