Understanding the Unethical?

The writing life. Most of mine is spent sitting in a chair, usually at the dining room table, laptop in front of me with books and papers spread out on either side.
It’s a solitary existence usually with little feedback or reward. In fact, most days my only social contact is with my husband before and after work, online writer friends, sometimes the mailman or UPS guy delivering a box of books, Mr. Appliance who is still fixing my dishwasher, and occasionally coffee with a friend. Oh, and the rejection emails from agents (as I query one of my novels).

Where am I going with this? Well, last Friday I went to see THE WORDS, a new movie about writers. I thought it was excellent, but this is not a movie review, and I won’t give anything away, don’t worry. Let’s just say the movie has to do with a writer who makes a choice. A choice that changes the course of his life. It’s a moral dilemma, an ethical (perhaps more accurately an UNethical) choice. And that choice ripples through his life, naturally.

And it got me thinking. I’ve read (we’ve all read) so many stories lately about sock puppetry, hiring book reviewers to get higher ratings, stealing ideas, plagiarism, making up quotes and creating composite characters. I’m sure I’m missing something. The bottom line is there are writers out there, people out there, who make bad choices. Unethical, illegal, bad decisions about their writing, their careers, their lives.

While some days it’s hard, impossible, for me to understand how a writer could choose to do something unscrupulous to bolster a book or their career, there are other days it’s easier to understand. Don’t get me wrong, I would never, could never do something unethical or immoral, let alone illegal; that’s the stuff of my fiction. But there are those days, when I feel discouraged, when rejections get me down. When nothing I write seems like it will ever see the light of day or even is very good, regardless of the heart and soul I pour into the words. Those days when I hear of unsavory decisions other writers make, especially when I consider the envy I feel, the desire to be published? And if I’m completely honest? 

Those days it at least seems possible to understand the motivation.
What about you? Can you understand the temptation to step over the line? It’s a complex thing, this writing life, the decisions we make, the desires we have, the hours we spend. How do you feel about the unethical choices some writers make? Have you seen THE WORDS? Did you like it as much as I did?



  1. Ooh, great questions. I, too, really want to see this movie and I’m glad to hear you liked it. The whole buying reviews is appalling to me but then again, I’m not on that side of the fence yet. I can understand soliciting reviews, and come what may but to solicit only favorable reviews is fraud in my eyes.

    I think the best any writer can do is write the best novel they can (perhaps where many fail) and let the words speak for themselves. I think this is the age-old concept of cheating to win and in the end, they will have to live with themselves and the decisions they made. Writing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (besides parenting) and I can only hope it shows in my produced work.

    Great post, Julia! Can’t wait to read all the other comments!

    • I think you’ll love the movie, Hallie, let me know! I certainly agree that writing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (especially fiction) and I hope it shows in my work, too… as for if that’s enough? I’m not sure… still, I totally agree that cheating to win is a slippery slippery slope, definitely one I want no part of!

  2. Erika Marks says:

    I’m so glad you hear you liked the movie–I haven’t seen it yet but I’m so intrigued. Onto the DVD future queue it goes!

    Not surprisingly, this very subject was broached by many of us this weekend at SIBA in the wake of recent reveals. Frankly, I can’t understand why someone who already has a strong following and financial “success” would risk it to fake their reviews???

    (PS–are the leaves turning yet??)

    • I would’ve loved to have heard the discussion at SIBA, I’m sure it was a lively and interesting one! (Yes, I’m jealous!!) And when I heard about the original sock puppetry a few weeks ago, I was equally shocked — why anyone with any amount of financial and literary success would chance this is beyond me… bizarre!

      PS YES! The leaves are starting to turn… tweeted a pic 🙂

  3. You are the second person to recommend this movie to me in as many days. I would really like to see it.

    I guess it all comes down to why anyone writes. If it is for money, then I can see people buying reviews and creating sock puppet accounts all in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Not that it is right, mind you, but because it is all about financial gain, and, let’s face it, human beings are not the most moral species when it comes to money.

