Is Ghostwriting Ethical or Unethical?

Some people will tell you that what the major banks did with the mortgage crisis was unethical. Similarly, the smaller business of freelance writing is equally with its fair share of ethical considerations. While some of these are certainly going to be culture specific, there is one topic that comes up periodically among the freelancing community, both among the freelancers themselves and among clients: is ghostwriting ethical?

Most of what I do is fairly public. When I blog about cell phones on Mobile Magazine, you’ll very clearly see my name attached to that post. When I write a review on John Chow dot Com, again, my name is right there in the byline. There is no ambiguity about who wrote the original article. However, I also engage in some ghostwriting from time to time. But why would someone think that ghostwriting is unethical?

Questioning the Ethics

If you make your living as an auto mechanic, it would be unethical to tell a customer that the engine needs to be replaced if all they need is a fairly simple repair. That seems obvious enough, but what about ghostwriting? Is that unethical?

  • Inherently a lie: By definition, ghostwriting is somewhat misleading. If I write an e-book and the client goes on to publish the book, claiming that he or she is the true author, that’s deceptive. It doesn’t matter that the client and I agreed to the terms of the arrangement and that I had no qualms about the client taking full ownership of the work. This would have been a part of the original negotiations. From the reader’s perspective, he or she thinks that Client XYZ wrote those words, when in fact, it was me instead.
  • Credit should be given where credit is due: In general, society teaches us that credit should be given where credit is due. That’s why there are laws surrounding trademarks, patents, and copyright. If a person came up with an idea or if a person accomplished a certain feat, he or she should have every right to claim that idea or that accomplishment. In the case of ghostwriting, the original author (the ghostwriter) is not getting any credit at all.

Why Ghostwriting Is Fair Game

But is ghostwriting really that unethical? Is it wrong to be (or to hire) a ghostwriter? I don’t think so, as long as other ethical standards are maintained.

  • Playing a role: To me, ghostwriting is akin to an actor taking the stage. Kenneth Branagh really isn’t Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He is playing a role. He is taking on a persona and, based on the script, putting words into the mouth of a character. This is “inherently a lie,” so to speak, but it is accepted and understood to be one. Ghostwriting, to an extent, is the same concept.
  • Speech writers are ghostwriters: Believe or not, when Barack Obama steps up on that podium to make a speech, most of his words likely aren’t his. He has a speech writer or, more likely, a team of speechwriters. He fully takes credits for the words being spoken, as if they were his own, but they were effectively ghostwritten. The material spoken by people like Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert on their respective TV shows is much the same.
  • Writing and editing: And herein we find a very fine line. Let’s say that client provides me with a series of bullet points to cover and then I package them together into logical sentences and paragraphs. Here, you would say that I am writing the content. Now, let’s say that the client provides the core subject matter in very loose sentences with remarkably bad grammar and spelling. I restructure this content into something more sensible and approachable. That’s more akin to editing. The first qualifies as ghostwriting, assuming the client publishes the work under his or her own name, but does the second? In both case, you are still reading the client’s own words, but they have been “cleaned up” by a freelance writer/editor like me.
  • Designers and other artists: With writers, we are accustomed to seeing bylines in some form. This isn’t necessarily true with other creative arts. The graphic designer who creates a company logo for a client usually doesn’t get a byline and we don’t bat an eye at that. Ghostwriting follows the same model, but with words.

There are certainly both pros and cons to ghostwriting, but given the right context, I would say that it is a perfectly ethical business practice. The freelancer should be compensated accordingly for “sacrificing” the byline, but ghostwriting is a common and expected aspect of open enterprise. Press releases are all ghostwritten, for example, and we accept that.