Ghostwriting for Dummies

I’ve got a confession to make. Okay, not so much a confession, since it’s already one of the worst kept secrets ever.

My name is Erik, and I’m a ghostwriter.

(“Hi, Erik.”)

You probably already knew that. I own a company that ghostwrites blogs for other companies. I recently wrote a humor novel about a ghost in Irvington, a historic neighborhood in Indianapolis. (Ghost. Writing. Get it?) I’ve even ghostwritten a number of speeches, including for two U.S. Congressional campaigns about 6 and 8 years ago.

I recently helped ghostwrite another book that I’m very proud to be a part of.

I helped Kyle Lacy write Twitter Marketing for Dummies. Actually, I wrote half of it.

Not many people will know it, especially because my name is not on the cover. (Because I’m a ghostwriter; we don’t get our names on covers.) However, my name is there in the acknowledgments, and there are a few places where Kyle and I have some back and forth with each other on Twitter. We also reference people in our made up tweets, like Doug Karr, Michelle Ball, Lorraine Ball, and a few others.

I was really pleased that Kyle asked me to be a part of the project. And I was honored that he thought enough of my writing skills to ask me to help.

So how well is this book going to do? We don’t know. We both have ideas of grandeur, of a wild book tour where social media noobies and spammers Internet marketers flock to the bookstore in droves, screaming our names. But we also know that the harder work is yet to come. Writing a book is easy, promoting it is where the real work comes in.

If only there was some way we could market the book to a lot of people, quickly, easily, and even for free. I wish someone would build a tool that would communicate with thousands of people simultaneously, in short text-based messages. If only, if only. . .

We’re also looking at speaking engagements and presentations to corporate groups, conferences, and of course, the screaming groupies. So if you know of any speaking opportunities where people want to know how to use Twitter for their online marketing, send Kyle (@KylePLacy) or me (@edeckers) a tweet and we’ll get in touch with you.

Kyle and I are already discussing another project or two we are considering. He’s got the connections, and I can type 95 words per minute; together, we’ve got the know-how about the subject matter. The world is our oyster, and we’re going to write about it.

BUY NOW! Twitter Marketing for Dummies at Amazon

Why We’re Opposed to Medical Ghostwriting

My friend Melanie Audette recently sent me an article from the New York Times about the problems of medical paper ghostwriting, and how Senator Charles Grassley (IA-R) is putting pressure on the National Institutes of Health to put a stop to it.

Medical ghostwriting, sayeth the Times, goes something like this:

But evidence of the breadth of the practice has come to light only gradually, most recently in documents released in litigation over menopause drugs made by Wyeth.

The documents offer a look at the inner workings of DesignWrite, a medical writing company hired by Wyeth to prepare an estimated 60 articles favorable to its hormone drugs. In one publication plan, for example, DesignWrite wrote that the goal of the Wyeth articles was to de-emphasize the risk of breast cancer associated with hormone drugs, promote the drugs as beneficial and blunt competing drugs. The articles were published in medical journals between 1998 and 2005 — continuing even though a big federal study was suspended in 2002 after researchers found that menopausal women who took certain hormones had an increased risk of invasive breast cancer and heart disease.

We’re opposed to this kind of ghostwriting, because it’s dishonest, unethical, and presents all kinds of conflicts of interest.

“What’s that?” you’re asking. “But you’re in the ghostwriting business.”

Yes, but we’re not that kind of ghostwriter.

In medical ghostwriting, a writer for a pharmaceutical company will create a scientific paper extolling the virtues, efficacy, and non-lethalness of their drugs. But rather than release them under their own name, they instead invite some university professors to attach their name to the paper. The professors get publication credit in medical journals (very important if they don’t have tenure), and the drug companies can say, “Look, Dr. Dwayne Hoover of Medical University said our drug works and won’t kill you.”

The full scope of the ghostwriting problem is still unclear, but recent revelations suggest that the practice is widespread. Dozens of medical education companies across the country draft scientific papers at the behest of drug makers. And placing such papers in medical journals has become a fundamental marketing practice for most of the large pharmaceutical companies.

