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Successful Ghostwriting Demands Collaboration, Not Magic

Ghostwriters are like introverted ventriloquists.

They never appear on stage, but they speak for another when they write the content published under another individual’s byline or brand name.

Ghostwriting takes the writing process to the next level – it amplifies the value of some standard research and planning practices and adds a few more steps to walk in another’s “shoes.” And the writer doesn’t get the credit publicly. “Ghostwriting is a selfless job,” says Aisha Ahmed, editorial coordinator at Healthy Links.

#Ghostwriting is a selfless job, says @HealthyLinksSEO via @cmicontent. #writing Click To Tweet

But that behind-the-scenes role doesn’t mean ghostwriters can hide in plain sight. They must be proactive and direct to get the job done well.

On the public-facing side of ghostwriting, the bylined authors have some work to do too. Ghostwriting can’t be successful if it’s used only as a time saver.

As a sometimes ghostwriter for individuals – executives and subject matter experts – and for brands with non-bylined content published on behalf of the company, I’ve learned prosperous ghostwriting demands a true collaboration between writer and credited author.

Prosperous #ghostwriting demands a true collaboration between the writer and credited author, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

How can that successful partnership manifest itself? Some ghostwriters and companies that use them share their best tricks.

Use the same writer

“Your brand voice and tone need to be consistent across anything you do, be it getting ghostwritten presentations, blogs, or even a quote on behalf of your company executives,” says Venngage’s Aditya Sheth. “People can smell inconsistency from a mile away, so focus on being consistent across whatever it is you’re delegating to other writers.”

Your #brand voice and tone need to be consistent across anything you write, says @iamadityashth via @cmicontent. #ghostwriting Click To Tweet

A cohesive voice matters a lot. Your audience should think, “This (content) sounds like that company,” says Terena Bell, head of global PR at Lionbridge.

That consistency can happen when the same person ghostwrites the content. “(I)t’s much easier for the company to make sure each and every article adheres to brand – and also that these thought leadership pieces have a level of voice consistency that helps the customer get to know not just the bylined exec, but more importantly, the company,” Terena says.

Bridget Burnham, president of BurnBright Communications, agrees. “I’ve found that the more I write and collaborate with someone, the easier it is to anticipate how they might approach something and to grasp their tone and style.

The more I write with someone, the easier it is to grasp their tone and style, says @BridgetBurnem via @cmicontent. #ghostwriting Click To Tweet

“It takes patience, but the process definitely gets easier the more you do it.”

TIP: If your company publishes too much ghostwritten content for one person to handle, assign your writing team “beats” – designated topics or bylined authors.

Go inside their minds

“I make it my job to get to know the people I’m writing for,” says Sandee McCready, senior copywriter at Firewood.

She researches the person, in addition to the topic, to know where they are coming from and how they think about things. “I also observe how people speak during meetings and how they react in different situations. This allows me to essentially ‘become’ them while writing, incorporating much more nuance than I could otherwise,” she says.

Observe how people speak in meetings and react in situations to “become” them while #ghostwriting, says Sandee McCready via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

When the bylined person has published content, read through those examples. “It becomes much easier to replicate the type of writing and style,” says James Canzanella, owner of Isolated Marketing Nights.

“For example, maybe the person uses short and choppy sentences. Maybe the writing is simple and fluff free, or perhaps the person writes exactly like they’re speaking to a friend they haven’t seen in a few years,” James says.

Set up for success

While understanding the credited author’s thoughts and writing voice is necessary, the brand also must be incorporated and that requires guidance.

As CCO contributor Kevin Lund writes, “If you expect your content to deliver a desired business outcome and abide by brand standards, you’ll need to set up clear rules for voice, style, and tone and let your writers flourish within them.”

A style guide defines the consistent feel, taste, and smell of a brand’s #content personality, writes @KLundT3 via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

That is good advice whether you’re a bylined author or a ghostwriter.

TIP: If it’s a first-time ghostwriter for the company, have an editor or other supervisor review the content before it is submitted to the credited byline person for review. That way any brand voice and style can be polished before it’s edited for accuracy, context, and author voice.

Expect changes

Given that the content is published under someone else’s name, expect that person to have thoughts on the draft content. “Don’t be offended by the changes/suggestions the (bylined author) might make. This is intended to be their voice, says Linda Pophal of Strategic Communications.

Ghostwriter shouldn’t be offended by changes from the bylined author because it’s their voice, says @StratCommun via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Imani Francies, a ghostwriter at, says notes and corrections will help you master how the credited individual writes. “Their feedback helps you pinpoint areas that you have written as yourself instead of like them,” she says.

Get quicker approval and more content

David Zimmerman, internet marketing consultant at Reliable Acorn, recognizes the frustrations that arise when the bylined authors frequently find faults in the content and take weeks to approve it. He identified a solution to overcome those challenges.

It involves a 15-minute phone interview with the person at the project’s beginning. He records the call and creates a transcript that’s given to the writer. “I find clients have an easier time approving content when I follow this process,” David says.

The interview also leads to multiple pieces of content, beginning with an interview transcription and audio excerpts for a podcast or presentation. “If I give the same transcript to different writers, I can usually have several different and unique articles from each writer,” David says. “(E)ach writer will see something different in the interview and focus on a different aspect.”

Collaborate, but forgo multiple review levels

Collaborate one-on-one – ghostwriter and bylined author, says Luke O’Neill, owner of Genuine Communications.

“I’ve seen many promising pieces of ghostwritten content become stale and boring, owing to creation by committee. Let the writer and subject matter expert own the research and the writing process,” he says.

It also helps to establish a process from the beginning so both the ghostwriter and the credited author are on the same page. Luke suggests identifying the number of revision rounds (keep it reasonably low) and setting firm deadlines for drafts, feedback, revisions, and approval.

They aren’t clairvoyant

While ghostwriters may be ventriloquists, they aren’t telepaths. “We had situations when we hired really good writers who wrote excellent pieces, but not the way we imagined them. We realized that we treated our writers like they were mind readers,” explains Malte Scholz, CEO and co-founder of Air Focus.

So they changed things up. As Malte explains, “Nowadays, we prepare a detailed draft for each piece of content that we want to write and publish. It includes the tone of voice we require, a brief outline of the most important (sub)topics, the main keywords that we want to target, the outlet where the content will be published and all the necessary data they might need.”

On the flip side, the bylined authors must be prepared too – they must be familiar with the final content and aware of the publishing date, distribution channel, and any other activities around the content. You don’t want them to be surprised when someone tells them, “Great article,” and they didn’t even know it was live.

Ghostwriting done well is not a quick solution for time-starved authors. Though efficiencies can be developed as the ghostwriter learns the voice, tone, and style of the bylined author and the brand, it takes time to do it successfully.

How do you handle the ghostwriting process? Please share your tips in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute