The Code of the Ghostwriter

Being a ghostwriter means following an unwritten code of ethics and practices.

(Or at least, we wrote it down, but like most ghost articles, no one knows who did it, so we can’t find it.)

Ghostwriters need a code of ethics and practices they live by. A short list of things we’ll do and not do in service of our clients. Based on my own work as a ghostwriter, as well as talking to other ghosts, these are the four main tenets of our profession.

1. Ghosts are heard, but never seen.

GhostwriterYou may read our work, but you’ll never know it was us. The ghost writer is there to attach the words to someone else’s stories. The sports star who spins a good yarn, but can’t write a grammatical sentence to save his life. The politician who’s too busy to spend six or eight hours a day writing down her life. The CEO who spends 14 hours a day running a global company, but doesn’t have time to send emails, let alone write a 200 page book.

So the ghostwriters do it. We don’t talk about it, we don’t get credit, we don’t get mentioned at awards time. Sure, we might get a small mention in the foreword, but it’s pretty rare for people to know who the ghost is. Some won’t even admit it, like whoever wrote Snooki Polizzi’s books.

2. Ghost writers should charge a fair price.

The price you charge needs to be fair to other writers as well as your clients. If you undercut your prices, and do the work for 20% less than your competition charges, you’re not only hurting yourself by leaving money on the table, you’re hurting the entire industry.

And what if the tables are turned. Some hack charges 20% less than the going rate, and your new client now expects the same price? Not only do you have to match it, but you may even have to beat it. Imagine going from $75 for an article to $60 to $50, all because you were too timid and your self-esteem wouldn’t let you charge enough to actually make it worth your while.

3. We’ll never reveal our clients without their permission.

Clients hire us because we agree to be heard, but never seen. They are paying, not only for our writing talent, but for the expectation of silence. That means we have a standing order to never tell anyone who we work for, because it means exposing a secret the client didn’t want to share.

If you want to be able to tell people who you work for, you need permission from your client to share that information. Otherwise, just don’t tell anyone.

4. There are some professions that should never use ghostwriters.

Academics, journalists, researchers, and students.

These people should never hire ghostwriters, and ghostwriters should turn down the work, because it could damage your own reputation. Using a ghostwriter in these situations is unethical, because these are the professions who are expected to do the work themselves. Using ghostwriters constitutes plagiarism, and these are the professions where plagiarism is a huge deal.

Ghostwriting is a profession for people who don’t have big egos that need to be stroked or warmed in the spotlight of recognition. But while a good ghostwriter may be quiet and unnoticed, they have the skills and experience to get the job done when no one else can do it.

Photo credit: Matthew Hurst (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Three Ghost Blogging Concerns We Hear From Clients

Some people have issues with ghost blogging. We’ve got clients who use it on a regular basis, and love it. Other times, we have run into some people who can’t wrap their brains around it. They’re not sure they want to do it, and they have trouble accepting our help. These people tend to fall into one of three categories.

  • They don’t think they have a high-enough position to need a ghost writer. They don’t think they’re that important to “deserve” it. They think their company needs to be bigger, or they need to have a more prestigious position. I saw this a lot when I was doing speechwriting for a Congressional candidate in 2004. It’s not a matter of prestige, it’s a matter of having the time to do it.
  • A ghost

    Okay, that's kind of creepy.

  • They feel they need to “earn” the words by doing the work themselves. These people have a very strong do-it-yourself ethic, and think that they should be able to and know how to do every aspect of their business. They don’t want someone to do the things they should be capable of doing themselves, and they feel like they’re slacking when they don’t. But a lot of people can’t write quickly or efficiently — they take a couple hours to write a single blog post. That’s a problem when their time is worth $250 an hour, like a defense attorney. Why spend $500 of your billable time, three times a week, when you could hire someone to do the ghost blogging for you?
  • They think writing is so easy that anyone can do it. “After all,” they reason, “I learned how to write in school, so I can just take the skills I learned 20 – 30 years ago, right?” This is like saying, “I know how to work a table saw, so I ought to be able to make my own custom cabinets. Look, we all learned how to communicate via the written word, but that doesn’t make you a writer. A professional ghost blogger has been trained on how to write tight, concise copy that will inform, entertain, or persuade. While some people are able to do this without training, those people are few and far between. Don’t risk turning off your audience with less-than-professional writing that rambles on, is filled with errors, or just plain doesn’t make sense. (Not so surprisingly, these are the same people who demand that every position in their company has experience in their industry, including the accountant, the IT person, and even human resources staff.)

