The difference between a ghostwriter and an editor

There are many euphemisms for what I do. I’ve been credited as a co-author, writer, editor and (my personal favourite) ‘the lady who typed my memoirs’. Often I am not acknowledged at all. I am happy either way. My job is to write books for other people and stay in the background.

Out of all the acknowledgements I receive, the most common is ‘editor’. At the risk of sounding pedantic, or doing myself out of future nods for my contribution, strictly speaking, a ghostwriter is not really an editor at all. In traditional publishing, ghost writing and editing are very different disciplines.

In the simplest (perhaps somewhat glib) terms, ghost writers write a book for someone else, while an editor ‘fixes’ someone else’s writing. But let me explain in more detail.

A ghostwriter will write a book based on the named author’s memories, ideas or previous work, or a combination of all three, in exchange for a fee. Sometimes the ghost will start from scratch, interviewing the author over a series of sessions, while at other times the author may already have a part-written manuscript they need help with. The ghost, who is usually an experienced writer with knowledge of the publishing industry, will take the sometimes jumbled thoughts of the author, make sense of it all and then ensure the resulting book is a well-structured, compelling read. As noted above, there is no obligation to give credit to the ghostwriter, but some authors choose to do so.

Authors use ghostwriters for a number of reasons. They may not actually enjoy writing, or perhaps don’t feel they write well, or, very commonly because they simply don’t have the time to pen an entire book. Hiring a ghost is the easiest way to ensure a book is finished in the least amount of time and in the optimum condition to be published.

Which brings me neatly to the next stage in the process: editing.

When I complete the majority of manuscripts, there will be just two people on the planet who will have read what I have written: the author and me. That is not enough to green light the text for immediate publishing. Books need to be edited.

When a book is complete and both author and ghostwriter are satisfied, it is sent to an editor. The editor will proofread the book, checking it for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Importantly, they will provide a completely new perspective, which picks up any inconsistencies in the story, or incomplete threads. It doesn’t matter how good your ghost is, these things do occasionally get missed.

An editor will invariably take a harsh stance on sections that lack clarity, or are simply redundant. Often, after labouring over a book for six months, a ghost or editor might not be as willing to admit that some parts of the book were not as strong as they hoped. Trust me, an editor won’t be as reticent. Editors are also sticklers for citations too: if external material is quoted they will expect full references.

What an editor won’t do is re-write the content, or re-arrange chapters. If they feel revisions are needed, they will return the book to the author/ghostwriter with suggestions for alternative wording, or chapter layouts. It is up to the writing team to fix any rough spots. When the partnership between the editor and writers works well, the end result is the five star bestseller version of the original.

While ghostwriting and editing are two very different disciplines, there are some similarities. Both parties have a gift for getting to the true heart of a story and for the optimum way to present it to the world. They’ll also have a firm grasp of language and a talent for understanding and projecting the named author’s voice. Where they differ substantially is editors are more like passive observers, guiding an author with a mainly hands-off approach. Meanwhile ghosts build a relationship with an author, actively guiding the direction of the book to transform the author’s thoughts into a highly sellable book.