No Wonder Ghost Blogging Has a Bad Name

I haven’t written much about ghost blogging lately, though plenty of others have, and I’ve bookmarked their posts here. I didn’t think I had anything new to contribute to the topic.

Anyway, I seem to be doing less blogging and more writing of other kinds for my longstanding ghost-blogging client, so my authority as a confessed ghost blogger might not be as great as it was. I’m not particularly hip to the industry trends, as it were, though I’m well aware of the ongoing controversy.

I had heard that there were people outsourcing the writing of their blogs to workers in India and Malaysia who charged $4/hr. This seems a bit counter to the idea of ghost-anything: no one is likely to think you’re the one writing the posts if the blogger is manifestly sub-literate in English.

Of course, you only care about things like that if the purpose of your blog is to establish your credibility in your field. For most consultants and coaches, it is. But there are other uses for blogs. One is to provide “spider food” for search engines and attract visitors to your website where they will then take usefully income-producing actions.

If the purpose of your blog is to get people to come click on ads, then it hardly matters if the posts are scarcely-coherent clusters of keywords. That’s why “splogging” is so pervasive. It works.

But if you hire some poor slob from Elance to keyword-stuff your own custom splog in order to get money from Google and Amazon, I’d think the last thing you’d want to do is show the thing off to your colleagues, because there’s no possible way it can enhance your credibility.

Yet someone I will not name did just that not an hour ago, posting a link to one such article to a professional group on LinkedIn. Now, there is some actual useful content in that article and the others on the blog. It’s just that very nearly any other possible source of that same information would be more readable and more credible.

In fact, I hope for his sake that no one else on LinkedIn actually reads his article, or if they do, they resist the urge to comment in the group’s discussion section.

But I really, really want to tell this guy to stop being so cheap and hire a blogger who can write. Only not me. I can tell this one is a job I wouldn’t want, even if weren’t already obvious that the blog’s owner wouldn’t pay my rates.

I guess it doesn’t take that many clicks to support paying $4/hr. But what’s it really doing for your business?

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.

The Ghost Blogging Controversy

A recent report that only 20% of CEOs who blog write their own blogs has some prominent bloggers and PR professionals up in arms—even though they take it for granted that the CEOs in question don’t write their own speeches or annual reports, never mind their own books. Why should blogs be different? Should ghostwriters really avoid them? Or are the detractors missing a point?

What Are Blogs, Really?

When asked what blogs are, many people say (dismissively) “online diaries.” And some blogs are. But a blog is really an easy-to-use publishing platform which arranges entries in reverse chronological order. Programs such as WordPress and Movable Type are simple content management systems with a number of practical benefits, among them the automatic creation of RSS feeds so that readers can subscribe and get the information automatically rather than visiting the website.

The revolutionary thing about blogging technology is that it allows anyone with Internet access to have a Web presence and to create, publish, and update material on the Web without knowing HTML, CSS, PHP, XML, or any of those other geeky markup and programming languages. If you can write an e-mail message, you can write a blog post—and many blogging programs actually allow you to post by sending e-mail.

Blogging by the Rules

As with e-mail any other Internet technology, there are some inappropriate uses of blogs. “Splogs” are the equivalent of junk e-mail, with plagiarism, or at any rate copyright violation, thrown in. Sploggers use automated software to copy posts from other blogs and repost them in order to make money from the pay-per-click ads on the splog page. I have yet to meet anyone who defends this practice, any more than I’ve met anyone who admitted to being a spammer and sending out thousands of ads for Viagra and Cialis. (Bet my page hits go up just for using those words.)

I’d set up three blogs before I ever heard of the “rules” of blogging. One such “rule” is that instead of just correcting an error you discover after you’ve posted it (the way you would if you found a typo or other inaccuracy on your “static” website), you’re supposed to strike through the mistake and put the correction next to it. While I’m not about to do that if I’m just correcting a typo, I can see the point: if someone comments on a thing and then you change it, the comment no longer makes sense.

