Q&A: By Mine Own Hand

By Mine Own Hand


Is ghostwriting an unethical practice? Are ghostwriters unethical?


No, in and of itself, ghostwriting is not an unethical practice. And just to make sure we're on the same page, "ghostwriting" is when a writer contributes to a non-anonymous and non-pseudonymous work but receives no credit as an author. That is, the work is presented as having been authored in whole or in part by a person or persons other than and not including the ghostwriter. For example, if my boss is authoring a Bible commentary, and I write portions of it but receive no mention in the credits, then I am a ghostwriter.

Perhaps it would help if I also laid out a few definitions of common terms. A "writer" is generally one who comes up with the first draft of the words that eventually make it to publication. An "editor" is usually one who manipulates this first draft to develop a final version that actually makes it into publication. A "composer" is often one who arranges, adjusts, puts together or fashions materials for publication. In common usage, both writers and composers often qualify as authors, and editors frequently do the work of a composer. There is a lot of overlap between these terms. As an editor, sometimes I do the work of an editor, sometimes I do the work of a writer, and sometimes I do the work of a composer, but in no case do I take credit for being the "author." Generally, that title applies to the one who comes up with the idea and starts the ball rolling, whether or not he or she writes the first draft of the work. You'll notice that most published works do not credit an "author" rather than a "writer," and this is one of the reasons.

Arrangements with ghostwriters are mutually accepted by the ghostwriters and those that hire them, so that ghostwriters are not being cheated. Probably the real question in your mind is whether or not the practice is deceptive: Is the public being tricked into thinking the person in the credits has written a work, when in fact someone else has written it? Almost certainly there are some cases wherein such deception occurs.

But in many cases, the person presented as the author really is the author and deserves credit, even if he or she did not write all the material in the book. In most ghostwriting situations, the ghostwriter is hired because he or she has a good command of language and a clear communicative style. These may be skills that the author lacks, or it may be that the author simply does not have the time to dedicate to the writing process. The ghostwriter does not usually come up with the ideas in the work, but merely presents the author's ideas. Moreover, in almost all cases the author approves what the ghostwriter has written. For instance, a friend of mine once ghostwrote a book for a famous teacher, but my friend based all the content of the book on a lecture series delivered by the teacher. The content was the teacher's, not my friend's. Essentially, all my friend did was to help the teacher communicate the teacher's ideas.

In other ghostwriting situations, the ghostwriter contributes his or her own ideas to the work, but these ideas are not included unless they are approved and adopted by the author. For example, I once wrote original contributions to a work authored by someone else. In this capacity, I functioned as an author, not just as a writer. However, the material was not included in the work until it had been reviewed and approved by the credited author. So, when the work was published, the author rightly received credit for presenting his ideas. Also, the public was not deceived - the author really did adopt my words as his own.

In fact, both types of ghostwriters are arguably used in the Bible itself. With regard to the first type of ghostwriting, some biblical authors employed "emanuenses," people who wrote down what the authors dictated (e.g., Jer. 36; Rom. 16:22). Paul frequently added a bit at the end of his letters in his own hand (1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:17; Philem. 19), and scholars are rather united on the conclusion that this implies that Paul wrote only these portions of these letters by his own hand, while an emanuensis wrote the main body. What is unclear is precisely how much freedom of expression these emanuenses had. They may have had some editorial freedom, or perhaps even contributing freedom. We readily recognize that biblical authors had such freedom when they received instructions from God to record certain words and visions, so it is not inconceivable that emanuenses may have exercised similar freedom. But in any event, the biblical author would have approved the final version of the work before it was sent. Whatever input an emanuensis may have had, the fact that the biblical author approved the work meant that the biblical author was truly the work's composer.

With regard to the second type of ghostwriting, we may compare this to the way biblical authors used sources. Often, they seem to have copied sources verbatim without giving credit. For example, in the gospels there are many passages in which Matthew, Mark and/or Luke contain identical or nearly identical material. Scholars debate the originator of the material, but what is clear is that at least some of the authors borrowed from others without giving credit. Essentially, they adopted material written by someone else and presented it as their own, just as some authors do when they employ ghostwriters that make original contributions. The same thing would appear to be the case in certain Old Testament books, such as Genesis, where Moses almost certainly used, but did not credit, source materials for the history he presented. The works were truly Moses' own, as he was both composer and approver of all the materials presented.

When ghostwriting is deceptive, however, it is less justifiable. For example, when an author passes off as his or her own materials that have been written by others, and when he or she does so without properly understanding and adopting the materials, the "author" cannot rightly hold that title. This sometimes happens when popular teachers want to write books that are beyond their level of education, or when their mental capacities begin to fail them. Because their name recognition makes them highly marketable, publishers are tempted to release books under the name of such popular teachers even when the teachers have not really done any authoring. This practice is akin to lipsynching by professional bands (remember Milli Vanilli?). I don't think the Bible justifies this practice. In my mind, it is fraudulent, involving lying in marketing, and subsequent stealing when the consumer pays for the fraudulent work.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.