When I used to hear the term ghostwriting, my mind would conjure up images of celebrities hiring diligent yet invisible writers to pen bestselling autobiographies for them. Now, I couldn’t name any celebrities in particular, but my instincts told me that it wasn’t too uncommon a practice. I had no idea that ghostwriting had so many facets—some more perplexing than others. It appears that professional ghostwriters begin the same way: As a dream deferred, leaving them with little options. As a writer and an aspiring academic, the prospect of my own career turning to ghostwriting terrifies me. When I consider myself as a potential ghostwriter, I find that I’d find certain forms of it much less objectionable than others.
Ghostwriting takes many forms—from tweeting for a celebrity to writing a research paper for a pharmaceutical company. After studying these different areas, I’ve placed them on a spectrum, from acceptable to objectionable. Where various forms of ghostwriting fall on this spectrum directly correlates to my level of comfort when considering them as my hypothetical future career. First, there’s updating celebrity’s social media accounts, such as Twitter. According to a 2009 article published in The New York Times, “[many] celebrities and their handlers have turned to outside writers…who keep fans updated on the latest twists and turns, often in the star’s own voice.”[i] I find this form of ghostwriting to be the least objectionable of all the forms we’ve studied. Besides the fact that some fans may be disappointed that the words of their favorite celebrity are being ghostwritten, it seems that this form is largely inconsequential. What sort of profoundly negative impact could ghosting on Twitter for Miley Cyrus have?
I would have no qualms being a “ghost Twitterer” for a celebrity—I’d imagine that it would pay a decent amount, and it’s likely that I’d have no ethical objections to the work being done. Were my career to come to the point where I’d be forced to choose between welfare and tweeting for a celebrity, I would choose tweeting every time. Although my name wouldn’t ever go on any of my work, the aura of celebrity surrounding my hypothetical employer would likely fulfill my innate desire as a writer to see my name on my writing. Being a little star-struck never hurt anyone, right?
Second, ghostwriting Internet reviews for various products, attractions, and vacation spots has recently become a common practice. Online retailers “increasingly depend on reviews as a sales tool,” according to a 2011 New York Times article titled “In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5.”[ii] While this type of ghostwriting has the potential to have negative consequences (such as a couple wasting money by going out to a terrible restaurant that had been given a ghostwritten 5-star rating), I consider it to be more of a “white lie,” or largely insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Human opinion is so subjective and diverse—one person might consider a particular pet groomer to be spectacular, while another individual may find their work to be shoddy and unprofessional. Because such a vast array of opinions exists, it would be more beneficial to take all online reviews with a grain (or perhaps a shaker) of salt, especially given that it’s difficult to tell the authentic from the ghostwritten.
As with ghostwriting for celebrities on various social media platforms, writing ghost reviews would be an acceptable career of last resort for me. I suppose that my guilty conscience would be activated upon hearing that one of my reviews led to someone wasting financial resources or some other negative experience of that nature, but what is the likelihood that my review in particular would be the cause of it? Moreover, how would I even find out about such a consequence? In this case, the positives—a quick and easy way to make money writing—outweigh the potential negative consequences associated with that work.
Ghostwriting takes yet another form which poses a major problem in academia—ghostwritten papers. According to “This Pen for Hire,” a piece written by professional ghostwriter Abigail Witherspoon, writers in this profession spend their careers writing papers for student clients, from term papers to senior theses.[iii] This type of writing is highly objectionable, because it not only represents an infraction of plagiarism on the student’s part, it’s downright fraud; it takes one writer’s work and portrays it as another’s. But even though I am strongly against this kind of writing, I understand why writers turn to it as a career. For Witherspoon, ghosting for students was a last resort. She writes:
“I used to tell myself I’d do this work only for a month or two, until I found something else. But the official unemployment rate in this large Canadian city where I live is almost 10 percent, and even if it were easy to find a job, I’m American, and therefore legally prohibited from receiving a paycheck.”[iv]
The author never intended to be ghostwriting for students permanently, but the circumstances life has forced upon her have left her no other choice. This is understandable.
For people in these kinds of situations, I don’t blame them for doing what they’re doing—and I really can’t blame them. People still need a home and need to eat, and this work gives them a means to fulfill those needs. If I were ever placed into a situation similar to the one the author of “This Pen for Hire” was in, I would likely take the ghostwriting job. Although I wouldn’t agree with the work on principle, the need for work (and thus survival) would outweigh the reservations I have.
There is one form of ghostwriting, however, that I find difficult to picture myself doing, even if I were in dire straits. Medical ghostwriting is something often employed by pharmaceutical companies, in an effort to make their products appear more effective, and thus attractive to doctors. The article “Ghost Marketing” describes this practice in more detail: “…A pharmaceutical company…will commission an academic physician or researcher to ‘author’ a journal article about a particular drug or illness. Sometimes the academic is paid to write the article, which is then submitted to an academic journal, but more often the academic will be asked to collaborate with a medical writer—a ghostwriter.”[v] Basically, a pharmaceutical company will pay a researcher to laud their product, and then this research is submitted to scholarly journals under the guise of being independent.
Medical ghostwriting is, in my opinion, highly objectionable. Given the influence that medical journals have on doctors and other medical professionals, it is possible (and probable) that medical ghostwriting also has great influence on doctors. What if this ghostwritten research was flawed, or if it missed a huge negative side effect of the drugs it was reviewing? The potential for negative consequences—namely harmful side effects or death—is profound. This is not only a true crime of writing (at least ethically speaking), it is a crime against people’s bodies. I could not in good conscience become a medical ghostwriter, because the potential negative consequences of my work are enormous. The only time I’d ever consider doing this form of ghostwriting is if I existed in the worst possible conditions—if I were to end up homeless, jobless, and penniless.
When I look to the future, I see myself doing big things. I aspire to earn professional degrees and spend my career teaching at an institution of higher education—I aspire to make a difference in people’s lives. Were those aspirations to go unfulfilled, my skills as a writer could be used in a career in ghostwriting. Some of its forms—such as managing social media for celebrities—I can see myself doing, perhaps even with some enjoyment. For reasons of conscience, I cannot participate in other types of ghostwriting, particularly in the medical field. When I examine the possibility of the course of my life changing because of a dream deferred, I find that ghostwriting might not be all bad after all.
[i] Cohen, Noam. “When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May Be Lurking.” New York Times. 27 Mar. 2009: 1.
[ii] Streitfeld, David. “In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5.” New York Times. 16 Aug. 2011: 1.
[iii] Witherspoon, Abigail. “This Pen for Hire: On grinding out papers for college students.” Harper’s Magazine. Jun. 1995: 1.
[iv] Witherspoon 1.
[v] Moffatt, Barton, and Carl Elliot. “Ghost Marketing: Pharmaceutical Companies and Ghostwritten Journal Articles.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 50.1 (2007): 19.