Ghostwriting Does NOT Preclude Authenticity

There’s been a veritable storm of discussion in the blogosphere lately on the topic of ghost blogging. Despite the number of people weighing in on the subject, very little new is being said. The great bulk of commentators—many of whom are PR professionals who’ve made up quotes and attributed them to their clients without batting an eyelash—strongly oppose ghost blogging. A few others say that hiring someone else to write your blog is fine, as long as you disclose that fact clearly. After all, transparency is one of the key principles of the blogosphere.

The Story So Far

So, speaking of disclosure, I’ll repeat what I’ve said several times in other articles and in comments on blog posts. For the last two years (almost), I’ve been retained by a client who must remain nameless to ghostwrite blog posts.

The blog in question isn’t a “personal voice” blog. It’s not meant to be the CEO’s personal insights or reflections on the business. It’s what I think of as an “article blog,” one with posts about material relevant to what my client does. I’m not writing in any particular “voice” when I write these blog posts. Given the nature of the job, I don’t really have time to. Given the nature of the blogosphere, I’m not sure I’d want to.

If I remember correctly, the initial posting about the job was asking for bloggers, and didn’t mention anything about the attribution of the posts. It was clear enough by the time I got hired, however, that what I wrote would go out under someone else’s name and that I was not to disclose my relationship to the company. It’s kind of a pity, because it means I can’t point people to the blog, because I don’t feel I can endorse the company or its blog without disclosing my relationship.

I’ve suggested to them that it would be in their own interest to include a statement somewhere on the website that they get professional help writing their blog, but so far they haven’t chosen to do that. My concern is not publicity for myself: I wouldn’t benefit professionally by becoming known as an expert on my client’s subject matter, and I don’t want to be pigeonholed as “the X company blogger.” I just don’t want my client’s use of ghost bloggers (there are several of us, though I don’t know any of the others) to backfire on them if they get found out.

The Practical Problem

A couple of weeks ago, Tony Kontzner called to interview me for his Investors Business Daily article about ghost blogging. (The article has the rather provocative title “Writing blogs can be hard, so get help,” and does not quote me.) I told him what I tell everybody: that writing in someone else’s voice takes time and close collaboration, and it would be less work for CEOs to write their own blog posts and have someone else edit them for spelling and punctuation than to have a writer interview them every day for the blog and then have to go over what was written and correct any inaccuracies or statements that don’t ring true.

It seems not everyone shares my attitude to this. Kontzner’s article features a couple of web developers who hire teams of writers to produce posts for their clients, in response to an increasing demand. (It would appear that this demand is coming to PR agencies and web developers more than it is to writers themselves. Most people who contact me still want books written.)

But even they admit that if the blog is going to be convincing, the client has to participate and approve the posts. My ghost blogging client (and I only have the one) goes over every post I send and sometimes revises it a bit before publishing. They also answer their comments themselves.

Is There Really a Difference?

One question people like Mitch Joel are asking is whether there’s any practical or moral difference between hiring a speechwriter and hiring a ghost blogger. Or, for that matter, between ghost blogging and other forms of ghostwriting. After all, if there’s something innately reprehensible about hiring a ghost blogger, why should it be acceptable to hire a speechwriter? If authenticity is important, why are PR professionals still making up quotes from CEOs to put into their press releases? Why are celebrities paid millions for “autobiographies” they didn’t write a word of? Why should blogs get singled out?

As I said above, there’s a practical difference between writing blog posts and writing other things. Blogs, in general, are short, topical, and timely. That means less opportunity for the writer to convey the author’s real ideas or voice. It’s actually a much tougher job than ghostwriting a book.

But is there an ethical difference? Not that I can see. In all these cases, there’s a client who lacks either skill with language or time to write, and a professional who has both, and an exchange of value for money which is not noticeably different from paying someone else to clean your house rather than doing it yourself. Except for one thing, which is that most people don’t take credit for their housekeeper’s work.

Most ghostwriting clients don’t really take credit for the writing, either. The “ghost” gets credit somewhere, either on the front cover in an “as told to” byline, or in the acknowledgements using a euphemism like “I’d like to thank X for assistance with writing.” People who are experienced with the publishing industry know to look for these things.

The blogosphere is a fairly new arena of operations for businesses. It has different codes, standards, and conventions from the ordinary business world. It doesn’t have any established conventions for giving credit to ghostwriters, for instance. Dan York argues that this is likely to change: as more businesses enter the blogosphere, the definition of acceptable behavior will change, just as it did when businesses started putting up websites. He concludes by saying:

Those blogs will even “sound” human… just as good speechwriters today can create speeches in the style of the speaker, so too will ghost bloggers take on the style of the blog “author”. Blogs, podcasts, wikis, etc. will just be part of the communication plan… and in many cases will sadly spew out the same bland corporate drivel that caused so many of us to celebrate the changes brought so far by social media. I hold onto the perhaps vain hope that those blogs, podcasts and other vehicles that do speak with “authentic” human voices will rise to the top.

What Is Authenticity?

I happen to agree with those who advocate disclosure and even those who say that it’s best for the company if the CEO (or some other employee, if the CEO isn’t the best choice) writes the blog rather than hiring someone else to create the content. I’m definitely in favor of direct contact between the customers and the people who run the corporation.

