How to… ghostwrite

September 11, 2017 10:05 am

WHAT IS GHOSTWRITING?

Ghostwriting involves using a professional writer to create works in another person’s name. It could be a column for a newspaper or online publication, all the way through to a whole book or screenplay. It’s usually about more than simple copy (“Welcome to our ‘About us’ page…!”) and quite often involves an external specialist.

In our world, ghostwriting is usually for senior executives at companies, and takes the form of columns and various social media posts including blogging, rather than, say, white papers or reports, which tend to carry a company’s name as their ‘author’.

WHY USE A GHOSTWRITER?

Most senior executives don’t have enough time to write. Many don’t have the inclination. Even those that have both of those, as well as some writing skills, probably need some help – and we’ve written before about considering an editor in that case rather than the full ghostwriting process.

Think of ghostwriting as outsourced writing but for a specific person. That means the ghostwriter gets to know the voice of the person they’re ghosting for and builds up a relationship over time – through regular contact, ideally sometimes in person.

Whatever the exact set-up, ghostwriting should take away pain from an individual and organisation looking for consistent, informed content.
Whether orchestrated by someone internal at an organisation or by an outside agency, understand that ghostwriting comes with a number of key decisions. Let’s look at some of them.

WHO NEEDS A GHOSTWRITER?

The assumed answer to this is usually “The CEO”, or a departmental boss, or perhaps the highest paid person in the room. But ghostwriting isn’t just for the higher-ups. Consider other members of staff whose thoughts and experience are worth sharing with the wider world, especially that wider world sizing up your company and what you sell. How about when they want to hear from your engineers or those on the factory/shop floor? They could all benefit from some help.

WHAT KIND OF ORGANISATION NEEDS A GHOSTWRITER?

We could argue: All of them do. But the honest answer is that it’s preferable for the author whose name is on a piece of writing – the ‘byline’ – to have done the writing. For reasons already mentioned, that’s not always possible. But we’d even go as far as to say that some authentic writing that isn’t perfect can work well in certain situations – for example, on a start-up’s blog when it’s from the founder. In other cases, quality has to be higher. Professionals need to be involved.

THE GHOSTWRITING PROCESS

Where to begin? Our first recommendation is for contact between the person whose name appears on any piece of content and the ghostwriter. You’d think that’s obvious. In some cases, where the ‘author’ is very important, that doesn’t happen. That’s not just a shame, in terms of what it says about priorities, but it can affect the quality of output and even has ethical dimensions. Even if there is only one meeting, at the beginning of any ghostwriting process, it’s a big advantage compared to no contact.
So start with contact. Break bread. The ghostwriter gets to look the person they’re ghosting in the eye and start getting a sense for how they talk and maybe how they think. This is the launch pad for something longer term.

Regular contact
But beyond the initial phase, regular contact is ideal. But not only is it regular – say, once a month, for 20 minutes – but it is accepted at the beginning that the subject matter expert brings at least one idea to the table every time he or she speaks with the ghostwriter. And the table is of course metaphorical. These subsequent stages usually happen over a call.
But having an original idea and actually speaking are important, rather than attempting the process on the fly or in writing – through email, for example.

A lot of good writing – certainly blogging – is about expressing one idea at a time and expressing it well.

And trying to get a feel for what someone means and thinks is much easier over the phone. You hear where they’re unsure, for one thing, and can seek clarifications and ask follow-up questions.

Not to mention, asking someone who by definition isn’t a writer, to write down all their thoughts, is slightly bizarre.

Much more likely is that an intermediary – someone in a marketing department or in PR – will try to convey these thoughts. An experienced ghostwriter will seek to hear the thoughts first-hand.

Plan the output
Lastly, we’d say have in mind the type of output from any call between expert and ghostwriter – blog post, book foreword, guest article in an industry publication and so on. Know when this is due to appear and how it will tie in with other pieces of content, not necessarily all ghosted or from the same author.

Proper contact, expertise and planning are the bedrock of a successful ghostwriting relationship.

To recap:

  1. Getting to know you: There should be a relationship between named author and ghostwriter. Meet in person at least once, or more often, if possible.
  2. Keep talking: Continue with regular contact but never just in writing. Monthly calls are ideal. The expert should bring ideas to each interaction – one ideaper item of content is enough.
  3. Plan, plan, plan: Know where the resulting content will appear. Ideally have a calendar that shows type of output, destination and date.

The ethics of ghostwriting

Ghostwriting happens all the time. But it’s not usually transparent to a reader and rarely do we see any discussion of how ethical the practice is. Much writing by company executives and celebrities in mainstream media is ghost-written. The most common hat tip to that is at the foot of columns by famous sportspeople, with an italicised line saying something like: ‘[Named author] was talking to [journalist at publication who ghosted the opinion piece]’. That rarely happens when on a CEO’s blog or when a company submits an article by their head of X to an industry publication. Is that OK? This whole subject comes down to the idea of authenticity. There’s a line of thinking, more common in certain parts of US media and marketing, that ghostwriting is ethically wrong. Or at least has big problems. The Collective Content take on this has already been alluded to in the accompanying blog post. To ghost for someone with no knowledge of that person’s thinking is bad. Contact is key. Worse still – and this happens even less often – would be when the ‘author’ has someone ghosting for them but doesn’t know that. This is rare but can happen at the largest organisations. Bottom line: Completely making up words and thinking for someone who might have them – but just can’t properly express them – is a no-no. But communicating what they’ve told you – under their name, through ghostwriting – is legitimate.


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