Are Ghostwriters Mercenaries?

I was speaking with a new client today who said something that really got me thinking. He said that ghostwriters are simply mercenaries and I suppose, to some extent, he is right. This is part of the reason I love my job so much. I get to hear so many different viewpoints, and meet people that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. Allowing ourselves to explore ideas that are different to our own is how we learn and grow, and conversations such as this facilitate that.

The dictionary definition of ‘mercenary’ is a person ‘primarily concerned with making money at the expense of ethics.’

Now, I would argue, first of all, that all of us work to make money.

We may all enjoy our job (or not) to differing degrees, but we wouldn’t do it unless we made a living from it. Right? Now, I’m among the lucky few who absolutely love their job. I’ve worked in some shocking places and I’m finally in a job that I love, working from a place that I love (my home). At the end of the day, all of us are concerned with making money. That’s just the way the world is. Without money, we can’t survive. So, yes, I am primarily concerned with making money. However, that is not the be-all and end-all of my job.

It is the second part of the definition that I take issue with, ‘… at the expense of ethics.’

I wrote a blog post a while ago titled The Ethics of Ghostwriting, I’ll link it below. I know that many people dislike ghostwriting and ghostwriters on principle. I always welcome opposing views and if you’d like to chat about ghostwriting, then please do reach out.

However, I will defend ghostwriting until the cows come home. My clients, for whatever reason, are unable to write their own books. Maybe they suffer from dyslexia, or they’re not fluent in English, or they simply don’t have the time to do their story justice, and so they come to me. I help them to do justice to their ideas and deliver something that we are both proud of. Yes, they put their names on it, but they are as much a part of the project as I am, so why shouldn’t they?

The question of ‘ethics’ is one we could debate tirelessly. I know that my clients benefit from the work I do. For many of them, they are able to achieve something that previously seemed out of reach. There are many clients that I now class as my friends. Is ghostwriting ethical? I would argue yes, while some would argue no, and that’s just fine. If ghostwriting isn’t something you can support, then you don’t have to.

Historically speaking, the definition of ‘mercenary’ comes from the military.

​‘A soldier who will fight for any country or group that offers payment.’ I kind of think that the term mercenary is cool, in the regard to creative disciplines, not war. I feel like an outlier, like some gunslinging rogue or rebel. In terms of the definition included here, it is not strictly applicable. Of course, I’m about as far from a soldier as you can get. But I also don’t work for everybody who offers me money. I am very picky about the projects I choose. If your project is not something that I personally align with, whether ethically, politically, or whatever else, then I won’t take it on. I know, shock-horror, the ghostwriter has ethics! In a similar way, I don’t take on projects that I don’t find interesting. I’m lucky enough to be in a position at the moment where I can be picky.

While I would never claim to be altruistic or philanthropic, I would also argue that I’m not void of ethics either.

Part of the definitions of mercenary fit with my ghostwriting career, namely I work for clients who pay me for my services (as do all freelancers) and that some people may find this field to be ethically ambiguous. On this note, something I will say is that I’ve never once had a client contract me for ghostwriting services who I would argue had bad ethics or was corrupt in any way. Every client had a valid reason for choosing to hire a ghostwriter and I truly respect their decision for exploring an option that many people fail to do, simply because they have preconceived notions about what it means. I do believe that the term ‘ghostwriter’ is outdated. You’d be surprised how many famous authors have people work alongside them to make their books as fabulous as they are, doing very similar things to what ghostwriters do, without the label.

Not a mercenary but rather a facilitator or advocate.

Unfortunately, both of these words don’t sound anywhere near as cool as ‘mercenary’ but that can’t be helped. A ghostwriter is a person who enables somebody to create something they otherwise would never have been able to create, for whatever reason that is. Writing is tough. It’s full of rules and nuances that some people just struggle with. Why should we miss out on their ideas because they are unable to phrase them in the correct style and format?

To summarise, yes, ghostwriters do their job because they get paid, but it is also so much more than that.

It would be reductionist to assume that all ghostwriters think the same as me. Maybe some do consider themselves to be mercenaries, and more power to them. There are many reasons I do this job… I love writing. I love reading. I get to meet fantastic people from all over the world. I get to work from home. I feel that I am doing something that benefits others. The list is endless. But, yes, I also do it to make a living. So, if that’s the definition of mercenary we are sticking to, that a person does a job purely for monetary gain, then perhaps we are all mercenaries to some extent.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my new client for planting this idea in my head, and for the very philosophical and thoughtful conversation that ensued.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. If you’re considering hiring a ghostwriter to facilitate and advocate for you, then maybe reach out. I’d love to discuss your project further.

Further reading:

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