Ghost blogging is one of those services that companies need to maintain an online presence, but don’t have the time or resources to do it. It’s for the people who are too busy to write on a regular basis, no matter what “level” you are in your career. It’s for the people who struggle with writing, or are basically too expensive to do anything that doesn’t directly result in bottom line revenue for their company or firm.

Photo credit: starfish325 (Flickr)

Who Would You Hire, the Rookie or the Veteran?

I’m occasionally asked by clients whether we have a writer with a specific background. Are/were they in IT, in finance, in animal husbandry?

I can usually find someone with a skill set that matches what the client is looking for, but it’s not always possible. But, it’s not always necessary either. We have two things going for us that make it unnecessary to have a solid background in the client’s industry:

    1. The client provides us with all the information first, and then they approve the final post. If anything is incorrect, they find it before it gets published.
    2. Our writers are smart enough and spend enough time working with a client that they get pretty good at the client’s issues, their value to the client’s, and the features that make the client’s business so awesome. They become marketing copywriters for that company.

So this presents an interesting problem for us. Do we hire a good writer who is smart and can learn the product, or do we hire someone from the industry and fix their writing?

Think of it this way: You’re a baseball coach, and you need to sign a hitter to your team. You have a choice between a rookie who can run from home to 1st in 3.5 seconds, and a veteran who run the same distance in the same time. Who do you pick?

Most people will pick the veteran, because he knows the game and is a proven talent. But the best pick is going to be the rookie. If he can run to 1st in 3.5 seconds right now, think of how great he’ll be if you can hone his technique and teach him a couple tricks to make him run faster.

That’s how we choose our writers. I prefer to work with writers who don’t have the industry skills, because I can teach them about the industry, and help them become better “runners.” But hiring the industry veterans who have reached their writing peak is problematic. I can’t teach them anything new. They’ve gone as far as they’re going to go as writers, unless they dedicate themselves to becoming better writers. (That’s not to say that these adults can’t become writers. It’s just that they have to make a major commitment to improving and becoming better, but I don’t have time to wait for that.)

Who would you choose? Would you go for the industry rookie and teach him or her the ropes, or would you get the industry veteran who has a wealth of knowledge on the topic? Leave a comment and let me hear from you.

Finding a Working Definition of Ghost Blogging

With all of the controversy that seems to swirl around the acceptability of ghost blogging, I realized we weren’t really arguing about the same thing. The acceptance seemed to be based on their definition of the term.

Is it writing a blog post with the full input approval of a client? Or is it writing a post that doesn’t have any input, but does have approval? As I read descriptions and arguments by Jason Falls, Lindsay Manfredi, and other blogging luminaries, I realized it was the definition that was the problem.

So we created a short little survey to figure out what the most widely understood definition of ghost blogging to be. Survey respondents were given 5 different options of what ghost blogging might entail, and then asked to rate them on a 5 point scale (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree). These are the results out of 51 responses, out of a 5 point scale*:

  1. CLIENT writes a post, YOU proofread, edit, and publish under CLIENT’S name: 4 people disagreed or strongly disagreed (7.9%), but 43 people agreed or strongly agreed (84.3%). Rating: 4.41/5
  2. Interview CLIENT and write a post based on their answers. CLIENT approves before article is posted. 1 person strongly disagreed (2%), 47 agreed or strongly agreed 92.2%). Rating: 4.49/5
  3. Write a post for CLIENT using their ideas and past statements. CLIENT approves. 4 people disagreed 7.8%), 44 people agreed or strongly agreed (86.3%). Rating: 4.29/5
  4. Write a post on behalf of CLIENT, using their ideas and past statements. CLIENT does NOT approve post. 31 people scored SD or D (62%), while only 15 people scored A or SA (30%). Rating: 2.5/5
  5. Write a post for CLIENT, using YOUR ideas. CLIENT does NOT approve post. 40 people scored SD or D (78.4%), 8 people scored A or SA (15.7%). Rating: 1.86/5

(*These numbers won’t add up to 51 in this description, because I left the “neither agree nor disagree” out of this text for simplicity and brevity. The actual numbers are at the bottom of this post.)

