Should Ghostwriting Be More Transparent?

Logo for the film Ghostbusters. Ghost pops through red circle.I saw the new Ghostbusters film last night and loved it. It’s been a little controversial – why remake a classic, right? But for my money it rocked. The casting is spot on, with gutsy chicks in the lead and plenty of cute cameos. The science is ridiculous and the ghosts are completely over the top, just as one would expect. It’s a terrific blend of old and new; ghosts of the past and present.

All this got me thinking about versions, adaptations, collaborations and ghostwriting. I’ve been doing quite a bit of ghosting of late and it’s kind of starting to haunt me. That awkward moment when … you hit a clickable headline and start reading an article before realising that you actually wrote it! The moment gets a little more awkward when you decide that it’s actually a darn good article, but it’s attributed to someone else. You’re left lurking in the shadows, albeit with a pay cheque to keep you company.

Watch out! She’s behind you!

Ghostly fingers tapping on an old typewriter.I get paid to write under other people’s names. Since I began freelancing, the important part of that sentence has been ‘I get paid to write…’ I worked as an academic for many years and became accustomed to writing for glory alone (and there wasn’t a lot of glory!). As a research assistant, it’s also very common to ‘collaborate’ on projects where the credit goes to a senior academic despite a fleet of underlings doing a lot of the actual research and writing. These days I get paid to do what I enjoy so it’s ‘win, win’. Mostly.

Ghostwriting goes back as far as writing itself, with generations of people who didn’t have the time, ability or inclination to write their own material paying other people to do it for them. There are famous conspiracies about the likes of Shakespeare and even the Bible, questioning whether the apparent writer actually did the hard yards himself (for it was mostly, historically, a ‘him’…)

It continues to happen in bestselling fiction, but it also happens continuously in blogs, bios, advertorials, opinion pieces, speeches, q & a’s … the list goes one. With so many people needing online presence and social media interaction to keep their business or personal brand running, there is more demand than ever for writers-for-hire.

The question that keeps hovering around me, just nearby under a sheet with the eyes cut out, is: how far should a ghostwriter go?

Is it OK to write a politician’s speech or press release? Sure. Happens all the time.
Is it OK to edit an author’s work so that it sounds more intelligent or flows better? Yes.
Is it OK to write an entertaining article on a blog under someone else’s name? Probably.
Is it OK to write an opinion piece under the name of a respected medical or financial expert? Erm…
Is it OK to respond to a Q & A or personal interview under someone else’s name? Now, hang on a minute…
I’ve done all of these things; ghostwriters around the world are doing this stuff every day. Here’s a little life tip: never, ever assume that the tweet, comment or article you’re reading in the newspaper is actually written by the person who has the byline! Don’t expect transparency (see what I did there?)

How much writing should a ghostwriter write?

How does that make you feel as a reader? Is it deceitful – or is it just business?

Are you a writer who ghostwrites? Do you ever question the practice?

Maybe in the world of online communication there needs to be a different set of limits and definitions around ‘ghostwriting’? There’s authentic writing and there’s the smoke and mirrors of marketing – maybe we shouldn’t cross the streams?

Just like Ghostbusters 2.0, we now have new technologies at our disposal that open up incredible opportunities for storytelling. But just because we CAN do it, it doesn’t mean we always SHOULD.

Unless Chris Hemsworth is involved. Then every answer is yes.

Actors Chris Hemsworth and Melissa McCarthy in the film Ghostbusters.

Help me work on my dilemma. I’d love to hear about your experiences with ghostwriting … or Ghostbusters … or Chris Hemsworth.

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