Ghostwriters and Writing Centers

By Jesse 

Before I matriculated at George Mason as a graduate student, I spent a year working for a ghostwriting and editing firm. Beginning my life as a writing student, I failed to anticipate the degree to which my short stint as a ghostwriter had changed my writing habits and practices. During my years as an undergraduate, I had worked in my college’s writing center. However, during my first session I had to fight off the instinct to shake the student’s hand, tell him to have a good day, and then write his paper for him. Having that experience did help me better understand the way the Writing Center approaches writing, ghostwriters approach writing, and how our writing practices can form powerful writing habits.

Ghostwriting may seem like an exotic profession, but it is quickly becoming more and more common. Essentially, a ghostwriter is someone who is paid by a client to create a piece of writing for which the ghostwriter will get no credit whatsoever. Ghostwriters have long been hired to work on political speeches, celebrity memoirs, and athlete autobiographies. Famous pulp authors like Tom Clancy have been public about their use of ghostwriters, as well. As avenues for fame have increased with the internet, branding has become more important for famous people. Famous actors, musicians, gamers, journalists, and businesspeople are hiring ghostwriters more frequently to help them with the almost necessary branding activity of publishing a book. However, as ghostwriting becomes more widespread, the types of people who hire ghostwriters are becoming more varied. During my time as a ghostwriter, the bulk of my firm’s projects were average, every-day people who wanted to write a memoir but didn’t have the time or writing skills. Fiction, memoir, historical writing, business writing, screenplays, even poetry—ghostwriters do it all.

The ghostwriting process varies depending on the ghostwriter and the firm, but it almost always involves some form of ongoing communication between the writer and the client. When I was a ghostwriter, I would spend an hour each week talking with my client on the phone, and then write a chapter or section of a chapter based on our conversation. The next week we would devote some of our time to discussing the writing I had done for that week, making sure that the client was completely satisfied. I would then rewrite the previous week’s section to better match the client’s expectations—and write the first draft of the new section.

Part of the work of the ghostwriter is to match the content, tone, and voice of the writing to each client. The firm with which I was associated often emphasized the distinction between writer and author in the ghostwriting process. The client is the author (the source of the ideas, tone, voice, etc.) and is credited as such, and the ghostwriter is merely the writer—the skilled technician. As a ghostwriter, you have to become adept at listening to tone and sensing the ‘writing voice’ in a client, even if they are not a ‘writer’ themselves.

Being a writing professional in the Writing Center is, in some ways, the opposite of being a ghostwriter. While I trained myself to be a skilled technician who treats the client as the author during my time as a ghostwriter, a writing center tutor’s purpose is to empower the client as a writer. In some ways, a writing center tutor is more like a ghostwriter than an editor, in that she is interested in working with a writer, not just with a piece of a writing. However, the two roles function as almost inverses of one another: A ghostwriter uses a person to create a good piece of writing, while a writing tutor uses a piece of writing to help a person become a better writer. 

If you visit the Writing Center, remember that the tutors are committed to empowering you as a writer—as both the author and the writer of whatever writing you bring. Writing is an important life skill. As a ghostwriter, I was paid to write everything from books to speeches to memos to website content. My firm worked with people in academia, entertainment, business, medicine, education, religion, the arts, and the sciences. If you want to be an effective professional in any field, you will have to work with writing. Instead of spending money (and, spoiler alert: ghostwriting is not cheap!) to outsource your writing why not invest in your skills as a writer now? At the Writing Center, we care about empowering you to become a better writer both now and in the future.