Ghostwriter Ethics: A Quiet Word on Quiet Work for New Writers

Dependent on the sort of company you keep someone hearing you’re a ghostwriter can be met with a variety of responses. Some understand it and know it well off the bat (often other writers). Some have heard of the term but little beyond it. Some even think there’s something sinister about it. Ghostwriting is something of a misunderstood field, and this contributes to the ethics around it.

Yes, ethics. Unless you’re right now in a philosophy department of a university and all set to publish a revelatory thesis – its hard to always make that word sound thrilling. But it is functional. Good ethics can keep you in the clear of trouble, and ethics do indeed apply to being a ghostwriter. For new writers it can be hard to navigate the arena easily with so many unwritten rules.

So, rather than this being any sort of ghostwriter’s public confession (for this writer is bound by ethics and confidentiality agreements) it is instead a outline of a couple of important conventions for those new to the field. May it help a new writer start their career, and avoid the pitfalls throughout.

Never reveal who you’ve worked for

You may be the world’s foremost authority in bowling ball repair but go ahead and tell everyone who your clients were in the tenpin world and you’ll soon find you’ve no friends to bowl with. While landing a really cool client with work you enjoy may well leave you tempted to tell people near and far, such a move can damage you, your client, and your editor’s reputation. In a field where discretion and confidentiality are important, the adage ‘loose lips sink ships’ rings true.

But how to seek new clients and highlight your experience? Be general. It’s perfectly fine if you’re fast becoming a renowned writer on German cars, Japanese cuisine, or Canadian finance. Go ahead and seek our clients from Berlin to Tokyo to Vancouver and mention you’ve worked in the field before.

Just be sure you keep any information that could identify your client private.

If there’s any doubt from a potential new clients of your ability to produce good content without showing prior work, arrange to do a outline or draft for them on a topic of their choosing. That’ll show your skills, but maintain the privacy of your previous clients.

Seek to avoid conflict of interests

It’s a natural reality that someone who works in a field of writing often has the impulse to create. Further to this, while there are undoubtedly people who ghostwrite with little interest in their field, more often than not they like the work they do, and do it happily. The issue comes up when you’ve an idea for an article that could be similar to a client’s work.

If you have an article idea that is exactly the same because of work done for clients that is a direct copy and a big no-no. If instead though you did an article on the latest smartphone – and then want do something like a timeline history of smartphones through the era – that is different.

Nonetheless, best practice of being a ghostwriter means you don’t have conflict of interest issues arises rarely – but simply not at all. If you find you’ve an article in mind that you think could cut too close to the your ghostwriting field simply don’t write it; or check with your client.

Another conflict to watch out for is getting competitor clients. Again, often you’ll work for a lot of clients in the same field. If you get hired by Cola Company A and then their direct competitor Cola Company B asks you to work for them, it might be high time to pick one or the other.

Oftentimes the lines are not clear, and so it’s best to simply make one or both of your clients aware of any conflict you feel may exist, and then get their opinion. Oftentimes your find their is no conflict to their mind – ‘look provided you keep producing good content for us, we’re OK with you doing it for others too’ – but it’s always important to check. If competing clients find out you’re doing work for the other without their consent you may find your lose multiple clients all at once.

Recognise its not a moral ‘free pass’

A soldier, a lawyer, and a ghostwriter indeed make for an diverse group. They are also vastly different fields, but the example of the first two is useful to illustrate the differences of the latter. While a soldier is duty-bound to go into battle, and a lawyer is duty-bound to ensure a client gets a fair defence- even if they find part or all of the client’s conduct goes against their morals – there is no such expectation on you as a ghostwriter.

Morals of a job is obviously up to your own determination. Some people wouldn’t write for a gambling website for morals reasons feeling it a social ill, just as others wouldn’t write for a anti-gambling lobby as they feel it’s a ‘fun police’ group out to spoil people’s fun. This and other issues like it are personal to you, and up to your own set of values.

Nonetheless, if you are offered a job and don’t feel good or right about it before you accept the offer, it’s all-but-guaranteed you’ll not feel better the other side of it. After all, few cyclists do the Tour De France and feel more refreshed at the end. If you’ve doubts, don’t.

Legal issues can also arise

Disclaimer: this section is for informational purposes only and does constitute legal advice. 

Just because a name doesn’t go on the byline doesn’t mean a ghostwriter gets a free pass for creating work that could be against the law. In turn, it’s unlikely the law would excuse the contribution to any content or website that is known or reasonably suspected to be illegal with a defence composed simply of ‘Hey man, my name isn’t actually on it, I just wrote it!’

Dependent upon the nature of the contact and what can be established, if a ghostwriter writes for any website that could reasonably be deemed illegal or even offensive – such as writing for a website that advocates hate crime or other anti-social behaviour – expectation there is outright immunity under the law would be an unwise assumption.

This also applies not just to areas of where the law may be black and white, but also grey. The global economy is broad and vast, so just as you do the opportunities, remain mindful of the laws beyond your region alone. The current debate surrounding the legalisation of marijuana in many states and nations is illustrative of this.

Whatever your personal view, the facts is there are right now many places around the world that are making marijuana legally available as a recreational drug, just as there are many other states actively working against legalisation occurring

The location of a business in state A may well have legalised marijuana, and permit for businesses to openly sell, promote, and advertise it. If a ghostwriter comes from state B though – and marijuana is not legal in their state – then even if a writer worked remotely, they could end up on the wrong side of the law.

Depending on where a ghostwriter lived, other levels of government too could play a role (for a new state-based law may still end up in conflict with a federal or even local/city government ruling).

Putting Pen to Paper

Ghostwriting can come with more hurdles to navigate than work done under a writer’s own byline. At the same time it also allows the writer to work widely, across a variety of fields, and do some really interesting work that may not otherwise be possible if attributed to a author.

By being a ghostwriter that keeps their client’s secret, avoids conflicts of interest – and is proactive in considering any moral and legal implications that could come with new work – there is every opportunity for a writer to get the benefits of work in the field; while avoiding all of the downsides.

Ed Kennedy is a journalist and web designer proudly from Melbourne, Australia. Say hi to Ed via enquiries@edkennedy.co or on Twitter @Edkennedy01