The Brutally Honest Truth About Ghostwriting

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From September 2011 until June 2012 I wrote more than 220 blog posts. These weren’t pushover posts. We’re talking, on average, 1,400 words per article. A few were in the 4,000 range and one was more than 10,000 words.

For those of you counting, that’s five articles a week. One a day.

For each article, I generated ideas, wrote outlines and finished drafts. The research was deep, the editing long. Each article took me between four and eight hours to complete.

Furthermore, I wrote on topics outside of my normal discipline (copywriting and advertising): advanced search engine optimization techniques, business innovation, startup challenges and web analytics.

And these articles landed on notable websites like Mashable and TechCrunch, so the pressure was on to look good.

It was enough work and exposure to make me into an authority. But there was one problem.

Not one single article has my name on it. Someone else got all the credit.

That was on purpose. See, I traded credit for cash. In other words, I got paid to be a ghostwriter.

Ghostwriting is a great way for an expert with a book idea and no writing skills to get their expertise out there. The demand is high enough that you can make a good living.

But for me, not all was sunshine and peppermints.

During this time I discovered something about myself. While I’m not generally over-the-top egotistical (debatable), I missed the attention, the recognition, the authority of having my own name on the writing.

In fact, after about three months I was utterly depressed. Like, near suicidal.

Why such an extreme response to what most writers would think was a pretty good gig? It boiled down to what I wanted to accomplish as a writer.

The Four Flavors Of Ghostwriting

What I described above is a common relationship in the content marketing and book publishing community. Busy CEOs and executives (who are probably poor writers to begin with) hire writers to write in their name.

Here’s Rand Fishkin, CEO of MOZ (formerly SEOMoz), on ghostwriting:

…I found the experience to have positive and negative aspects. The biggest negative, for me, was the voice and tone the writing took. There was nothing technically wrong with the content, but some of the “magic” was missing. In the SEO world, I think the same concerns hold true.

…If you are, yourself, a talented writer or a great communicator, and you possess a unique voice, attitude, and style, ghost writing is tough. It may communicate the same concepts, but the message, branding, and style can get lost. That may mean less impact from a social media perspective, fewer links, less enjoyment and engagement from readers, and these things, directly and indirectly, can negatively affect your SEO.

…If, on the other hand, you’re a great communicator through non-written means and you need help to put your ideas into written language, then by all means, use a ghostwriter if you can find one with the talent to properly convey your message, and your brand.

But, not all ghostwriting is the same. Here are four common varieties:

  • Anonymous sales letters: Someone hires you to sell their product. If it’s a letter from the CEO, it’s clearly ghostwriting. But, if you are creating copy that is anonymous – say, on a sales page where personal brand recognition is not a concern and nobody is getting recognition, then this is not a case of ghostwriting.
  • Their ideas and words: In this scenario, someone pays you to turn their ideas into an article or book. You listen to them talk or take their notes and develop that into content. Or they email you a rough draft. It’s your job to clean up that rough draft.
  • Their ideas, your words: In this scenario, someone pays you to write from an outline or transcript they’ve given you. You do all the research, they approve the final draft. Or they might make substantial changes.
  • Your ideas and words: Here, someone pays you to come up with the ideas yourself, create the outlines, and write the book or articles. Their only involvement is to approve. This would include social ghostwriters (celebrities who hire someone to run their Twitter accounts, for instance).

Pros and Pitfalls of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting is usually the first job a freelance writer gets fresh out of the corporate cubicle – especially a writer that’s fretting about bringing in income. Busy people are always looking for writers. Think easy money.

You can get a free education as a ghostwriter if you research and write about a new field. I got an accelerated MBA in new media marketing during my time as a ghostwriter.

Another benefit, stated by writer David Jacoby:

“Some of the best and most rewarding writing I’ve done has been ghost, because (in my case, anyway) the LACK of a byline allows my normally rather, ahem, obnoxious ego to take a nap.”

You don’t have to worry about taking the public criticism of your content. You just write.

However, there are also disadvantages:

  • You may get taken advantage of: A wet-behind-the-ears-freelancer may not have the experience or courage to negotiate a good fee. And the temptation of volume will depress the per-article fee, meaning you work harder and faster for less. Like the Ghostwriting Dad Sean Platt put it, “Ghostwriting for SEO is rarely worth it because most people willing to hire a ghostwriter aren’t willing to pay the rate needed to do a future proof job. With Google constantly updating (improving) their algorithms, only the highest quality content will work. Otherwise, you’re climbing a mountain of sand.”
  • You are at your clients’ mercy for referrals: Do a good job and your client will refer you to other clients. That is how it is supposed to work. However, this is not in your control. You may land a friendly, generous client who liberally shares your contact information with everyone you meet (which was my case). Or you may meet someone who is absorbed in business affairs and forgets to recommend you even if you do a slamming good job.
  • You won’t build your expertise: We all know content marketing is a hot topic. The demand for content is high, and is only going to rise over the coming years. There is a need out there. So you can make money now, but you need to also consider the long term, like building your expertise (in something other than being a ghostwriter). In the age of authorship, being anonymous won’t help your career.

Is Ghostwriting Ethical?

I belong to a group called the Gotham Ghostwriters. It’s basically a Google Group who receives emails with project leads. Join the group and in a given week you might receive a lead on writing for a Senator, a humanitarian activist, or president of a formidable university. These jobs would look great on your resume.

