Is Ghost-Writing unChristian?

Dave Moore:

My introduction to ghost-writing came via a gifted friend from my days at Stanford.  She received her B.A. in classics from Stanford with distinction.  She is a gifted writer.  After college she went to work with a Christian ministry.  My wife and I were visiting with her one day when she read a letter from a well-known Christian leader.  I was a bit surprised by how well the letter was written and commenced to voice my astonishment.  My friend said, “Oh no, she did not write it.  I did.”  I was speechless…a rather uncommon occurrence for me!

After this, I started to hear more about ghost-writing.  There were all kinds of rationales given to the practice, but all struck me as ridiculous.  Who cares if everyone is doing it?  That is certainly not a compelling argument.  Who cares if both the ghost-writer and the more famous Christian are fine with it?  No argument of any worth there either.

My first opportunity to ghost-write came about ten years ago.  I turned down the offer even though the money was good.  In the depths of the recent recession when we almost lost our home, I said “yes” to ghost-writing two smaller pieces.  It was a weak moment to be sure, but inexcusable.  I will never do it again.

I have no problem with a famous Christian utilizing the skills of a more gifted writer as long as proper attribution is given.  Which means in many cases putting them on the cover as a co-author.  And how many follow that practice?  Very few, I’m afraid.

I talked with a journalist several years back who was working on a major book about ghost-writing among Christians.  He decided to scrap it because he felt it would be too much of a stumbling block for Christians to find out how many of their favorite writers are really not the guy or gal writing the book!

Analogous situations: research assistants and professors, sermon writers and preachers, bloggers and their sources…

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jason Dykstra

    Scot,
    I completely agree with this assessment. If God didn’t give a person the ability to write well, then he didn’t mean for good writing to be attributed to or associated with that person (whether me or anyone else!)! Ghost-writing without attribution (in which case it is no longer ghost-writing) is just another attempt to help oneself look perfect in every area of life instead of embracing one’s weakness and depending on God’s perfection.
    Jason @ http://www.jasondykstrawrites.com

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I agree. Although I think that some people have the ability to tell a good story, or have lived a life story that should be told, but can’t write well. Those people need ghost writers to help them communicate their story on paper. But there should always be acknowledgement of the assistance. To me it doesn’t make the story less worth reading (often the book is much more worth reading). But the lack of honesty does mean something to me.

  • nietzschesdownfall

    Yeah…I think you’re making a mountain of not-even-a molehill. The whole idea of ghostwriting is writing down someone else’s ideas for them because, although they’re great ideas and stories, the individual in question may not be quite as good at putting those stories to pen as someone else might be. It’s like handing a design for a tattoo artist for him to do for you. You might be great with a pencil, but terrible with an ink gun. It’s still YOUR design. The same goes for ghostwriting: you might be an excellent orator, but putting it to paper just isn’t your bag. Solution? Ghostwriter! It’s still your story, your idea, but someone else is helping you express it.

    All the same, if it matters that much to you, then don’t do it. I don’t, however, think you can make a blanket statement about this one and say that no Christian should ever ghostwrite. I think you’d be hard-pressed to make a strong enough argument to do that, and the above post I don’t find to be very convincing.

  • Adam O

    I recently applied for a job labeled as “editor,” but when the position was described, it sounded very much like ghost writing… I would appreciate hearing from published authors on how you view the role of the editor, and where you would draw the line between editing and ghostwriting, especially when it comes to supplemental materials like study guides or a book-based small group curriculum. Is crediting someone as editor enough when works are adapted to new formats? Should folks have to say, “based on the work by so and so” instead?

  • Brian Metzger

    I’m almost positive that all of my undergrad and grad school instructors and profs would have been unwilling to accept work from me if I had handed notes, some recordings of me telling some great stories and a page of references to a ghost writer to write papers up that I would be graded on. It might have been a great paper but not MY paper. The problem, for me, is not the ghost writer but the one who tries to pass the work of another off as their own.

  • Jason Price

    If you we’re asked who did your tattoo what would you say? Would you say you did or it is your design and so and so did it? The issue with ghost writing is you are taking credit for both the idea and the execution. It is only right to give the one who is gifted with the ink gun credit for what is done with the ink gun.

  • David Moore

    If a reader is given the impression that the named person on a book cover is the author, and in fact it is someone else, that is deception pure and simple. Not sure how you can justify that within a Christian ethic.

