Is Ghostwriting Ethical? The Arguments in Favor and Against

When I first donned the sometime title of ghostwriter at my day job, I often hesitated to explain to people what I did. While logically in my mind I was able to rationalize to myself that what I was doing was okay, I still wondered about the repercussions of ghostwriting in general.

So where do I stand now? In the long run, I’ve come to appreciate the important role that ghostwriting plays in sharing ideas. About 80% of the work I do has someone else’s name on it—something I’m totally okay with. Let me tell you why.

First: Why Some Writers are Leery about Ghostwriting

There are several reasons why writers are hesitant about ghostwriting:

1. Writers like credit for what they do

Getting credit for your work is important on multiple levels. First and foremost, there is a high level of satisfaction of seeing your name on a published work. This is particularly the case when you’re an expert on the subject and not just an intern spinning straw into fool’s gold.

Second, every writer wants to show off their abilities (something that’s hard to do when you’re bound by an NDA to keep quiet). Each published piece is a signal of value, but if you can’t reveal what you’ve written, in many ways your hands are tied.

2. Some writers see ghostwriting as lying

“Lying” feels like a pretty strong word to me in this context, but when a fellow writer learned about my work as a ghostwriter, her first question was, “Isn’t that lying?”

My thoughts: It depends on how you look at it.

There are two types of ghostwriting that I consider to be blatant, unacceptable lies.

First, academic ghostwriting. Professors expect their students to represent their own ideas and skills in their writing. I used to help international students edit some of their papers, and when one offered to pay me to write his paper, I was appalled at the thought. After investigating, I found that this was a common practice—one that I found totally unacceptable. I turned him down.

The second form of ghostwriting that I find unethical is when the writer gives false information at the behest or due to the neglect of the expert author.

Ghostwriting can be dangerous because the expert’s name is like a seal of approval—people are more likely to believe what is written. So if what is written is false, due to misinformation on the part of the ghostwriter or misguidance from the expert, readers could be led astray.

For example, if someone reads a misinformed article with a financial expert’s name on it, they could be misguided into dangerous financial decisions. Everyone has the right to an opinion (and hopefully the ghostwriter accurately represents the opinion of who they’re writing for), but misinformation in a ghostwritten article is menacing.

I recently read of one writer who, after ghostwriting an autobiography that grossly inflated her client’s character (per his requirements), she became fed up with the practice and left ghostwriting altogether. Unethical ghostwriting takes a toll.

3. Writers feel their style and craft is too personal

The same writer whose first impression of ghostwriting was that it was a lie also expressed to me that writing is a personal endeavor. Voice and style aren’t transferable—or shouldn’t be, in her opinion.

I agree, to some extent.

I likely would never employ a ghostwriter for myself because I know and love writing. But there are many who don’t love to write, or have a harder time expressing their personality in words. That’s part of the challenge of ghostwriting—a challenge I enjoy, and one I will talk about a bit more now.

Why Some Writers Love Ghostwriting

You’ve heard the arguments against. Here’s why some writers love ghostwriting:

1. Ghostwriting benefits experts and readers

How much time do you think top industry experts have to sit down and write? Not always a lot of time.

And even if they have the time, do they have the talent? Not necessarily.

This is where ghostwriters come in. Ghostwriters make it possible for experts to put their ideas out there without taking time away from their practice.

Ghostwriters aren’t sell-outs or scam artists trying to make a buck off the unwary reader. They’re writers like any other, trying to put useful information out there based on good research and accurate information. Ghostwriters give greater access to expert knowledge, allowing the experts to keep working and making new discoveries.

I’m always very pleased when an expert author approves a draft because it means I’ve successfully captured the right information.

2. Ghostwriting pays well

Ghostwriting tends to be more lucrative than other writing. The increase in price is a matter of attribution:

  • Clients will pay more because they want experienced writers that will make them look good. After all, whose name is going to be on the published version?
  • Ghostwriters can demand a higher price because they don’t get credit. There’s some compensation for the anonymity.

Some of the very same challenges that make ghostwriting hard also make it profitable.

3. Ghostwriters like the challenge

As a writer, I get a small thrill out of departing from my own knowledge base and writing style to represent another author. Ghostwriting stretches my skills and helps me explore other voices and vocabularies in a way that enrich my own writing. It’s like a liberal arts education for a freelance writer, and I enjoy that.

A Good Rule of Thumb When Ghostwriting

Having seen how content is created from the inside, I sometimes wonder about the credibility of some of the things I read online. I frequently ask myself, “Is what I’m reading backed up by real expertise, or is there just some rando somewhere spinning this stuff together?”

This definitely happens. Not wanting to spread lies under the guise of authority, I frequently ask myself this question when ghostwriting:

Whose ideas am I representing?

I have few qualms with ghostwriting because I am almost always regurgitating a conversation I had with the author of the piece. I will do some preliminary research to come up with appropriate questions to keep our conversation structured. Then I record our conversation, transcribe it, and then essentially do a heavy copy edit on a transcript to produce a ghostwritten piece.

If I’m basing my writing off the ideas of another person (an expert), I don’t feel bad at all about putting their name on the piece. Neither should you.

Keep your eyes open for another post about my process for working with an author of a ghostwritten piece.

About Jack Vawdrey

Jack is a combo freelance and in-house writer, dedicated to all things automation, particularly in the freelance writing world. Jack founded Writing Grid to help other freelancers increase productivity and succeed as self-employed writers. Is this working for me?

2 thoughts on “Is Ghostwriting Ethical? The Arguments in Favor and Against

  1. This is a really interesting argument. I can understand both sides – I hadn’t even thought about the ethics because it’s pretty much a given that experts use ghostwriters, and as writers we know that, but I see why people would think it’s a betrayal. Ultimately though you’re just helping someone put their thoughts on paper, which is awesome.

    Love this article! 100% agree that everyone should have that skill – it’s tough to adopt a new voice but fun when you get it right.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Adrienne! I think ghostwriting is becoming less taboo—but at the same time, I think as readers become wise to it, and as content becomes more common, readers are going to latch onto content that’s actually written by the expert, or is at least heavily based on the expert’s ideas and represents their voice well. Which is why I think every writer in the first-world needs to become an expert ghostwriter.

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