Ghostwriting: the art of telling someone else’s story

Those who can, do – and hire someone else to write about it

The people with the most interesting stories to tell are very often those with the least time to tell them. And as fashion editors know, achieving the natural look – presenting something as artless and off-the-cuff – actually requires considerable expertise and a lot of preparation.

When content comes directly from the top of the company, it engages readers and offers a significant boost to content marketing efforts; a CEO’s view grabs the attention of employees, clients, investors and the media, and has lots of sharing potential on social media.

For this reason, business leaders and politicians, not just celebrities, work with ghostwriters to craft their experiences and reflections into compelling stories. Well-written and authentic accounts, in the form of a pithy blog or newspaper opinion piece, offer genuine insight that can alter public perception and shape a debate.

So how do you achieve a successful partnership between a person with knowledge worth reading about and a writer who can help them put it into words – and how can companies use the results to best effect?

Build a rapport

“Both people have to feel comfortable,” says Caroline Frost, who has ghostwritten for executives, academics, actors and pop stars.

“You have a very general chit-chat, like an extension of any other interview, and then you get on to the subject: what their priorities are, what style they want to write in, the people or events they wish to mention. That gives the writer a chance to start building a framework in their head.”

Ghostwriters for books can spend years acquiring all the information they need, either in person or via phone interviews. Such a lengthy process is not necessary or possible for shorter pieces, but establishing a certain level of rapport makes it more likely the writer will capture what the interviewee really wants to say.

William Novak, now a highly successful American ghostwriter who has turned down approaches from Nelson Mandela and Ronald Reagan, created an unexpected hit with his very first ghostwriting commission. It was for Lee Iacocca, the former Ford president who saved Chrysler from bankruptcy in the early 1980s. Iacocca: An Autobiography became a US bestseller for two years, selling 2.7 million copies.

It was a huge success despite very little contact between the subject and the writer. “I thought I would probably have to live in Iacocca’s house and become his son,” Novak said in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “I never even saw his house; we were not close at all. And yet that didn’t matter. What matters is how good a talker a person is, and what the writer is able to do with that talking.”

Establish limits

“The first chat is crucial for establishing the parameters of what you’re covering,” says Frost. “Setting the limits right from the start can be very helpful, or make it clear that it’s not going to work.”

There may be subjects the interviewee wishes to avoid or cannot mention for legal reasons, but a first-person account or opinion piece from a senior executive can be a very effective way for a company to present its side of a controversial story or to apologise and reflect on something that was handled badly in the past.

Awkward or controversial subjects become “the tender point that the doctor has to press,” says Frost. Using a ghostwriter can help an executive or public figure address challenging issues with humility and honesty, and in their own words.

There is a ready-made market for such pieces because newspapers and websites are very keen to publish well-written and honest comment from authoritative voices – and not only in response to a crisis. A CEO or the leader of a charity or trade body may not have the time or skillset to write an opinion piece themselves, but the ghostwriter does.

Commenting in the first person also means a senior leader is sticking their neck out, bringing to life business issues such as regulatory concerns, which can appear dry when presented in a traditional press release.

Make it human

“The ultimate goal is for the reader to feel like they’re sitting next to the person, listening to them telling the story,” says Frost.

To achieve this, she works hard to capture the particular speech patterns of her subject – the rhythm, vocabulary and regional quirks that make their voice unique.

Ghostwriting can be a very time-efficient and effective way for senior executives to communicate with their employees via blogs or internal newsletters. They supply the thought or the story to the writer, who crafts it into the piece the executive would have written if they had not been busy running the company.

Writers, leave your ego at the door

“The job is not done when you finish the first draft,” says Frost. “You hand it over and see what they like or don’t like – there will inevitably be some back and forth about less of this or more of that, and it can be massively substantial or just tweaks or questions about accuracies in the timeline. But ultimately, they have final approval.”

… But it’s not a puff piece, either

It is important for the ghostwriter to convey to the subject that the value of writing in their own voice will be lost if what is said comes across like a script or a press release.

For the sake of credibility, the writer should have the facts straight for themselves rather than rely on the recollection of the subject. However, beyond hard facts, the honesty of the piece is a balance struck between the writer, the subject and their representatives.

“How much spin do you put on their personality?” asks Frost. “You want to bring that person to life in print, but if they’re hugely self-satisfied then they might not like it. Your role is to help them express their thoughts and get them on the page; it’s ultimately up to their advisers to decide if it makes them look bad.”

Finally, Frost advises patience and respect. “Have empathy for your subject; they’re the one taking all the risk,” she says. “As the writer, you’re simply a cool conduit.”

Unfortunately, even following all of these steps can’t guarantee there won’t be regrets in the future. Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who worked with Donald Trump on The Art of the Deal, brought the New York property investor to national attention with the bestselling book in 1987.

“I put lipstick on a pig,” he said in an interview with the New Yorker before the 2016 election. “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.”

The digital era has given every person and organisation the opportunity to tell their story in their own way online. A lack of time or writing experience need not be a barrier to telling yours, whether in short or longer form – ghostwriters can help bring out and organise your thoughts into a compelling narrative.