The Difference Between Editing & Ghostwriting

I’m sure the more astute of you already know that I moonlight as a freelance editor (there’s a handy little tab at the top of the page that will tell you about it if you missed it), as well as working on the editorial staff at REUTS Publications. But I’ve also been known to work as a ghostwriter (very infrequently; it’s not really my cup of tea). This week had me doing both. And it got me thinking about the differences between the two; how they can often be confused by those outside the literary world. So in the interest of clarity, I’m going to take a moment to break each of them down, starting with editing.

There are three types of editing a freelance editor (or an editorial staff) will perform:

  • Content Editing: This deals with the underlying structure of a piece, focusing on things like flow, POV, character consistency and plot. Sometimes called Substantive Editing, it’s usually the first part of the process, as there’s no point in fine-tuning a scene that will just get cut later on. Content Editors have a firm understanding of storytelling basics, and can rearrange a work like pieces in a puzzle, requiring dramatic changes that will ultimately make the story stronger. It’s the part that most feels like honing a diamond from a rough piece of rock and is my favorite style of editing.
  • Copy Editing: Also known as Line Editing, copy editing dissects individual sentences, working on tightening the prose and overall smoothing, as well as things like spelling and grammar. Similar to the layered approach of painting and sculpture, copy editing builds on the foundation content editing provides, focusing on the details rather than the work at large. This can be extremely painful for people that dislike dealing with minutiae, but it’s an important step in creating the final outcome.
  • Proofreading: Generally the last stage of the process, proofreading gives a manuscript a final pass, looking for any typos, misspelled words or wonky punctuation. There should be relatively few revisions made in this stage, and often, the proofreader will simply make the necessary changes without requiring the author to step in. Proofreaders are the last defense before a manuscript heads to the printer, so it’s a good idea to have them be a fresh set of eyes from the prior stages.

You’ll notice that none of those definitions included rewriting. That’s because it’s not the editor’s job to actually fix the problems. This is where the confusion kicks in. It’s a common misconception that editors help with the actual writing. But editing isn’t that kind of hands on, instant fix. In fact, most editors won’t even look at a piece that hasn’t already been completed and polished to a high standard.

An editor is like a personal trainer for words. And just like a personal trainer can’t lose weight for their client, an editor can’t rewrite a manuscript for their author. The author does all the heavy-lifting in the relationship, working out the kinks and fixing the rough spots under the editor’s guidance and moral support (even though it can feel like the complete opposite when you get your manuscript back covered in red delete suggestions). When they do their job well, the end result is like the movie star version of the original work, but it’s the author that actually gets it there.

So who, then, helps the people that can’t quite articulate their brilliant idea into words on a page?


Ghostwriting and editing are two completely different things. Editors are passive observers, guiding the author with a hands-off approach, while ghostwriters are active, aggressively transforming the author’s thoughts into a commercial literary product. Unlike editors, a ghostwriter’s job is to actually write the manuscript. To take the vision, voice, and generalized, messy thoughts of the author and literally write in their stead. In short, ghostwriting is hard. Which is why I only do it on very rare occasions and why you won’t see it listed in the services I offer.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some small similarities between the two, though. For instance, both require the ability to see past a rough exterior to the heart of the story, to be able to understand the final vision for the piece and the best way to present that to the world. They both require a firm grasp of language and storytelling (although ghostwriting mostly happens in the non-fiction world), as well as a keen understanding of voice, so that the final product sounds like the original author, not the ghostwriter/editor.

They both have their place, but editing is more akin to reading with annotations, while ghostwriting involves the more rigorous creative process of actually putting words on paper, complete with stipulations and expectations attached. They both require someone well-versed in the craft of writing, but rarely will you find someone who likes to do both. Just like writers have preferences when it comes to style and genre, those on the book-doctoring side of the fence have preferences on the types of surgery they like to perform. So before you ask for help, make sure you’re asking the right person. If your manuscript is finished and you just need polishing, you’re looking for an editor. But if you need help constructing your idea from the ground up, you might actually be better off looking for a ghostwriter to collaborate with. Knowing the difference will save you a lot of headaches.

**Just a quick reminder; this is the last weekend to enter the Two Steps Closer Giveaway over at REUTS Publications. One of the prizes is a free, full-scale editorial critique by me and the other is a custom, print-ready cover design by Ashley Ruggirello. It’s a pretty sweet deal– professional services with no strings attached. If you haven’t entered already, what are you waiting for? Go do it before you run out of time! The giveaway ends Monday, 3/25/13 at midnight. Don’t miss out!**


12 thoughts on “The Difference Between Editing & Ghostwriting

    • I could see that. There was also that kid’s TV show in the 90’s about the kid detectives that solved mysteries with the aid of a literal ghost writing through a computer. For the longest time, whenever I heard the word “ghostwriter”, I automatically thought it was a reference to that show. Haha! I suppose there is some similarity, in that the person who does the writing is invisible to the rest of the world usually. But otherwise, ghostwriting isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds. 😉

      • That might depend on what you write. I ghostwrite short fiction in a completely different genre to my fantasy writing and find it to be a useful writing exercise. There’s more than one useful character trait that’s ‘bled’ across into my fantasy writing.
        Are you comfortable in saying what it is that you write? I’d be happy to discuss mine off-blog with you.

      • Hey Andrew,

        Thanks for stopping by, as always. I don’t mind sharing, though because of the nature of the ghostwriter relationship, I can’t divulge too many specifics. So far, I’ve only worked on non-fiction as a ghostwriter, so maybe that has a bearing on my interest level in it, being primarily fiction-oriented myself. I do find it an interesting activity, and think that every writer should try it at least once, if only because you quickly learn about voice when trying to match someone else’s, but it can also be rather difficult to meet said someone else’s expectations. At least in my experience. It’s more constraining than writing your own work because you don’t have control over the final vision.

        Would you mind sharing how you managed to secure fiction ghostwriting jobs? I don’t see those kinds of projects listed very frequently on the freelance sites I visit. Usually it’s just straight-forward freelance assignments. I might consider extending my services further into ghostwriting if fiction is an option. 🙂

      • Thanks for the tip! I’ll have to check that one out. It’s not on my current list of freelance sites. Maybe I’ll score a fiction-based ghostwriting gig and it will completely change my outlook on things. 😉

    • Uh-oh…that sounds ominous. Lol. I’ll check it out and see what I have to do to participate. Thanks for shout-out though! Those are always appreciated. 😉

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