  • Gene

    Jason, I agree with your point of giving credit to the ghostwrite, but I believe it can be in the preface, and doesn’t need to be on the cover or title page.

  • scotmcknight

    Brian, Yes, of course, but the author’s name is what matters here … and has employed a ghost writer … and claims the words as his/her own.

  • AHH

    This can also become an issue when opinions diverge.
    An acquaintance of mine ghost-wrote (uncredited, I think) a chapter on science in one of Josh McDowell’s books. This guy has since rejected his “creationist” past (while remaining a Christian), and would repudiate pretty much everything he wrote in that chapter. But he can’t really, because it is all in McDowell’s name, and last I knew the book was still being sold with the misleading chapter. Not to mention the original misleading when it was made to appear that the “author” had expertise in scientific issues.

  • Guest

    Does this mean we have to tell people I wrote Blue Parakeet? (Oh, wait. I just wish I had written it. That’s different.)

  • MartinPierce

    If someone is extremely busy in a ministry or professional position, I think it’s generally assumed that they’ll need help with the authorship of a book. After all, books take an enormous amount of time to write.

    The law against bearing false witness applies. The person credited with authorship should be the main source of the ideas in the book, and he (or she) shouldn’t hesitate to admit that they had help.

    I don’t think a ghost writer’s name has to appear on the front cover, or even that he (or she) even has to be named. The book would not be about them. With the Book of Hebrews, we don’t know who wrote it, nor who is credited with having written it. We don’t know who wrote some of the psalms; who wrote Esther; etc.

    If the ghost author contributed a good number of ideas, the famous person who hired them should be honest and recognize that person as a co-author. However, I don’t think that falls under the job description of ghost writer.

  • scotmcknight

    Anonymity is not the same as ghost writing.

  • scotmcknight

    The issue here is more on the author had something ghost written than on the ghost writer, but the ghost writer is paid for not having his or her name on the cover.

  • nietzschesdownfall

    Ok, I’ll give you credit for the tattoo thing(not the best example), but in the case of writing, it’s not exactly the execution that matters, but the ideas and information conveyed. This is why ghostwriting, in my mind, can be perfectly moral for a Christian. Maybe someone doesn’t have time to write everything down, so he uses a ghostwriter to get it into book form. It’s still his idea, his information he’s conveying. Someone else writing it down doesn’t suddenly make it NOT his. Whereas the tattoo is actually a change in art medium, this is merely a difference in how information is being communicated, something that, in my mind, does not need to be re-credited every time. I’d take exception maybe for fiction books, where nothing but original material can be produced, but in the case of nonfiction, be it history, religion, philosophy, etc., I see no issue there.

  • Brian Metzger

    What I was trying to say was that credit should be given where credit is due and we shouldn’t present ourselves as something we’re not. Putting your name on a book as the author, to me, is like writing a paper for school. You can’t submit someone else’s work and call it your own, even if you contributed a ‘rough, rough draft’.

  • http://brokenpeople.org/ Brenda Branson

    I had a Christian publisher who insisted in assigning a colleague as a co-author to my book because she had a college degree and I didn’t. They thought it might have impacted sales, and would not budge even though I objected. I wrote every chapter personally, but the co-author still takes credit for writing since her name is on the cover too. Many times she lists only her name as co-author on websites and social media. All perfectly legal, but lacking in integrity, I believe.

  • David Moore

    Hi Brenda,

    So sorry to hear about that…which is kind of the opposite problem I describe, but no less egregious.

  • Amanda B.

    I think it depends very much on what is meant by “ghostwriting”. I used to think of it as pretty straightforward fraud, until I actually was invited to join a ghostwriting team for a teacher I really respect.

    I don’t know how other author/speakers do it, but it was a pleasure to work with this one. We combed through his sermon transcripts and class notes, pulled out relevant content, and edited it together into a fluid chapter. Where we discovered “gaps” that needed filling in, he would write that part from scratch. All of our edits were compiled in group meetings, and he was thoroughly, cheerfully, and humbly involved in the entire process. He treated us like consultants, not like drones. We aren’t on the cover, but he does include us all in the acknowledgements.

    There are a few small parts of the book that I wrote by myself–a paragraph or summary here and there–but it was always run past him for approval and tweaking. The vast majority of the text is either the author’s own words in transcripts, or else his own writing directly.

