Confessions of an executive ghostwriter (part 2 of 2)

As my colleague Annie Mullowney wrote last week, using a ghostwriter for thought leadership is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, today’s business readers increasingly expect C-suite executives to be accessible, be it through formal communications or selfie snaps on Instagram. Much of that content (particularly the selfies) comes from the executives themselves, but time management can be a real challenge. Spending all day on Twitter or working through the first draft of a white paper isn’t always the best use of an executive’s time. That’s where a ghostwriter comes in.

As an executive ghostwriter, my main objective is to ensure I accurately channel the author’s ideas and words—not my own. Given the difficulties inherent to writing for someone else, this week I offer suggestions for how to ensure the seams don’t show between what you write yourself and what you send out to a ghostwriter.

Hand over all the materials. Perhaps this is obvious, but it needs to be said: Hand over all the materials you’ve got on the subject you want to write about. Did the survey results come in? Send me that. Is your interest piqued by a recent magazine article? Send me that. Did your college professor write a book that formed the foundation of your ideas? Send me that. As long as you explain why it relates to the project at hand, it all helps. (That said, if you know chapter 3 is the key and the rest is unnecessary background reading, let me know.) I’ll take it from there and do the necessary additional research to ensure that your content makes a genuine contribution to the marketplace of ideas.

Schedule a conversation with your writer. Once I’m handed a stack of materials—research, transcribed interviews, and so forth—that form the basis of a new piece, I begin by carefully digesting this information. Before I begin writing, however, I almost always ask to speak directly with the author. Ten minutes with an assistant is not enough; I want direct access to the brain whose thoughts I’m extracting. Because as clear as the facts may seem on paper, I need to hear the argument articulated directly by the person who is making it. I need to ask follow-up questions and have the author explain it again in different words. Only then can I begin to form an understanding of the author’s voice well enough to create something in his or her own voice and style.

Devote time to feedback, especially early in the relationship. Just as graphic designers need specific feedback to make your vision a reality, so too do writers. If you dislike something, tell me why; if you like something, tell me why. We will work together to hammer out what you really want to say. And by all means, strike ideas, phrases, and words that you would never utter. An advantage of hiring a ghostwriter is that we are not precious about the words themselves. The more time you spend providing feedback, particularly early in the relationship, the better we will become at channeling you.

Always use an editor. Every journalist, novelist, historian, researcher, etc. will admit that their writing is better once it’s been through an editor’s wringer. While most people recognize the value of copy editing and proofreading, what you need first (and probably most) is a developmental editor. This person isn’t just looking for grammar and typo issues; she pushes and prods the author on gaps in logic, holes in the narrative, and other questions the text could answer. She polishes not the words but the ideas. This partner in thinking is indispensable, both for a primary author and for a ghostwriter. This is also why hiring an individual, freelance ghostwriter is tricky business; without a team to provide editorial support (as in, a second pair of eyes), the idea formation and writing usually suffer.

Do not fear the ghostwriter. Even if you’ve got a stocked content team overflowing with knowledge in your area of expertise, at a certain point we all begin to grow weary of writing on the exact same topic, over and over again. A fresh perspective brings in new vocabulary and new interpretations of familiar concepts—both of which can make the editorial development process more fun for your team and for your readers.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is a senior editor at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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