Why I won't write under someone else's byline
The thrill of landing your first byline is unmatched. The stages are like this:
- "I did it!"
- "Wait until [ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend/estranged friend/that neighbor who parks in my parking spot] sees me now."
- "I'll refresh to see if the page view has changed."
- "Are there too many identifying characteristics in this piece? Will people find out where I live? CAN THEY SEE ME NOW??"
- "I feel sick."
If I'm honest, each subsequent byline follows pretty much the same pattern for me. (Who wouldn't want to miss that step 5 illness?) I love being a writer, and it's plain delightful to see my name attached to my hard work.
Part of the work I do to pay the bills (gasp, creative writing pays peanuts?!) is content marketing. This is when I craft website content, blog posts, marketing emails and advertising copy for another company. This year alone, I've had the pleasure of writing for apps, retail, schools, nutritionists and more, and it's fascinating to tell a brand's story in their own voice, much like we creative writers develop our characters' unique voices.
What I won't do, though, is stick someone else's name onto my product.
As a rule, I don't do ghostwriting under another individual's byline. The top reason is that it's my research and sources, and as a journalist, the sources I develop are relationships founded in trust. If a source sees her quote and our conversation under another person's name, my reliance is challenged.
Another part of my issue with ghostwriting is its absence from my canon: These pieces can't be included in my portfolio or used for referrals, and I'm still at the career stage where building a shareable, visible platform is a priority.
Professionally, I also have concern about readers potentially learning content isn't original to the person whose byline appears, thereby discrediting the company. That feels dirty, and I want no part of it. There can be a violation of faith there that's so murky, I try to stay away from it.
Declining ghostwriting opportunities means turning down recurring income and larger companies with their big budgets, as they often outsource this work. That heartfelt letter you read? It's doubtful the CEO wrote it herself. The odds are she had a writer craft it, and she stuck in a couple phrases in her voice.
In 2004, I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. The program selected two high school seniors from each state to learn more about journalism, their intended fields, and I represented Tennessee. I stayed at The Watergate Hotel, toured USA TODAY's office, met Carl Bernstein, sang my high school's fight song with John Seigenthaler and shook hands with Dorothy Height.
If I hadn't loved journalism and writing before, this trip sold me.
One of the greatest gifts from the experience was something Betty Winston Baye said in a speech: She told all of us wide-eyed one-day journalists to define ourselves or someone else would.
What will you do? What won't you do? Where do you draw the line?
Ghostwriting is my line, a hard no. To me, it's inauthentic and risks our relationships.
You might also be interested in: