What is ghostwriting?

By Daniel Rosehill, Founder, DSR Ghostwriting

If there’s one subset of the writing world that comes laden with more preconceptions than any other that area may well be ghostwriting.

The very name sounds mysterious. But the process of working as a ghostwriter is actually anything but.

So what is ghostwriting?

What is ghostwriting not?

And why might you want to work with a ghostwriter?

Here are some of my thoughts in broad brushstrokes.


What Is Ghostwriting?


The definition of what constitutes ghostwriting isn’t set in stone.

But a good one might be that, at its most fundamental level, ‘ghostwriting is writing anything that is officially attributed to another person — or a separate entity than oneself.’

But practice and reality differ — and so that definition is realistically overly broad.


What Are Some Typical Ghostwriting Projects?


Consider this: would somebody writing a Facebook status for a company consider themselves a ghostwriter?

They may be the unseen wordsmith behind an account, or author a quick soundbite on behalf of their boss for Twitter, but the answer is almost certainly ‘no’.

So by almost anyone’s account ghostwriting can but doesn’t involve every instance in which the name on the byline and the actual author differ in person.

(This might also be a good moment to clear up some parlance. ‘Byline’ is a portmanteau of ‘by’ and ‘line’; it’s the ‘By X’ line that appears below the headings of most news articles, whether in published in print or online. The ‘author’ is the person whose name is — confusingly — carried on the byline, but who didn’t actually write the piece. That, rather, would be the ghostwriter, a writer-for-hire who is often confusingly simply referred to as the ‘ghost’).


Is Authoring White Papers Ghostwriting?


If you want to take a more expansive view of ghostwriting, you could choose to exclude things like social media but extend it to also include writing that is attributed collectively. Or not attributed to any individual at all.

Consider white papers, for example, which usually contain no byline but are rather emblazoned with the company’s logo. (In exceptional cases, they are attributed to a specific thought leader — and a thin veneer of fiction is perpetuated that that one person really garnered and divulged all the insights the white paper contains.)

Or consider articles vaguely attributed to ‘Editorial Staff’ or ‘Marketing Department’.

A narrower— and more classical — definition is that ghostwriting specifically involves writing books on behalf of authors.

Think celebrity memoirs and the like.

This is the assumed definition that underlies many well-known texts on ghostwriting, such as that by Andrew Crofts.

Although the book-only approach has insipidly become a popular frame of reference for viewing ghostwriting among those in the publishing world, I don’t think it makes much sense to call writing a book under an author’s name ‘ghostwriting’ — and writing an e-book or article for them an activity by some other name.

Given the preponderance of e-books, corporate blogs, and the blurry lines that divide ‘new’ and traditional publishing, most ghostwriters — at least during the formative years of their careers — are likely to find themselves engaged in a wide variety of projects on behalf of authors which might include speeches, blogs, books, and e-books to name but a few.

The reason for that is pretty simple.

At the outset, at least, it’s usually easier to find somebody, or an organization, willing to entrust you to write a speech for them — and pay you for it — than it is to write an entire book. And, to state the obvious, books are major projects to embark upon which set the bar of expectations far higher for the prospective ghost.

With those dynamics being so, rather than being book ‘exclusivists’ (note: that’s not a real word), many among today’s cadre of ghostwriters are likely to find themselves tackling a wide array of writing projects. And, commensurate with marketing departments’ increasing demand for quality-over-quantity ‘content’, demand for them seems to be on the continual rise.


Who Uses Ghostwriters?


Another question I’ve fielded quite a lot recently is this:

“In your estimation, what percentage of Medium posts and executive articles appearing in trade publications are ghostwritten?”

I don’t have a figure, have never come across one, and doubt that a reliable one will ever emerge —after all authors, particularly when they are business executives, tend to be a little reticent about the fact that they often don’t actually write their own words.

So my best guess at an answer is, rather, simply ‘an awful lot’.

Who does the hiring?

To cite but a few examples:

  • CTOs and technology executives whose eloquence in Java and Python is not matched by their ability to clearly communicate their company’s value proposition;
  • Celebrities and VIPs who lack the time, patience, and writing skills to tell their sometimes compelling stories;
  • Business executives. These can be CEOs (or aspiring CEOs) who are ardent consumers of Gartner reports and want to communicate their organization’s high-level strategy to a peer group. But they lack the time, patience, and wherewithal to patch all the sources — internal and external — together into something compelling and cohesive which can be pitched to a trade media publication with a reasonable probability of success. This group also tends to give a lot of keynotes and other speeches.