    For those of us who write to hone the craft, because we have to, because we have never known a time when we did not write in some way, then I think it is abhorrent. In the end, I guess I would rather turn out a good product and do the right thing than cheat to win.

    • Hope you get a chance to see the movie soon — definitely a writer’s movie! It’s interesting that you mention money, because when the original sock puppet article I read emphasized the literay recognition angle more. But the money angle makes a lot of sense — yes, greed is so overwhelming especially, I suppose if you’ve been a poor writer for a long time? Whatever the reason, I agree that I’m much rather turn out a good product and hope for the best in terms of acceptance and financial reward… a much better plan for personal success, I agree.

  4. E.J. Wesley says:

    Such a great post, Julia! Here’s the thing, any time a writer strays from writing for the sake of writing, there’s a danger of being swept up into all the associated things–like marketing, finding agents, blogging, and just playing the ‘game’. We are increasingly moving toward a reality where success, in terms of copies sold, rests largely on being noticed. Essentially, there’s less of an opportunity, or desire, to let things grow organically. Subsequently, there’s a ton of pressure to manufacture “buzz”.

    Furthermore, there aren’t really any laws or rules to strictly govern many of the things outside of copyright infringement. Sure, Amazon, etc. have their terms of agreement, but if you get busted there’s no true punitive damage. Outside of besmirching your good name, that is, and many authors don’t even use their real names!

    I do believe we (authors) should adhere to a basic code of ethics, and have read a few posts lately suggesting what some of those might be. (Including: don’t create fake reviews, don’t post negative reviews for things you haven’t read or direct competitors, etc.)

    • You make so much sense, E.J., and this was kind of where I was heading with my post…. anytime you mix in all the non-writing things as you mentioned, we start down the path. And in that way — combined with pent up feeling of lack of recognition — I can understand the feeling behind the slippery slope.

      But, as you say, there has to be a code of ethics. Really, it is a code of human ethics… the things we learn at a young age. To not lie, cheat or steal… and I think we can extrapolate from that not to fake reviews, etc. It seems so basic, and yet people seem to invent so many shades of gray (maybe even more than 50… sorry…). p.s. you used one of my favorite words: besmirching 🙂

  5. Been DYING to see the Words since I first saw the trailer (and figured it was about the unethical decision you mention). What a great post – esp. since these things have been in the NY Times and Forbes recently … I’m a “rule follower,” so like you, I simply cannot imagine disobeying my personal code of ethics for my own gain. But, sadly, that’s the society we live in today (driven, I think, in part by unscrupulous corporate America that has made that kind of behavior ‘acceptable.’)

    I “get” how hard this business is (as I continue to slog my way through), but to sabotage other writers with one-star reviews (did you see that trend??), or make up your own conversations on blog threads, or to pay for fake reviews … it’s beyond reprehensible, no matter HOW down you feel about your writing. Some say it’s “playing the game,” but where does a writer draw the line? Why can’t good writing be the benchmark for success… If only….

    Great, thought-provoking post! I’m with EJ above — a code of ethics!!!

    • We rule follwers really do have trouble imagining these things, don’t we? But I’ll be so curious what you think after you see the movie! It opens up a different way of looking at things, in my opinion…

      But I’m with you, to sabotage OTHER writers? That’s unthinkable. And also hard to understand (with the millions of writers out there) how it can possibly help! Plus, I keep wondering: how on earth do these people have the physical time to do these things and also write? And exactly, where DO you draw the line once you start down the path?

  6. Hey! Hey! I haven’t seen THE WORDS yet, but will make a point to see it now. As for doing the right thing, I think all of us are tempted to cross over to the dark side from time to time. We’re human. But I think what keeps me honest is knowing that doing the right thing is a reward in itself. And I guess, deep down, I still believe that good guys finish first. 🙂

    • Yes, you captured my thoughts exactly… we are human. And writers (with very active imaginations) to boot, right? So even if we aren’t tempted to cross to the dark side, we can well imagine the motivation and what it might be like to make that crossing… As with you, deep down I know doing the right thing is the reward. As for the bad stuff, best to keep it with our bad guy characters, right? (Yes, that’s right, I’m thinking of BABY GRAND!)

