Explaining what I do is simple: I write.
Explaining what I do for money…is a little more complicated.
Right now, I think of myself as a ghostwriter for ghostwriters. Most of the time I do a mix of editing and gritty early cleaning so my clients can get on with the good stuff, but sometimes I get to show off my creative chops by consulting on the content. Every now and then, I even get to do some actual writing.
The problem comes when I’ve been commissioned to write a position or statement that I don’t agree with, or worse, that goes against my personal morals – and I’m not talking about the immortal pineapple on pizza debate. If I’m only editing, I can roll my eyes and move on, or offer advice if I think it’s a truly problematic statement. But it’s a different thing to participate in the statement – to add my own voice to an ugly chorus.
So. Where does the line exist between exercising creative license and providing a service? Do my words belong to me, or to my client?
Coming from a work background in the service industry, I hate the phrase “the customer is always right.” Anyone who’s worked in a restaurant or behind a desk or in a shop knows that sometimes, the customer isn’t right at all. Sometimes, the customer is a raging asshole. I once saw a grown man throw a bag of dog food on the floor because I refused to go against policy and reissue him a document that he was too lazy to carry around. I could write an entire article on why this phrase contributes to a society of entitlement, and why I think it needs to go die in a fire.
But there’s a difference between a customer and a client. A customer is someone you run across in the normal execution of your duties, and a client is someone who has commissioned you to do a specific job. A customer can be defied if they’re making an unreasonable demand, or passed off to higher management; a client usually cannot.
I’ve been lucky so far, because in most cases I’m just the editing goblin. But for one client in particular, a large part of my work is content consulting. I let them know when I don’t think something is working, or when it comes across the wrong way. They always consider my advice, and more often than not, they actually take it. Occasionally I’ll come across something that I think is straight-up problematic, but if it’s what the client wants, then that’s what the client wants.
At this point there’s little I can do but bite my lip and maybe reiterate my advice later on. As a consultant, the final product is out of my hands. It’s between my client and their client. That being said, I have put my foot down before; this time last year, a client was toying with the idea of ghostwriting for Donald Trump, and I made it very clear that I would not be available for any project attached to him.
We all draw our own lines. Mine tends to be more flexible when I’m wearing my editing hat, but when I’m actually creating content, that line is fixed in stone. Words form such an integral part of my life, that to abuse them that way feels like a betrayal not just of what I believe in, but of my very identity.
So there’s my answer to the question: The client might be paying for those words, but in my heart I still consider them mine.