Five Tips for Executives In Search of the Right Ghost Writer
I expect many tech executives must largely live in fear of ghost writers. Putting your name to someone else’s writing is a scary prospect, particularly when so many writers miss the mark. I should know.
Earlier in my career, I opened an email from a new client about a piece I’d ghosted for him. With each word, I felt increasingly crestfallen. Here’s an excerpt:
I want to give you feedback on voice, so you can take another shot, before I jump in on smoothing. On voice, I would characterize my voice as:
– not chest thumping
I think the piece you pulled together has some of those elements, but may be too casual to match my normal style.
Ugh. My frustration stemmed from not just missing the mark. It was that I knew better. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know – just everything I didn’t take the time to do. I recall that was a particularly busy week. And I had a crystal clear idea about the substance of the article – one of those rare ones that was half-written in my head before my fingers ever touched the keyboard. So instead of doing my due diligence, I took that most seductive of routes – the short cut. I wrote it in my voice. And the client rightly pushed back: This doesn’t sound like me.
Lesson re-learned. When it comes to ghosting, short cuts don’t really “cut it,” at all. Instead of getting you to your destination faster, they inevitably force you to retrace your steps so you can get back on track.
Against that backdrop, here are some tips for the executives who rely on ghost writers, based on my experience writing for many different personalities over the years.
I just gotta be YOU. One of writing’s many pleasures is the opportunity to express one’s self. To craft the turn of phrase that delights, inject the perfect verb that provokes, or nail that critical passage that drives the point home with substance and style.
When it comes to ghosting, writers have to forget all of that. The job, quite literally, is for their style and voice to vanish, and for yours to emerge. That takes an ability on your writer’s part to recognize and break down how your voice manifests.
Your writers need to have a clear understanding as to the words and turns-of-phrase that tend to be distinctively you. How formal or informal is your tone? Is your syntax conventional, or do you mix it up and like a lot of … ellipses, say? Bottom line, your writer needs to know and reflect your style and personality (and banish their own).
Story isn’t the starting point. Sometimes writers are so impatient, or so busy, that they just jump right into the subject matter of any given piece. It’s really valuable though when they take the time upfront (see “shortcuts,” above) to ask some level-setting questions about tone and voice. My patient and understanding client that I referenced at the beginning of this piece very effectively reminded me of the questions I should have asked. Do you want to thump your chest a bit on this one? Or be more approachable and informative? How formal versus informal? Blunt versus diplomatic?
Your writer should ask these questions, and even show up with a paragraph written in a few distinctly different tones, to help you hone in. But in any case, they should have the conversation with you.
They should listen. When it comes to ghosting, listening is paramount. And while not everyone’s “writing voice” is identical to her speaking voice, in my experience it’s a pretty darn good place to start. Do you ask questions as a way to make your points? Do you speak in longer sentences with multiple clauses, or are you much more terse and direct? Are you the polite-but-cool type? Pleasure to meet you David, shall I give an overview of what I’d like to achieve today? Or casual, even chummy? Dave, great to meet you. I’m stoked to do this piece, let’s get crankin’.
Some of the greatest writers I know – often former or current professional journalists – sometimes struggle with ghosting because they’ve spent most, maybe all, of their careers writing under their own byline, in their own voice. Making the switch often starts with listening – for voice, not just for the story itself.
Your writer should be listening very carefully not just to what you say, but how you say it.
Research. Thankfully, we all now operate with supercomputers in our hands and the world’s information at our fingertips. Has your writer researched what you’ve published before? Have they asked which piece is a great representation of your voice, and why? Maybe you are a neophyte at blogs or bylines or longer form content, but you’re an avid tweeter. Or your past interviews with broadcast journalists are readily available via YouTube and your writer can tune in. Maybe you occasionally post short form thoughts or commentary to LinkedIn. Your writer should know all of this.
Nothing revolutionary here: writers should do their homework.
Has it been properly vetted? When possible in our fast-paced business world, writers should sit on a piece for a day or two in order to review it with fresh eyes and to read it aloud with fresh ears. When feasible, they should have someone read it who knows you and your voice – as well as have someone read it who knows the writer’s voice and trademark phrases.
Despite the false start, things turned out well with my client. After all, he provided perfect guidance to help me channel and capture his voice. The second draft hit the mark. Thankfully, he wasn’t scared of ghost writers. And with the right process in place, you needn’t be either.