Bar chart on the acceptance of ghost blogging

From these results, we can infer a few basic ideas about ghost blogging’s acceptability:

  • Ghost blogging is acceptable to most people as long as the client approves the posts before they are published. In fact, this was the most important factor in deciding whether ghost blogging is appropriate or not.
  • Ghost blogging is acceptable, as long as the client has input (#2), or at the very least, the ideas used have been addressed in the past (#3). Option #2 is akin to a copywriter sitting down with a client, and synthesizing the client’s thoughts and ideas into a piece of text. Option #3 is similar to a presidential speechwriter who is already familiar with the president’s stance on certain topics, and can write about them with authority.
  • At least 8 people thought it was acceptable to essentially put words in the client’s mouth without their knowledge. Personally, I can’t think of any instance where this would be acceptable, in business or government, let alone blogging. Even when I was writing speeches for the Indiana State Health Commissioner, everything had to follow her vision. Her administrative may have assigned the speech or project, but I had to know the Commissioner’s stand on the issues.
  • Conversely, 4 people thought it is wrong to even proofread and edit a client’s writings, and then post it on the client’s website on their behalf. While I’m a little worried that nearly 16% of the respondents thought it’s okay to pose as a client without the client’s knowledge, I can only wonder at how rigid the beliefs are of the people who are opposed to editing and then copying, pasting, and clicking “Publish.” It also worries me what they would think if they knew I had four editors poring over my book before the publishers printed it for me.

Because the first three options all scored above a 4.4, I can conclude that most people will accept the idea that ghost bloggers need the client’s input and approval before a post gets published. Anything that does not have at least the client’s approval crosses the line of acceptability, and anything that has both input and approval.

So, that is our baseline for acceptable ghost blogging. The next step is to find out how strongly people feel about it, and see if we can get a bigger group to respond. More on that later.

Ghost Blogging Survey Results

Really? We’re STILL Talking About Ghost Blogging?

What is it with these social media purists and ghost blogging? What exactly do they not understand?

Ghost blogging is a service that is provided by ghost writers. We transcribe interviews from our clients, get their approval for what we’ve written, and we post it to their blogs.

This is no more inauthentic than hiring a social media agency to run your social media campaign, or an ad agency to create your TV commercials. It’s no more inauthentic than private labeling/white labeling a product made by someone else — food companies do it all the time, and no one complains.

Avinash Kaushik makes a misinformed tweet about ghost bloggingMy friend, Doug Karr, recently wrote a post about Avinash Kaushik’s rather misinformed statement about “ghost blogging being the antithesis of everything social.”

Doug said:

It’s always interesting when someone with as much authority as Avinash throws out a rule like this. Not only do I disagree with Avinash, I know many, many companies who would disagree as well. Ghostblogging is not the antithesis of everything social… inauthenticity, dishonesty, and insincerity are the antithesis of everything social.

As a professional ghost blogger, I’m sick to death of people who paint ghost bloggers as some sort of moral leper, the used car salesmen of the social media industry. (Oops. There, now you’ve made me offend used car salesmen. Happy now?) These social media purists decry ghost blogging as being less than honest because CEOs of large corporations and small businesses don’t spend 1 – 2 hours a day crafting a single blog post.

“Oh, but if you were serious about it, you’d make the time,” they lilt, wagging their fingers at the slacker CEOs who whine that they’re “tired” after a 14 hour day. “Because social media is all about the conversation and community and the inherent good in other people.”

No it isn’t. Social media in the business world is all about making money. Businesses can’t pay their workers with conversations. You don’t appease shareholders with community. And their vendors don’t want to hear about all the good you’re finding in other people when they ask why you’re 60 days overdue.

If we followed the social media purists’ logic to its logical conclusion, we would not be allowed to use these other ghost-type services:

  • Businesses would have to produce their own ads, commercials, and graphics in-house. They could not hire an outside agency to do it. Or if they did, there would be a big disclaimer on it saying it was produced by that agency.
  • Software companies could not outsource their programming to freelance coders. They should do it all themselves.
  • Celebrities should not hire ghost writers to help with their books. They should be allowed to suck on their own.
  • Politicians would not be allowed to use ghost writers to write their speeches. They would have to mumble and fumble their way through every speech, no matter who they were. Or if they used a ghostwriter, they would have to interrupt their speech every 10 minutes with, “This speech was written by my ghost writer, Jeff Shesol.”

Ghost blogging is the last bastion of any kind of ghosting, where some purist thinks that we shouldn’t be allowed to do it because it’s “inauthentic.”

