ghostwriting concept

Ghostwriting Done Well

Image credit: John Feinstein from Flickr

Back in 2009, I read Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” It was raw, candid, and amazingly well-written. I discovered later that J.R. Moehringer, author of “The Tender Bar," had ghostwritten the memoir for him. When I discovered the Agassi-Moehringer collaboration, I didn’t feel disappointed that the memoir was ghostwritten. I didn’t think Agassi had violated his contract with me, the reader, by asking someone else to put his thoughts into words.

Some people argue that ghostwriting is inherently dishonest, but "Open" has always stuck in my mind as an example of ghostwriting done well. The lessons apply not only to ghostwritten memoirs but also to all kinds of ghostwritten digital content. Essentially, you bring the material; the ghostwriter packages and presents it. The process keeps below-average language from tarnishing your above-average ideas.

Clients Give the Ideas. Ghostwriters Package Them.

Before he accepted Agassi's request to ghostwrite "Open," Moehringer's colleagues warned him away from writing a jock memoir. “The athlete gives you about 30 hours and then never talks to you again until you turn in a manuscript,” Moehringer told Times reporter Charles McGrath, “and then he draws a line through anything you’ve written that’s remotely interesting.”

At the beginning of their conversations, Agassi had a rock-solid memory of his tennis matches, but Moehringer found it difficult to extract information about his relationships and his off-court life. To get Agassi talking, he read works on psychoanalysis. When he found Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents," which argues that everyone has a death wish, Moehringer had a flash of insight about Agassi: The key to unlocking Andre’s life story was to understand the star's self-destructiveness.

As they worked together, Agassi discovered the narrative within his own life, woven around the twin threads of self-aggrandizement and self-destruction. From there, Moehringer wrote the words, but Agassi contributed the material and had final say on its presentation.

What Moehringer Can Teach Us About the Ghostwriter's Role

When clients first tell me what they want to write, I seldom get compelling, original material during those first conversations. I usually receive something that’s about as interesting as tapioca, and then it’s my obligation to page my own inner Dr. Freud. Like Moehringer, your ghostwriter should pursue the gleaming diamond within the coal dust of a client's ideas. Sometimes, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, clients don’t know what they want until I show it to them.

I recently took a project that was one of a series of ghostwritten blog posts for a business executive with over 30 years of experience. The series of posts was designed to position the executive as a thought leader, but the notes I received were written to the level of an undergraduate management textbook. Because I was subcontracting, I had no way to talk to the client, and the agency wasn’t willing to ask for better notes, probably out of deference. Unfortunately, ghostwritten work based on weak interview notes never truly serves the client.

After a while, you’ll no longer need lengthy conversations with a good ghostwriter. The next chapter or the next blog post can come from an email with a topic sentence and some bullet points. In the beginning, however, invest time in getting the relationship right. Don’t duck your ghostwriter’s emails and phone calls. Hire someone good, let them uncover your best ideas, and then let the synergy begin.

What Agassi Can Teach You About Being a Great Subject

Hiring a ghostwriter gives you the tools to professionally package your ideas. Your communication style no longer gets in the way of your message, and you get a pro’s attention to format, SEO, writing quality, and other digital publishing elements.

Even when you work with an experienced ghostwriter, you still have an important job to do. You can’t give your writer a few generic notes and expect them to perform the Rumpelstiltskin-esque feat of spinning that smelly, unremarkable straw into gleaming literary gold. You have to do the kind of introspection that Agassi did to reveal something unvarnished and uniquely your own. In other words, you have to be interesting. You have to contribute something original.

You don’t have to be writing a memoir; you can be writing something as simple as a blog post that helps clients file their taxes. Whatever you're publishing, it's not a ghostwriter's role to turn you into the thought leader you’re not. It’s up to you both to lend an authentic voice and to contribute something intellectually useful. Never ask your ghostwriter to do your homework for you.

Always Be Honest With Readers

Moehringer refused to take a cover or title page credit for ghostwriting “Open.” Agassi, however, thanked him in the Acknowledgements, and he publicly praised Moehringer’s work. Moehringer got credit for the writing style, and Agassi got credit for his incredible honesty and clarity. Moehringer midwifed the story, but Agassi carried it, birthed it, and took care of it afterward.

When people worry about the issue of honesty and ghostwriting, I usually pose this question to clients: If your readers knew about how you collaborate with your ghostwriter, would that information hurt your brand? If you’re asking ghostwriters to come up with topics, perform the research, and hand you polished prose for which you take all of the credit - all for the purpose of littering the Web with as much of your “content” as possible - I do think you misrepresent yourself to your readers.

Alternatively, if you collaborate, do most of the ideation, and approve the final product, your byline deserves to be over those words, just as Agassi's picture and byline deserved to be on the front cover of his memoir. In fact, feel proud of yourself for hiring your own communications professional. Sure, you didn't do the actual writing, just like you probably didn't fill out your own 1040. Instead, you got professional help to present your best self to your readers.

If you’re still worried that hiring a ghostwriter could hurt your brand, these ideas can help you balance efficiency and great prose with transparency before your readers.

Give an Editorial Assistance Credit

AMA style requires physicians and researchers to disclose when they’re received writing assistance with a journal article. They include a note at the end of the piece that says “editorial assistance provided by ___.” Again, the ideas and research belong to the person with the byline, but the editorial assistance credit acknowledges the ghostwriter’s efforts. You’re the idea person, but your ghostwriter gets credit as your communications professional.

Solicit Guest Posts for Your Blog

If you have no time to write blog posts or other types of content yourself, you can solicit guest pieces from respected thinkers within your industry. As long as the work meets your organization’s branding and quality standards, they’re a great way to maintain a steady content supply without hiring a ghostwriter.

Hire Your Own Team of Bloggers

Hire some bloggers who will do a great job of creating content for your blog, but don’t hide them under the ghostly sheet of your byline. Even though your bloggers get the byline, you get the credit for attracting, recognizing, and publishing ideas from really talented people. Mix it up by publishing opinion pieces or comments on industry news under your byline, but let bloggers create the bulk of your evergreen content, and give them credit for their work.

Getting Ghostwriting Right

If you want to submit written work to respected publications, find out whether they publish work under your byline or under something generic, like “sponsored content.” If it’s going to be published under your byline but you need ghostwriting assistance, do ghostwriting in a way that supports you but doesn't mislead readers.

  • Would the reader feel comfortable with the way you collaborated - coming up with the ideas, reading the manuscript, taking risks, making the final editorial decisions? If so, feel proud to publish a ghostwritten piece. Consider giving the ghostwriter an editorial assistance credit.
  • Would the reader feel cheated to learn that, instead of really being a partner to your ghostwriter, you essentially asked someone else to do your geometry homework? If that’s the case, you didn't do the work, and misrepresenting yourself always backfires in the long run. 

Hiring a ghostwriter can save you a tremendous amount of time, but don’t order written work the way you’d order a Happy Meal from a drive-thru. Ghostwriting should be a partnership, like Moehringer’s and Agassi’s, that takes the best ideas from your brain and presents them in a wonderfully written package. 

If you need some ghostwriting assistance, and this type of partnership sounds good to you, contact me today.

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