Today’s post might be a bit controversial. It about ghostwriting, and whether it’s a good thing. In my opinion, it depends, though I’m wary of the practice. When I think of ghostwriters, typically, I think of celebrities (or sometimes non-celebrities) who have a personal story or memoir to share, or an expert in a certain field who wants to share their expertise in a nonfiction book. Neither of these two categories of people will necessarily have the skills to develop this information into a compelling narrative. Writing is a specialized skill that takes a lot of practice to hone. These people have valuable information to share, and I think ghostwriters allow them to share it. In these cases, the information, not the writing, is the priority. When the writing is secondary, it can make sense to hire a ghostwriter.
How much is too much?
Ghostwriting is a spectrum, from writing a book for someone to rewriting someone’s first draft. That’s why it’s hard to approve or condemn the practice outright. What if we did the same thing for other art forms? If I tell an artist I want a seascape, and they paint it, should I sign my name at the bottom, hang it in my living room, and tell all my friends I painted it? No, that’s a lie, even if the artist sold me the right to take credit for it.
What if I tried to paint a seascape, but it looked horrible. If I sought out an artist to paint over my work and make it look good, can I sign my name then? Part of the painting is my work, after all. I’d still say no, but some might say it depends on how much the artist had to change. What amount of editing makes the painting no longer mine?
The side of ghostwriting that’s always made me uncomfortable is when fiction authors employ ghostwriters. I can’t say I understand this practice. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my name on a book that I didn’t actually write. It doesn’t matter that a ghostwriter used my idea or outline, because they could never capture my voice and style. I suppose if they had enough writing samples, and they were good enough at imitation, they could. More than that, the story would lose the aspect of discovery that comes from diving into writing that next chapter. Even the most diligent outliners often discover new information about their characters or plots as they write, and hiring a ghostwriter separates the creator from the creative process. In a fiction piece, the writing is the main event, rather than a vehicle for the content. How the story is told is just as important as what the story is, which is why ghostwriting fiction just seems off to me (Exceptions would be things like a franchise where everyone knows that ghostwriters are employed, like Nancy Drew or Star Wars books).
I read an article this morning that got me thinking about ghostwriters in another light, and it certainly wasn’t a positive one. Here’s the article, if you’re interested.
To summarize, the author works as a developmental editor, and sometimes as a ghostwriter, for teens. I think if a teen gets developmental editing for their book, that’s a great opportunity for them. It sounds like the article’s author does a good bit of that. I would not call that ghostwriting. If someone writes a book for a teen so they can check it off their list of accomplishments, that bothers me. Here’s a troubling quote from the article:
“In recent years, I have written four novels—and referred many more to fellow ghosts—for teens from wealthy families who pay up to six figures to bring the kids’ dreams of authoring a book to life.”
If you hire a ghostwriter to write your novel, you certainly didn’t author a book. I had never imagined that teens would use ghostwriters to write and publish their fiction novels. This quote bugs me on many levels, but I think the biggest thing is that using a ghostwriter robs people of the chance to learn. I’m not trying to argue that one must suffer for one’s art, but the struggle, failure, and improvement of writing and editing a novel are undermined by hiring a ghostwriter. I think this is especially damaging to teens, who are in their prime learning-from-mistakes years (though I feel like I’ve never left learning-from-mistakes years, personally). What better time to write a terrible novel that never sees the light of day than the time in your life when everyone expects it to be terrible? Again, I am wholly in favor of helping teens edit their work. I am opposed to doing that work for them. Heck, I’m opposed to doing an adult’s work for them, too.
I can’t blame the ghostwriters out there trying to make a living, but I do think it’s dishonest for people to take credit for creative work that isn’t really theirs, whether they’ve paid for it or not. In the end, I guess it’s not the ghostwriting itself that bothers me, but the act of passing off a ghostwriter’s work as one’s own. I think the reader deserves to know that the author hired a ghost writer, because to claim they wrote a novel when they just handed an outline to someone else is disingenuous at best, and a lie at worst.
Am I being too harsh? What do you think about ghostwriting?