Who does the (ghost)writing?


All of the following entities and individuals might find themselves involved in ghosting everything from their authors’ speeches to their forthcoming op-ed in a newspaper. Noteworthy distinction: when it comes to books, however the job tends to be left to full-time ghostwriters who come with that express name tag. The former pool of sometime and informal ghostwriters includes:

  • Executive assistants and secretaries;
  • PR and Communications Managers;
  • PR and content agencies;
  • (Long-suffering) spouses, friends, and family members

Is Ghostwriting Ethical?


Another question I sometimes get asked:

What do you think about the ethics of ghostwriting?

It took me a while to figure out why this was even a question (hint: there’s a ghostwriting underworld — specifically academic ghostwriting — that is indeed ethnically repugnant.)

But let’s assume that we’re talking about good old-fashioned ghostwriting: writing a celebrity’s memoir or — on a much smaller level — writing their next LinkedIn post.

Is that fair? Firstly, let’s ask: to whom?


Is Ghostwriting Fair to the Reader?


I refer, again, to Andrew Crofts’ explanation of the craft.

Crofts asks, rhetorically, whether most readers actually care whether the person whose byline is on the book cover actually, indeed, sat down at a keyboard to write the prose. Particularly in the world of business publishing, I submit that they almost certainly don’t.

Secondly, anybody who has worked in Public Relations (PR) or Communications is fully aware of just how vast the world of ghostwriting really is . That between the agencies an in-house departments of this world reams (or screen-fuls) of text are produced on a daily basis that really weren’t written by the CMO or CTO they are officially attributed to.

In other words, to the extent that ghostwriting is a fiction it is one that is — for many close to the origin — as thin as the paper it is written on.

Finally, even if we were to venture outside the confines of the corporate world, we would find that ghostwriting is everywhere too.

We all know that many celebrities don’t actually write the books whose covers proudly bear their names. Just as we know that most national-level politicians don’t write their own speeches — at least all of the time and from scratch. And occasionally, ghostwriters are not just acknowledged but publicly celebrated: former presidential speechwriters fêted for having been entrusted with the President’s words.

At other times too the plausibility of the ghostwriting relationship is practically out in the open.

One sometimes observes the spectacle of a non-Anglophone CEO who participates in a conference panel with only a partial command of English — only to publish a verbose piece on LinkedIn that very evening.

Ghostwriting is simply a service by which professional writers help polish and communicate the work of authors. Authors lack the time or writing expertise and ghostwriters lack the industry experience and expertise. It’s a professional unison that can produce great results. And it’s everywhere once you begin looking for it.


Is Ghostwriting Fair — to the Ghostwriter?


The other side of the ethical dimension that gets threshed out less (but more so by concerned family members!) is whether ghostwriting is fair … to the ghostwriter.

For those unfamiliar with the ghostwriting relationship the logic probably goes something like this:

“Didn’t you say that you want to be a writer!? Why would you possibly agree to write something that’s published under somebody else’s name?”

I believe that two assumptions are typically at play here:

  • This isn’t a choice. If you had the option of being a writer or a ghostwriter you’d obviously be a writer / have your name on the byline.
  • You’ve been pressured into ghostwriting by some cruel CEO who’s keeping you under his/her thumb. Or you’re mired in a wave of desperation and will do anything for pay.

Family members of ghostwriters and curious onlookers: let me try to dispel some myths.

  • Ghostwriting is an established practice. As above, there are myriad industries and people that engage the services of ghostwriters — and I think that it should be seen as a valuable writing service. I’m not aware of any writer that has been shunted involuntarily into ghostwriting — or who hasn’t at least made peace with the arrangement as a temporary stop along the road. Journalists often ghostwrite on the side for extra income and many ghostwriters are formal journalists. But they typically won’t feel like they’re being “screwed over” by taking on a ghostwriting project, as seems to be the occasional assumption.
  • For ghostwriters, ghostwriting can be a good deal. Often, ghosts can command higher rates than writers that get accredited. This is because not getting a byline does, for obvious reasons, make it a little harder to market oneself to prospective clients.