    For this author, it wasn’t a matter of him not having/making the time. Although he IS extremely busy, he is a focused workhorse of a man who will make time for anything he puts his mind to. It’s more a matter of needing a push with the writing, and needing help translating some very solid preexisting work into a book format. Because this book is rather unique, we definitely needed his teachings in his voice, but he needed our skills to help craft it into a readable volume.

    This project helped show me that a) sometimes there is a very valid reason to employ a ghostwriter, and b) a ghostwriter really can be instrumental in getting a book written, without unfairly doing all of the heavy lifting for author.

    Again, I have no idea how normative this is, but it prevents me from making a blanket statement against ghostwriting.

  • Capiscan

    It seems more like editing than my idea of ghostwriting. . .

  • David Beirne

    Billy Graham used ghost writers on many of the books with his name on them.

  • LorenHaas

    You mean like Lynn Vincent actually wrote “Going Rogue” for Sarah Palin? She is only listed on the second page of acknowledgements for “helping getting words down on paper.”

  • Marshall

    Not clear on why ghost-writing should be objected to on Christian grounds … the objections stated here seem to flow from a philosophy of Individualism, which has more to do with secular humanism than Christianity. Ideally.

    I wonder to what extent any organization can be considered the “work” of a single person anyway. Starting with Paul and the Evangelists, who wrote out of a tradition. Politicians have their staffs, movie stars have their pr flacks. So it goes.

    I think maybe the Christian ideal would be the collaborative process that Amanda B. describes. For one thing, you get not only what the Man said but also what the people heard. ‘Course, that sort of thing is hard hard hard to do.

  • MartinPierce

    I’m sure we all have our own convictions about the morality of hiring a ghostwriter. However, it seems like poor PR for anyone to not acknowledge up front that they hired someone to help with the writing. For example, after Christian ghostwriter Mel White admitted he was gay, everyone found out what books he had written.

    I guess the moral issues revolve around the famous “author” trying to be recognized for good writing, and for hoping to sell more books by not crediting anyone else. I find it most helpful when there are specific charges, not when a career field appears to be under attack. That’s why I misunderstood.

  • David Moore

    It seems some may be confusing assistance (no problem using other peoples’ gifts) with proper attribution (big problem giving the impression you did the writing when it was someone else.)

    So go ahead and employ the people you need for a project, but make sure that credit is given where credit is due.

    Finally, because many ghost-writers are “okay” with being unknown is hardly an argument for the propriety of the practice.

  • http://theoprudence.com/ Matt

    The part that is unsettling to me is the “image management” angle. This is what CEOs and professionals do (email newsletters, etc.) to build their “brand.” Its inauthentic, even in a corporate context – but in a pastoral context it feels completely inappropriate.

    I might be open to ghostwriting in other “Christian” contexts, but in the one that is presented by Moore, I am not.

  • Jason

    There are several different types of “writing” being described here. If I were the ghost-writer, here is what I would expect:

    I think that in the cases of compling existing material and supplementing, especially as a team, it would be more like the function of an editor in a normal writing process. In this case it would be appropriate to write about that in the acknowledgements. Likewise with research assistants unless they are writing substantial materials themselves or “the brains” behind the way the research material becomes book form.

    In the case of writing a whole chapter it should be credited in the table of contents and the start of said chapter at minimum akin to multi-author volumes.

    In the case of someone writing much or all of the book their name should at least be of equal size on the cover with full credit. If it significantly less than half then perhaps their name could be smaller. It still on the cover.

  • Josh

    Couple comments.
    Is this just outright plagiarism? If its voluntary for both sides is it wrong? Is it necessary for the audience of the books to know? Maybe, maybe not.
    Do Christians believe some OT books are ghost written? Inspired ghost writers?
    The Pentateuch? The gospel of Mark? Ecclesiastes? …

  • Amanda B.

    Maybe it is. But we were very involved with the actual formation of the chapters, not just cleaning up a rough draft manuscript. When we finished, we had an advanced draft, not a finished book. The project was sent to the editors at the publisher to actually get ready for print. So while at one level, it was like super-intense editing, we were fairly heavily involved in the actual writing of the book.