  7. holessence says:

    Julia – I came to your blog by way of a Melissa Crytzer Fry Tweet (which is how I originally found out about the movie as well).

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but read a Google blurb about the choice that you elude to in this post. I taught at the Writers’ Institute at UW-Madison in April. It was the first time I’d heard about the lengths that some people go to in an effort to inflate their work — many times at the cost of another’s.

    • So glad you found my post via Melissa! I think you’ll like the movie (please come back and let me know). It is such a fascinating premise, especially I think to writers. Isn’t it just so amazing the lengths some people will go to — I guess writers aren’t exempt from searching for an easy way….

      Thank you so much for the visit to my blog and for your comment!

  8. Just imagining doing some of those unethical things ties me up in knots. I don’t know how people manage, especially since it seems they often get caught. Is it really worth the price they pay in reputation? I agree with Melissa that we live in a landscape of corporate greed that makes cheating acceptible and also with Karen that writing for the sake of writing is the best way to avoid the trap. Let’s hope that Dina is right and good guys do finish first in the end.

    Adding The Words to my Netflix queue…

    • I agree, Shary, these things tie me up in knots too — no doubt if I did anything unethical I’d have a telltale heart and write a blog about my indiscretions or something else counterproductive! Somehow not only has it become that corporate greed makes cheating acceptable, but also that somehow people who get away with things are painted (some of the time) as smart and cagey. I hope Dina’s right too, that good guys finish first… I think you’ll enjoy the movie, let me know once you see it!

  9. Chris Fries says:

    Hey Julia! Hope you are doing wonderfully and that all your writerly goals are coming true for you!!!

    Great post. And no, no-way, no-how would I steal or plagiarize — I’m boringly ethical.

    I always think about the line, “character is what we do when we think no-one is looking.”

    Some people may think cheating is ok, but they’re wrong. They’re simply trying to minimize their own cheating…

    • My writerly goals are a work in progress but they’re chugging along — hope yours are going well, too! BORINGLY ethical? I think you should’ve said FASCINATINGLY ethical! As you say, character is what we do when we think no one is looking — and what’s more interesting than that? I so agree that people often cheat/lie/make bad decisions and then say it’s okay to make themselves feel better.

  10. Barb Riley says:

    I’ve never heard of The Words, but thanks for the suggestion. I might just have to check it out. I love movies/novels/stories where they examine the unethical. One of the first novels I read that made me want to write was told from the point of view of a killer, and I actually became sympathetic towards him and understood why he made the choices he did. Not sure how much The Words explores that, but your blog post has definitely got me intrigued. 🙂

    • I think you’ll like the movie, Barb! We both enjoyed it immensely, and it examines unethical issues on several levels, specifically how it relates to writers. I could sympathize and empathize with a lot of the movie, hence this post… it really got me thinking! Can’t wait to hear what you think!

  11. Several people have told me I should go see The Words. Apparently, it’s very weird and I would love it, but I haven’t seen it yet.

    This is a pretty deep topic, and I don’t think it has an easy answer. Have I ever considered an unethical writing choice? No, I don’t think so. But I hear about them all the time, and I do understand them. It makes me sad, because the unethical choice is almost always the wrong one (oh boy), and I know those people can’t undo what they’ve done.

    • I think The Words is very appealing, especially for writers — and poses such an interesting and captivating story and it really did make me wonder how I might make unethical choices! Although I too have never crossed over to the dark side, I do understand the attraction — and I have to say that it’s fascinating to me to think about characters who make choices that can’t easily or ever be undone!