But the fact is, a lot of CEOs do speak “bland corporate drivel.” That’s the way they’ve been trained to speak, and they never let down their guard. And there are plenty of “honest” blogs which are only of interest to the writer and perhaps a handful of friends. (And let’s not even mention the barely-literate blogs and the spewing-invective blogs and the “I just needed something to put next to the AdSense so I’ll steal random bits of other people’s writing” blogs.)

It isn’t the identity of the writer that makes the difference. It’s the writer’s ability to communicate. Above all, it’s the writer’s ability to listen. No one can ghostwrite competently without doing a lot of listening and asking questions in order to unpack meaning when something is unclear. The ghost’s job is to become a channel for the client’s thoughts—and sometimes a lens that focuses them. That means getting your own personality and your own writing style out of the way. It means studying your client the way an actor would study a part for a film or a play, and then interpreting your client for readers the way that actor interprets Shakespeare for an audience.

Putting the Audience First

Back in my former life as an academic, I used to translate Greek and Roman drama for the stage. We used to argue about what constituted an “authentic” performance of a Greek tragedy. Was it more authentic to attempt to reproduce the theater, masks, and costumes, and to use the original language, or to translate the play and adapt it to modern performance conventions?

I always came down on the side of trying to achieve the same impact as the original performance. Sophocles, after all, was writing in a language his audience understood, about subjects his audience knew well, using stagecraft that they took for granted. When he produced his plays, he used those conventions to make a connection. A modern performance which tried to duplicate the original exactly wouldn’t make the same connection, because a modern director can’t duplicate the ancient audience.

Ghostwriting is a lot like translating for the stage. The writer needs to make a connection between the client and the audience/readers/customers, and to do it while being true to both parties. The resulting document, whether it’s a speech, a book, or a blog post, has to present the client’s real thoughts and ideas—in a way that the audience can understand them.

Not many brilliant scientists are brilliant at speaking to the general public. Specialists (including ancient theater professors) are accustomed to talking primarily to their peers, and use a lot of jargon. They also tend to assume that people already know things, because those things seem so obvious to them.

Business is not always too different: the engineers who build the product may not be the best people to explain why the customers should buy it. But if the customers can’t understand what the product can do for them, the engineers have no reason to build it. If they don’t know how to put the benefits into words, they need to find someone who does.

So How Does This Relate to Blogging?

Even though I work as one, I don’t think hiring a ghost blogger is the best strategy for a company that wants a blog. There are too many viable alternatives. An articulate employee who isn’t the CEO can write the blog and become the voice of the company. (That’s what Robert Scoble did, after all.) The company can hire a freelancer to write the blog in her own name. (Stonyfield Farms did.) A CEO who hates to write or is dyslexic might choose to podcast instead.

After all, there’s no law requiring companies to blog. As for the love affair search engines have with blogs, a company will get just as much Google juice out of publishing unattributed articles using blog software as it will by having the CEO blog. You don’t need to hire a ghostwriter just because you want content; you can go to any of the article banks on the Web and get it for free.

If you really want a blog, at least try writing it for yourself. But don’t assume that hiring a ghostwriter automatically precludes authenticity. If you don’t look at what I wrote and say “That’s exactly what I meant, but I didn’t know how to say it,” I haven’t done my job. Ghostwriting at its best preserves the author’s authentic voice while it translates it into a new medium. And that should be true whatever form the writing takes: books, speeches, and yes, even blogs.

2 thoughts on “Ghostwriting Does NOT Preclude Authenticity

  1. Outstanding post Sallie. Very thoughtful. Just one comment with respect to whether there’s any real difference between hiring a speechwriter and hiring a ghost blogger. I agree that in principle, there’s no difference. What separates these two situations are the expectations and assumptions of the audience. When a CEO gives an important Chamber of Commerce speech, the vast majority of the audience has come to understand and accept that while the CEO is delivering the speech, he/she may not have written every word. That is the audience’s understanding. When I read a blog post under someone’s name, I, and, I contend, the lion’s share of blog readers, assume the post has been written by the “blog-owner.” Such is the expectation in the blogosphere unless there’s a disclosure statement at the outset. I would never counsel a client to hire a ghost blogger without the appropriate disclosure. Not because I think there’s something morally deficient in the practice, but because as a PR counsellor, and protector of my client’s reputation, I wouldn’t want to expose my client to the wrath of the blogosphere when it is invitably discovered that the blog is not written by the person whose name is on the blog banner. Blogs and speeches are different, with a different set of audience expectations. Thanks for advancing this debate Sallie with your excellent post. (By the way, I received no editorial assistance in writing this comment.)

  2. Hi, Terry. I’m inclined to agree with you about not wanting to bring the wrath of the blogosphere down on your clients, and I was trying to make the point that the lack of generally accepted conventions for using ghostwriters in blogging was one of the differences between blogs and other forms of writing. And this is particularly important if the author’s identity, rather than the content of the posts, is the main attraction of the blog. (In such a case, one might even want each post to say something like “Posted by X with help from Y” to be clear about disclosure.)

    All I really object to is the assumption that ghostwriting and authenticity are mutually exclusive.

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