    I know several other teachers who have had books ghostwritten based on their sermon transcripts–I know for sure that one of them uses the same process we did (we copied him!), and I can only assume that the others do something similar. I have yet to meet the person who says, “Hey, unknown author, go write a book about XYZ and stick my name on it.” But I only know my circle, and so I have no idea how prevalent that problem is in the church at large.

    It does seem to me that if a ghostwriter does all (or even most of) the work, and the “real” author gets all the credit, something is seriously amiss.

  • Eddy Hall

    I used to do blind ghosting for Guideposts magazine. One day when I showed my mom a story I had written, she looked perplexed and said, “Where is your name?” When I explained that most of Guideposts’ stories were written by blind ghostwriters, she was disturbed and said, “I feel deceived.” That was a wake-up call to me that I was participating in deceiving my readers. I told my editor that I would not do any more blind ghosting, but if they would just put a short acknowledgment in their mast that as-told-to writers assisted with some stories, I would be glad to continue to write. The editor said they would not consider that. For me the issue was not getting credit, but simple honesty.

    Since then whenever I have done as-told-to stories for other magazines–or published them in magazines I have been editing–I simply give the author’s name and add “as told to” followed by the as-told-to writer’s name.

    I also have done major edits of other people’s books. Rarely the edit has turned into co-authoring and I have been credited for that, but normally not. I am quite content to be acknowledged in the acknowledgments as the editor.

  • http://MikeLoomis.CO/ Mike Loomis

    Scot, this raises a GREAT question about attribution, but your post seems muddy to me. On one hand you declare that you’ll “never do it again” but then say it’s OK as long as there is attribution.
    It’s tough to find the line between “heavy edit” and “Ghost-write” sometimes. When I string some words together that capture what an author was trying to say – that’s a high point for me.
    I’ve served clients in the full spectrum, and sometimes the verbal conversations have more impact on a manuscript than the drafts/edits/comments. Who takes credit for these?
    So, I wholeheartedly agree more transparency “should” be given. I always ask for this in some form, but remember that good things done in secret will be rewarded openly.

  • David Moore

    Mike,

    Dave Moore here, and I, not Scot (!) really wrote the piece.

    There may be some cases where more wisdom is
    needed as to how to show who did what work. My piece deals with pretty
    clear-cut cases where attribution is purposely left out so the person with the
    inferior writing abilities but the bigger name gets credit.

  • http://MikeLoomis.CO/ Mike Loomis

    Sorry I messed up the attribution, Dave! ;-)

  • Leaf101

    Wait wasn’t most of the Bible ghost written without credit to the scribes who recorded the events? Or the better question would be is why does the validity of the message diminish when the writer does not get the place of honor?

  • Leaf101

    Am I the only comment that got a down vote *weep*? Christ Jesus says in Matthew chapter 6 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – NIV, I do not see how ghost writing would be any different?

  • AHH

    I tend to think the moral problem is not as much with the ghost writer as on the other side, with the person taking credit (to be seen by others) for something they didn’t actually do.

  • Steve Cuss

    This is a great discussion and, reading the comments, it sounds like ghost writing is a spectrum of approaches, so the ethical answer depends on the approach.

    Erwin McManus describe his process of “writing” a book, which is essentially a dictation process to an experienced script writer and editor. The book is Erwin’s ideas, but takes shape from a professional writer. I’ve heard him in talks describe in detail how this process works and how a gifted writer turns his chaotic, free flowing ideas into a cohesive book. I wonder why that isn’t reflected on more book covers. Anytime I read a Chuck Colson book, it always seemed to have a “with Ellen Santilli” or some other writer.

    I wonder why more authors don’t do this? I certainly don’t expect McManus or Colson or Billy Graham to be gifted writers and I see no degradation in their “brand” by listing a co author or a “with” or a “as told to.” Quite the opposite.

  • Leaf101

    AHH (Pun totally intended) you make an excellent point, so the real question would be is taking credit for someone else’s work immoral or un-Christian? I will have to think on that, Thank You for the response!

  • Leaf101

    Alright so I have been thinking about AHH’s response, and have come to the conclusion that we can not classify the practice of ghost-writing as un-Christian. For example when Chinese Christians want to publish something a lot of them ghost write and have their work credited by authors and publishers in the states, this saves them and their family from persecution and death and given the risk to the ones taking credit I would say ghost writing in this context is very Christian.


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