You have hopefully seen the problem here. First, the professor didn’t write it. Second, the professor is attaching his or her name to a drug that may actually not work as advertised. Third, there is an assumption of public trust that the professor did the work and did not receive payment for allowing his or her name to be used.

Universities Hypocritical In Their Response to Plagiarism versus Medical Ghostwriting

The New York Times said something interesting, something that should send shudders through the hallowed halls of our educational institutions:

Yet many universities have been slow to recognize the extent of the problem, to adopt new ethical rules or to hold faculty members to account.

It’s rather ironic, since universities will expel students for putting their name on a paper someone else wrote, yet do nothing to the faculty members who do the exact same thing. So what’s the difference? Could it be that the professors bring in large research grants are valued members of the academic community and should be forgiven these little errors of judgment? If so, what kind of message does that send to the students who have been expelled for exactly the same thing? But more importantly. how will the universities turn their backs on all that money find a fair and ethical way to treat transgressors on both sides of the desk?

“But, but,” sputter the social media purists, “that’s what you do for your clients.”

Au contraire, my naïve little friends. We get the information from our clients and write it for them. The client tells us what they want to talk about, we gather the information by interviewing them, and then write the article based on what they told us. It’s the client’s words, the client’s thoughts, we just transcribed it.

It’s the same way a CEO writes a letter to the shareholders or a politician writes a speech (i.e. they don’t, someone else does).

“But, but,” re-sputter the purists, “it’s not their own work. They have to do their own work.”

Look, let’s join the real world here for a minute. As we have said before, this kind of ghostwriting goes on in the business and political world everywhere else. CEOs and politicians don’t write their own material, and no one has uttered a single squawk. Marketing directors freelance their graphics design and copywriting to professionals, and no one complains (nor should they). In fact, there are only two places where practitioners are expected to write their own content: journalism and. . . oh, uh. . . academia. Oopsie.

(And then there was one.)

Like I said, we’re opposed to medical ghostwriting. We never put words into a client’s mouth or thoughts into their head. Anything we create has originally come from the client, whether it’s a recorded interview, an article they forwarded, or even an article we found and asked “what do you think?” We don’t come up with something that may run counter to the client’s beliefs or practices and ask them to approve it.

This is vastly different from the university professors who let someone else write something they may not actually believe just for the sake of a publication credit and a fat research grant.

So while the academicians may sit on their high horse and unfurl their banners of academic integrity, you may want to take a look behind you first.

There seems to be some confusion within your own ranks.

We’re Ghost Bloggers, We’re Here, Get Used to It!

Someone recently posted a discussion on Smaller Indiana, saying he didn’t recommend ghost blogging for his clients, but would write a blog post for the client as long as he could put a link to an email to his service as a way to show people the content was provided by a third party.

This is an oddly Puritanical viewpoint to have about writing, since ghost writing goes on everywhere else. Blogging is the last frontier where ghosting is frowned upon.

As a freelance writer, I have written sales letters, web copy, press releases, brochure copy, speeches for US Congressional campaigns, and of course, blogs. No one assumes that these things are written by the person who signed it, owns it, delivers it.

No one complained that I wasn’t being transparent. The client never said, “we’ll put your company URL on our press release.” I never got any credit for the sales letters or press releases, I got money. That was all the credit I needed.

Look, we outsource things in this world. Small businesses outsource their accounting to independent accountants. No one complains about that. Large companies outsource their advertising production to ad agencies. They don’t buy cameras and software, or hire full-time actors to wait around the office until they need another commercial. And of course, we’ve all been on the phone with the tech guy named “Steve,” who speaks with a thick accent. Think that’s not outsource? Think again.

So why the bias against ghost blogging? Is the only problem the fact that when I wrote it, I didn’t have an office and get a full-time salary from that client? Is that the hangup? That I don’t make 100% of my income from that particular client?

“It’s not transparent and authentic” say the so-called social media “experts” (and don’t get me started on those guys).

There’s a big difference between transparency and authenticity, and most people make the mistake of using them interchangeably.

“Transparency” means other people can see what you’re doing. “Authenticity” means you’re being truthful about what you say.

