Will the Real Ghostwriter Please Stand Up?
Which one of these five episodes (all from recent news reports) really involves a ghostwriter?
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.
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!”
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.
Basketball legend Charles Barkley complained that he had been misquoted by his ghostwriter in Barkley’s own autobiography,
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange abandoned a contracted autobiography when he decided that revealing details of his personal life were not worth the $2.5 million the book sold for. 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 investment.
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.
Ghostwriting is a legal relationship in which a principal hires a ghostwriter for a fee to co-create a manuscript (books, speeches, articles, whitepapers, screenplays, etc.) for which another person accepts total ownership and responsibility. In a nutshell, a ghostwriter swaps credit for cash.
A key feature of my definition is “legal.” The ghostwriting that I do may be confidential, but there is nothing deceptive about it. There are good agreements between all the parties to the relationship (typically the principal, publisher or editor, and ghostwriter) and the terms are memorialized by contracts that can be defended in court.
Now that you’ve made your choice, let’s take the episodes one by one.
Poor Sergeant Gannt 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.
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 sometimes even collaborate with other talents. That’s not ghostwriting.
As for the third episode, 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.
As for the people who accept money to provide students with term papers, they are more accomplices to academic fraud than ghostwriters. 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.
Charles Barkley, like ninety-nine percent of celebrities, 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. I’m not privy to the details of this particular transaction, but since Roy S. Johnson, the Sports Illustrated writer who was contracted to work with Barkley, gets formal credit in the book, his role is best described as a co-writer. Ghostwriters toil in the background, giving up credit for a fee. Collaborators generally are out front, share the copyright, and take a cut of the revenue.
Enter the Real Ghostwriter
Only Assange’s case involves a true ghostwriter plying his trade (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, professional, and normal.
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.