Since joining this group, I’ve learned quite a bit about the ghostwriting community. For instance, there is a fierce level of pride in being a ghostwriter. Yet this pride seems to be rooted in a desire to convince people what they do is not shady. It’s a sort of pride that encourages other members to resist shame. Those in the SEO community can probably relate.

But there is one fundamental difference in the ghostwriting community: there are no foils like in the SEO community (think black hatters).

Could there be a wee bit of self deception going on in the ghostwriting community? A reaction to counter the lonely, thankless, paltry-paid months it takes to nail a client’s voice? Of course.

The dominating argument for ghostwriting is that it is a common practice. It’s a business transaction. You get the hunch it’s not unlike being a paid assassin.

This is exactly what ghostwriter Rob Philbin‘s said: “I watch a lot of action movies and so like to think of myself as some sort of copywriting hit man when ghostwriting. No questions asked. Just do the job. Get paid. And get out.”

Smart ghostwriters learn how to bank off the growing success of their clients by incorporating royalties and success measurements into their contracts. So if your client’s work becomes a best-seller or you’re bringing gangbusters traffic to their blog, you reap the additional success.

The more money you make, the more justified your occupation. The only problem with this is that expediency is a poor indicator of right and wrong. Look at it this way: hiring a ghostwriter is not not unlike buying someone else’s research and calling it your own.

Then there is this: what would happen if your client’s readers discovered she did not write the blog posts or book she said she did? Would that tarnish her reputation?


I recall when word got out that Andrew Sullivan wasn’t generating all those posts (50 a day). People were disappointed, but it didn’t cause many ripples. Most people had a hunch he wasn’t churning those out on his own.

Same thing when Guy Kawasaki admitted he used ghostwriters for his Twitter account. We all shrugged and kept pushing forward. Business as usual.

Which should make you pause.

Violating the Contract with the Reader

When someone sits down to read a book or a blog post, there is an unspoken contract that says the name on the content is the person who wrote it.

Where I come from, we call this trust.

So if a real person is claiming to be the author behind a book or blog but hires someone else to write the content, he or she is violating that contract. He or she is breaking that trust. And losing credibility.

Paul Magee, of Subvert Magazine, echoes this sentiment:

As a reader, I lose respect for someone who used a ghostwriter. There are plenty of people I admire who have had writers do the technical job of writing their books for them, but they tend to be given “co-author” or similar status. To not give credit is to pretend you did it, which shows a lack of character in my eyes.

Think about it: in the online economy, trust is huge. Ghostwriting violates that trust. You are telling somebody you are responsible for the words and thoughts when, in fact, you paid for it.

Writer Anthony Sills said, “I think the average person underestimates just how much of the content they consume is not actually written by the people they assume wrote it.”

Indeed. But does this make it ethical? I asked AJ Kohn his take on this question, and this is what he had to say:

(Ghostwriting) is an established practice in the publishing and speech-writing world. A few consumers might understand that, but most don’t. They think it’s really written by that person and that seems to be … OK. Behind the scenes there’s obviously a market for good ghostwriters.

But AJ then went on to summarize the basic problem with ghostwriting in the SEO world:

For SEO, it gets more complicated. From Google’s perspective on Authorship, whoever is claiming it is the author. So if the byline says it was written by the CEO, then the CEO is the author, even if it was written by a ghostwriter.

So I think it works within the online and SEO arena. But only to a certain extent. To my knowledge, most ghostwriters work with the ‘author’ to ensure that the content is authentic. The biographies need to be told from that person’s point of view, their vernacular. Because any follow-on appearances and discussions about the content/book have to ring true.

Where I think it falls apart online is when there is little or no collaboration. When the ghostwritten content is not authentic and doesn’t really speak for that person. That disconnect can be dangerous, because the content doesn’t ring true and any further outreach by that person creates a type of juxtaposition. “You wrote this, but you’re saying something different.”

Two Takeaways on Ghostwriting

At this point I want to talk to the people on both sides of the ghostwriting relationship: the client and the writer.

For the writers: The first thing every writer should ask is this: What do you want to accomplish as a writer? Is building a personal and visible platform important to you? Will it help you in the long run? If you have to ghostwrite to make ends meet, fine. But beat a hasty path out of the business as soon as possible. It’s your turn to run the show.

As a visible, credible writer, you should build your online profile in subject matters you care about. When you do, your passion will come across (something difficult to translate through a disinterested ghostwriter).

For the clients: Resist hiring a ghostwriter. Instead, learn how to write or hire people who can write for you – in their names. This is an opportunity to nurture a rising star. To move away from a consolidation of power and cult of personality and expand your reach within your own ranks.

This is why big media try to hire notable writers. They know the company will rise with the tide of their stable of writers. They can benefit from rising writers. In other words, there is no reason to consolidate power behind you.

And if you have to hire someone to help you write, give them credit as a co-author. It’s only fair.

I’ll conclude with another quote from AJ:

So you can certainly employ ghostwriters for SEO purposes but … it has to be done in the right way. And in the end, I think it may rob the real ‘author’ of connecting with the audience and building their authority and expertise.

To me, it’s not that the writing has to be precise but that it has to be real. You can feel passion through writing, and only a few gifted ghostwriters can accomplish that for another person. So in an age of social communication and people over brand, I think it’s unwise to rely on ghostwriters.

Share your thoughts. Brutal and all.

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