Blogs and Transparency

Those most opposed to ghost blogging, however, would probably argue that comprehension is not the reason for that “rule”—the point of striking out rather than deleting is transparency. Blogs are supposed to be the land of full disclosure, the place to escape from corporate speak and put a human face on your corporation. The outrage seems to come from a belief that CEOs who rely on ghost bloggers are telling the public “You get direct access to me, my thoughts, my motivations” but actually using a “stunt double” to handle the interface with the public.

If a company is pretending to grant access and not doing so, then that’s dishonest. But having someone else do the writing is not necessarily dishonest. However, if the blog is meant to be the personal opinions and insights of the CEO, the CEO will have to spend as much time discussing those with the ghostwriter as s/he would writing the blog.

Not All Business Blogs Are “Identity Blogs”

When I discovered how easy blog technology is to use, I didn’t look at it as an opportunity to talk about myself. I saw starting a blog as an easy way to put two years of back issues of my weekly e-zine on the web. That’s still mostly what I use it for, though if I see a hot item between issues I’ll stick up a paragraph and a link or two.

Since then I’ve started two more blogs. If I had the time to devote to it, FileSlinger™ Favorites might come to approximate the kinds of blogs the well-known business bloggers have, but Author-ized Articles is meant to deliver writing samples and provide prospective clients with helpful information.

So despite the fact that I maintain a blogroll, happily link to other blogs, and leave comments enabled, there are plenty of people out there who would say I’m not a real blogger. I’m not losing any sleep over that, however.

The Medium Is Not the Message

Personally, I can’t see any moral difference between ghostwriting articles for posting on a company’s blog and writing website copy (or any other sales copy), which usually doesn’t get any attribution at all. And, in fact, I do write blog posts of this nature, short articles on subjects provided by my client (who shall of course remain nameless), a couple of times a month. The company wanted a blog to help keep the world informed of their expertise in their field, and also because search engines love blogs and frequently-updated content.

The client provides both the ideas and the initial source material for the post, and anything I submit is vetted and often revised by the people under whose names it gets posted. The blog appears to be doing a good job of increasing the company’s profile and increasing public understanding of the services the company offers.

Better Without a Byline

When I said something to this effect to one of those prominent bloggers I mentioned earlier, she asked why, if a corporation wanted a blog but didn’t have anyone on staff who could write it, they didn’t just hire me to blog in my own name the way Stonyfield Farms hired Chris Halvorson.

I don’t know their reasons, but I know my reason, and it’s simple. I don’t want to be known as “The XYZ Company Blogger.” I don’t want to get pigeonholed. I don’t want to get pinned down to a full-time blog for someone else, either. Since I’m only one of several writers working for this company, I only have to produce a couple of posts a month. And since I only have 20 hours a week at my disposal to run my business in, of which maybe 15 are billable, that’s all to the good.

A Ghost Blogger’s Rant

It’s insulting to ghostwriters to assume that anything we write will be 1) instantly identifiable as ghostwritten and 2) an inaccurate representation of the thoughts, ideas, and capabilities of the person in whose name we’re writing. In truth, a real CEO is at least as likely to speak in corporate jargon and mind-numbing platitudes as that CEO’s ghostwriter. CEOs get trained never to reveal anything.

A good ghostwriter, on the other hand, takes time to get to know her client, learn what matters to that person, how s/he thinks, how s/he speaks, what s/he really wants to say, and then starts writing. After that—at least with my own clients—the client often revises what the ghost has written. Far from not getting the real thoughts of the official author, the reader gets thoughts the author couldn’t find a way to express without help.

Let Your Purpose Dictate Your Actions

If you claim to personally write every word of your blog when you don’t, then you’re lying. Moreover, it’s self-defeating to start a blog in order to have direct communication with the public and then hire a ghostwriter.

It’s also probably not worth the expense of hiring a writer if the style of blog you have in mind is a series of very short, informal posts with a lot of links to other blogs or websites. And then there’s the issue of comments: who writes the responses?

But if what you have in mind is more a series of essays, a weekly column, or a collection of articles about your industry, then a ghostwriter might be just what you need.

Additional Sources:
“Ghostwritten Blogs Can Be Cool”
Is There a Market for Blog Ghostwriting?
So what’s wrong with ghostwriting an executive blog?
Ghostwritten Executive Blogs Are Popular, but Are They Good?