How Freelancers Can Remain True to Their Ethics

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In the world of freelancing, certainly when you are starting out, you will undoubtedly find yourself writing about topics that you don’t care one iota about.

Early on, when you’re building your name as the writing genius that you ar, it’s difficult to build a portfolio exclusively out of pieces and contracts about the things you love. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is almost impossible. If nothing else, we’ve all made the mistake of saying yes to a project we thought we would like that turned out to be as much fun as watching paint dry in a dumpster.

But we’re professionals, right? We do what we said we were going to do and we get the job done. End of story, thanks a bunch for reading, have a lovely day.

Except it’s not always that simple, is it?

As writers, jobs that we don’t like or which we find boring suck, obviously. Getting words on paper is hard enough as it is without having to wax lyrical about a topic which slowly but surely breaks your spirit with concentrated boredom. But jobs like that are doable and, once they’re done, they tend to be out of sight and out of mind, leaving only the trace of sweet sweet cash behind them. Hard work, but at least you got paid, right?

But what if the problem isn’t boredom? What if, say, you’re asked to write about something that you fundamentally disagree with? What do you do then?

To be clear, I’m not talking about universally reprehensible stuff or topics that are outside the confines of the law. If someone asks you to write an article glorifying genocide, for example, you might want to pass and contact the relevant authorities. Immediately.

But what about social and political ideologies? What if someone asked you to write sales copy for an abattoir and you’re a vegetarian? Or someone wants campaign slogans against immigration and you’re family came from abroad?

The way I see it, there are three possible responses.

1. Forge ahead and try not to think about it

If you need the work or are new to this game, you might well decide that whatever you are being asked to write about isn’t that bad and you’d rather have the work. You know what, fair enough.

Only you can decide what you are and are not willing to write about or what causes you will lend your skills too. At the end of the day, it’s got nothing to do with anybody else. However, if I could offer just a small piece of advice, it would be this.

Take time to make your decision.

I have taken a couple of jobs in the past that I wasn’t totally thrilled with and whilst I don’t regret taking the work, I do still think about those jobs more than any other contracts I have taken in my career so far. For your own sake, if you’re going to write about topics that you’re not totally on board with, make sure to check in with yourself first and really make sure that this decision will not be haunting you later down the line.

Oh, and take into account whether your name will be on the work or not. These days I tend to turn down work that I feel strongly against, regardless of whether I would be credited or not, but I know that is a luxury that not everyone can afford. There are times where, if you’re on the fence about a contract, your name being attached to it or not may make the difference to your decision to take it or leave it. If you do decide to go ahead, do the best you can and try to be kind to yourself along the way. Don’t beat yourself later down the line if you decide you made the wrong decision, just learn from it and move on.

2. Take the job but spin it

Let me come out and say it right off the bat — this is a risky move. Though it is possible to pull off a gambit like this, it can also result in work being thrown back in your face and contracts being terminated.

You have been warned.

Sometimes the issue with a job won’t be the topic perse, but rather the manner or tone in which that topic is being addressed. That puts us writers in a very powerful position. We are the ones that put the tone into the words, which means that we hold a certain amount of sway over how the final piece comes across. This, in turn, meant that you could, if you were so inclined, spin a subject matter or topic in such a way as to make it less offensive to your moral sensibilities.

Let me give you an example

A while back, I was asked to write an article about dating tips for men. As a man (and despite my fairly dour track record in the dating department), I felt like that was a topic I could take on. When I was asked to do the same for women, however, I was less enthusiastic. Content for women, about women, should ideally be written by women. It kind of makes sense, don’t you think? There is a level of understanding there that I could never hope to achieve, no matter my research or writing ability. However, the job was for a longstanding client, I needed the money and they left me pretty much free reign so, despite my doubts, I took it.

The article would have been far better had it been written by a woman, I am sure, but I did what I could. Rather than deliver the usual dating drivel that can be found in every corner of the internet, I tried to spin the content and do what I could to make it a positive piece of advisory writing.

For a start, I left gender pretty much out of the equation in both articles, meaning that they could be applied to both hetro- and homosexual couples. Equally, most of the advice I gave was also gender nonspecific, meaning that is was just basic common sense advice for healthy adult relationships. The most important aspect for me, though, was to steer well clear of any allusion to ‘looking beautiful for your partner’ and ‘guys like it when’ nonsense, in an attempt to avoid supporting any of the toxic societal stereotypes that already plague us quite enough.

I did my best to write an article that would be genuinely helpful and uplifting for all who read it, regardless of gender, and included lacings of feminism throughout to give readers what support I felt qualified to offer. The article was accepted and, as far as I know, published without edits. I requested my employer hire a female freelancer for such jobs in the future, to which they agreed.

I still wonder regularly if I should have taken that contract. Sometimes I think no, and that I took a woman’s job by writing the piece. Other times I am comfortable with the work I put out into the world, even though it could have been done better by another writer. But at the very least, I know that I took on a topic that I wasn’t 100% on board with and made it into a piece that did align with my morals.

I got lucky, though. My article was accepted and published. I wasn’t forced into compromising my ethics and I didn’t lose a client or a contract because of my attempt at spinning the topic. These are very real risks that you take if you go down this route, and they should not be taken lightly.

3. Refuse the Work

In the end, if there is no way you can reconcile the topic or nature of a job with your morals, then there aren’t many options available to you apart from refusing the work outright. You might lose clients over this. There are people out there who think a writer’s job is to write and the topic or intent of the work is irrelevant. I think those people are wrong. Many of them are probably the same people who only value writers at about $5 an hour.

I’m speculating, of course.

The act of writing is not a cold, emotionless one and even the driest, most technical texts will have some aspect of the writer’s voice in them. As such, many freelancers, myself included, feel a certain amount of responsibility to use our literary superpowers for good. Take one look at the submission guidelines for pretty much every publication on Medium and you will see that we writers take our morality and ethics pretty seriously. No hate, no lies, no slander. Just good writing and good intentions. There is nothing wrong with applying precisely those principles to your freelancing work too.

So, if you don’t like the look of a topic, or the angle you’re being asked to write from, there is no shame in turning down the job. Some clients will kick up a fuss, others will be understanding, there’s really no way to tell. But know that the reaction of your would-be employer does not change the fact that you are right to stand by your ethics. To be honest, if you can afford to lose clients, then the ones who turn nasty when you refuse to do as they ask are probably not worth working for anyway. The worse case scenarios is that they know exactly how bad their desired content is and they just want someone else to do the dirty work.

No thanks.

At the end of the day, the work you take on as a freelancer is completely in your control. Any of these responses to difficult or controversial topics are perfectly acceptable provided you can justify them to yourself. In our line of work, there isn’t anybody else to hold us to account accept ourselves, so we just have to make peace with our own moral viewpoints before deciding how to proceed.

One last word before I go.

Turning down work or putting your relationships with clients at risk is a big deal, especially if you’re just starting out. Deciding what to do in difficult ethical situations is not always as straight forwards as the simple ‘1, 2, 3’ I have outlined above. So, above all else, go easy on yourself. Whatever you decide to do, try not to beat yourself up about it later on if you decide y

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