In the season two finale of the CBS hit Madam Secretary, the Secretary of State sends her speechwriter, Matt Mahoney, to deliver a graduation speech on her behalf. It’s the secret wish or fear of those who master words behind the scenes: to claim the spotlight for their unrecognized work. Matt opens the speech by acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation and then delivers a poignant address about the value of anonymous contributions. For ghostwriters like me, Matt’s monologue championed the value of our craft.
The speech also reminded me of Laura Ingram’s recent post on The Content Strategist, “Is It Morally Okay to Ghostwrite Thought Leadership?” I was irked by several points she made, beginning with her reference to ghostwriting as a “seedy underworld” when she discovered that a friend ghostwrote recipes for a celebrity chef. I imagine that most chefs are better at creating a soufflé than typing an article. Perhaps this chef wisely realized that he would need a partner to document his recipes.
Let’s face it: We’re not good at everything. Some people can cook, some can write. Experts who spend their time developing companies in their fields may not be skilled writers. Maybe the demands of their roles, such as flying around the world to meet with clients, prevent them from writing.
To me, it’s not a question of morality. Ghostwriters, like speechwriters, bring their client’s intelligence into the world. What really matters is quality. As long as the content is good, there’s nothing to worry about.
Ghostwriting or PR?
Four years ago, while vacationing in Boulder, Colorado, I took an early morning call to discuss a book I was ghostwriting for a business technology expert. The “author” had reviewed the first chapter on a flight to Sydney the previous day.
He wasn’t happy.
I remember watching an elk climb up the craggy rocks to my left as the author described his frustration with my suggested Malcolm Gladwell approach to the opening of each chapter. The book was about how the Internet of Things would change business, and I encouraged him to use a story-first approach to explain the concept of digitalization to CIOs.
He didn’t agree at first. But eventually, we compromised. Each chapter opened with an explanation and then transitioned to a story. In spite of our style differences, our collaboration led to compelling thought leadership that retained his style and brought engaging business stories to life. He got a book. I got paid to help him tell an important story.
I’ve worked with experts in business, technology, science, entrepreneurship, marketing, and, yes, food, never feeling an ethical dilemma. Ghostwriters play an essential role in the communication of other people’s concepts. A skilled ghostwriter chisels the big idea out of the expert’s mind into crisp narrative form.
Regardless of the author’s voice, it’s our job to coax it into the article, to encourage the author’s comfort with seeing his or her personality on the page. For others, style takes a back seat to substance. And that’s okay.
If, as Ingram suggests, accurately capturing an expert’s substance and style “smooths out some of the moral wrinkles” with ghostwriting, then the matter should be settled. She takes issue with original writing that doesn’t rely on any contribution by the so-called author, but I wouldn’t call that ghostwriting. If anything, that’s more like marketing or PR.
Use your talents wisely
In her post, Ingram claims that it would be unethical if she hired someone to write her own blog post on ghostwriting. I counter that it’s not a matter of ethics, it’s a matter of workload and judgement. If she doesn’t possess the writing skills or the time and guides the ghostwriter on the content, it’s a smart use of resources. Being a writer, however, she would benefit more by broadcasting her own talents.
Academia is another matter. In school, writing papers is your job. In the professional world, it’s more of an ancillary task, especially when it comes to thought leadership.
Students are graded on both the quality of their thinking as well as their ability to clearly express their thoughts in written form. In other words, their writing matters, and hiring someone else to do the job is, well, cheating. Once you’ve graduated, entered a profession, and proven yourself, partnering with a writer can help you increase your output when you’re already responsible for so many other things.
What’s in a byline?
The rise of content marketing demands a new crop of ghostwriters to fuel the personal branding engine. Agencies write for brands, freelancers tweet for business leaders, ghostwriters get more business. Are these positions really all that different from clerks who write judges’ opinions or consultants who develop strategies for Fortune 500 companies?
These days it’s hard to know who wrote what in the world of thought leadership. To fix the recognition issue, Ingram suggests that op-eds could give credit in a similar way to certain memoirs, which give the collaborator a byline in smaller type on the front cover. I disagree. There’s a difference in effort between a 300-page book and a 600-word article. Many digital ghostwriting projects would suffer from a cluttered byline when they’re primarily just branding initiatives.
This is the job of the ghostwriter: We help brands and business leaders promote their ideas. If ghostwriters want a byline, they can pursue a different path to show off their talent, as Ingram did in her article. After all, writing is only one part of the equation. You also must have something worthy to say.