Ghost Ethics

Coincidences happen for a reason. I am a member of a virtual group of ghostwriters and recently a discussion started related to ethics and writing theses for students. A few days later I chanced on an old Reader’s Digest and found an article related to the subject. You can read this informative article at http://chronicle.com/article/The-Shadow-Scholar/125329/.

These two events started me thinking on ethics in the field of ghostwriting. Ghostwriting purports to give words to people who cannot word their thoughts engagingly enough in a book or who don’t have the time to spare thinking of words. It is a service industry that finds takers from many walks of life. Yet, it also has or should have some ethics to limit its boundaries. Writing theses for students is akin to answering exam papers in their name- unethical for sure.

Some might argue that ghostwriting is a subterfuge for it shrouds the actual writer and puts the name of the non-writer on the cover, so ethics is something ghostwriting cannot boast of. I beg to differ here. Ethics is not only what the world sees but a moral code of conduct held by a person or society. My moral code doesn’t allow cheating; it does allow giving words to the wordless. I am sure society (as defined by me) also follows the same rule.

My code in ghostwriting consists of understanding people’s views and putting them in words. When the client says that I have expressed their thoughts in their manner then all seems right in my world. Ethics are essential in any profession to make it rise above the average and ghostwriting is no exception.

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When should you ghost?

The first question in a ghostwriting deal will always send you back to the grocery store- how much? Say a figure out and the person will invariably blink and then will start an array of bargaining tactics.

·         Hmmm…but what is your hourly rate?

·         I will give you more work.

·         And my all-time favorite- It’s just words…..

The fact here is to accept it and move on. Don’t get offended for it is a business transaction at the end of the day and everyone involved wants to minimize the costs and increase the profits. The answers to all of them are quite simple if you just stop pulling your hair and crying out about creative value.

Everyone has their own criteria for deciding on a project. Over time I have chiselled out the following points that help me decide whether or not the project is worth my while. I am sure that some years hence I will add or delete some more- but they will do for now.

The content: 

The content should be comprehensible to me. Projects which talk profusely of subjects like math’s and physics are the ones I would gladly miss! Plus the content should interest me at some point. I changed tracks in my career to do something I like not something that makes me want to go back into my quilt (my old job was good enough for that). If the content doesnt excite you, you will never write it well enough and that niggling doubt spoils the feeling of finishing a project.

The availability of the content:

The content generally comes from two sources- the client or research. The research can be within the confines of Google or through a book/books. The time it will take to get those facts and figures is an important consideration. If it comes solely from the client then you should do a test check to see how good that person is at disseminating his/her information and how critical he/ she is when you submit the test draft. A nit-picky one can make your life hell if you have to rely solely on him for the information. Beware!

The time period:

I am a freelancer for a reason. I love feeling that I own the day and don’t have to rush at someone’s bidding. Of course it is a lie but one that I prefer to believe even when I run to complete my work, send my kid to school and make sure my house runs perfectly. Combining work-from-home-mom with creative writing is a task and takes up a lot of time. Thus the time period is extremely important to me; most of the times I inform my clients of impending school holidays and schedule them in my work life. Kids are prone to illnesses too and so I prefer work that doesn’t scream down my back the minute it starts. A small project that gives me at least 2-3 days breathing time is fine, while I juggle my day around.

Check your calendar and only then say yes, for a late delivery will spoil your rapport and sully your image.

The trust factor with the client

I like trusting people and have sometimes trusted beyond their ability to respond. It takes time to build a rapport with a client and some might do it within days while some will still talk like a stranger even after you have gone through a few projects with them. Gauge and understand your clients for they are human too and sometimes a good rapport will decrease costs (for me)- for a smile is priceless. Bah!

But seriously, it is better writing for a person who you like/understand than one who makes you grind your coffee into pulp and reach for tranquilizers.

The learning offered

This is an important factor for me, in deciding the cost and I have put it last for a reason as many projects don’t offer this opportunity. I have sometimes gone in at cut-rate prices just because the project offered to teach me something new. I am always ready to learn and enhance my writing skills. any project that offers to take me beyond my known abilities invariably finds me ready to take the plunge.

These are the essential points that I see while deciding on the project and the price. I usually take the market rate and then put in these factors to decide when to stand back and politely let the client take himself and his project out of my door or when to sign on the contract and notch up one more for myself.

Ghosting specialized subjects.

Ghostwriting especially for books relies as much on word prowess as on an ability to think like your client. Everyone has views and a writer has more for he/she wields the pen that finally writes it! But ghostwriting is different; it demands that the ghost be invisible, so the views, ideas and opinions that need to come across should be the client’s own.

It is not easy to stifle your thoughts and usually you don’t have to go in for extreme measures to do so for by the time you go through the process of deciding whether or not this project is for you, you invariably get a fair idea of what the client wants, thinks and opines. There are still a few things that will help in your transition from writing for yourself to writing on a specialized topic for a client.

1. Respect the client’s view

There is no getting around the fact that the book was and is the client’s idea. It should reflect his/her views and opinions. Of course the best thing about ghostwriting is that both of you get to pool in your thoughts, but don’t try to flavor it your way only. One of the best projects I worked on required me to understand human psychology. I have never read Freud or Jung, but am human enough to understand people. The specialist helped me see the various shades of the personalities and in some time I was able to give inputs, which most times met with approval. When they didn’t I bowed to his superior knowledge and worked on. Thus it is best to learn, modify and refine your views as you fine tune your project.

 

2. Choose subjects that you can understand or empathize with

Writing is a creative process and needs your attention and care. Subjects that don’t interest you one bit will show your lack of joy. I am not saying that you need to have a spiritual connect with the subject but it would be nice if you find it a tad bit interesting and worth thinking about.

 

3. Be ready to change your writing style

Every person has a way of expressing himself. Your client needs to be reflected to a certain degree in your writing. The best way to zero in on to a specific style is to first sit down and discuss the project with your client and then send a draft of the first two pages. That is more than enough to give the client an idea of your writing style. One client that I worked with liked my style used but thought some of the words were too high-brow for him, so I made a conscious effort to use smaller words. The thesaurus in Word can help you there. Another way to get the client into the book is to take notes while he/she talks about his subject, you will easily find words and phrases that your client uses to describe various events. These details will help you in flavoring the document in the client’s style.

4. Stop harping over points that you don’t agree with

Every situation has the potential of conflict especially when it involves more than one person. Creativity and a sense of language urges a writer in one direction, while a client might think more in the direction of things he/she has read or liked. Put your point forward, discuss its merits and let the client decide. If you feel too strongly you can suggest that the client show the two different versions to people whose judgment he/she trusts but remember to back down if the answer is No and keep the triumphant smile at bay if the answer is Yes.