If we write a blog post for a client, the client is still being authentic. We’re echoing that client’s viewpoint. We’re saying the things they believe and espouse. We’re not making it up or giving them new ideas. We learn about the viewpoint through talking with the client, writing the information they give us, and then making sure they approve the post. (Inauthentic means I put words into the other person’s mouth, and say things that are out of character or completely contrary to their views.)

I would have to do these things if I were a full-time employee too. The only difference is I would then have to go to five hours of meetings to listen to other people blather on about the mission statement of this committee, and why it’s crucial that we use the word “provide” instead of “offer.” (Personally, I don’t think emotional torture and abuse of the soul is a prerequisite to writing authentic blog posts, but that’s just me.)

Transparency is a completely different issue. Yes, ghost blogging is not transparent. Neither is ghostwriting a book, a political speech, a CEO’s letter, or a press release. The politician doesn’t thank his or her speechwriter. The CEO doesn’t include a special P.S. shout out to their writers. Yet no one is clamoring that we need more transparency in those areas.

But speaking out against ghost blogging is like the Ladies’ Temperance Union decrying beer in restaurants, yet completely ignoring wine and liquor.

If you’re going to frown on ghost blogging, then you need to call for transparency in all ghost writing. Either freelancers need to claim credit on every ghostwritten piece of material that’s in the public stream, or we need to let go of this bias altogether. I think it’s inconsistent to take issue with ghost blogging and yet turn a blind eye to every other form of ghost writing.

Five Questions To Ask a Potential Ghost Blogger

Yesterday, we discussed the challenges of finding the right kind of ghost blogger to handle your blogging duties on your behalf, whether hiring a sweat shop, solo practitioner, or a professional blogging agency.

Assuming you’ve settled on the kind of person you want to hire, here are five questions you can ask any potential ghost writer or ghost blogger to quickly discover which bucket they fit in:

What country are your writers located in? 
If it’s not a country where your language is native, then you may have issues. Big issues. At the very least, you’ll spend some time editing and proofing each post, until you’re comfortable with the quality of content they’re providing.

How do you protect me from your writers plagiarizing someone else’s content? 
The right answer has three parts: First, they should have an editor check the writer’s work using Google and Copyscape to ensure your content isn’t lifted. Second, their writers should sign a no-plagiarism indemnification when they get hired (this way, the writer has financial skin in the game if they steal content). Finally, the blogger should register content with Copyscape to protect you from other’s plagiarizing. Please remember the biggest risk in blogging isn’t someone stealing your content. It’s getting sued for infringing on someone else’s copyright.

How do you make sure my posts are authentic? 
The answer you’re looking for is, “we don’t put words in your mouth, we put your ideas in writing.” To be honest and genuine, there needs to be a process that ensures that your ideas and your style of articulating ideas comes out in the final product. It’s important that the ideas and concepts be uniquely yours — but it’s okay to have a professional dress them up and put them on paper. Of course, you will need to be involved and at least read your blog before it is posted.

What happens when my contact goes on vacation? 
Do things stop when your social media person is out of town? What happens if a writer’s child gets sick? Success in social media requires discipline and planning, but there are times when you have to get things done and a one person show simply can’t hit deadlines. If you work with a solo practitioner, make sure you have either a backup, or have a second freelancer you work with to cover the gap.

How do I be sure my posts meet my quality standards? 
Here’s how it works: you have to be sure that what goes online complies with your legal department’s rules, is accurate, and you like it. The only way to ensure that happens is to make sure the work isn’t done at the last second. You need time to read, review and approve your blog posts. If you have a tough legal department or an “extraordinarily responsible” marketing compliance person, it’s likely your blog writing service will have to charge extra to deal with the cost of proofreading.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for everyone — maybe you’re willing to work with a writer’s schedule — there are a few things that you cannot and should not waver on: plagiarism and quality. Make sure the blogger(s) you hire can guarantee they won’t steal content from someone else, and that you’re happy with the work they’re doing.

The Challenges of Hiring a Ghost Blogger

Ghost writing is a tool. Hiring a ghost writer lets people who either don’t have the time to write or don’t have the talent to write communicate.

Without ghost writers, many people who have great ideas and insight would never blog.

