Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Shady Writing Projects: What to Watch For

As a freelance writer, you'll encounter many types of projects. Most are completely aboveboard, but every so often you'll come across one that makes you stop and think--or one that's just plain wrong. Sometimes you don't know what you're getting into until you've accepted the job. This can be tricky, especially if you've already signed a contract and accepted a deposit. Here are a few of the most common shady writing projects--and how to recognize one before you're involved.

Students who want you to do their homework. I've seen plenty of people on Craigslist, Elance, and other sites looking for writers to do their school papers. One time I found a woman looking for someone to write her Ph.D dissertation for her. For about $300. And her subject was English literature.

Not only is plagiarism morally wrong from an educational standpoint--the student doesn't really earn the grade he gets--but it also has very serious consequences for the student. Students caught plagiarizing are regularly expelled from school. This puts the student out into the world with no degree and possibly thousands of dollars in debt to show for it, and he might have trouble getting into a new school with a record of plagiarism. Even if it's the student's fault for cheating, I wouldn't want to be an accessory to someone messing up his life like that.

You have to watch out, because these assignments can sometimes be disguised. I've applied for jobs advertised as article-writing jobs: "Write one six-page article on the history of Jazz," for example. Once, I didn't realize that the job was actually a school assignment until the student sent me the spec and said something like "make sure you follow this carefully; my professor is really picky." I told the student that if he needed someone to help him proofread his paper after it was written, I'd be happy to help--but that I don't do other people's homework.

Morally questionable topics. Once I accepted a project before knowing what the exact topic was; the client simply said the writing was for his e-commerce site. It turned out that his e-commerce site was promoting some type of pyramid scheme. Ordinarily, e-commerce copy is supposed to persuade the reader to buy into whatever the site is offering, but you don't want to be stuck trying to write copy that persuades people to buy into a scam. Now I always ask about the topic in detail before accepting a project.

"Rewrite it so we can't be sued for copyright." There are two types of rewrite projects. In one, the client has already written the project himself, and he wants you to come in and make it better using what's already written. There's nothing wrong with this; I've done it plenty of times for clients who have bad English translations done by non-native speakers, and for people who just want to make their copy better. Many writers charge less for a rewrite than they do to write copy from scratch, so it's a good way for clients to save money. But when the client wants you to rewrite the copy from another site so that it works for his own, you run into trouble.

Be careful, because a client looking for a rewrite may not tell you that the copy is from another source. If you have doubts, it might be a good idea to run the copy to be rewritten through Copyscape to see what comes up before taking the project on.

Blatant misrepresentation. Sometimes the client wants you to write something that's just plain wrong. I took on a project once for web copy promoting a weight loss product. After doing the research, I found that the product in question was known to be completely ineffective. It left me in a bind because I'd already done work for the project, but I felt like I'd be doing something wrong if I wrote articles talking about how effective these products were--when all the scientific research out there was saying the opposite.

There are plenty of situations where the project is definitely shady. But there are also some more borderline situations--projects that might bother some people but not others. There are no official rules against these projects, but they might seem dishonest to some. In most cases, the line is in different places for different people.

Ghostwriting--under certain circumstances. Much of my web articles are published under my clients' names, and I'm fine with that. Ghostwriting is an established wing of the writing profession--everyone from Charles de Gaulle to Charles Barkley used one for their memoirs. Business owners who want to establish themselves as professionals often need well-written articles to submit to trade journals and publish on the web. They may have the expertise to look professional, but their writing ability may leave something to be desired. That's where a ghostwriter comes in.

But sometimes ghostwriting can seem a little questionable. Getting a ghostwriter to write your profile for an online dating site is probably one of the worst examples. If you hire a writer to craft a more appealing profile than you can write yourself, you'll be misleading them into thinking you're more interesting, articulate, or funny than you really are. It's as bad as using a picture of someone else.

"Seeding" forums and question-and-answer sites. "Seeding" is the practice of writing questions and answers on forums where both are supposed to be user-generated. This can seem borderline to some, because it misleads users into thinking that the discussion is more lively than it really is. There's another side that makes sense to me, however. When you're trying to build up a user-generated question-and-answer section as a resource for readers--but the readers just aren't coming--your seeding can help the section become a better resource and attract an audience.

Writing "spinnable" articles. "Spinnable" articles have paragraphs that are interchangeable--the paragraphs of each can be switched around to make new articles without becoming nonsensical. Some SEO's use spinnable articles to generate content that won't set off Google's duplicate content sensors, and they have software that automatically switches the paragraphs around to make endless "new" articles. Some people find spinnable articles to be offensive because they disguise duplicate content and generally mess up the Internet.

I've been offered all of these projects in my time as a freelancer. Most I've turned down. With some, I didn't realize what was going on until I accepted the project. With some of these projects, the line between right and wrong is very clear; with others, it's a little more ambiguous. Make sure you do some investigation before accepting a project, and you'll have a better chance of avoiding the shady ones.


Lori said...

I have to agree with ghostwriting. I've done plenty of it in my time, but I'm a bit tired of the run-around associated with it. Articles - no problem. Full-length manuscripts? I'm done.

I had a client once who encompassed a few of these points. He was paying me to generate articles, and his client was paying him for them. He thought I didn't know this - duh. Not hard to figure out when he wouldn't tell me who his client was and made me swear to secrecy about what I'd written. Worse, one article was chock full of facts and quotes with attribution - he removed every instance of attribution, thus commiting plagiarism. At that point I was thankful there was nothing tying me to his client directly.

Harry said...

The spinnable idea has gotten more outrageous with the advent of "article writing software."

I recently reviewed a small program that uses a fill-in-the-blank format. It has room for ten subheadings or bullet points. The very best benefit of this program, however, is the ability to hit the "rewrite" button.

In the interest of full disclosure, the author does say that "occasionally" the rewrite may seen nonsensical and may need to be rewritten.

Go figure.