I recently caught up with fellow freelance writer and author of The Well-Fed Writer, Peter Bowerman. One topic that came up in our conversation was professional ethics and some of the problematic behavior we’ve seen in the writing community in recent years. Or, as Peter put it, we discussed the issue of “ethics creep.”
What I’d like to do today is explain what this means. Then we’ll look at some of the unethical schemes others might encourage you to pursue and how this can hurt you as a professional, as a reader, and even as a consumer.
What is “Ethics Creep?”
When I use the term “ethics creep” (which Peter graciously let me borrow) I’m not just talking about unethical professional behavior in general.
More specifically, ethics creep is when unethical actions and attitudes seep into writers’ behavior over time. Sometimes it’s about greed and ego. And sometimes it starts out in an almost innocent way.
This is frequently a result of newer freelance writers or authors taking bad advice from ethically-challenged individuals (what happens when you mistake popularity for authority by focusing on things like vanity metrics). This is why who you choose to learn from early on is so important.
Examples of Ethics Creep in the Writing Community
Let’s look at some specific examples of what “ethics creep” has meant in the writing community in recent years.
Making Meaningless “Bestseller” Claims
Peter initially brought up this example when kicking off our discussion of professional ethics.
Peter’s rightfully put off by the trend of authors (and indie authors in particular are guilty of pushing this strategy) claiming to be “bestselling authors” when they top some sub-sub-sub-category list on Amazon.
To make matters worse, some authors buy their way onto these micro-targeted lists, either having those they know buy their books or reimbursing buyers for them, essentially buying the books themselves.
Why is this unethical?
This behavior does more than devalue the “bestseller” label for authors. It’s unethical because it’s inherently dishonest, intended not just to puff up an author’s ego, but intended to mislead buyers.
Authors are very clear on what that “bestseller” label means in the eyes of an average book buyer. They’re aware buyers want to read books others are reading. And this kind of behavior takes advantage of that to convince potential buyers the author has much broader appeal than they really do.
As for those buying their way into this dishonest label, this happens on more legitimate bestseller lists too. But the scale required means it’s tougher to hide. In the case of these meaningless Amazon micro-categories, the “bestseller” label can sometimes be bought with little more than a handful of books “sold.”
Teaching Without Doing: The Insta-Expert Frauds
Another case of ethics creep I’ve seen in the freelance writing community, and even moreso in the blogging community, is unqualified teaching. It led to the insta-expert trend I’ve long railed against here.
I can trace much of this back to a single internet marketer’s membership site. The worst offenders always seemed to come from there, where they learned having 10 minutes’ more experience than someone else made them qualified to teach.
This is one of those cases where people don’t necessarily start off with bad intentions. They start out by mistaking popularity and money-making promises for credibility. So they trust the wrong people – often people who gamed their own way to the top.
Writers were taught to set up online courses and membership sites as income streams. It’s not uncommon for these folks to spend more time on those teaching products than the actual freelance work they’re supposedly teaching others how to do successfully.
The bigger issue here is that some of these insta-expert frauds get away with this for years. Then newer writers who weren’t aware of how they got started see them as established and you get even more misplaced trust. It becomes a vicious cycle, almost a pyramid scheme of sorts.
Why is this unethical?
Let me be clear. There’s nothing unethical about online courses or membership sites in general. When people unqualified to give career advice do because they see an opportunity to make a buck off their fellow writers, that's different.
Is it always unethical to teach someone how to do something if you only have slightly more experience than they do? Of course not.
That said, there is a huge difference between a new blogger teaching someone how to register a domain name or how to install WordPress – tutorials that involve step-by-step instructions and that don’t require industry expertise – and offering career advice.
When it comes to something like teaching people how to launch or run a successful freelance writing business, we’re talking about someone’s livelihood, not a simple tutorial.
Over the years, I helped countless writers clean up the messes these insta-expert types got them into. I’ve also known more than a few writers who quit altogether because they trusted people who built a reputation around bullshit credentials.
There is nothing ethical about treating other people’s lives and livelihoods as a simple money-making scheme.
If you haven’t yet built a successful, and sustainable, business, you aren’t yet qualified to teach others how to do that, and you risk destroying the dreams of the very people you claim to want to help. And no, being in business for a year or two is not enough to make anyone that level of expert. If you want to sell access to expert knowledge, you need to do the work of building that expertise first.
Exploiting & Outright Stealing from Colleagues
This is one that morphed a bit over the years. It began as outright theft among writers. You’ll see this with authors stealing others’ work and putting it up for sale on Amazon. But you’ll also see it in the blogging and freelance writing communities.
Sometimes this is wholesale theft. This would be copying entire articles or copy from someone else and passing it off as your own.
This can also be taking someone’s RSS feed to publish their full content on your own site without their consent. I’ve had quite a few of these sites taken offline over the years for stealing content in this way.
Don’t fall for the lie that linking to content you swipe makes it OK.
Rewriting is Also Theft
Even more nefarious though is when a writer steals a colleague’s work and “rewrites” it. They act like putting it in different words makes it ethical. It’s not. It’s not even legal. It's just being sneakier about stealing.
This would be a derivative work, which only the original copyright holder has the right to authorize. So this kind of spun or rewritten content is a copyright violation.
I’ve seen one colleague in particular rip off numerous fellow freelance writers over the years, including me. At one point they took others’ content, reworded it, and then put it up behind a paywall. Maybe they believed none of us would find out that way. This helped them build their "expert" reputation among writers who saw them as more experienced and prolific than they were.
