Chip MacGregor

July 6, 2012

Do you have a problem with ghostwriting?


Dave wrote to ask, “Do you have any ethical problems with ghostwriting?”

First, I would insist you define the term. To some, “ghostwriting” means doing any sort of writing for someone else without getting credit. I would disagree with that definition — sometimes an author has good ideas that are well-formed, but needs a wordsmith to help move them toward a polished manuscript. I see nothing wrong with that sort of writing. It’s a paid job to shape up somebody else’s work, and I don’t find anything unethical about that. In fact (since I know a lot of CBA people read this blog), you should know that Saint Paul used a ghostwriter (called an amanuensis) to smooth out his words. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the end of his letter to the Galatians. In 6:11, he says, “See what large letters I use as I write with my own hand” — which means he wasn’t writing the earlier portion of the letter. He was dictating it, and the amanuensis was editing and smoothing it out. Then he added his own handwriting at the end to prove it really came from Paul. The early church actually had a tradition that Paul had very bad eyesight, which might have been one reason he had a an editor taking down his words.

My point is just that it’s a lousy argument to somehow suggest it’s wrong for a speaker to use a writer to help shape or polish the written message. It’s not — that’s what a writer does. Presidents use writers to craft their speeches, and nobody says, “That’s not really the president talking!” Judges use clerks to write their decisions (and often to research and create their decisions), and nobody says, “That’s not really the judge’s words!” Corporate leaders use PR firms to create their company communication pieces, and nobody says, “That’s not really Steve Jobs saying that — it’s a marketing hack!” So put aside the prejudice that using a writer to do a book is somehow unethical or unfair. It’s just a flaccid argument made by people who want to use bumper-sticker thinking instead of examining the actual process of writing and editing.  

Second, most of what people call ghostwriting is really collaborative writing — the celebrity has something to say, but relies on a writer to come along side, add material, fill it out, and wordsmith the entire project. It’s similar to a talented singer hiring studio musicians to play the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar on an album — the singer needs professionals to fill in the gaps and make it better. Most great painters have master students who help them create “artist proofs” of their works — basically a giclee that the students go over with a paintbrush to fill in and complete the work. There’s nothing unethical about it. 

Having said that, I understand the criticism of ghostwriting in the classic sense — a well-known celebrity hires a writer to create something entirely out of thin air, so that the celebrity can claim to be a writer, and the actual writer is paid well and gets no credit. That’s something that isn’t as easy to defend. While I don’t argue with anyone using a writer to help them get their book done, if the hired writer creates new content, it would normally be considered appropriate to list the writer as a collaborator or contributor. I mean, why not simply list the collaborative writer on the cover and title page (“Bob Smith with Mary Jones”)? There’s no evidence to suggest listing a collaborator will hurt sales. (In fact, there’s considerably evidence these days to suggest a good collab can boost sales, since it reveals to the potential reader that a real writer has been over the work and made it readable.) To leave off the ghost is something I frequently find misleading, and is usually nothing more than an attempt to shore up the celebrity’s ego. This is why I rarely read books from politicians — they’re nearly always created by ghostwriters, and the ghost is rarely given credit. Somehow, I find it hard to believe Barak and Mitt sat down and banged out those books with their names on them (they were probably too busy asking people to give them money).

Third, keep in mind there are times where the collaborative writer doesn’t WANT to be listed. What if she is writing outside her genre, or it’s a controversial book, and the collaborating writer simply doesn’t want her name associated with the work? Or what if it’s a book aimed at men, and the collab is a woman, and having her name on it might seem awkward? If the collaborator doesn’t want to be listed, that should be his or her own choice. Back in the early 80’s, the great comic Bill Murray was one of the highlights of the movie “Tootsie,” but he didn’t want his name to appear anywhere in the advertisements or trailers for the film, because he felt that his name would create false expectations and draw the wrong crowd. I know a couple of excellent writers who have ghosted projects and explicitly didn’t want their names on the cover — which should be their choice.

The fact is, I find there is far less true ghosting than there was a few years ago. Most authors are willing to give credit where credit it due. And, as I noted, I don’t have a problem with a writer stepping in to collaborate on a project, or to help wordsmith somebody else’s ideas. I do find that some people get way too worked up about this topic without ever defining their terms, Dave. My two cents. Feel free to chime in on this one, everyone.

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  • Teena Lyons says:

    Definitely agree with the point about drawing in the wrong crowd

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Great post, Chip. Thanks for sharing your insight and giving me increased clarity on ghostwriting. 

  • Stephen M. Miller says:

    I’ve been asked to ghost write, but I’ve never felt comfortable moving in that direction.

    It’s kinda like letting someone else take credit for the gift God gave me. It’s not honest. It’s more like the Milli Vanilli lip-sync affair: actors taking credit for the work of musicians.

    I had one well-known editor invite me to write a kind of dummy’s guide to the Bible, which he said he’d edit and then take half the royalties and top billing. I told him if he wanted half the money he’d have to write half the book. But his argument was that the contact that he had which could produce the contract was worth half the writing.

    I begged to differ, and went after my own contracts. No regrets there. 

    • Chip says:

      I’ll make you deal, Steve… on your next book, if you do the research and writing, then take care of the marketing, I’ll stick my name on it for half the profits. And if you agree today, I’ll also send you some free steak knives (only $79.99 for shipping and handling).

  • Colleen Coble says:

    I think the first example is more editing. A writer hires someone to help smooth things out. All writers have editors, and I always mention my editors in my acknowledgements. 

    But I have a HUGE problem when someone is a “name” in the church and hires a writer to write a book pretty much in its entirety, but then refuses to list the collaborator on the cover. While not as common as it was a few years ago, I still see that happening on occasion these days and it’s even worse in the CBA world than when politicians do it because we should know better. the only reason not to list a collaborator is pride. And as Christians, we shouldn’t be feeding someone else’s pride. We shouldn’t lie either and claim a work as our own when we didn’t write it. We are to speak truth. And write it. 🙂 

    Good topic, Chip! 

    • Chip says:

      I basically agree, Colleen. A celebrity hiring someone and refusing to acknowledge their work bugs me (unless the writer doesn’t want to be associated with the project). And yes, the only reason to do so is pride — the celebrity is too wrapped up in their own ego to acknowledge someone else’s work. Thanks for the comment. 

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