What’s in a byline? The case for ghostwriting

by Samantha Waterworth

The rise of content marketing has brought with it a demand for ghostwriting like never before. But shouldn’t content be written by the person who gets the byline? Samantha Waterworth explores…

Ghostwriting: The endeavour a writer embarks upon to produce an article, book or whatever other form desired, on behalf of another. And it’s a practice as old as time itself.

Works dating back centuries to when oral traditions were considered more significant than the written word have been contentiously accredited to authors who may or may not have developed them. One only has to look at the debate around Homer’s The Iliad, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and many of Shakespeare’s plays to see it for themselves.

Ghostwriting

Who really wrote Shakespeare?

Today, the process of ghostwriting plays a central role in delivering brands and business leaders a consistent stream of content, allowing companies to focus internal resources on other priority tasks.

Thought leadership is a common area for ghostwriting, as the best candidates for this type of content (those in the C-suite) are often those most lacking the time needed to write efficiently.

This leads many to the question: Is it morally acceptable for ghostwriters to be involved in the thought leadership process? Or more simply, shouldn’t content be written by the one who gets the byline?

A question of ethics

Many have spoken of the practice of ghostwriting as “a seedy underworld” or a primordial soup which has long been “ethically murky”.

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Some, like freelance journalist Lauren Ingram, have been quick to raise the paradoxical rules of academia in comparison to business. As Ingram writes, “Whether we see [ghostwriting] as morally kosher seems to depend on the industry. Let’s look at academia, where using someone else’s writing is absolutely off limits… Somehow, these consequences don’t apply in a professional setting.”

What these arguments miss is this: Ghostwriting, done well, isn’t a “smoke and mirrors tactic” but rather a highly collaborative creative process.

Workload and judgement

Ghostwriting plays a critical role in the communication of other people’s ideas, concepts and stories. A ghostwriter worth their weight will work with the author to shape their ideas into seamless narrative form.

Note those words, “work with”. As Heather Pemberton Levy, vice president of content publishing at Gartner has written, “writing is only one part of the equation. You must also have something worthy to say.”

It’s easy to perceive that we, each and every human on this earth, have individual talents. We also have access to varying resources. If an individual wishing to engage in thought leadership assesses that they may not hold the skills or resources to develop content on their own, engaging a ghostwriter is nothing more than an intelligent and informed decision.

Consider the relationship between a director and cinematographer. It’s the director’s ideas and concept that’s being executed by someone with the technical and artistic skill needed to collaborate on great content.

What about the relationship between an executive chef and the kitchen staff? Similarly, it’s the executive chef who sources the ideas, works with produce suppliers and adds value as talent, while those in the kitchen are the ones delivering on the concept day-in, day-out for diners.

How to get it right

On the content marketing front, the role of a ghostwriter is often to help brands and business leaders disseminate their ideas. It won’t always be smooth sailing, but it’s a process that can be just as gratifying for the writer when it comes to finding balance between style and substance, as it is for author to see their ideas some to life on a page.

A few quick tips:

  • Compromise is key. When you find yourself at odds with the writer is when it’s time for true collaboration to take place. Don’t always expect to agree but expect to compromise.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your true writing style. While you may not be writing the piece it’s your byline that will feature. For some authors, style will be prioritised over substance, and vice versa. Either is okay, as long as it’s your choice.
  • Know when your voice should be dominant and when to be more lenient. Key ideas, signatures phrases and research points should all come from the author. The content outline, transitions and explanations are the writer’s chance to weave words.
  • Always ask for and provide feedback. This may involve some extra legwork but everyone will benefit.
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