The gateway drug of ghostwriting

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There’s a lot of talk these days of ghostwriting, brought to the surface by the allegations of plagiarism facing Mark Driscoll. Ghostwriting is a serious issue—one that seems to be pretty clear cut, and yet many don’t see it that way.

Ghostwriting is the practice of writing books or other material where another author—usually someone who’s public notoriety can sell books, even if they’re incapable of actually writing them themselves—receives full credit. This is a pretty standard practice in publishing, one many don’t think too much of. In fact, if you’ve read an autobiography of an actor or politician, chances are you’ve read something that’s been ghostwritten.

And if you’ve read a book by a pastor, sadly, there’s a decent chance a ghostwriter’s been involved, too. A number of notable Christian pastors and leaders—among them Driscoll and John Maxwell—have employed ghostwriters over the years.

Writing a sermon and writing a book are entirely different animals. The only thing they have in common is they’re a form of communication. They require words. But how you write a sermon is not remotely like how you write a book. I remember being involved in a conversation with a big-name Christian pastor who admitted he has a really hard time sitting down to write—not do sermon prep, but actually write. It takes courage to admit that. And when he finally did release a book, he credited the person who helped shape the book, taking his sermons and making them actually make sense, as his co-author.

It takes integrity to do that.

Unfortunately, many don’t do this. They fall on the “accepted practice” clause, but fail to think through their actions biblically. The Bible doesn’t say, “thou shalt not employ a ghostwriter,” but it sure does say, “do not lie.” And using a ghostwriter and failing to credit them is lying. This is the same point Kevin DeYoung made just yesterday when he wrote:

Whether in sermons or in print, it’s not okay for pastors to take credit for something that is not theirs. Granted, the lines can be blurry. But that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. And just because it feels like the sin of sloth more than the sin of theft doesn’t make it less of an error.

Randy Alcorn is even more forceful in his rebuke of what he calls the scandal of evangelical dishonesty. He reminds us that lying only begets more lying—ghostwriting is the gateway drug to larger integrity issues:

If we teach them it’s okay to lie by taking credit for a book they didn’t write, why should we be shocked if we discover they lied when they claim to have graduated from a college they didn’t, or to have fought in a war they didn’t, or to have done a job they didn’t? Isn’t it ironic that Christian publishers would consider it an ethical breach if they discovered an “author” gave them a resume containing false information, when the same publisher has knowingly led the public to believe this person wrote a book he or she really didn’t write? Which is the bigger lie?

Alcorn is quite clear: ghostwriting is lying. Period. In writing this, I realize I’m dangerously close to violating Paul’s admonition that the younger man should not rebuke the older. My goal here is not to do that. Instead, I want to ask the older men, particularly those who’ve employed ghostwriters: Why is this okay—and what does it teach those of us who are coming behind you?

To the younger, particularly those of you who are writers, I don’t have a rebuke, but I do have a plea: If someone asks you to be a ghostwriter, say no. If you have been ghostwriting, please stop. I know it pays pretty decently, but is the money worth the cost of your—and others’—integrity?

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  • Kyle J. Howard

    Wow brother, thanks for writing. In all honesty, before recently I had no idea that this was even a issue within Orthodox Evangelical circles. What a major blind spot! I am sorry that this issue had to come to light the way it did but am grateful that it is out in the open. Grace and peace brother

  • Morten

    Maybe Im wrong, but didn’t Paul use a ghostwriter? Fil 1;14?

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Paul frequently dictated his letters (which accounts for some of the grammatical variation in the Pauline epistles), but that’s very different than ghostwriting, which is the actual development of the message conveyed.

      • Morten

        Ok! I see the differencen now!

      • http://thejakers.tumblr.com Jake Johnson

        Aaron, as someone who has ghostwritten, I’ve don’t actually develop the message on my own. It’s often a process of working with the author to do that, and I’ve always relied on heavy interviewing or previously published material to get his or her thoughts and voice. In fact it’s a bit like a souped up dictation.

        The problem, I think, is that ghostwriting is used as a blanket term for a broad level of services. Are there people who have nothing to little do with their books? Sure, but that is very rare—most “ghostwriting” is really collaborative editing.

        I get what you’re saying, and agree that there should be attribution and that authors need to be heavily involved in the writing process. But I don’t think attribution needs to be shared cover space…nor do ghostwriters always want that since you don’t always fully agree with everything written (I’m talking open-handed stuff here). And I’ve never worked on a book where I wasn’t acknowledged in the acknowledgments.

        Just a few thoughts from this ghostwriter who’s integrity is intact, at least in this one area :)

        • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

          Thanks Jake, really appreciate you engaging on this :)

          • http://thejakers.tumblr.com Jake Johnson

            You bet. And I appreciate you tackling this issue. It’s a discussion worth having for sure.

            • http://theologic.us/ Joe Louthan

              As a ghostwriter, did you get ANY credit whatsoever?

              Conscientiously speaking, if I had to use a ghostwriter, I would feel compelled to credit because without their efforts, I might have a book but it would be worth the paper it is printed on.

              • http://thejakers.tumblr.com Jake Johnson

                Hi Joe, I mentioned in my comment that I have always been acknowledged in the acknowledgements section of the books. I also always negotiate public portfolio rights.

      • http://theologic.us/ Joe Louthan

        I was waiting for the Paul + Ghostwriters rebuttal.

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