Oscar Wilde once said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” Any writer can recognize this imperative: a commitment to the intrinsic power of something so seemingly small as a comma. We wouldn’t be writers if we didn’t get off on wrestling unwieldy words into submission, and we wouldn’t be good writers if we didn’t obsess over every single word and piece of punctuation. I’ve always believed that writing is—at least for me—an act of ego: when something is finally, finally finished, I derive great fulfillment from knowing the beast I tamed will endure as something I love and own long after I’m gone. Except when I don’t actually own it, because the rights belong to someone else.
When I first started out, I accepted every ghostwriting contract that came my way. I was young(ish) and excitable, ready to say goodbye to my office job and make a go of this freelance writing thing. I wrote pieces on cavapoo puppies and office chairs and what to pack for a cruise. I wrote the heck out of these things. Every comma was perfectly placed. I fulfilled my contract, collected my pay, and bought some brown boots I’d been eyeing online. I sent those pieces out into the world and never thought about them again.
And then it happened: I accepted the job quickly like I always did, only realizing afterward that it was actually personal essay. What I thought would be easy became complicated—not the act of writing the piece, but giving it away. In fulfilling that assignment I crossed a line I’d never even noticed: I wrote something that transcended the best I could write for someone else and became the best I could write for myself. I’d committed the ultimate Pretty Woman working girl’s no-no and the cardinal sin of content writing; I’d gotten too close: I’d kissed my assignment on the mouth. I still kick myself (in those nice brown boots) over it nearly every day.
And so here may be the ghostwriter’s dilemma: produce something of enough quality to keep your clients coming back for more, but not of such quality that you can’t bear to see credit go to someone else. Except show me the writer who can abide deliberate mediocrity, and I’ll show you someone who’s only a writer in the most literal sense of the word. We may all just be monkeys pecking away at the keys in the hopes of achieving greatness, but true writers are compelled to keep at it long after the others get bored and start throwing their feces at the wall.
One of my daughter’s favorite books is “Miss Rumphius,” in which the titular character seeks to do something to make the world more beautiful, as she’d promised her grandfather she would. After traveling the world, riding a camel, and making nice with some far-off Maharaja, she returns to her home by the sea and discovers her legacy: sewing lupine seeds that will live on as fields of flowers long after she’s gone. Perhaps the most generous ghostwriters can adapt this benevolent perspective: make the world a little more beautiful through the deed of writing well regardless of who takes the credit. But I believe there are some things to which my name belongs, and the book IS called Miss Rumphius, after all.
So even if it means wearing those two-year-old boots for another season or two, I’m choosing my assignments a little more carefully these days, holding firm to the principle that while the content writing is for sale, my soul isn’t. But you can be darn well be sure that–when it comes to writing about metal roofs, mortgage rates and macular degeneration–I’ll remain relentlessly in pursuit of perfection of pen.
Joanna H is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.