Saturday, July 7, 2012

Are you a writer if you're just pretending?

Years ago, a client asked me to rewrite his book for him. He said that the book, which was about small business planning, was outdated and needed a good refresh. He asked me to write the same information but using slightly different wording. I guess a red flag should have gone up right then, but I was still quite trusting at the time. The client sent me all the documentation and I got to work. Not more than a couple of chapters in, something just didn't feel right. The book manuscript he gave me was terribly inconsistent in style and language and sometimes didn’t make sense at all. For example, my client was Australian, but I noticed that large chunks of text were written in U.S. English, while some parts were in British English. The tone and voice of the pages weren’t consistent either. At one point, I noticed some text that referred to U.S. government offices. That’s when I stopped. I pulled various excerpts from my client’s manuscript and ran a little Copyscape check. The results should come as no surprise. The man did not write the content at all. He stole it from three books published by the American Small Business Association and from another book that was published by an Australian business organization. What he wanted to do was to take these four popular publications, reword them, and put his name on the final product. When I called him on it, explaining that it’s considered plagiarism to copy someone else’s work, he tried to convince me that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He said that he purchased the books and then tried to return them, but the seller would not refund his money. In his mind, that meant he owned the books and could do what he wanted with them. I lost a lot of money by walking away from that job, and I don’t regret it one bit. I know people plagiarize, but I did think that this was an extreme case.

Not so. Years later, I still come across clients (and I use the term loosely) who want someone to “edit” a book that they hadn’t even written yet. They have an idea and want to make a book out of it. But they can’t write or they’re too lazy or for whatever reason, they are incapable of being a true author. So they hire a writer to edit their non-existent book, or they come right out and ask for a ghost writer.

I do understand ghost writing to an extent. If you’re a celebrity or someone who’s been through a newsworthy trauma, it’s perfectly okay to hire a writer to write your autobiography. I mean, it’s your story. You lived it, so you own it. But in my opinion, it’s quite different to hire someone to write your fictional idea into a book and then expect to get byline rights for it. It’s misleading and not fair to the readers, who all think Mr. Byline is a great author. It’s also not fair to the writer who, in many cases, does all the research, story building, writing and formatting. As a writer, I don’t understand the logic behind taking such a job. If you can write a best seller, why not do it for yourself instead of some bonehead who’ll pay you a hundred bucks for it? Admittedly, I am often willing to write articles and not take the byline. The reason is that I’m not interested in the subject matter and don’t need or want my byline associated with it. But a book is another matter altogether. A lot of a writer’s heart goes into a book. How do you part with that?

I recently came across another freelance writing proposal that was so outrageous, I laughed for ten minutes before sharing it with all of my friends. A man posted on a freelance site that he was a member of an internet marketing forum, posing as an expert in internet marketing. He wanted to hire a writer who was a true expert in the field to write hundreds of posts to this forum, using his name, so that he’ll look like a real expert and get credit for all the posts. Oh, and get this: He’s willing to pay a whopping 35 cents per post. No doubt this man will be paid highly for these posts and will establish himself as a guru of internet marketing. The writer, who is the real expert, will get 35 cents and a severe case of writer’s cramp. If the writer is smart, he’ll bypass the lowballing client and find a way to monetize his posts directly from the website.

It’s frightening how perfectly comfortable people are pretending to be something they’re not. I think it’s admirable when someone wants to write a book, or if they want to be a professional blogger or forum poster. A noble ambition. But if you’re not already a skilled writer, then the logical first step would be to learn. Take a class, read a book, practice. If you decide one day that you want to be a writer and then hire someone else to do it for you, are you truly a writer? I suppose I could say that I want to be a programmer and then hire someone to write code for me. I could declare myself an architect, then hire someone to design my house. I could do that. Maybe I could even make lots of money like these pseudo clients on the freelance boards. But it wouldn’t feel good, and that is the very thing that makes me write. It feels good to do what I love. It feels good to earn even a few pennies a day, because the words come from me. The language, the sculpture, the art. It’s all mine. There’s something gratifying about having a true skill and making it work for you, much more than having an idea and making someone else work for you.

I guess writing means different things to different people. To some, writing is a job. To others, it’s a way of life. The pretenders probably think of writing as a resource rather than a skill. But if you don’t have the skill, can you be called a writer?


  1. Having a story doesn't make you a writer. In my opinion, passion has more to do with it but you also have to have talent which not every writer who has passion does. It's difficult, I think, to define the word "writer" because of the varying genres. Technical writing, for instance, might be more of a craft than an art. Good post and thoughts of food for thought. I'm not sure there's a definitive answer.

  2. I guess I'm naive. I've heard of ghostwriters, of course, and I also realized that some writers have staff who "flesh out" their stories, but I had no idea that someone would hire a writer to do their work and then set themselves up as experts--based on what the actual writer had written! That's nuts!

    FYI: I found you through LinkedIn's "New Authors Need Marketing Ideas - Got a Blog/Site post it here" group.

  3. @linneann - In every writer's heart, you're point about passion is absolutely spot on. But from a reader's perspective, there's seemingly no difference. People don't give it much thought. If someone's name is on a book or an article, the reader assumes that that's the author. How do we true writers defend our territory? And you're mostly right about technical writers. I am also a tech writer (day job) and I put very little passion into it. It's mostly about organizing technical information into the proper format.

    @Sandy - Thanks for stopping in from Linked In. I've found it to be a useful resource for like-minded writers. Yes, sadly, there are many "authors" who have never put pen to paper. If you've ever done freelance writing, you've seen just how many shady clients are looking to put their name on someone else's work. I once rented out an article through Constant Content on a topic in which I had expertise. The man who rented it removed my byline and put a bio of himself at the end. Another client who rented the same article informed me and I made the plagiarizer pay me the purchase price. (At CC, you can rent your articles to multiple people for their websites. But they can't change anything unless they pay a larger fee to own it.)

    Aside from feeling a little slighted by these authoring cheaters, I also do not understand why anyone would want to call himself a title that he didn't earn.

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