Who do you suppose wrote this article? If you’re a loyal, observant reader of Kingdom Pen (as you should be) your answer will probably be: “Sierra Ret, obviously. It says so at the top.” But in the age of superfluous digital-content creation, a byline might not be as authentic as you expect. If I were a less ethical writer (and our editor-in-chief less picky about whom he hires), this article could be ghostwritten.

Ghostwriting is typically defined as writing for another who is the presumed or credited author, and the practice has a long tradition. Presidential speeches, for instance. George Washington’s famous Farewell Address was primarily written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. It is, after all, unreasonable to expect successful leaders to also be phenomenal wordsmiths. Today we automatically assume that nearly all presidential discourses are ghostwritten, and no one is deceived into thinking that lofty statements about freedom, unity, and American exceptionalism flowed straight from the president’s own pen.

The ethical trouble arises when content you believe was written by the credited author (such as this article) isn’t. Today this is only too common. Perform a search on any major freelance website, and you’ll find hundreds of job listings seeking ghostwriters to churn out cheap e-books and romance novels. Not only does it seem mean-spirited to pay someone in the Philippines $150 to write you a 20,000-word e-book on lactose-free cooking when you anticipate reaping thousands of dollars over the course of the year in sales, it is also lying to slap your own name on the cover of that book.

I doubt that’s something the average reader would do though. I imagine most of you are here because you love writing and want to improve your art. But a few unpublished novels and rejected submissions down the road, the desire to get paid might overshadow your aspirations to be recognized as the author of your work.

This is precisely the situation I found myself in a few years back. I was eager to explore the freelancing market and hungry for the positive reviews that would give me credibility on the now-defunct website eLance. The first job I was accepted for entailed ghostwriting a 10,000-word romance adventure novelette. I earned $80 for the five full days of research, writing, editing, and proofreading. Minus eLance’s fee, of course.

Money aside, I enjoyed the experience of crafting likable characters and playing out a story line I never would have chosen on my own. But after my third job, my conscience began to feel uneasy. Was selling my writing, when I knew it would be published under another’s name, a God-honoring pursuit?

After careful consideration and research, I was able to divide ghostwriting into three separate categories—some of which can be deemed morally acceptable, while others less so.

1. Anonymous Writing

Examples of this category include sales writing, product descriptions, and advertising jingles. We consume huge amounts of this content daily without ever stopping to contemplate who wrote it. The Nikon camera ad on the back of National Geographic was not written by the engineer behind the design, but by a third-party marketing specialist trained to prey on your deepest desires and bank account.

This kind of ghostwriting poses almost no moral quandaries, as no false names are being used, and thus no misrepresentation occurs. There are still the age-old gimmicks of advertisements that promise all you need is a new camera lens or skin cream or other miracle product to solve all of life’s problems, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

2. Collaborative Writing

This type of writing is the most ethically gray. If a talented leader or celebrity has a valuable life story that he yearns to share with the world, should his mediocre writing skills prevent that? Someone may be a great oral communicator, but truly terrible at handling the written word.

In this case, a ghostwriter who looks at an outline or first draft done by the author, reviews notes and gets a feel for his personal style and beliefs, and ultimately helps him to express thoughts on paper in an orderly and polished form might be called for. One can be clear of conscience with this method, provided several caveats are followed:

  • The credited author examines the final manuscript to confirm it matches his beliefs and overall style.
  • The ghostwriter doesn’t attribute characteristics such as refined wit, intelligence, or advanced knowledge of thermonuclear physics that the credited author does not possess. To do otherwise is akin to a university student hiring someone to write an academic essay containing facts and figures he doesn’t personally understand, which is cheating.
  • The ghostwriter receives some form of accreditation, such as a “With” or “As Told to” byline under the author’s name on the book cover. This ensures the public is not misled about the true identity of the author(s). Subtler ascription could be given on the acknowledgments page, but this is somewhat deceptive in my opinion, and verges on the disreputable kind of ghostwriting I describe below.

3. True Ghostwriting

In this form of ghostwriting, writers receive zero public credit. They probably also sign a secrecy contract, leaving all the fame and accolades to the credited author. This creates scandals when revealed, such as John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, most of which was purportedly ghostwritten.

And well it should. When someone receives all the recognition and financial gain for someone else’s work, not to mention a Pulitzer prize, this is wrong. It brings at least two broken commandments to mind, that of bearing false witness (claiming another’s words as your own) and stealing (the fame and profit). The ghostwriter is a willing accomplice to both these sins.

In light of these conclusions, I eventually decided to quit ghostwriting. Another factor was that the freelance site Upwork discovered I wasn’t eighteen at the time and shut down my account (which probably served me right). However, I believe there is still a need for the first two kinds of ghostwriters. Someone needs to write those presidential speeches and Amazon product descriptions, and a talented writer who openly collaborates with a literarily challenged person can be a blessing. But the task needs to be approached discerningly, taking care not to violate the reader’s trust and God’s commands.