Do you know what’s inauthentic? Inauthentic is following fewer than 100 people while 25,000 people follow you on Twitter. f you’re in “the conversation” business, don’t you think you should have a conversation? Otherwise, you’re just holding a one-way broadcast with 25,000 people, and are showing that you’re not willing to listen to anyone else. That’s not authentic in the least bit.

Whether the purists like it or not, ghost blogging is going to only get more popular. As companies want to enter the social media marketing realm and realize they can’t, because they just laid off their best writers, they will look for other ways to gain that competitive edge. If they’re going to outsource their web design, their ad creation, and their strategy, why shouldn’t they outsource their writing too?

There are freelance writers in all other parts of business — marketing copy, TV scripts, radio scripts, ad copy, web copy, annual reports, press releases, white papers, grant proposals — so why is blog writing so different from all those other forms of ghost writing?

It isn’t. If you hire someone to write something for you, and you don’t stick their name on it, they’re a ghost writer. I don’t care if it’s marketing, advertising, or grants. They’re a ghost writer. No one is complaining about their inauthenticity or their non-transparency.

So the purists need to get off their high horse, learn how the world works, and accept the fact that ghost writers are skilled writers who are paid to provide a service for other people. And we’re going to be here for a while.

Making the Argument for Ghost Blogging. Yet Again.

My good friend Lindsay Manfredi and I were both interviewed about ghost blogging last week, and asked whether we thought it carried any ethical dilemmas.

The answer is no, it doesn’t. Not if it’s done correctly.

I’ve talked about ghost blogging before, and said if it follows a few basic procedures, it’s as ethical as, say, public relations. (Er, on second thought. . . )social media ninjas

Yet, the issue keeps getting brought up, as if we’re committing some unpardonable ethical sin, like medical testing on baby seals. But the only people who seem to care are social media purists and “social media ninjas” who talk about transparency, yet work in industries where their efforts, if done correctly, are anonymous and behind the scenes as well.

Ghostwriting = copywriting

Anyone who does freelance copywriting can tell you that their name doesn’t go on squat when it comes to their efforts. Sales brochures, web copy, sales letters, speeches, you name it, the writer’s name is not-so-noticeably absent from the final copy. And that’s fine. That’s the life we choose.

Marketing agencies don’t get their names on their clients’ campaigns. No one whines that “my name isn’t on that sales brochure I wrote” or “my name isn’t in the newspaper article I sent the press release about.” Frankly, if you’re worried about getting credit for your work, you’re in the wrong business. If you want a byline, be a journalist.

Maintaining Ethical Boundaries for Ghost Blogging

A good ghost has procedures they follow with their clients:

  1. I interview the client, who tells me — in his own words — his thoughts about their industry-specific issues.
  2. I transcribe the interview and clean it up, turning it into 350 – 450 words of clear, informative copy.
  3. The client approves the article.
  4. I publish the article on their blog.

It’s the clients thoughts, the client’s words. I just transcribe it. Or as we like to say, “we do the work so you can go to your meetings.”

How is this any different from the CEO’s letter at the front of the company’s annual report? Or a politician’s speech to her constituents? Or the catalog copy that was supposedly written by the company’s founder? How is it any different from a PR flak’s press release that becomes the basis for a news article? (I say this as a former flak whose press releases were often turned into “Staff Wire Reports” by one county newspaper.)

Answer: It isn’t. Not a bit. They are exactly the same thing. (In fact, Jason Falls says that we’re not ghostwriters, we’re copywriters, and that it’s okay.)

These are the same steps that every other copywriter, speechwriter, and marketing director in the world follows when they produce work for a client. This has been an acceptable practice since well before Judson Welliver ghosted for Warren G. Harding, thus becoming the first presidential speechwriter.

The only place ghostwriting isn’t acceptable is journalism and academia, as it should be. Your merit is based on the work you produce; in business, it’s based on the results you achieve. (Although academia seems to have some of its own ghostwriting issues.)

So if you are against ghost blogging, you need to be against all ghostwriting. You need to speak out against speechwriters for politicians. You need to put an end to all freelance copywriting. You need to stop sending out press releases that don’t include your name as a quoted source.

Otherwise, it’s a non-issue. The people who hire me are the ones I’m concerned with. The social media purists? Well, you just give me something to blog about, thus boosting my own search engine rankings.

So, thanks for that.