Service of Ghost Writers

September 21st, 2009

Categories: Communications, Ghost Writing, Manipulation, Marketing, Public Relations, Suspicion, Writing

I couldn’t wait until Halloween to write about the service of ghost writers. Full disclosure–some of my best friends are ghost writers and I have been one myself many times.

So I don’t see what the big deal is.

In The New York Times’ Friday, September 18 front-page Business Day section story, “Unmasking the Ghosts: Medical Editors Take On Hidden Writers,” Natasha Singer and Duff Wilson, write: “But now, in light of recently released evidence that some drug makers have gone to great lengths to turn scientific articles into marketing vehicles for their products, some influential medical editors are cracking down on industry-financed ghostwriting. And they are getting help from some members of Congress.”


My first reaction was: Duh. Pharmaceutical companies have been doing this for years and years. This doesn’t make it right or wrong…I was reacting to the “in light of recently released evidence” part.

My second: Aren’t we missing the point? Shouldn’t the issue be not who writes about a study but who pays for it? Isn’t the real objection about physicians or clinicians involved with pharmaceutical companies actually about whether some might bend the rules because pharmaceutical companies pay them to research and report on the effectiveness and reactions to their drugs? Isn’t the concern that their findings come out glossing over negatives so that a new drug–or new use of a traditional drug–promptly acquires FDA approval?

Back to the ghost writing issue. If you broke your arm, you might ask me to fill out a check for, say, $1,000 so you wouldn’t have to expend the energy. Then, you sign the check. The document would be valid, right?

Similarly, can’t we assume that the person whose byline appears on an article–whether it’s about architecture, interior design, beauty products, fashion or medical issues–has read, approved, stands behind and signs off on its contents?

Does every doctor–or entrepreneur, business executive, architect, interior designer or manufacturer–have the time to write or even know how to write effectively? No.

In the case of medical ghost writers, would it help calm editorial and Congressional nerves if articles were bylined, “By Crackerjack Researcher, MD as told to Great Writer?” or “in collaboration with Great Writer?”

What is the difference between a pharmaceutical company looking to spread the word about successful research about a drug through the experience and implied endorsement of a doctor and a manufacturer of fine furniture using photographs of handsome interiors that include their dining room chairs and bedroom pieces in a fabulous house designed by a well-regarded decorator?

So what am I missing? Please tell me what you think about ghost writing.


8 Responses to “Service of Ghost Writers”

  1. ASK Said:

    Funny, you chose ghostwriters…In the next issue of our college publication, we’re running a last-page personal essay from an alum who’s made a living as a ghostwriter (she raised 3 kids and put them through college), in some cases, for very famous people. Her piece is very funny and eye-opening …according to this ghostwriter, who will remain anonymous (aren’t all ghostwriters anonymous?), when you’ve been ghosting as long as she has, it’s hard to find your own voice.

  2. Casper Said:

    Ghost writers can be very friendly.

  3. Kathleen Fredrick Said:


    I agree with you.

    Notice what lawyers do when they write briefs. They, correctly, choose the best writer to tackle the job. I have two young cousins who work in the same law firm and they agree that one is a better writer than the other and so he gets the job to write the briefs. It’s not quite ghost writing, but it is getting one’s message out in a clear, concise way. Nothing wrong with that in my book.

  4. David Reich Said:

    I see nothing wrong with ghostwriting except in some situations. As has been pointed out above, it’s done all the time for people who are too busy to write or just don’t have the ability. Let’s assume they have the knowledge, however, that’s being imparted in their ghosted writing.

    For things that are purported to be personal, such as Twitter, I would hope the writing is actually done by the person whose name is being signed to it. But even there, I can see room for exceptions. How many big celebrities have had personal assistants who do their personal correspondence and handle their fan mail? Aren’t they ghosts?

  5. Dennis Warren Said:


    What an interesting take on two very different subjects, medicine and ghost writing.

    On medicine, its not so important who did the writing – that can always be found out through discovery if somebody got something wrong – but it’s critical that the creator of a new medicine get it right, and that there is a clear, unambiguous trail back to him so that he can be held responsible. In this age of bigger and bigger business, I sense vividly that we are victims of smaller and smaller ethics. While I accept without reservation that creativity flourishes better in a capitalist than in a socialist society, I feel that we should do a better job of policing the medicine men, and for starters to accomplish that, I would ban all medical advertising. That should help tone down the greed.

    On ghost writing:

    Henry Ford II got kicked out of Yale because he handed his ghost writer’s bill in to his professor along with his thesis, which proves that:
    a) He was dishonest and a jerk.
    b) It OK to cheat, because nobody cares. Henry went on to become chairman of Ford. (Maybe that’s why our auto companies are such a mess!)
    c) Money is all that matters. Yale ended up giving him a degree, and for all I know, an honorary doctorate to boot!

    If Doris Kearns Goodwin had bothered to read one of the books that she “wrote,” she might not have ended up being condemned for plagiarizing some of it.

    If Abe Lincoln had had a ghost writer, he wouldn’t have had to scribble a few words on the back of an envelope on his train on the way to Gettysburg, and we wouldn’t have had the greatest, most far reaching and powerful speech ever made by any president. (But in fairness, if it had not been for Alexander Hamilton, we might not have had Washington’s farewell address.)

    While I know from experience that a group’s effort almost always outdoes that of an individual and hold great manuscript editors in deep awe, I tend to judge people by the quality of their words. If the words are not theirs, I feel deceived. At least “writers” should do what good historians do, credit their research assistants (ghost writers) for their work.


    PS, I do my own writing.

  6. NenaghGal- Lisa McGee Said:

    I have to say I have no problem with ghost writing being a ghost myself sometimes. The thing is many companies have great products and ideas but often don’t either have the skills but most often the time to put it all into words. Ghost writers can make it sound friendly and inviting and can often offer an unbiased – less of a sales pitch slant – to marketing copy or even editorial/advertorials. Personally, I wouldn’t be too comfortable ghost writing an entire book – if I’m going to go to all that effort – I’d like my name on it!

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Thanks for your beautifully written comment.

    I guess our disagreement is about writing. If I understand you, you feel that someone with one skill should also be able to write. While surely a benefit, I don’t think this combination of abilities is imperative. And even if a person can write well, he/she may not have the time to do so.

    What happens if you are a dentist who has discovered a technique for quickly handling children’s standard tooth issues and you are a horrendous writer or you hate writing or you don’t have time to write your discovery for a journal. Should the world of dentistry and millions of children not benefit from your discovery?

    I did pharma PR when I started in the field. I could hardly understand many of the studies because the writing was convoluted and heavy with jargon. When I would speak with the doctor or clinician in charge of the written study, the conclusions and points always became clear so that I could write about them simply.

    When I was a magazine editor, professional writers who interviewed experts presented wonderful articles but people who specialized in a topic or who were renowned in their field were frequently inarticulate on paper. More surprising, when I’d interview some “for a little more information,” to bolster a useless article, I discovered that they didn’t seem to know their specialty at all and didn’t offer to provide imperative information. On-staff editors would scramble for information–and we didn’t have the benefit of the Internet.

  8. AA Said:

    Journalism is interpreting information and facts just as ghost writing is. Biographies interpret other people’s story/lives. Fiction is a separate category.

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