  12. Guilie says:

    Great post, Julia, and great question. I think coming to the edge and looking over is human. Without temptation, and without awareness of that temptation, we’d be senseless machines. What one does at that edge, however, is–to paraphrase Chris above–the mark of character. Someone else mentioned why we write, and that’s definitely key. It is, like most anything else in life, a choice between the journey and the destination. If it’s about getting “there”–fame, glory, financial success, recognition–then shortcuts start making a lot of sense. If it’s about HOW you get there–if the focus is on the growth, on the learning, on the process and the journey itself–then shortcuts mean nothing.

    Thanks for making me think about this, and for mentioning the movie. Where I live it probably will never make it into theaters, but I’ll keep an eye out for it on DVD 🙂

    • I love how you put it, Guilie: “…coming to the edge and looking over is human.” Exactly how I felt after seeing the movie. One of the best things about being a writer is being able to take that feeling and expand on it and write about what it might be like if I did partake in the temptation! Thanks so much for your comment–nice to see you here again!

  13. Great topic for this post, Julia. And all the comments it has generated are equally fascinating. This ‘look at me’ society we have created is producing all kinds of freak aberrations, and I suppose we shouldn’t be at all surprised by any of its manifestations, especially, as you say, where money and fame are concerned.

    As others have pointed out in comments here, the pressure to do those things which take us away from the actual writing – Twitter, blogging, etc., are all distractions artificially imposed by the current trends in publishing; no other generation of writers has had to face exactly this. And we are only just beginning to see how these developments are affecting both our body of literature and the people turning it out. We are now expected to not just write, but to produce. The days of being a reclusive writer like Salinger are gone. Sadly, some see it as a popularity contest, and maybe they are not wrong in that assessment.

    Writers have always said some snarky things about each other, people being what they are. Read any letters of the old classic writers and you will see that is so. But at least they did it openly. Manufacturing a fake personality to hide behind brings a whole new level of depravity to it. It’s cowardly and underhanded.

    I haven’t seen The Words, but now I want to. It’s such a kick to watch movies about writers and the life. It’s fun to see what they get right. Looking forward to it!

    • I agree, Cynthia, the comments have been so interesting (it always is my favorite part of writing a blog, though… have to admit!). I think you’re so right that the “job” of a writer has changed dramatically with current trends in publishing. Produce, social network, be popular… all these things do seem to make cheating and disception much more likely. But as you say, a whole new level of depravity seems to be taking over recently…

      I’ll be so interested to hear what you think of The Words, let me know!!

  14. I haven’t seen The Words yet, but I’m very interested in it. (Plus it can’t be all bad when you can watch Bradley Cooper for 2 hours! LOL)

    I think sitting on this side of the moral fence it’s really easy to say that we wouldn’t do something deceptive. I mean, we know right from wrong. But… imagine a writer who has been working on draft after draft of her novel for 10 years, pouring blood, sweat and tears into her story. Signing up for conferences, pitching agent after agent, workshopping the story, getting feedback, revising some more, lining her walls with rejection letters (or more often the ubiquitous silence). Then finally it happens – an agent calls, a deal happens. Maybe she’s asked to do something she’s not entirely comfortable with, but hey, this is the big break — she can’t walk away now. Or maybe she thinks that she needs to pay for these reviews because her agent had told her that if her sales don’t pick up she’ll be cut loose. That’s not so bad, right? It’s like hiring a publicity agent, right? It’s very easy for her to justify so many things in the name of payback for all her hard work.

    I’m sure there are some writers out there who do unscrupulous things on purpose, but then I feel there are quite a few writers who are so desperate, they don’t necessarily realize it.

    • You read my mind, Jackie. This is precisely what I’ve been thinking about since seeing the movie — and you’ve written it so beautifully I might add (and I’m also wondering how you knew I’ve lined my walls with rejection letters). And your last thoughts really summed it up for me: “I feel there are quite a few writers who are so desperate, they don’t necessarily realize it.” I can’t wait to hear what you think of The Words (and yes, 2 hours of Bradley Cooper didn’t hurt at all, he did a great job!).

