I still remember the agony and excitement of walking into the office one morning to find a brown envelope waiting for me on my desk. I opened it in the blink of an eye and there it was. My first article as a ghostwriter, freshly printed in a national magazine. Part of me thought ‘Good job!’ but I could feel the ink of disappointment staining my enthusiasm. In tiny drops at the beginning and then it started pouring. It felt like a part of me was gone.
Ghostwriting is a luxury service. Having a captivating story to tell and being able to convey it in an appealing way to the target audience are two different things.
When there is a story without a skilled storyteller, the task goes to a writer who does not receive or claim public fame for their creative effort, hence the ‘ghostwriter’ label. Recognition is still attributed to the recognised author who is or should be the source of the content.
Selling a skill that apparently most people have is an art.
What Makes Ghostwriters Exceptional?
My experience taught me that there are some qualities that ghostwriters need to cultivate in order to be successful, apart from a good command of the language:
- Imaginative listening
Can you envision the message, experience and context of the story?
Can you sympathise with the point of view of the storyteller?
Can you trim down the information to its core message?
Do you have flexibility to morph your editorial style to match the one of the storyteller?
If you don’t try you fail by default.
The Ethical Debate
Let’s imagine that J. K. Rowling didn’t sign her name against the saga that brought her international acclaim and that some sort of Shakespeare (equivalent) did instead. The world would still have its sorcerers but her reality as a writer would be entirely different.
For PR professionals, a non-possessive attitude towards content creation is part of the job description. Our names sign emails for posterity and press releases, at best. So what are the benefits of ghostwriting?
Professional ghostwriter Andrew Crofts refers to the influx of knowledge available to tap into and promotes ‘suppressing your ego completely’ as a writer through this practice.
Adding value into the world does not equal getting your name known. We are joyfully using the lightbulb with most of us not knowing the name of the inventor. The Roman Colosseum cemented the names of Roman rulers into the history of civilisations and not the names of tens of thousands of slaves who physically built it.
What is to say that ghostwriting is not a metaphor for exploiting the weak for the benefit of the strong? This can refer both to the ghostwriter – author relationship and author-reader. When a relationship is built on a foundation of untruthfulness we can’t expect the happy ever after-sales and endorsement.
The Practical Debate
The practical question that arises is: would the same work reach the same or as broad of an audience under the writer’s authorship as it does under the name of the author who commissioned the work?
Scientists argue that it becomes problematic when the ghostwriter is more in the know than the person commissioning the work – the author. This leads to unverified data leaking into respectable journals and can be detrimental to the overall progress of science.
PR professionals are versatile in terms of the disciplines they can put their skills in good use, yet the CIPR Code of Conduct advocates that we ‘maintain the highest standards of professional […] integrity’.
But there is glory in ghostwriting. The inner feeling that The Message is crafted in good faith at the highest standards and that it is put into the world for the feast of the hungry-minded. That’s an achievement.
The balance weighs heavily on both sides of the argument, but one truth that can act as a compass in the stormy, messy world of PR made it through time from almost two millennials ago:
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.” (Marcus Aurelius)
Easier to say than not to do.
What action did I take? I carried on writing.