Yes, I did it. I’m that shady writer who helps lazy students get away with cheating and sleazy professionals get away with claiming other people’s work as their own. There is a respectable word for what I do: ghostwriting. But we both know the industries I operate in don’t always see it that way.
Here’s the problem:
Job markets are competitive. Colleges ask students to perform at their peak while contending with the demands, distractions, and temptations of a modern, technologically infused lifestyle. I suppose you could argue that these kids should “buck up their ideas,” but in doing so, they may miss out on the formative experiences and social bonding opportunities that carry them well into adulthood.
Then there’s the other side. Academics constantly find themselves under ‘publish or perish’ pressure — and that’s not counting all the other work they need to do to keep learning within their discipline. And now, thanks to social media, businesses are finding themselves under that same pressure. Sometimes it’s not enough just to do your job well; you need to craft and maintain your public image online or risk someone else doing it for you.
Why ghostwriting is an honest way to make money
I burned out after two years of my teaching career. From there, I chose freelance writing as my next step. It seemed like the obvious choice — no surprise when you consider that America’s freelance workforce grew from 53 million in 2014 to 55 million in 2016; two million more professionals saw enough in the market to make it worth foregoing full-time work.
Ghostwriting isn’t such a problem in commercial sectors. Most industry professionals are too busy doing the work to stop and write about it. So, if you’re a ghostwriter who knows their stuff, big companies may want you, small companies will need you, and even thriving solopreneurs themselves might ask you to write insanely personal posts because they just don’t have the time. In many cases, this is standard marketing practice.
It’s good money if you know where to look. It certainly kept my lights on — literally and figuratively. Not only did my ghostwriting income help my life and business stay afloat, but every job expanded my expertise a little more.
Which meant I could take on more complex and in-depth writing jobs that, naturally, paid better. The irony of the situation is that I work in the team of PlagiarismCheck.org website developers, preventing plagiarism in academia and encouraging students to create original writings. You never know where your skills come in handy, after all. Now I struggle with copypasting, poor paraphrasing, words rearrangements, synonymization, and wrong references. And you know what? It seems The Light Side has eventually won!
When an honest practice turns dark
When people talk about bad ghostwriting, they’re usually referring to academia, where grades are the pseudo-currency earned by learning and applying knowledge. Consider sharp students on a budget, who write for their peers and underclassmen as a way to earn a little extra cash. And don’t presume the accomplished academics are above it either — underpaid professionals may turn to the ghostwriting economy to keep their lights on or, ironically, to help pay off their student loans.
Letting someone put their name on your work can be a lucrative business. In 2011, The Telegraph reported on claims about Saif Gaddafi turning in ghostwritten college assignments. In 2012, The Atlantic named ballpark figures of US $20-80 per page (say $160 minimum for a basic 2000-word essay, double-spaced). In 2013, one ghostwriter claimed to make between US $200-2,600 on custom essays.
But there’s no way around it. This is tantamount to cheating or helping others cheat. It’s both against the regulations of just about every university and can be a grim factor in destroying reputations and careers.
In the medical and research sectors, ghostwriting lays an ethical and legal minefield, upping the propensity for distorted findings, conflicts of interest, bias, and fraud. These unreliable articles may even see themselves presented as scientific evidence in a court of law, thus cementing their believability and allowing the lies to perpetuate.
At its worst, a case of faulty ghostwriting can escalate to devastating ends when the success of advanced treatments and technologies hinge on impartiality and scientific accuracy. If nothing else, this should be the scenario that pushes us to demand honesty and integrity in publishing.
Does the system need to change?
It came as no surprise when I heard about the forty-or-so percent college dropout rates reported by the NCES, or read the 2015 article in The Conversation citing up to 22% of Australian students buying (or intending to buy) college papers online.
Most students who sought my services tended to be overloaded, close to burning out, and desperate enough to risk suspension, or even expulsion, to make their grades. They figured they could always learn the material by reading my essays and be ready when exam season came around.
Others came from a non-English speaking background. Essay writing is a communication skill practically fetishized in higher education, but knowing your science doesn’t mean you can put it into words. Knowing English doesn’t mean you can prepare a high-scoring essay, never mind if you’re a non-native speaker of the language you’ve been asked to write in. For so many students, this is enough to justify handing in ghostwritten work.
I operated on the understanding that the university system is failing its fee-paying customers. My clients found no solace or support from their supervisors, and it tickled my sense of justice to help the little guys get their footing back. But I’m not kidding myself about the ethics. I know it’s not entirely kosher.
I don’t write custom essays much these days, but every now and then, an opportunity knocks on my door. It makes me realize that, right or wrong, there will always be a place for ‘shady’ writers on the market.