  15. Lisa Ahn says:

    What a great topic! Like you and Melissa, I’m a hard-core rule follower. As in, the thought of walking on a “Do Not Walk On The Grass” lawn can give me hives. So, I’m not tempted to cross over to the dark side, but I think I get a little of why some people do. There is so much noise right now — competition from layers of media, social media, platforms, blogs, ebooks, traditional publishing, indies . . . . Everyone’s hooked up to some sort of device and it’s easy, I think, to feel as if you’re just shouting into the wind, going no where. That, and the tight funnel of the publishing market right now add up to people making unethical choices to reach their goals. Solution? Not sure. I’ll have to sleep on that one . . . dreaming of those “Do Not Walk” signs. Yikes!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post…I’m a “Do Not Walk” sign follower, too, Lisa… but as you say, the layers of social media, etc., etc., combined with what Jackie said in her comment, make me wonder: is it sometimes such a gradual slide that it doesn’t feel like it’s unethical? I can’t imagine that being so (especially right now…), but then even two years ago I couldn’t have imagined being online friends with people I’d never met face to face. It’s just all such a crazy whirl at times, isn’t it? As you say, shouting into the wind… Yikes indeed!

  16. CMSmith says:

    It’s this kind of thing that sometimes tempts me to walk away from the whole sordid business and go back to my crocheting. Someday I probably will.

    The Words is on my to-see list.

  17. The Words sounds like my kinda movie, Julia. I’ve never heard of it, but now I want to check it out!

    As for your post: While I was working on my second book, I saw an advertisement on Goodreads that sounded a lot like the book I was working on. I panicked, contacted my publisher, and sent them a link to the book. Now that I have purchased and read the book, though, I know that we have little in common except for a certain medical thread. It is a difficult thing to make sure we stay on the other side of the line, but I do believe we will be rewarded for never crossing it (even if we never get famous).

    • Your description of what happened with your second book sounds like point for real concern and a time that might have led other (less ethical) authors to make a different decision. I agree, although sometimes it’s difficult to stay on the ethical side of the line, it is rewarding in so many ways not to cross it — no matter the potential for success or fame. As for the movie, I think you’d really enjoy it — such a fascinating writer movie.

  18. Julia Hones says:

    Wow Julia! What a great post. It resonates with me. We all go through doubts and difficult days. But I think the beauty of the challenge is that we love the writing process so much that we get back to it with hope. We keep going because there is something mysterious that pushes us forward, no matter what happened in the past. Despite the fact that writing involves sitting down, our minds are alive. Our writing makes us travel with our minds and brew new thoughts and ideas. The unexpected is always close…and that sensation is exhilarating.

    • You’re so right… “we keep going because there is something mysterious that pushes us forward…” What I like about it is that it’s not the success or lack of success that necessarily motivates us but just the unexpected, that exhilarating sensation. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Julia — nice to see you here, and thanks for the comment!

  19. I guess the older I get I believe more in the principle you reap what you sow. I just have to trust in that. Peace is more important in my life than ill-gotten gain.

    • I hear you, Jamie — that’s certainly my feelings, too — peace is so much more important to me than almost anything else these days. But I’ll tell you, THE WORDS definitely painted a picture that got me thinking! I’ll be curious if you see it what you think!

  20. This really got me thinking, Julia. I haven’t seen the film ‘The Words’ and am oblivious to any unethical things that a writer may do – I am probably very naive on this front. I, like you, wouldn’t consider any that may be out there. It’s all down to the words for me and if what I do isn’t good enough, then I have to bite the bullet and start again.

    • I’d be so curious to hear what you think of the movie, Abi! It was greatly entertaining (I think especially so as a writer) and it really gave me pause to think. I like to think I’d never consider doing the unethical, it’s not in my nature at all, but like in Jackie’s comment…I sometimes wonder if it’s one of those things that kind of sneaks up on you… definitely the thing of a writer’s imagination. And maybe that’s where it stays: in the imagination of words.

