Unethical Writing Jobs

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When you’re just starting out as a freelance writer, it’s tempting to take any job you can get your hands on, especially if it pays well. However, not every job is good for your career, or your soul. There are some jobs that are simply unethical. Even if you go into a job with the best of intentions (or complete ignorance of the ethical situation), there are too many ways that these jobs can come back to bite you later if you are caught. Even if you’re never caught, there are some things that just aren’t worth selling your soul over. And that’s all you’ll be doing because money is all you’ll get out of these jobs. They certainly can’t be used as writing credits to further your career. Here are some writing jobs that you should always avoid.

  • Academic papers. Academic paper mills are rampant. They offer to write everything from high school papers all the way up to PhD. dissertations. Many claim that the work you do will be given to the student who will rework it in his or her own style, thus skirting the ethical line. We all know how often that happens, right? Try never. If you agree to write papers for a paper mill, you can be sure that the student on the other end of the arrangement will turn in your work as their own, as is. Aside from being unethical, this cheats the student out of the learning that he or she is supposed to be doing and it cheapens the entire educational experience. Just because these services are out there doesn’t make what they’re offering ethical or legitimate.
  • Admission essays. When someone is applying to college, they’re supposed to write their own admission essay. It’s a chance for the school to get to know the person and to evaluate their ability to communicate. Yet there are services where freelance writers write entire admission essays. As with the academic papers described above, the prospective student is supposed to rework the essay into their own but it never happens. When a student who used a fake essay is admitted over other students who did their own work, it cheats those other students out of a potential place at that school. Not to mention that the school is admitting someone who might not be able to handle the work required at that college.
  • Reviews of products you’ve never used or read. With the rise of Amazon and other e-commerce sites it has become popular to pay for reviews of books, services, restaurants, travel destinations/providers, and any other consumer product. Boatloads of fake, glowing reviews lure unsuspecting customers to purchase an inferior product. That’s great for the company that’s producing the crappy product, but not great for consumers. Unless you know a product or service to be stellar from your own experience with it (not just from reading a press kit sent to you by the service provider), don’t accept a reviewing gig. (And even if you love the service or product, a paid review is still skirting that ethical line and is viewed as suspect by consumers. And, yes, you should always disclose any payment you receive for a review.)
  • Fake testimonials. This is similar to writing fake reviews. Some companies will hire you to write glowing testimonials on their own site or other sites. Don’t do it unless you really believe in the product or service and even then, accepting payment runs into the same problems as I described in product reviews, above.
  • Fake message board/social media posts. This one is a little more subtle than writing fake reviews or testimonials. Some companies will hire you to go on message boards, chat rooms, or social media sites and spark up a conversation about their product. Again, you’re cheating people out of honest opinions of the product. Besides, most people, even experienced writers, can’t do this well enough to avoid being called out as a spammer. Genuine enthusiasm and engagement is difficult to fake, as is the art of interjecting random products into random conversations.
  • Article spinning. This was a new one to me, but at one point I was approached by someone who found a great article online that would be perfect for her website. What did she want from me? To rewrite it so that it was, “Different enough so that people can’t tell I got it from [this other site].” I politely told her that what she was proposing was plagiarism. Just tweaking some words in someone else’s article doesn’t mean that you can use it. I told her that she had two ethical options: Ask the author if she could legally reprint the article with permission, or find someone to write an original article with original research on the same topic for her website. Anything less than that is theft.
  • PR pieces disguised as articles. Sometimes a company will approach you and ask you to write a favorable article about them and then use your prior experience with a prestigious publication to get it placed in that publication. This is a problem because what you’re really doing is slipping a PR piece into a publication, but you’re calling it an original article. If you’re caught, you can be sure that the original publication will not deal with you any longer. Even if you somehow don’t get caught, you’re still acting unethically and doing a disservice to the readers of that publication who trust it for unbiased opinions or facts.
  • Anything that feels “off.” Any site or client that isn’t clear about exactly how or where your work will be used, is hazy on who owns the rights to your work, or is saying over and over again, “This service is completely ethical,” should be examined carefully. Scams are numerous and while most will just take your money and run, there are some that result in you doing unethical work, or having work that you thought was done for one purpose being used for something scuzzy. Tread carefully with anything that seems too good to be true or comes with little information.

You also have to evaluate many other opportunities on a case-by-case basis. For example, resume writing is often a legitimate opportunity when you are working to polish a client’s own words and check for typos, etc. That often falls under the heading of “editing.” But when you’re writing the whole thing yourself without input from the client? Then it starts to tread on the same shaky ground as writing admission essays. Ghostwriting is also often legitimate. However, there are instances where the client is passing your work off as their own to intentionally mislead people into a certain opinion or behavior. That’s when you start to flirt with that ethical line.

If you’re ever unsure about the legality or ethics of a job, trust your gut. Scammers and people skirting ethical lines usually give out subtle vibes that your instincts pick up on. If you feel like something is weird, it probably is. But just to be sure, do your research on the company or individual. Ask questions. Anyone up to no good or on shaky ethical ground will likely dodge your emails or phone calls. Like roaches, they don’t like it when you turn the lights on.

Unethical jobs can cost you your reputation and future work. Many clients won’t work with someone who’s demonstrated a disregard for ethical boundaries. And why should they? They don’t want or need their reputation harmed by an association with an unethical writer. At the very least, if you pursue unethical work you have to ask yourself if what you’re doing is worth the cost to your conscience. The best course is to simply take on only work that you know to be ethical.


(Photo courtesy of snowbear)


10 thoughts on “Unethical Writing Jobs

  1. John Soares

    Jennifer, you did a great job describing unethical forms of freelance writing. As a former college instructor, I’m especially incensed by academic writing that allows students to cheat.

    1. Jennifer Derrick Post author

      Yeah, and some people try to justify it by saying that it’s the student doing the cheating, not the writer, since it’s the student who’s actually breaking the rules. But I think enabling them is just as bad.

  2. Mirka Breen

    Amen to all the above, and then some.
    Am I the only person who feels all ghostwriting is unethical? I mean, passing something as your own writing while hiring someone else to write it is as questionable as it is common, not only in academic papers and application essays. Think celebrity books.
    Do I know this for a fact? Yup, because I know a ghostwriter, though he doesn’t see a thing wrong with the $$. I find this falls into deception and at times even stolen valor, if great writing can be called valor.

    1. Jennifer Derrick Post author

      I don’t mind ghostwriting as long as the reader/consumer is informed. Sometimes you’ll see in the small print of a book, “With assistance from Author X” or “Portions of this story were written with the assistance of a professional author.” It’s when someone is really passing the work off as their own words with that I start to have a problem with it. It’s easier to take if the work is a fluff piece or book simply for entertainment, but when it’s designed to influence opinion or behavior, yeah, it gets problematic.

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