The Ethics of Writing (or) How We Make Our Way in the World 3

I was on a LinkedIn group forum earlier today in which someone posted this question:

“Am I totally insane or has ethical behavior been thrown out the window?”

The author of this question was referring to ads and service providers seeking freelance writers to write college essays for pay. This sort of loosely defined “ghost writing” is becoming an increasing trend even on sites like Elance and

These sites, popular job boards and Craigslist are inundated with essay writing offers- there are even entire essay writing services who are now recruiting freelancers for their stables. Though the answers from other group members were on-point, agreeing that doing this sort of work is unethical (provided that we can agree on such a subjective thing), it prompted me to think about this issue more deeply and why it seems to be on the rise.

If we dig a little deeper, I think the problem lies with our current educational system and its “memorization and regurgitation” approach to teaching. The University system is no longer about inspiring life-long learners or teaching people how to think for themselves but rather about about  dollars in pockets and butts in seats. Add to this, students who have been told, almost mantra-like, “College is a must- a BA is the minimum. Just go to college, you don’t have to know what you’re majoring in,” and you have schools filled with kids just trying to get by to get out and teachers trying to preserve tenure.

This behavior has created a population where the goal is the piece a paper (diploma) to enter the workforce with instead of education and exposure to new experiences and perspectives. A bachelors degree is the new high school diploma and the institutions are treating it as such.  Higher education shouldn’t mirror the public school system where we just push them through the mill. Priorities are in the wrong place and it starts in our public schools. There are elementary and middle schools now, that do not flunk anyone – everyone is promoted. It’s what “No Child Left Behind” left us with- a legacy of idiocy courtesy of the example George W. Bush gave us all — that anyone with the right connections can achieve untold heights, regardless of their knowledge.

It’s all about numbers and quotas and budgets. This is what we are teaching our youth. Add to this all of the marketing, blogging and “so-called reporting” that churn out ignorant, unsubstantiated and insipid content and what our society ends up teaching our young people is that knowledge and truth do not matter:  only money, numbers, connections and getting  through the required hoops to get what you want with the least amount of energy expended.

But then again,  how can we expect anymore of our kids? What messages do we send them in terms of ethics when politicians, religious leaders and reporters who have done things like lied about their educational backgrounds, their whereabouts, their sexuality, their affairs, affiliations and their sources (some even making up quotes) all still have careers and are “forgiven” by just saying, “Oops, my bad.”  We are not only reinforcing this type of behavior, we’re cultivating it. Ours is now a culture of anything goes as long as you get what you want.

As far as those who take on these jobs, it is without a doubt, unethical but I see writers everyday that are so desperate to hang onto making their living from writing that they are willing to push their ethical line further and further to survive and get paid. (Especially when it can be months before checks are received from more traditional outlets and with more print outlets folding every day.)

It seems as though we are seeing the disintegration of a once well-respected career. That of the writer. Instead of paying a decent fee for quality work, content mills and web sites offer a pittance for sub-par work (which BTW- is the only way you can come out ahead working for the mills. If you actually spent the time necessary to do the proper research and formulate a thoughtful well-rounded piece, it wouldn’t be worth your time to write it.) While it’s been a long-held tradition to intern or write for free to amass clips to establish your career in writing,  with the advent of blogging everybody (and their brother) thinks they are a writer (and they’re willing to do it for free just to feel like one.)

Andy Warhol was right about those 15 minutes and now every gets and thinks they deserve their 15 minutes of fame in the digital age’s pseudo-reality world. As a published writer who has spent a great deal of her life honing a craft, I can understand why, after banging your head against the wall in this market, many may decide that the only choices they are left with are to give up the dream and go get a job as a barista or a courtesy clerk at Target (because to paraphrase Stephen King, let’s face it, as writers what else are we qualified for?) or supplement your writing income by diversifying. How you choose to diversify is  the real question. Many will choose the easy money with these well-paying essay gigs. For these folks the answer is a no-brainer.

Their justification may even be, “The only person they (the person buying the essay) are hurting is themselves.” The problem with that argument is this:

When we’re already seeing a rapid decline in intelligent debate and content in the world due to the sheer volumes of misinformation around every corner on  our information super-highways, those who do take these jobs are not only enabling someone in their personal journey to idiocracy, they are also contributing to the overall decline of western civilization.

Really, whether you agree with all of my connections in this piece or not, my main point is this– each and every choice you make as a writer impacts not only you, the outlets you write for and your business but those of your peers and your world as a whole.

We all know things are tough out there but keep your wits about you folks. If we stand strong and stick to our principles we can effect a change. It only takes turning down these so-called jobs to change the industry back to a “fair pay for credible work” market. As long as we are willing to accept little to nothing for our work (or sub-standard jobs in general) that’s what market will dictate.

Maybe if we all, no matter what our vocation,  just remembered to care about what it is we do and what we put into the world, we could stop these kinds of issues before they started or at the very least reverse the trends.

