The principles of ghostwriting

The principles of ghostwriting

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

It’s Halloween and once again we find ourselves preparing for a night of dressing up and pretending to be something we’re not. Whilst for many people this only happens once a year, for many communications professionals we switch to being someone else on a weekly basis.

You will be extremely hard pressed to find any business executive that is able to take time out of their day to do their own written content (that’s not to say the thoughts and ideas aren’t theirs!). But content marketing has created a demand within organisations for ghost written content on behalf of time poor executives to feed the busy communications machine. This content is important to a communications programme because it provides journalists and readers with thought provoking content and opinions, boosting brand exposure, which is why most communications professionals spend a lot of time ghostwriting for clients and colleagues.

Ghostwriting, the act of creating work like a book or a byline for someone else to take the credit, can be spooky at first for anyone managing the process or writing the content themselves. The mere thought of whether or not you’re doing or saying the right things can send a shiver down your spine. Part of this fear is down to not knowing the ins and outs of what is required for great ghostwritten copy.

This is because whilst ghostwriting is an individual task, it can have significant blow back on organisations if things go wrong. Melania Trump’s speech writer recently had a bit of a nightmare for plagiarising extracts of her speech from a similar speech by Michelle Obama, which carried a significant backlash for the Trump campaign.

To avoid creating your own nightmare, here are my five principles to follow when managing ghostwriters or doing your own written content.

What is the author’s intention?

It’s important to establish the author’s intention of the work, in order to ensure that what is being produced is relevant. What are their aims and what do they want to achieve from content produced for them? What is it contributing in terms of brand exposure and messaging?

You also need to establish clearly who is responsible for the work. Yes you may have written the piece, but ultimately as a by-lined piece of work your subject needs to accept overall responsibility for any comments or opinions. That’s something that needs to be secured up front by whoever is managing the process.

If they don’t say it, don’t write it

Responsibility defined, you also need figure out “what you can/can’t talk about?” This will set out guidelines as to what is completely off topic and what kind of things interest them, allowing writers to add personality and nice little touches. Some people will want to talk about family and hobbies, others will want to steer clear.

It’s also important to at least get some indication of what your subject would like to say in individual pieces. Unless the writer is explicitly an industry expert on mobile telecommunications, learning and development, etc. then they will not know the ins and outs of the complex matters your subject deals with every day. Whilst they cannot make time to write their own pieces, the sentiment and opinions expressed will still need to be the subject’s own.

Get under your subject’s skin

When the writer is speaking to the subject, it’s important to avoid limiting questions to yes or no responses, because this limits the writing. Ask open-ended questions to invite them into talking about themselves or what they are passionate about. Research is an important aspect of this, because relevant issues can be presented to get the subject’s opinion on it, giving a topical hook to the piece.

It’s also important to stay on topic. It’s so easy to get side tracked into a 30-minute conversation about how much everyone loves Halloween. Whilst that’ll be great to help get a feel for the person, the writer must always lead the subject back to the original conversation: “Halloween is a bit of a nightmare, but I suppose it’s not as big a nightmare as digital transformation.”

Trouble could be knocking at the door

All content should be original. Take inspiration from other pieces but never copy and take parts for your piece. It will be embarrassing for the business and the company executive. Not only is plagiarism totally lazy, it also shows you have no faith in your work and consequently, no faith in what the company executive is telling you. It’s dangerous, unethical and can massively impact your brand’s and your subject’s credibility.

I recently wrote a blog post on the six golden rules to catch plagiarism and prevent it from happening. Providing you take into consideration those points, this should never be a problem.

Trick or treat?

It’s important to consider that whilst ghost writing copy is an individual task, the benefits and ramifications affect the entire organisation. That’s why you need to be very clear in your aims and have the buy in of your subject in terms of preparation work and approvals, whether you are writing the content yourself or simply managing the process. Good ghostwritten content will have a positive impact on your brand and provide you with great brand exposure, ensuring you keep the nightmares away.


Now a straw poll – did I write this or was it ghost-written for me?

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