Ghostwrite or Ghost wrong? Is Ghostwriting Ethical?

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

Sometimes, when I'm chatting with a new friend somewhere, he'll tell me what he does to earn a crust, usually the sensible stuff, banking, broking, baking or building. And then I tell him I'm a Ghostwriter and it usually needs a bit more of an explanation.

Once he understands the general idea, the first question is always the same: "What, so you write it and they say they wrote it?"

Even when I tell him I get paid to do just that, he looks at me like I've just kicked his cat, face all scrunched up, confusion and intrigue. How can I do that? More importantly how can the supposed Author do that? How can they say they wrote a book or an article when they didn't? Isn't that like sticking jobs on your resume you never had?

In fact for years now, certainly since I started doing this, there's been a fair bit of controversy all over the web about the topic of ghostwritten blog posts. Most of the articles on the subject are mild-mannered discussions about it, but why do so many people get so angry?

And they've been angry at me as well. One told me it's like human trafficking. I've been brought from some horror show of a place to Europe only to be exploited, my dignity locked up in a draw. One said the supposed Author is plagiarising me. Another said I was the plagiariser!

Whether or not one understands the definition of plagiarism. Whether or not it's face to face over a small beer somewhere after a day in the fields or on the internet discussion groups, the same buzzwords keep cropping up: Ethics, transparency, integrity, disclosure.

After a while, believing feverish logic was firmly on my side in the main, I need to generate a response that could educate and appease at the same time, perhaps even extract a eureka exhale, a look to the skies toward clarity. Understanding. Acceptance.

I'd mention that what they're having a problem with here is something that's been all around them all their lives and well before they were born. It's a fundamental part of business, delegation.

We know the President doesn't write his own speeches right? Sure, he wants to get his message across but he doesn’t write it. It's ghostwritten. Of course it's ghostwritten. We understand the word ‘speechwriter’ and we get that but call it ghostwriting and it's a different kettle of fish.

And do they really expect a bit CEO to personally chip in with 500 words for the newsletter?

When a footballer decides to tell the world all about his life and career, he hires someone to write his autobiography. They are his memories and feelings and his family stories but a professional writer has pulled it all together for him into something that is... you guessed it... marketable.

Because ignore all you want, forget all you need, the bottom line is marketability. That footballer isn't writing a book for posterity, so his grandkids can say "grandad did that". Like pretty much everything else, its about expanding his brand and making money.

I'd remind the doubters that every aspect of a successful business crosses over into things they really shouldn't know anything about. It's perfectly logical for a former pop star to develop clothing or perfume brands. You can see that. Is she expected to make her own shoes?

Paul Newman was an actor, a great actor, but what does he know about spaghetti sauce? Sure, he probably didn’t mind a decent spag bol on occasion but was he a chef before he became an actor? At least we knew Harrison Ford was a carpenter before we saw him on our screens. Fine, so Harrison Ford is perfectly entitled to go out back and build a shed and then sell that shed if he wants.

Come on people, say it after me: Brand Loyalty.

Paul Newman spaghetti sauces rely on brand loyalty. They're also some pretty tasty sauces but brand is everything. Of course if a marketing bod tells you to expand into other things and shows you the money, why not?

We know all this. We've always known this, maybe just never given it this much thought. It's always been happening and we've always been comfortable with it.

Incidentally, George Lucas didn’t hire Harrison Ford to play Han Solo after excessive rounds of auditioning and callbacks, haggling and pleading.

No. George Lucas met Harrison Ford while Harrison Ford was installing a wooden door at Francis Ford Coppola’s house.

So, the logic of it, the fact its been happening under different names for as long as humans have been writing things, the logic is there for all to see.

But this is an ethical issue.

There was a thread of discussion about social media that understood all of the above but felt on social media platforms, surely its all about connection on a personal level. The idea that someone is connecting and sharing with someone isn't actually the person you thought it was would make you angry.

OK, first of all, you might end up seeing the occasional or not so occasional advertisement, sponsorship or other blurb to sell you stuff. Facebook pages, sponsored tweets, its endless. It's marketing. Conveying messages to a customer using the basis of good solid copywriting.

For over a century, when marketing managers decided to launch a new advertising campaign, who do they call?

A Copywriter [kop-ee-rahy-ter]. Noun. A writer of copy, especially for advertisements or publicity releases. (Origin: 1910–15). Courtesy of

Copywriters have never signed their name to the bottom of their ads. They get paid money to do it. Because in life, if we have a budget, we hire people who know the industry and do it better than we can.

But advertising on social media isn’t what they’re saying. They’re saying that on a personal level, false representation makes us feel dirty. Duped on a deeply personal level. The ethics issue is still valid.

Let's dig into that a bit. Split social media into two. You and your friends and your antics and selling stuff.

The ghostwritten content that we see isn't Tammy next door telling you about her day. Tammy hasn't engaged Jeff to get it all across to the rest of us because Tammy’s got stuff to do. That's where the personal relationship is paramount. When you and Tammy go down to the river and throw stones, Tammy can recount her day exactly as she wrote it.

No. The ghostwritten material we read on social media is selling us stuff, plain and simple. It’s no more or no less valid than seeing a billboard with the CEO of a pharmaceutical firm saying “I’m your friend.”

At a point that little Tammy does start getting Jeff to organise her social media content and tell her friends it’s her, then that’s a matter for friendship not the channel of its conveying.

So what I think people are actually say when they rile against the concept of ghostwriting is they’re riling against the concept of capitalism.

Deep down, or even closer to the surface, they know full well this has all been going on for ever. And we all know we're slaves to it. That’s the irksome part. We buy into it even if we know Paul Newman didn’t actually make that sauce. And that's what makes us angry too.

Ghostwriting just seems a soft target to vent frustration.

As far as we who prostitute ourselves and ghostwrite, that’s the point, we get paid so don’t worry about us. They hire me because I write well, and they don’t. Or I have the time to write and they don’t. Or I like to write and they don’t.

If you have a problem with the ethics of ghostwriting, you have a problem with the ethics of life.

In that regard, it’s easy to stand with you full strong.

And perhaps therein lies the rub.

Feel free to comment.

Take care, big hugs and adios.

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