It’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because the average blog post takes a non-professional 1 – 2 hours to write. If you think CEOs write every last one of their own blog posts, you are mistaken. They don’t write the letter in front of the annual report, they don’t write their speeches to shareholders, they don’t write their financial reports. Some of them don’t even write their own emails.

Would you really want a person who’s making $1,000 per hour spending 1 – 2 hours every day writing a single blog post instead of running the company? For that matter, if you’re making more than $35 per hour, do you really want to spend 2 hours every day writing blog articles?

If you bill or get paid more than $25/hour, writing a blog post may not be the best use of your time. The time you spend researching, writing, and editing is time you could spend billing and generating revenue.

The challenge is that hiring a ghost writer is tough because there are no real professional standards in the business. There is also no clear definition of “professional ghost writing.” Our professional experience has taught us that ghost writers and ghost bloggers generally fit into five buckets:

  • Cheap and Dangerous copywriting sweat shops typically charge $10 or less per post and usually promise keyword rich copy. The challenge is these writers rarely are paid enough to do original work (after overhead, they have $3 – $5 left to actually pay the writer). As a result shortcuts are the rule. Dangerous shortcuts like stealing content from other websites, using non-native writers, skimping on editing, and failing to do any fact checking can come back to haunt you later.
  • Solo Practitioners are often very good at what they do, except during their day job’s regular working hours, while on vacation, some weekends, or when life gets a little busy. The challenge with a solo practitioner is simply making sure they have time to meet your deadlines, can work with your legal department and are highly responsible. You’ll also need to make sure you have time for doing more editing on your own, as solo practitioners rarely have an editor. Solo practitioners can be a great value if you want to manage them. If you can find a solo practitioner who does this as a regular job, hang on to them. They’re worth what you’re paying them.
  • Social Media “Experts should generally be avoided. The general rule of thumb, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell, is you’re considered a top performer (an “outlier”) if you have 10,000 years of experience, and you’re considered “good” if you have 8,000. The problem is, a lot of social media tools like Twitter aren’t even 10,000 hours old, so it’s hard to become an expert in a field like this. Plus there are too many social media tools to truly become proficient at. You can have a passing knowledge about a lot of them, but a passing knowledge doesn’t make anyone an expert either.
  • Ad and Marketing Agencies are usually a good source for writers, but this isn’t their core business. They do ad campaigns, marketing campaigns, and online marketing. But they also have higher overhead, because you’re paying for people who typically don’t work on your project or technology.
  • Professional Blogging Agencies usually cost a little more, but have advantages, especially for businesses and high profile clients. Professional ghost writers should have a solid editorial process, access to a diverse stable of writers, provide safeguards against copyright infringement, have no issues with deadlines and can accommodate your compliance department.

When you’re looking for a ghost blogger, pay careful attention to your budget, your blog requirements, and whether you have any special requirements you need to meet, like passing posts through your legal department. Then see if you can work with a solo practitioner, a blogging agency, or whether you want to cheap out and risk it all with a sweat shop.

When Ghost Bloggers Don’t Have Time to Write About Ghost Blogging

I always used to laugh at the marketing companies that had so-so or even non-existent websites, not out of a sense of schadenfreude, but more because I remembered the saying about the shoemaker’s children having no shoes.

It’s an understandable problem. The successful companies are often so busy, they can’t devote enough attention to their own website, because they’re so busy working on clients issues.

“I’ll never get that busy,” I told myself once, but quickly changed it once I realized the ramifications of what I said. “I’d like to be too busy to work on my company’s blog.”

Et voila! Here’s my first post in nearly two weeks, because we’ve all been too busy to write them. (If you’re a client, don’t worry. We’ve been too busy working on your stuff.)

Think about it: we’ve been too busy ghostwriting other people’s blog posts, we haven’t been able to write blog posts about ghostwriting. (Trust me, if you were at a college party, you’d think that was really deep.)

Admittedly, it’s a nice problem to have, but it’s not how we like to operate. We’re able to get our work done, but at the end of the day, when 9 of our 10 To Do items are finished, guess which one #10 is. And guess where it goes on tomorrow’s list.

This is the very same problem most of our clients have. They think, “Writing my own blog isn’t that hard. I’ll get to it when I’ve got the time.”

