It’s Not Ghostwriting If You’re Doing It Right

By Anna Redmond & Kaitlin Solimine

Everybody knows the primordial soup from which ghostwriting was born has long been, well, ethically murky. After all, one of the longest-lived conspiracy theories ever is that Shakespeare didn’t actually write his own plays. Claiming credit for writing that you didn’t execute feels sordid and unscrupulous—not to mention how disappointing it can be to realize that the tell-all celebrity memoir you’re reading was actually written by a non-famous person.

But content needs to be created, and writing is an incredibly specialized skill set. (Despite the hordes of cruel relatives who love to tell young journalism students otherwise.) As long as there are non-writers who need content—whether books, thought leadership articles, blog posts, or love letters—there will be writers willing to work for no byline. And if you’re a hopeful thought leader with a company to run, you may lack time and the particular skills necessary to create the pieces you want to publish. In that case, hiring a ghostwriter seems so…easy. And who would know?

The best—and perhaps only—way of navigating these morally dubious waters, especially in the realm of thought leadership, is by implementing a collaborative process that both utilizes the actual content of the thought leader’s brain and gives the contributing writer a byline, however small. But the main issue holding us back from this ghostwriting utopia isn’t the thought leaders or the ghostwriters—surprisingly, it’s the editors who publish them (or refuse to). Does the system need to change its stance on ghostwriting, or will ghostwriting always be relegated to the realm of the disreputable? Here, a quick look into the complicated world of collaboration.

Collaboration isn’t inherently unethical—unless you don’t give proper credit

Writing is an odd beast. In more individualistic genres, like poetry and fiction, the word and the phrase reign supreme, and the thought of someone else contributing is sacrilegious. (Literally sacrilegious, sometimes. Check out Matthew 5:18: “For I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not a single jot, not a stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”) We’ve personally seen poets get skewered when they didn’t cite the source of inspiration for the form of their poem, not to mention their poem’s content.

But in other genres and creative pursuits (like film), collaboration is the way content gets produced, and people are proud of that fact. Academic papers, for example, are frequently written by multiple contributors, and no one gets stressed over which of the five scientists physically typed out the sentence, “The heterotrimeric G-protein alpha subunit has long been considered a bimodal, GTP-hydrolyzing switch.”

Or consider intense investigative journalism, which is often credited to one author with the phrase “additional reporting by…” appearing at the bottom of the piece. Even religious writing in the Middle Ages was characterized by collaboration and no one blinked an eye. In all of these (admittedly wildly different) fields, authorship of the precise sentence is not worth explicitly crediting, but those who come up with the ideas are all be credited—otherwise, the ethics of creation grow murky.

Collaborative ghostwriting creates the strongest content—but it has to be truly collaborative

The best thought leadership follows similar principles. Since those who most want thought leadership aren’t necessarily trained writers, it’s necessary for them to bring a writer and/or a researcher on board—and thus, a team is created, not entirely dissimilar to those used by academic researchers or investigative journalists. The result is, again, a piece that can honestly be credited to multiple authors.

For CEOs and VPs who’ve shied away from thought leadership for precisely the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this article, a collaborative approach should address their fears. Giving your writer a byline at the end of the article doesn’t make your ideas look weak—it makes you look honest, gracious even (giving credit where credit is due, and so on). Remember that even the President of the United States has a speechwriter, and everyone knows this. They also know that while Obama may not craft every turn of phrase, he directs the gist of the speech. It may not be the Platonic ideal of collaborative writing (if such a thing exists), but it’s pleasantly transparent, and that may be the most important criteria for ethical collaboration. There are literally photos of the two of them working on the same piece of paper.

Of course, this process requires a significant amount of time and energy from each side. There are cheaper ways to do this, and they’re shadier: for example, a PR representative writes the copy and slaps the executive’s byline on the piece without the executive ever reading it. These are the sorts of practices that give thought leadership a bad name across the board, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  

To reach this ethical ghostwriting nirvana, editors need to change their thinking

At some publications, the acceptance of thought leadership articles tends of operate under a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Editors know Startup Joe’s piece on “5 Ways to Become Steve Jobs on 500 Calories a Day” probably wasn’t actually written by Startup Joe himself. But if Startup Joe credits the writers and researchers who helped him, even with an “additional research by…” credit instead of a real byline, he may hurt his chances of getting published. Many editors simply don’t want to publish a multi-author piece that’s acknowledged as such. (Somewhat ironically, though, deep editing can be just as collaborative as a multi-author piece—think of Gordon Lish’s intense editing of Raymond Carver.) This creates a significant barrier to collaborative thought leadership, and keeps the ghostwriting train chugging along. Is that really what we want out of this burgeoning genre?

It seems as though the stigma against ghostwriting hasn’t caught up with the reality. In other words, a) not every thought leader writes their own pieces, b) that’s not going to change any time soon, unless “CEO” suddenly becomes a really relaxing job with plenty of time to write, and so c) bringing a writer on board to craft the thought leadership makes a lot of sense, but d) the bias against pieces with multiple authors often keeps this more ethical process from being implemented. If publications are averse to a byline at the bottom of a thought leadership piece that credits the writer and the researcher, but will publish entirely ghostwritten pieces without any additional credit, they’re essentially sticking their heads in the sand. We should start thinking of giving credit as validating, and not something that waters down the sanctity of single authorship. It may look slick to have a single author’s name on a piece, but if that doesn’t accurately reflect the writing process, it can invalidate every word.

With contribution from Tori Telfer of Hippo Thinks.

Photo by Helloquence courtesy of Unsplash.

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