That  is why it is so imperative for us all to remain present in making decisions about who we work for and what work we do and not just blindly go where there’s money. I  spent a bit of time trying to understand why both the person hiring someone to write their essay and the person accepting the job might do so (less about judgment and more about understanding) but I still believe that the most important part of accepting or turning down any assignment is to carefully consider any job and it’s impact not only on your personal life philosophies (i.e. whether you can feel OK writing for the KKK’s newsletter) but the effect your decisions can have on our industry and the world at large. If we stretch the line so thin that doing this type of work is accepted practice within our industry, there really will be nothing left of the fabric of writing ethics and journalistic integrity and we will have lost what little respect folks still have for the work we do.

For further discussion on this topic, check out Allena Tapia’s blog on

Want some ethical ideas for new roads to revenue for writers?

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3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Writing (or) How We Make Our Way in the World

  • wordsonspace

    I have often found people blaming the education system, but I have found that in fact most kids have things easy today. In the past syllabus was much more.Children were expected to know things. Getting your work done from somebody else was looked down upon.Today students just don’t want to learn. Exams are open book and yet they don’t want to know anything. The mantra seems to be smart work rather than fast work. I think it is changing attitudes that is a problem. I once accidentally took an assignment and later came to know that the person was a student.I told him had I known beforehand you were a student I wouldn’t have taken your assignment, he asked, “why?” I replied, “because you are a student and you are the future, by doing your work I’m giving a weak foundation to the future.” I wish sites like academia thought so, they wouldn’t hire people to write student essays.


    • Vanessa Nix Anthony

      I agree that there is a “new laziness” inherent in this generation of learners. Actually, my point was indeed that- but I took it a step further, because like you I believe that this behavior is rampant rather than a few isolated incidences. If this is something a whole generation is doing on a larger scale than the past (and it is or else this essay industry would not have sprung forth and would not continue to grow) we have to look at, “what in our society is causing this?”– “Why do kids think this behavior is OK?”

      My conclusion is that this is not a single answer issue. There are many factors that contribute, including those you sited. Obviously, there is a problem with the education system if as you say, “Most kids have things easy today.” I agree. I’m sure that, since the beginning of time, the problem has been that, “students just don’t want to learn,” but the educational system that once was in place had motivators both positive and negative in place to keep a child on track- because (even teens and college age kids) do not have all of the tools necessary to make the big life decisions without some guidance. That’s our job as parents and educators- to guide them in the right direction. These are the ages before wisdom, when instant gratification seems best and when we all think we are invincible. Structure and instructors must be in place to encourage students to do the right thing. Schools used to hold-back students in elementary and junior high who could not perform the work or who were too lazy to apply themselves (this was a consequence motivator) that is no longer true and it’s a teacher’s job to inspire the desire for learning in a student. I have watched kids who were good students suddenly flounder under a teacher who only cared about test scores. Teaching is more than just collecting homework and grading tests (and trust me I have many friends who are teachers who would agree with me.) It’s about instilling a love of learning, inspiring them to want to learn and do well and providing them with the tools to find their own answers as well as imparting the knowledge that you have.

      But we can’t just lump the burden solely on the shoulders of the teachers: parents, legislature, and society, in general, are key here and should share the blame (along with the students themselves, of course.)

      How can we NOT blame (at least partially) the education system that lets them have open book tests (they’re, not only, NOT learning but now they don’t even have to memorize?!)

      You’re right the syllabus was more in the past. Everything was. But now a Bachelor’s degree is looked on as a high school diploma once was (as the minimum requirement for a job) and as such, schools, it seems, have begun applying the high school mentality to their programs- “just get ’em through” so they can get more through the system and hopefully on to a master’s program (= more money).

      I guess, I see apathy, rapid advancements in technology and sliding moral mores as the foundational issues here and not just in this arena but in a lot of others. The world is changing and at a more rapid rate than we have ever experienced in history. Which means no one has the time to really reflect on what has happened before the next new change is here, nor do we have time to understand and evaluate the ways in which these changes may affect our future generations, their world view and our future as a society. We are just starting to see the beginnings of these effects play out in our youth right now, pre-teen and teen girls sending nude pictures of themselves via cell phone, students paying for essays and students cyber-bullying other students and even teachers to shocking effect.

      We all play a part in how our world is changing and it serves us all (and our future generations) for us to think about and discuss these things as they happen. Also, companies that provide this type of service should be “outed” in the media and looked down upon in our society. Just because something can “make a killing,” doesn’t mean you should do it. But that sort of reflection on how our actions or decisions affect the world around us, doesn’t seem to be happening much any more.

      As writers, our role here is simple– refuse those jobs (no matter how great the pay) that contribute to the foundational breakdown of our future. I commend you, Laya, for speaking up to that student about his behavior and for sharing your story here.

      I’ll check out your blog!


  • webwordslinger

    Hi, Vanessa,

    Ethics in writing is pretty fuzzy in so many areas. Is that widget REALLY the best? Well, that’s what clients want me to write, even if it isn’t the best.

    Then there’s Fair Use. Can I lift an entire section from another piece to use in my piece? Nope. It’s content theft. However, I CAN create a link to the article where the reader can read the whole piece thanks to me. So, I can’t rip off a piece (even with attribution) but I can send readers to the site where the article resides.

    The entire realm of intellectual property use, means of distribution and other questions that have arisen as a result of the W3 will keep IP lawyers busy for decades.

    Thanks for an excellent piece.