For a couple weeks, they do. They’re faithful, they’re dedicated, and they’re busy. Then one day, it’s easy to let one slide. No big deal, you’ll do it tomorrow. Then you let it slide another day. And then another, and another.

Pretty soon, you’re looking at three weeks without any posts whatsoever. Not even an electronic sausage.

That’s why it’s important to have some kind of blogging strategy in place. Whether it’s doing it yourself, and writing ahead, or hiring a company like Professional Blog Service to do your blogging for you, you need to keep a schedule of some sort, and stick with it.

We understand you’re busy. Business and work have to come first, but we also understand the importance of blogging when it comes to search engine optimization and online marketing. It has to get done, or you’ll be ignored by your customers and left in the dust by your competitors.

Basically, we do the work so you can go to your meetings.

So what are we doing to fix our own problem? Working with a couple outside writers, asking people to write a guest spot or two (and doing the same for them), and just buckling down to make sure it gets done.

Because we’ve got work to do.

Why are good blog post writers so hard to find?

Writing good is hard.

CEOs are more likely to let out a little sigh and agree with that last sentence rather than point out its mistakes. (There are two of them. Did you see them? If you didn’t, this article is for you.)

Writing well is difficult for many managers and directors. Often they’re experts in their field, but lack the skills to communicate that expertise to an audience that doesn’t speak their language. We decipher their emails by cracking long codes of acronyms like PHPER, R&D, SEO, PIO, EOC and struggle to translate their doctoral-thesis-as-annual-report with marketing gobbledygook like “optimization and delayering,” “transition open-source communities” and “incubate holistic mindshare.”

Then, disaster strikes! The company decides to start a blog, and who’s on deck for four posts a month? Hopefully not the guy who wants to “implement extensible schemas.”

Best case scenario, the CEO really loves writing blog posts, and cranks one out every week. Worst case scenario (i.e. reality), the CFO is contributing, and his first post reads more like a secret state department communique or one of those emails from the exiled Nigerian prince who needs an American bank account to hold his $100 million.

But the CEO is too busy leading the company, and his or her time is worth thousands of dollars per hour. If the CEO has time to write weekly blog posts, start unloading your stock. And if the CFO wants to contribute, publish his posts on Friday night when no one is looking.

Why is it so difficult for many people to write great blog posts? Because (choose one or more of the following):

1) There’s an emergency meeting with shareholders after lunch.
2) The merger isn’t final yet.
3) There hasn’t been a need to write an actual letter in four years.
4) An interior designer chose all the books in the library.
5) That MBA program only required oral presentations.
6) Kids these days don’t know anything.

But the real issue here isn’t why the screen is blank. Our challenge is how to move the blinking cursor with a set of short words and sentences that convey a valuable idea to readers. An idea that’s thoughtful, concise, and even amusing.

There’s a reason you hired a CFO with a degree in accounting and several years of experience, and not a college dropout. There’s a reason your HR director has advanced degrees in psychology, and isn’t some woman you found at a McDonald’s who’s willing to work for $7.50 an hour. And there’s a reason your IT director has a savant-like knowledge of computers, and not your nephew who’s still using Windows XP Professional.

They’re professionals. They’re good at what they do, and they know how to do it right. Your CFO knows the difference between profit versus gross margin, your HR director knows all the EEOC laws that will keep you from being sued, and your IT director knows how to keep your networks up and running.

The same reason you hired those people is the reason you need a writer who knows that “writing well is difficult.” You want someone who understands interesting writing, can avoid grammar and punctuation problems, and creates the right kind of copy to keep readers and customers returning to your blogs.

There really aren’t that many good writers out there. And if you have any working for you, chances are they’re doing something more important. So you need to go outside the company.

But you’re not going to find that person on Craig’s List for $5. The best writers are trained professionals who understand language and the written word. They can take the complex ideas your subject matter experts have, and put them into simple language your customers can understand. And they do it well.

At Professional Blog Service, we write great blog posts by interviewing clients personally. We extract the most interesting and valuable bits of information to translate a manager’s passion for the idea into a message that’s clear and understandable, complete with verb-subject agreement, and no offers from the Nigerian prince or secret foreign service codes.