It’s not always so blatantly hidden though. Rewriting other’s material, or combining a few articles from others and then rewriting them, is commonly recommended by internet marketers and SEO folks as a way to come up with content ideas and improve your Google rankings. But there is a fine line between inspiration and theft.
Theft happens in other ways too. For example, a fellow freelancer once ripped off the entire design of my business site, down to the copy. And another sent me a question via email because I had a history of helping them out. Then they took my response and turned it into an uncredited blog post. They pretended my professional advice was their own.
Taking Advantage of Colleagues is Just as Bad
This goes beyond theft. While I’m seeing less of that these days, other types of exploitation have been getting worse.
Lori Widmer reminded me of a great example in her recent post on warning signs in freelance writing projects.
She reminded me of a freelancer who falls into multiple examples in this particular post. But Lori specifically reminded me about their excessive mooching off colleagues so they could sell other people’s content. It still pisses me off how much they exploited more trusting colleagues in the process.
In this case, the writer got one piece of free content from me in the form of a guest post. Less than a month later they came around asking for more. I said “no.” And with what I learned shortly after, that was the right call.
You see, they’d then moved on to asking more experienced freelancers to contribute to an e-book. It was bad enough they were releasing one with not even a year of experience under their belt.
If this was a free guide of some kind, it made sense in that case to interview real experienced professionals.
That’s not what happened though. This person took advantage of the generosity of others willing to help a new freelancer out. They turned around and monetized that content, selling others’ work without making that clear with the initial ask.
To top this example off, the writer tried to suck Lori into this scheme where they could make money off their colleagues’ backs. She said “no.” What did that writer do? They told Lori no one else had a problem with all the free content requests they were making.
Given that Lori was legitimately experienced and well-connected, she knew right away that was a lie because I’d already shot this person down. It was a surreal experience seeing them try to exploit so many people in my network at once, somehow thinking word wasn’t going to get around about what they were pulling. It always does.
Why is this unethical?
I hope I don’t have to explain why theft is unethical to anyone here.
As for exploiting people with actual expertise, it’s not just about the bad relationship you build with colleagues. It’s not just about the lack of transparency in how you intend to use things they help you with.
It’s unethical because when you heavily use others’ reputations to build an unearned one for yourself, you aren’t being honest.
There’s nothing wrong with getting occasional guest content from more experienced people. That’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with interviewing them on your blog. There’s nothing wrong with getting quotes for your content (as long as you’re up front about how they'll be used).
There is something wrong with using colleagues to build an air of expertise via association that you don’t really possess. And that’s as much about the frequency and quantity of your dependence on these relationships as it is about your intent.
Using Black Hat Tactics to Build Visibility
The last example of ethics creep I want to talk about is black hat SEO as it’s one of the bigger problems I’ve seen seeping into the freelance writing space.
When you rely on a third party for a significant portion of your traffic or income (like Google), you have to play by that third party’s rules. When you don’t, that’s what it means to use black hat tactics.
This has always been an issue in blogging. But over the past five years or so, I’ve seen more and more freelance writers using tactics like black hat link schemes to build visibility.
This often goes hand-in-hand with other ethical issues I’ve already talked about, such as using these tactics to build traffic and visibility in an effort to build a false air of authority someone can monetize without putting the real work in.
- Purchasing dofollow links (including through affiliate programs)
- Engaging in reciprocal dofollow link schemes (like old school “link parties” with mass linking)
- Using guest post campaigns to rapidly build dofollow links
- Buying sponsored content on other sites with dofollow links included (sometimes not disclosed as sponsored at all)
- Mass-submitting links to directory networks or other link networks (this can happen if you hire a low-cost SEO “pro” to increase your links)
- Paying people to review their products on their own sites without disclosure and / or with dofollow links
More recently I even found a major website in the general freelance space was using a massive keyword stuffing link scheme to prop up deep internal pages on its site. For those longtail keywords, that internal link spam has been enough to get them top rankings.
Why is this unethical?
When you game the system to gain an unfair advantage, you directly impact other people abiding by those rules. But that’s not even the larger ethical issue with writers engaging in these tactics.
The bigger problem is these black hat tactics allow people to build more visibility than they should have if they’d followed the rules others have to play by, which in turn can translate into unearned trust.
If new writers keep seeing the same site or person’s name show up every time they search for something related to their writing career, it’s natural for them to assume that’s a credible source.
When black hat tactics are used to build this reputation, it again puts new writers at greater risk when that undeserved trust leads to them following problematic business advice from people not in a position to offer it.
In the end it comes down to risking others’ livelihoods, again, in the interest of ego and seeking a quick buck. On the positive side, these kinds of tactics rarely work long-term. But even so, they often work long enough to cause damage, especially if others in the industry fall for the scam and go on to amplify the person using those black hat tactics.
If you’re a new writer, these are things that have to be considered now when deciding who to trust and where to learn about business, marketing, SEO, and more.
It’s equally important to know about these kinds of schemes early on so you can avoid being pulled into them.
You might go into things with the best of intentions, but if you follow advice that promises quick income or huge amounts of money even with little experience, chances are good you’re going to get sucked into the ethics creep that’s so rampant in the wider writing community today.
It’s not enough to avoid engaging in unethical behavior. It’s vital that we don’t make the mistake of amplifying those causing harm to others. We need to cite credible sources, not just popular ones. We need to be more cautious about what resources we recommend. And we need to pay much better attention to the ways unethical patterns creep into our community.