Should a Christian Ghostwrite?

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.Should_a_Christian_Ghostwrite

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 But a few unpublished novels and rejected submissions down the road, the desire to get paid might overshadow your aspirations to be recognized as the author of your work.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.

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Sierra Ret — homeschool grad, camping fanatic, and amateur adventurer — joined the KP team as an intern a year ago and has since been promoted to Writing Team Captain, an honor equally thrilling and humbling. She enjoys both swinging in a hammock in the woods and hermiting behind a laptop screen with a mug of tea in one hand and a bar of dark chocolate in the other (something that tends to make typing difficult).
While the most recent plot in her long string of fantasies involves making a living as a travel blogger in New Zealand, she currently makes her home in Peterborough, Canada, a pleasant land that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Shire. But regardless of whether she eventually settles at home, abroad, or at the seat of government power in Ottawa, her chief aim is to live a passionate and meaningful life for the glory of God.
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  1. I’d never consider ghostwriting before, but thank you, Sierra, for this valuable insight. 🙂

  2. Hm… I’d never thought about this. Very good points… *goes away with her intellectual scope broadened and ponders everything new*

  3. Really appreciate this article, ’cause most people just accept that ghostwriting is okay because it’s common and popular. So happy you showed ghostwriting (like in as celebrity “autobiographies”) as it truly is . . . lying to the reader. But in order to not be misunderstood, I must say that I do think that ghostwriting for speeches is not bad simply because it’s more collaborative than you think. And, also, the actual person speaking rarely “reads” a speech word for word.

  4. like everyone who has commented before me, I’d literally never thought about ghostwriting as being bad or unethical before. I’d also never realised what “true ghostwriting” actually was. I knew about the people who write books with celebrities and just considered them to be ghostwriters and never thought anything more of it. Thanks for broadening my horizons and knowledge with this interesting topic!

    • I’d never thought about it before either, until I found myself doing it. 😀 I even watched “The Ghost Writer” with Ewan McGregor and never considered the moral implications of his work. Glad my personal discoveries were of use to you 🙂

  5. I had never heard of ghost writing before until now, it seems like a weird thing to do. I mean to me writing is like painting, you created it you made it what it is and when you have someone else do it and put your name on. I don’t think it is honest, and as christian’s we are to be honest.

  6. I remember when you got your first ghostwriting job, and when I was very nearly given one as well. Now I can’t believe that neither of us even thought to consider whether or not it was right. Brilliant points. Very well-thought-out, Sierrs 🙂

  7. Good points. Did you know that Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys are ghost written?

  8. Interesting concepts. There was one thing which could be included under this umbrella which you didn’t address. That is, writing under a pseudonym so that no one in the general public knows who you are. I’m curious what the Kingdom Pen has to say about that. If I ever publish I think I would do exactly that.

    • I haven’t personally delved into the morality of that practice, though I know Kingdom Pen’s policy does allow pieces published under a pseudonym. I’m curious as well to know what the other staff writers’ perspective is on it.

    • Good question. I have never published anything under a pseudonym myself, but I don’t know of many situations where I would take issue with this. The one issue I’ve read about that I would find concerning would be situations where, as a pseudonym, you used a name commonly associated with the opposite gender in order to speak to someone of that gender as a member of that gender (e.g. I’m a guy and want to write an article about gender roles, but am afraid I’ll be called a sexist so I publish under a feminine pseudonym). I’d find that problematic since there you’re claiming to be something you’re not. Other than that, though, I don’t know of many cases I’d find objectionable. If you make it clear the name is pseudonym, this is even more so the case (though I don’t think you necessarily need to clarify it’s a pseudonym).

    • Great question, Christianna! I wondered if this subject might come up in conjunction with Sierra’s article. 😉 I’ve contemplated the ethical implications of a pseudonym before, so I hope my input will be helpful.

      I occasionally wrote under a pen name when I was a teen, and I’m acquainted with some authors who have chosen to go by a pseudonym exclusively. The primary reason people do this is to protect their privacy—they don’t want the general public knowing their real name. This allows them to be themselves without worrying about creepers stalking them (which is a very real concern nowadays, unfortunately). A pseudonym is like a nickname that a person has adopted permanently. Thus, I don’t see anything immoral or deceptive about it—unless, like Josiah mentioned, a person is using a pseudonym to pretend to be something they’re not (the opposite gender, a famous person, etc.).

  9. Thank you for this article, Sierra! I have pursued freelance writing on Upwork this year and ghostwriting came up with my first job. I’ve had extremely mixed feelings about it, but the points you brought up helped me to make up my mind!

    • Glad I was able to provide you with some insight that was so relevant to your situation! How has freelancing in general been working for you?

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