Additionally, ghostwriting can be:

  • Fun. You get to write about a lot of different topics. And meet talented experts with an idea to communicate — but who lack the time to communicate it.
  • Versatile. Ghostwriting is a popular side-gig among established book authors. And there’s nothing precluding ghostwriters from treading both paths.
  • Stable. As a ghostwriter your buyer market might be every business, executive, or person that believes they have something interesting to talk about. The market of publications and outlets that might find your own writings worthwhile may be exponentially smaller.
  • Partially attributed: In book ghostwriting, ghosts are sometimes credited as “Author with ghost”. This is sort of a strange halfway house between accredited authorship and ghostwriting in which the author wishes to maintain trumpet-tooting rights to the work, but basically acknowledges that he/she didn’t actually write the work. Again, the idea of the writing being a “collaboration” is a euphemism and only tenuously plausible.

What Is (Mainstream) Ghostwriting Not


I’ve set out, above, some basic information about what ghostwriting typically entails, who typically uses the service of a ghostwriter, and why I believe ghostwriting should be ethically uncontroversial.

However, let me immediately add a caveat.

There are a few activities that are often subsumed under the ghostwriting umbrella, but which have scarce little to do with the activities I mentioned above.

These are:


Mainstream Ghostwriting Isn’t: Rap Ghostwriting


Recently, I’ve begun collating articles, podcasts and online communities that talk about ghostwriting.

Ghostwriting can be a solitary endeavor — or at least one between you and your clients — and I decided that it was about time to expand my network by connecting with others doing the same thing online.

As soon as I began doing so, I kept coming upon Google News search results discussing a rapper that had been found to be using ghostwriters. Ghostwriting, within the rap world, seems to be particularly controversial.

Suffice merely to say that if there is any cross-over between the ranks of those authoring business keynotes and those hemming out lyrics for Drake’s next hit I can only imagine that it is minimal.


Mainstream Ghostwriting Isn’t: Academic Ghostwriting


This one is a much more serious threat to the credibility of ghostwriting as a vocation.

I think of academic ghostwriting like a parallel ghosting underworld — although truthfully, for the most part, I could describe Upwork in exactly the same terms.

In ghostwriting, like in all other forms of writing, you have marketplaces, clients, and ecosystems with respectably paid gigs and lots of, or rather make that tons of, …. let’s just say the polar opposite.

Because it is, by definition, an unethical service that self-respecting professional ghostwriters would seek to distance themselves from as far as possible, academic ghostwriting tends to be firmly entrenched towards the bottom of this second category of ecosystem.

Academic ghostwriting involves writing term papers, essays, and other pieces of writing on behalf of students.

This — in near certainty — puts the students in violation of their educational institutions’ terms and conditions and deceives those grading their papers into awarding them higher marks than they might otherwise have accrued.

I have occasionally been approached by MBA students who wanted me to “collaborate” with them on their coursework.

A good chunk of the time, the ‘c-word’ is all the red flag you need to steer away bad leads: it tends to be used, disproportionately, as a euphemism by those proposing barter schemes for writing work.

Where do I draw the red line between this practice and (what I regard as) legitimate ghostwriting work?

In truth, it’s a tricky one to articulate, but this is the verbiage which I recently added to the “What do you not write?” page in my knowledge-base:

“I also do not engage in academic ghostwriting or any ghostwriting that aims to dissemble to a professional or certification body that my writing is that of the author.”


Key Takeaways


  • According to most dictionary definitions, and a common sense one, ghostwriting is engaging in writing where another individual is the named author.
  • I think it’s fair to widen the definition slightly to include work attributed to collective author-groups such as (sometimes) white papers. Or work attributed to nobody specific at all.
  • A narrower definition of ghostwriting focuses solely on ghostwriting books.
  • In ghostwriting parlance the person to whom a piece of writing is accredited is called the ‘author’; the ghostwriter who actually wrote the piece is the ‘ghost’
  • A vast array of individuals — from CTOs to celebrities and many others in between— engage the services of ghostwriters every day, whether they bear that name or not.
  • Ghostwriters can be full-time professional ghostwriters or ‘informal’ ones. The latter category can include assistants and even family members. But when it comes to writing books, the job tends to fall to a professional ghostwriter.
  • Ghostwriting can make it a little tricky for writers to self-publicize, but it’s a relationship they typically benefit from.
  • Ghostwriting rap lyrics and academic ghostwriting are separate fields. I, and most ghostwriters, have ethical qualms with the latter.

Additional Resources


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