Breaking into the writing industry isn’t an easy task. It’s filled with scams, bad contracts, unrealistic pay, and over the top expectations. When I first added writing to my listing of services, I received an offer to ghostwrite. Upon learning that others would be claiming the work I did, it was time to ask a few questions. I needed to understand if the work was ethical, legal and if it paid well. Also, if I could never claim anything, how would I create a portfolio?

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one with these questions. In fact, it was a hotly debated topic that I had accidentally fallen into. After searching online, I determined that if I was to do this job, I needed to set some guidelines. These guidelines were for myself, they were to be ethical guidelines to ensure that I never went below my morals for work or money.

After some time ghostwriting, I decided to add executive coaching to my services upon request from a client. Over time, people began asking me the same questions that I had asked others. Is ghostwriting ethical, valuable, legal, etc? That’s when the idea to just write it all out came to mind. Of course, this is all my opinion and how I determine the ethics of what I am doing, but I have indeed looked to others to form my ideas and those are listed when found.

Helianthus Advising’s Ethical Questionnaire for Ghostwriting

(No matter what I’m asked to ghostwrite, I ask these questions to myself.)

To begin, let’s start with the questions I ask myself. I found the base of these questions from Richard L. Johannesen’s book Ethics in Human Communications via a Forbes post about this very subject. I took those questions and made them my own for the work I do.

If I can say yes to each of these questions, it’s a job I can ethically let myself do. Are these rules a bit strong? Yes. I prefer it that way. It makes sure that no matter what, I never do something I don’t believe in ethically, morally, or otherwise. If you think my rules are a bit strong or even a bit weak, take them and make them your own.

What is the client’s intent with the content to be created? 

The first question that I ask myself is that they plan on doing with the work that I create and what that work is. If they are doing something illegal then that’s, of course, an automatic no. If they are doing something morally wrong, again the answer is no.

As an example, I recently had a ghost topic about a product for babies. Upon doing some research, I found that this particular product is not recommended by not only by doctors but by the FDA. In fact, the FDA and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that it should never be used and disavow it’s selling in the market. For me, that information leads to a talk and a determination that I would only write if I could include this warning on the postings.

What is the audience’s general degree of awareness of ghostwriting? 

This question is more about the ethics behind deceiving the client’s audience. Take public speaking for example. Unless you are listening to a person known as a public speaker, chances are you are listening to someone who is reading the speech that was given to them. This is especially true for presidents and CEOs. In that case, it’s ethical. Why? You aren’t deceiving anyone, most people already know the speaker didn’t write it.

On the other hand, if a client wants me to write a speech that they will claim to have written, I can’t say yes. That’s lying and unethical to me. By the same note, I always say no when topic or content will be in an industry that is not accepting of ghostwriters. An example of this is writing content for Forbes itself or most other guest writings. Forbes and many other websites prohibit ghostwriters by writing in their contract that all work submitted must be of the writers own and not by anyone else.

Does the client want to use me to make him or herself appear different than they are?

This is the one that might be most complicated. What I’m asking here in short, is if the client wants me to write for them so that they can appear more intellectual, helpful, witty, or valuable when they themselves are not. In all of these cases, the client wants to claim totality over the work I do. Sometimes, this work can be through Twitter while other times it can be on a personal website or email.

The issue here arises when they want me to come up with inspiring and good knowledge bits that they can use to promote themselves as an expert in their industry. For me, the ethicality decreases with the degree of the “stretch” I’m creating. In general, I give these people coaching sessions but refuse any content creation work on this topic.

What are the surrounding circumstances?

If a busy executive wants me to write their email responses, blog posts, or even Facebook post, I might be more understanding so long as they still meet the above rules. However, the average office manager or university professor has no reason or need to hire a ghostwriter. Especially when answering the previous question, it’s important to look at the pressure and demands of the job the person holds. I always think about how much they are required to communicate through various channels on top of other demands.

For example, if Elon Musk wanted his Twitter to be managed with a theme of interaction and entrepreneurship, it would be an acceptable job. He is very busy and his twitter is a form of regular communication. On the other hand, if a small-time manager was looking position themselves as an expert in entrepreneurship through the use of me, that would be more questionable and unethical. They don’t have near the commitments and haven’t already proved themselves as such.

To what extent does the client actively participate in the writing of their own messages?

Obviously, the more the better. That’s where a scale comes in. Supposing the work still passes question number one, I’ll do editing work on most documents. It’s their words completely so there is no issue. If they give me an outline, I usually have no problem getting it into the right order and adding the fluff.

As the scale keeps going to my side, I ask more questions. If they have just ideas, I prefer to work with them throughout the creation of the document. At the end of the save, in general, I don’t like to take work when all I get is “write me something” from the client. It’s hard in this case to expect that the sentiments I expressed are their own.

Is Ghostwriting Valuable

You’ve probably gained the sense that ghostwriting’s ethics are very complicated. However, ethics aside, is it valuable? For me, the answer is yes. I’ve gotten a lot of great work when ghostwriting and I’ve helped a lot of people. It helped to push me into full-time remote work and caused me to gain confidence in my ability to write.

When I first hit a big website, sure I was a little sad to not see my name. Yet, It was good to know that those were my words. It helped me to see that I could do all this and that it was a real thing. It’s also pretty good money. You see, when I write ghostwriting, I usually charge more. This is because I can never use or claim the work.

Eventually, I’ll back out of ghostwriting. It’s all about rewards vs benefits. As of this writing, I still need the work, the money, and the experience more than I need the by-lines or ego. As the day I don’t need it anymore approaches rapidly, I make plans of handing my work to someone else or even training someone and helping them to break into the field.

In my opinion, ghostwriting CAN be ethical and IS a valuable way to break into writing and get your work out there. However, to me, that’s where it ends. It’s a starting pad, a great way to get out there, but you should always work to be recognized for your work. After all, that’s how you grow and get a portfolio.