Boo! I See Ghostwriters (Part 1)

By David Burda  |  September 1, 2015

Ghostwriting Image

I’m a ghostwriter. There, I said it. Does that make me any less of a journalist? Maybe. But being a journalist certainly makes me a better ghostwriter.

The topic of ghostwriting and journalism came up a few weeks ago when I got together for drinks with a dozen former journalism colleagues. We all worked together as reporters or editors for a health care business publication, and most of us worked at newspapers or wire services before that. Only a third of the group still works at our previous publication. The rest of us have migrated, for various reasons, over to public relations, marketing, communications, associations, brand journalism or content marketing.

(I continue to practice journalism as a business writer for Twin Cities Business, where I write the monthly “Explanation of Benefits” column.)

As we swapped war stories at a bar like all journalists do, we realized—about midway through the fourth round—that we all have been ghostwriters for years, even when we defined ourselves as hardcore reporters and editors. The only difference is, some of us are doing it for a living, and some of us are doing it to keep our jobs.

Every person around the table—whether they consider themselves a current or former journalist—had, at some point, written a speech, presentation, outline, PowerPoint slide, video script, advertorial or house ad copy for someone higher up on the editorial food chain or on the business or sales side of the house, more often than not for an associate publisher, publisher, group publisher or president.

The question is why, and the multi-part answer explains why, journalists make the best ghostwriters.

The first part of the answer is good journalists know their beat. We call that subject-matter expertise now. Good journalists know as much, if not more, about the industry, company or person they cover than the industry, company or person themselves. That knowledge enables good journalists to recognize the real story of interest to an audience and ignore the B.S. and spin. It also enables them to ask intelligent questions and follow-ups when they’re interviewing someone.

Those skills—story recognition and interviewing acumen—are critically important to companies that want to demonstrate their industry thought leadership via blogs, columns, commentaries, presentations and other content devices bylined by their leading executives. A good ghostwriter knows how to extract that information from an executive during an interview because he or she knows the subject and knows how to ask the right questions.

A common mistake some companies make is insisting on having a junior executive interview a senior executive with the ghostwriter listening in. The conversation goes something like this:

Junior exec: “What are some of the innovations you brought to market this year?”
Senior exec: “Well, we discovered a cure for cancer that doesn’t cost anything.”
Junior exec: “That’s great. What are some of the other innovations?”

It’s an exaggerated example from some of the interview transcripts I’ve read and have been asked to spin into blog posts, without the benefit of being able to ask follow-up questions, like: What’s the cure? How did you discover it? Why doesn’t it cost anything? Is it available now?

It’s also the second part of the answer to why journalists make the best ghostwriters. Good journalists know how to tell good stories. It’s what they do for a living, whether it’s in print, over the airwaves or through an HDMI cable. And it’s what an audience wants to read, hear or watch. They will remember a good story far longer than a massaged quote in a press release or a stock photo in an annual report.

A journalist-turned-ghostwriter knows how to look for that story and identify the anecdotal information that will connect with the audience in a personal, genuine way that builds a brand’s credibility with that audience. Credibility creates trust. Trust converts to loyalty. And loyalty leads to sales. Effective storytelling ignites that entire process.

The third part of the answer to why journalists make the best ghostwriters is discipline. Journalists, by training and by experience, know how to write to fit or speak to fill. They know how to write, edit, research and fact check. They turn content around quickly and cleanly. They know that a deadline is a deadline, not a goal. Am I describing all the journalists I know? No. But the best ones? Absolutely.

Like subject-matter expertise, interviewing acumen and story-telling ability, discipline is an essential skill needed by companies that want to showcase their executives’ insights through words. Knowing how to quickly, accurately and effectively articulate what the executives are trying to say is the skill that a good journalist brings to a brand as a ghostwriter. A good journalist-turned-ghostwriter won’t be the person who holds up production of a case study or white paper. (That job usually falls to a half-dozen junior executives who feel obligated to comment on every sentence and punctuation mark.)

At this point in my blog posts, I usually describe and link to examples of what I’ve been talking about to illustrate the points I’m trying to make. But since this about ghostwriting, I can’t. I—and ghostwriters everywhere—don’t exist.

That said, check out Part 2 of this post with some practical tips on effective ghostwriting for journalists and brands.

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