  21. Nina B says:

    This is a wonderful post because it’s so honest. You’ve named something so many of us feel. ENVY. Ugly, isn’t it??? I agree that I can imagine someone going to that limit of paying reviewers, etc. I (would to) think I would never get to that level, but as a human being, I get how people stoop to desperate measures.

    On a similar topic, the talk on Twitter today was all about the person who attacked an agent who had rejected him. (or her–not sure.)

    • Nina, you’re the first person to mention the “E” word but yes, to be honest, it’s exactly what I was driving at here. It is a very ugly feeling, yes. I also don’t believe I’d ever get to that level…. thank you for saying I’m honest… I’ll be curious if you see THE WORDS if it brings forward any similar thoughts in your mind.

      I heard about the horrible attack — just awful — and it’s one more example of the extreme unethical, illegal and dangerous levels some writers (humans) will go to achieve their desires. It’s downright terrifying, and thank goodness the agent is physically fine.

  22. Emma Pass says:

    I can understand it – maybe – but would I do it? Never. What’s the point in risking your integrity for a few reviews? Some people are going to like my book (I hope). Some people won’t (for sure). It’s out of my hands and, frankly, none of my business. I’d much rather direct my energies into writing the next book and trying to get better at what I love to do. Great post, Julia!

    • Integrity. One of my favorite words, Emma. And you also brought up another really important point (that many seem to lose sight of these days): every book cannot be liked by every person. You have such a positive point of view, contagiously so, to put your energies into something you can control vs. waste energy you have no control over. Thanks for such an upbeat response, Emma!

  23. Perry Block says:

    Much as the idea of acting in an unethical, immoral, and totally irresponsible manner appeals to me, I just can’t do it. As exclusively a writer of humor, borrowing another humor writer’s style or concepts and ideas would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

    Each humorist’s style is unique and individual, and borrowing someone else’s style would simply seem false or imitative. I think each humor writer has to develop his or her own approach and concepts and go with them and hope at some point that others buy in.

    Then again, ripping off Dave Barry might not be such a bad idea!

    • Nice to see you, Perry! I can definitely see your point about humor writing and borrowing — everyone has such a unique and obviously personal writing style developed around their own lfe and circumstances. It’s so interesting that humor writing is such a departure from other styles in that way. (By the way, I’m so impressed with the ability to do that — I’ve loved writing what humor I have but it’s so hard! So kudos to you!) But IF one were going to rip someone off, I agree Dave Barry would be the way to go. That guy is too funny.

  24. JO says:

    I haven’t seen THE WORDS, but – as Emma Pass had highlighted – we’re in the same ethical corner.

    I haven’t actually agonised over this – it feels very straightforward to me. I want to sleep soundly in my bed knowing I’ve done the best I can, according to my own standards of decency and honesty. My books will sink or swim, and I’ll just carry on doing the best I can. It’s not about taking a moral high ground (though it may look like that) – but life is much more comfortable if I stick to principles I believe in rather than leap into the melting pot of sock-puppetry and paying for good reviews.

    Will I say the same when my little ebook (out tomorrow – eek!) wavers in the rankings? Well, I’ve managed it with one book without being tempted, so I see no reason to change my attitude this time.

    And I don’t believe we – the ‘ethical’ ones – are in a minority. We are simply quieter.

    • I totally agree, Jo, that we ethical ones are in the majority…. the silent majority as it were. We really only hear about it when writers go bad, don’t we, because that kind of sensationalist news really makes headlines and (in the case of the movie) a really juicy story. Here’s to the silent majority!

      Good luck with the second book, and thank you so much for the visit to my blog and comment — so nice to meet you!

  25. To be honest, the deception of those particular authors just seems like way too much effort for what they get from it. Fake reviews and false identities? Couldn’t they just spend their time writing more books? So I really don’t have any grounds of understanding; it’s just not worth it in my mind. Let the work speak for itself and keep producing.


    • You bring up such an important point, Ashlee — the sheer effort and time it must take to pull off the fake reviews and false identities. Especially as you say when the time could be spent writing more books. Such great advice and way to look at it!