Numerous sources discuss the origin of the term “ghostwriting”—it could mean drafting secret invisible messages using lemon juice, detectable only when the paper is heated. However, the most accurate definition of ghostwriting might be, “one whose work is credited to another.”
Ghostwriters help celebrities pen best-selling autobiographies, write chart-topping hits for musicians, draft heartfelt direct mail appeals, and position executives as thought leaders. Some sources claim at least 60% of nonfiction is written by ghostwriters. You could argue ghostwriters are also behind the language on websites, commercials, brochures, billboards – anything written without a byline.
But right now, let’s focus on the standard ghostwriter for executives.
Being a ghostwriter simply means writing behind the scenes, uncredited, as the voice for someone else. I learned about this early in my career when I worked as an in-house copywriter for The Franklin Mint. Back then, I wrote long-form letters gushing about Fabergé eggs lavished in 24-karat gold, limited-edition diecast replica cars and breathtakingly beautiful porcelain dolls. These sales appeals were signed by President and CEO Stewart Resnick.
The first time I realized he never even saw the letters we wrote for him, let alone signed them, was startling. I had been a writer since my single-digit childhood years, penning poems, short stories and articles. Wasn’t the whole point of writing to express yourself through words?
That early experience steered my writing career toward commercial writing versus journalism. Being an advertising copywriter or corporate marketing manager meant writing for clients and company leaders every day. Transitioning to the nonprofit world was similar. Now, I’m used to ghostwriting for executives and writing more for others than I do for myself.
Ghostwriters can be speechwriters, communications advisors, chiefs of staff, consultants or contractors. They write inspirational quotes, thought leadership articles, company blogs, emails, video scripts, speeches, general executive positioning, books, and more.
Here are three best practice tips for ghostwriting:
- Study your source’s style to nail the voice of the person you’re writing for. Do they use historical quotes from Winston Churchill and Socrates or modern culture references from Game of Thrones and Justin Bieber? Casual slang or formal language? Interview them or listen to videos or podcasts of them speaking. Read what they’ve written. Use their direct quotes when possible. You’ll uncover their personal brand and stylistic preferences, just as you would for an organization’s brand.
- Build a review process. When possible, always have your source review what you’ve ghostwritten for them. Their edits—especially embellishing with personal anecdotes and storytelling—make the writing come alive, tapping into what makes your source unique.
- Stay on brand. Ensure your ghostwriting matches not just the executive, but also matches the organizational voice. Look for synergies between the form and the function of your message. If an executive is informal but the brand is formal, find a compromise between the two and do your best.
Although ghostwriting is commonplace in every field and in nearly every organization, some still may question the ethical implications of ghostwriting. Should ghostwriters be credited? Should bylines be shared? Should editors be acknowledged? You might prefer ghostwriters be noted similar to the formal letter-writing days when the initials of a typist were referenced at the bottom of a letter, after the author’s initials.
In the end, it takes time to master ghostwriting just as it does with any other form of written communication. You may never know who is behind the curtain, writing for a thought leader, executive, celebrity, or online influencer.
To all those ghostwriters, whoever you are — you are seen. Let’s encourage all ghostwriters to write publicly using their own bylines, in addition to writing for others without credit. Writing for yourself reminds you that what you say matters.
Amanda Ponzar is the chief communications & strategy officer at CHC: Creating Healthier Communities. Connect with her on LinkedIn.