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Will the Real Ghostwriter Please Stand Up?

August 22, 2016

John Kador

Which one of these five episodes (all from recent news reports) really involves a ghostwriter?

1)      Oakland police sergeant Mike Gantt faced criminal charges for having his girlfriend ghostwrite his homicide reports.  He was charged with getting his girlfriend to transcribe audio records of cases he was working on, then lying about it.

2)      The musician Drake has been under criticism that some of his lyrics are written by ghostwriters.  His critics claim that Drake “don’t write his own raps!”

3)      A college student needs to submit a term paper and hires a ghostwriter to deliver the paper, which the student then submits as his own work.

4)      Basketball legend Charles Barkley complained that he had been misquoted by his ghostwriter in Barkley’s own autobiography, Outrageous.

5)      Wikileaks founder Julian Assange abandoned a contracted autobiography when he decided that revealing details of his personal life was not worth the $2.5 million advance. After the deal ended in acrimony, Canongate published Australian ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan’s notes as Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Biography without the consent of either Assange or O’Hagan in an attempt to recoup some of the publisher’s losses.

While all five of these episodes are said to involve ghostwriters, I recognize myself—a professional ghostwriter—in only one. Four of the episodes invoke the term for behavior that can be described more accurately by perfectly good words that English reserves for those activities.

So before I go on, what’s your guess? Which case represents an authentic ghostwriter at work? Please make your choice, and we’ll go through these cases one by one. But first, let’s define what I mean by “ghostwriting.”

Ghostwriting Defined

Ghostwriting is a legal relationship in which one party hires another party for a fee to co-create a manuscript (books, speeches, articles, white papers, screenplays, etc.) for which the first party accepts total ownership and responsibility.

One key feature of my definition is “legal.” Written and enforceable agreements between all the parties (typically the principal, the publisher, and the ghostwriter) guide the relationship. The ghostwriting may be confidential, but there is nothing deceptive about it. Disclosure may be embarrassing, but that’s about it.

Have you selected the real ghostwriting example?  Now that you’ve made your choice, let’s take the episodes one by one.

Example 1:  Poor Sergeant Gantt may have violated a gaggle of departmental regulations concerning chain of evidence and confidentiality, but a girlfriend helping a boyfriend with an administrative task is not ghostwriting. You can call it irresponsible, you can call it delegating, you can call it outsourcing. But calling it ghostwriting is like accusing secretaries of ghostwriting when they type a letter from dictation.

Ghostwriting is a service that requires the creation of original content in exchange for a payment.  There was no payment. There was no creation of original content. Call this case for what it is: transcribing. 

Example 2: How about Drake? Does he have people writing lyrics for which he takes credit and incorporates into his raps? Not according to his “ghostwriter,” Quentin Miller, who is quoted as saying, “I got an opportunity to work with one of the biggest artists in hip-hop and we were on the same wavelength. We collaborated.”

Drake is like most artists in history. They’re influenced by others and work with partners, credited and uncredited.  That’s not ghostwriting, that’s collaboration.

Example 3: College students who hire someone to write a term paper that they represent as their own intellectual work are committing academic fraud, intellectual dishonesty, and, to the extent the term paper is not really original, plagiarism. Students have to be deceptive from start to finish to pull this transaction off.  The entire transaction works only under the cover of subterfuge. Usually the parties don’t even meet; the entire transaction is handled by an intermediary.  If the student is dissatisfied with the quality of the work or, as it often happens, discovers that he or she has received a recycled essay that will trip a plagiarism filter, there’s no recourse.

As for the people who accept money to provide students with term papers, they are accomplices to academic fraud. 

Example 4: Charles Barkley, like ninety-nine percent of athletes, used a professional ghostwriter to put his memoir together. Some celebrities are more involved in the process than Barkley apparently was. But what we have here is a book written by co-authors. Roy S. Johnson, the Sports Illustrated writer who worked with Barkley, received formal credit for the book.

Ghostwriters toil in the background. Johnson is a co-author.

Enter the Real Ghostwriter

Example 5: If you picked this example, congratulations.  Only Assange’s case involves true ghostwriting (although it admittedly does not show the profession at its best).

Had Assange kept his end of the contract, ghostwriter O’Hagan would have remained in the background. Only the collapse of the publishing agreement pushed their transaction into the headlines, exposing a private relationship that, for all its frailty, was legitimate, legal, and professional.

I’m proud to be called a ghostwriter. I’ll be even prouder when, instead of being used to speak of any writing that seems shady or dishonest, my calling is seen for what it is: a professional writer and editor who helps an author put their great ideas on paper.


  • John Kador

    John Kador is an independent business writer whose best-selling books and insightful articles have been helping business leaders work smarter and more profitably for more than three decades.

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