The Art of Ghostwriting: How to Be a Decent Ghost

My three-year-old daughter, Shira, begs for a piece of paper wherever she goes. She’ll take the occasional wrinkled wad extracted from Mom’s purse. But Shira really wants the crisp white sheets of bond I often see her pilfering from my desk. She’s into triangles now (last month it was circles). The moment she gets her hands on a new sheet, she’s off sketching orange-and-green triangles upon triangles.

“That’s fantastic!” I enthuse, as she holds up yet another geometric masterpiece. Actually, I’m torn — whether or not to teach the kid about recycling or to encourage something else very important for her future. At this point in her life, Shira does not fear what often dismays even the most respected experts in their fields — the blank sheet of paper.

You see, even some of the most eloquent people cannot stand the starkness of a blank page, or worse, the mocking flicker of a cursor on a blank screen. Perhaps you’ve already discovered these phenomena when asking a local expert to write a column for your Web site. Many times, the column never comes. Why? Because your subject is either too busy or too overcome by writer’s block. Your subject needs what every marketing communications person should become — a great ghostwriter.

There’s an art to ghostwriting. I started 15 years ago when I helped a physician pen an entire book. At the time I was a cheeky twentysomething who hadn’t checked her ego before beginning the project. Over time, however, I have learned these basic rules for being a decent “ghost”:

Forgo the ego. You’re writing to get good content, not a load of “Atta girls.” In fact, unless you have made other arrangements, it’s understood you will not receive public credit for your work.

Interview, interview. Spend time with your subject. Listen for key points. They may come right upfront or need thoughtful prodding before being extracted. Part of your job as a ghostwriter is to provide structure to your subject’s thoughts.

Write in your subject’s voice. Even if you’ve spent years honing your writing style, you’ll have to bend a little when you’re “ghosting.” Pick up phrases that your subject frequently uses, and try to incorporate them into the piece. However, don’t sacrifice eloquence for folksiness. Your job is to enhance your subject’s words and make them shine. The ultimate compliment from your subject is “Hey, I sound pretty good!”

Wear the hats of editor and writer. If you think your subject is treading into dangerous territory, offer a friendly “Don’t go there.” Politics and religion are always areas for exercising caution (unless, of course, you’re writing for the Democratic Party or Catholic News Service). And although your subject may love to begin every conversation with blue humor, it won’t go over well if he’s trying to position himself as a pundit (yes, the exception being a pundit of porn).

Prepare to research. Contrary to my earlier premise about fearing the blank page, many great writers also occasionally want a “ghost” because they don’t always have time to do all the research on a particular topic. So, don’t be surprised if your subject uses your piece as a first draft and then fleshes out her own writing with your basic structure. In these cases, you’ve provided the jump-start your subject needs to finish.

Collaborate. If your subject doesn’t like your first pass, don’t get discouraged and don’t try to force the issue. After all, the piece will have your subject’s byline so it’s important she is comfortable with every word.

Above all, learn from each experience. Chances are if you keep ghosting for a person you will get to know his style, and you’ll continue to churn out wonderful content together. In the end, your Web site visitors will have great content, you’ll have fresh items to post, and your subject will be willing to keep contributing his thoughts. Now there’s a happy triangle that would satisfy even my three-year-old paper thief.

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