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What Is Ghostwriting—And What Does It Mean Today?

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To kick off the Ghostwriting Confidential 2021 series, our groups thought it made sense to start with the first question we typically get from new contacts: What does “ghostwriting” mean? And then to explore how it can lead to your success. 

With this post, we will define ghostwriting by covering the history and evolution of collaborative creation, the brief foray away from that approach to sole creative endeavors, and the current swing back to collaboration that’s proving to be a boon for writers and readers alike. Finally, we’ll introduce you to the wide array of benefits authors gain by working with a professional writing partner.

What Is a Ghostwriter?

There’s a narrow understanding of what ghostwriting is among laypeople, and then there’s the broader reality of what it actually is.

The common definition of ghostwriting is the act of one person writing in the name of another person, group, company, or institution without receiving a byline or public credit. But more often than not, ghostwriting is a customized form of collaboration, covering a range of relationships and services tied to the authors’ needs, objectives, and work style.

And today, it is becoming more and more common for these editorial partners to receive public recognition—and even cover-credit for their work in the form of “and John Smith” or “with Jane Brown.” 

Although the common definition is still prevalent, it is changing as people become more exposed to the wide spectrum of roles that ghostwriters play. For example, the author and the ghost might share writing responsibilities, or the ghost might work on certain components, such as writing the stories and case studies or shaping the narrative of a novel or memoir, with the author supplying the original concepts and research. Ghosts also can coach authors to develop a concept and organizational structure, identify their target audience, capture their authentic voice, manage the project, conduct interviews with outside sources, and find pertinent research studies. And ghostwriters can serve as developmental editors, helping authors to shape their work at the earliest stages of production, and as line editors and book doctors, polishing, revising, and revamping manuscripts that need improvement before being published. 

The division of labor varies from one collaboration to another, based on whatever makes the most sense for the success of the project. That’s why we think of ghostwriter as an umbrella term for creative collaborations on many types of projects, including books, speeches, white papers, articles, websites, blogs, podcasts—essentially any type of written content our clients want to co-create with us. 

Ghostwriting Is One of the Oldest Professions

While the general public’s awareness of ghostwriting is a relatively recent development, ghostwriting and collaborative storytelling have been around for as long as the written word. Perhaps the most widely known example is the Bible. Both testaments were written by committee, hundreds of years after the events occurred—in the ancient world, the concept of owning intellectual property didn’t exist. For thousands of years, stories were told collectively, especially in oral storytelling. Thus, the oldest known “texts” aren’t attributed to a single author, but rather are the accumulated reflections and contributions of entire cultures.

It wasn’t until the Age of Enlightenment that individuals began being credited as the sole creators of stories and other artistic endeavors, particularly books and later films. Auteurs (French for “authors”) were held in high esteem for single-handedly producing stories and attaching their names to them. In relatively short order, this notion of a book needing to have a sole source took root, not only in literary circles but in the imagination of readers. 

The rise of the auteur in the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t kill off the practice of collaborative storytelling or the use of ghosts—it just drove our predecessors deeper undercover. Indeed, it’s widely believed that this period is when the common stigma around ghostwriting was born. One of the most telling examples of this is the work and life of Samuel Johnson, the famed English writer and public intellectual. Johnson started his career as what was then known as a “hack” writer—a poorly paid writer for hire. At the height of his fame, he reportedly used a ghost of his own for some of his essays, which he slyly acknowledged by signing them with the anonymous letter T. Johnson later disavowed this practice out of a sense of honor/shame. And after Johnson’s death, his acolyte and biographer James Boswell—who many wrongly confuse as Johnson’s ghostwriter—took that disdain a step further by comparing ghostwriting to selling one’s own birthright. 

The Evolution of Ghostwriting: 
From Stigma to Standard Practice and on to Status

Ever since Johnson’s days, many an esteemed writer who has dabbled in ghostwriting has grappled with this sellout stigma. Notably among them were the coterie of great American novelists such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Agee, and Aldous Huxley who each went out to Hollywood after the talkies became a thing to make a buck as a screenwriter/rewriter. This self-inflicted sense of hackery recently earned a co-starring role in the 2021 Oscar-nominated movie “Mank” about the legendary screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who aspired to be a man of letters and a New York dramatist but had to settle for being the Academy Award-winning author of “Citizen Kane.”

The darker taboo around ghostwriting applies not to the ghost but to the author—that claiming someone else’s words as your own is a form of cheating and/or an act of dishonesty. Yet, anyone who’s been part of a creative endeavor in the arts—from a playwright who incorporates notes from a director and the actors to a writers’ room for a network television show to comedians who use punch-up writers—knows that the premise that there’s a single author responsible for every story is the real fraud.

This holds just as true for the creation of books. Set aside the term “ghostwriter”— countless works of fiction and non-fiction alike that we hold dear were shaped, reshaped, and even rewritten by anonymous editors. Just look at the work of Maxwell Perkins, a giant within publishing circles whose substantial revisions to classics such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel are widely credited for their success. Each book’s vision and story were the author’s, but the text was the product of a collaboration. That’s exactly what the best ghostwriters and collaborative writers do: help their authors find and express the best version of their vision.

The contributions of ghostwriters have become increasingly known and appreciated—at least within elite circles—with the rise of celebrity culture. Ask most Hollywood talent agents, top PR executives, brand-name CEOs, and political leaders, and not only will they tell you what a ghostwriter does, but also the value they deliver. Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca became household names in the 1980s partly because of their blockbuster bestselling autobiographies, which they could not have written without supremely talented writers such as our friends Bill Novak and Catherine Whitney. Donald Trump likely would not have been president without Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghost on his brand-defining book, Art of the Deal.

What truly and fully brought ghosting out of the shadows, and in turn helped drive a stake through the heart of the stigma, was the ubiquity and transparency of the Internet. In short order, everything and everyone was caught in the Web—there were no secrets anymore. Not only did we know that Barack Obama didn’t write his own speeches, his young speechwriter Jon Favreau became a celebrity in his own right. What became known then became normal, and as such accepted. Some CEOs and celebrities may write their own books, but most don’t—and most readers now know and accept that. 

The Internet has also made the nuts and bolts of collaboration—the actual sharing of artistic creation—much easier through an array of new technologies and platforms. Songwriters can trade tracks and recordings in an instant. Apps such as Google docs allow writers to easily share drafts and collaborate in real time, from anywhere in the world. Other technologies allow authors to share their working texts with their followers and quickly crowdsource notes and ideas for improvements.

As we noted in the introduction to this series, though, the Internet’s most transformative effect on the ghostwriting field has been on the demand side. Self-publishing used to be derided as merely for “vanity” projects. Now, it’s driving the content marketplace—from established ungated platforms such as Medium and LinkedIn to fast-growing newsletter services like Substack to the rise of elite, full-service hybrid book publishers that enable thought leaders to get their books to market on their own terms and timetable. This has turned ghostwriting from a luxury into more and more of a necessity.

The fact is, leaders, influencers, and those inspired to tell their stories or share new thoughts and discoveries tend to be busy people who work long hours to accomplish big goals. They have extensive expertise in their fields, but rarely have the time or the writing skills to, for example, produce on their own a series of thought-leadership articles or a deep-dive book.

And why should they have to do it by themselves? All things considered, choosing not to collaborate with a professional writer is deciding to give yourself a disadvantage right out of the gate. 

Today, working with a ghost is rightly seen by the business, advocacy, and communication leaders our groups partner with as an asset, as the quality of collaborative projects is higher than when authors go it alone, and that leads to greater success. On the flip side, a growing number of accomplished authors are reaching out to us to pursue collaborations because they’ve recognized they can make a lucrative income serving as a co-author or ghost for public figures and experts who can’t write the story themselves, or don’t want to.

Benefits of Collaborating with a Pro Ghost

If you’ve read hundreds of great books, it may seem like a logical leap to actually write one, but that’s not usually how things work out, particularly for first-time authors. Writing a book from scratch can be intimidating, and if it’s your first book, it can be overwhelming and downright scary. So it’s no surprise that a lot of new authors are coming to us for help. They see the wisdom in working with a professional who not only is a skilled writer but also has extensive experience collaborating with authors and understands the trepidation and trust issues authors naturally have. 

With a ghost by your side, the lofty aspiration—or intimidating prospect—of writing a book that meets your goals and makes you proud is not only achievable but also fascinating and enjoyable. With Gotham and United Ghostwriters, authors can sleep well at night because they know they’re in good hands. 

A Ghostwriter Can Help You if: 

  • Your new philosophy or approach is so effective that your colleagues keep saying, “You should write a book.” But who has time when you’re leading the charge 24/7? 
  • You have a personal story to share that can help others, but you have no idea how to put it down in words. 
  • You’re keynoting an upcoming conference and are determined to inspire the audience to take action to improve their business, but writing in a “void” doesn’t elicit your best thoughts or your most creative ideas. 
  • You’ve come up with a blockbuster idea for a novel but don’t have the right skill sets to bring it to life. 
  • There’s content you want to produce, but you adhere to the business adage, “Only do what only you can do”—and writing isn’t on that list. 
  • You want to strengthen your own writing skills by collaborating with a pro. 

Collaborating with a ghostwriter allows you to share your vision in a way that’s true to you. It’s your story, your brilliance, your originality. We simply help bring it to life on the page.

Toni Robino

Toni Robino is co-founder of Windword Literary Services LLC and a leading editorial collaborator in both fiction and nonfiction, with titles on the New York Times bestseller list.