By: David Sykes
Since it’s nearly Halloween, lets delve into the mysterious and secretive world of ghostwriting.
Ghostwriting is one of those practices which always sounds a lot more controversial than it really is, but you tend to only hear about it in the media when its used wrongly and that means there are a lot of misconceptions over what it really is.
In reality, it’s one of the most commonly used tools in the PR toolbox, it’s incredibly useful, productive and efficient but it has to be used with skill, integrity and in moderation.
To many, a ghostwriter is the mysterious person who gets hired by a celebrity to write their “autobiographies” for them. Understandably, this immediately seems a little bit underhanded, and perhaps, if you’ve spent £14.99 on a hardback, you’d feel a bit upset if you realised the author whose work you’ve paid to read isn’t necessarily who you think it is. But there’s more to it than that.
Katie Piper is one celebrity who’s been quite open about having a productive and profitable relationship with ghostwriters and this is a good example of large-scale ghostwriting in practice:
Katie has been clear that she probably isn’t the best writer in the world, and she’s no professional author. With that in mind, she hired former journalist Rebecca Farnworth to write books based on her ideas and dictation and they’d work on the book together. Rebecca was a novelist in her own right and she would take Katie’s dictations and plots and craft them into bestsellers. By the time Rebecca passed away in 2014, the pair had experienced phenomenal success, writing 14 books that were published under Katie’s name which sold millions of copies. Speaking at the launch of one of her books, Katie was perfectly open about the relationship when speaking to the BBC:
“I come up with a plot with the [ghost] writer, and then we go through each chapter together.”
Katie, a former glamour model, TV personality and makeup entrepreneur didn’t have the time, the skill or the know-how to write 14 bestselling books by herself and, let me tell you a secret… nor do most business owners, TV presenters, musicians or celebrities, but that needn’t stop them.
Ghosts in the machine
So how do we use ghostwriting in PR? Well, we’re not writing novels, but we regularly write material which ultimately gets published under our clients names. We ghostwrite to varying degrees but there are clear boundaries and limitations in the way we use it.
Mostly, in writing press releases for our clients, we’ll have spoken to our main contact within an organisation about the story, done all our research and put all the facts down on the page and then we’d speak to the person we’d like to include in the release and we’d write up a suggested quote which would say the sort of things they’ve told us, but in a way which suits the medium and gets the message across clearly and concisely.
Once that quote is drafted, we’d then send it to the person themselves and ask them to make any changes they think are appropriate or if they’d like to rephrase it themselves and then, once we’re both happy its as good as possible, we send it to the media.
Yes, we may have put words in someone’s mouth, but the key thing is that we’re basically writing what they would say anyway, its based on their views, and they have clearly expressed that they’re happy with the words that we’d like to attribute to them and they’ve had the chance to change it.
That’s one of the most common ways that we ghostwrite and I’m pretty sure you’d agree that’s absolutely fine.
After all, when I was a broadcast journalist for a well-known national broadcasting corporation, I’d regularly edit long interviews to make news clips lasting no more than 20 seconds that would say exactly the same message, just with several words (or sentences) cut out for brevity; it’s all about helping the person to get their message across concisely in a way that’s appropriate to the medium.
Let’s take it one step further…
Ghostly goings on
Now and then as a PR, you’re asked to prepare features and opinion pieces for your clients.
Sometimes, it can just be a case of editing something they have written, but sometimes your client isn’t able or available to write an article from scratch so you have to get the ball rolling. No publication wants a two page feature written by someone’s PR exec, so, again, you need to speak to the person you’d like to write for, record their opinions, perspectives and views and then start the job of writing it up in a way which suits the medium, meets the word count, and reads well. Depending on the target media, you should remove any complicated phrases or industry jargon that the typical readers might struggle with and you need to go through it with the person who will ultimately be the author.
One of my favourite parts of ghostwriting is that you need to take on the voice of the person you’re writing for. This is the biggest challenge and it’s why ghostwriting is a skill which should only be entrusted to talented and experienced writers who know how to write for the appropriate audience and who know the person and how they speak:
- Is the person formal, regimented and a bit posh? Then the article it needs to read as if it’s their voice.
- Are they down to earth, no nonsense and modest? The same rule applies.
- Is it a technical document or formal essay or should this be written as if they were saying the words out loud to an interviewer? Either way, it has to sound like their words.
Even if they wrote the article themselves and you’re simply editing the text, you need to make sure it reads like a person wrote it and not a robot: a feature or opinion piece isn’t an instruction manual and people rarely ever speak in Queen’s English.
Once your draft is written, you need to go through it with the client. Let them go through it line by line, encourage them to chop and change, rewrite or reword and work with you to find the right turns of phrase to get their message across in the best way possible. At times, there might be occasions when you disagree over the best wording. In these cases, you need to explain your reasons but remember that if their name is to be on the page, they have to be happy with the text and agree to put their name on it. You also need to make sure they know it just as well as you do, because if they ever get asked about it or interviewed on the subject by a journalist, all that hard work will be undone.
Once that’s all done and you’ve got final approval, the ghostwriter can confidently send the work on its way with the client, quite rightly, named as author.
The friendly ghost
At the end of the day, people come across best when they’re able to express their message clearly, concisely and without clumsy phrasing, mistakes, or misjudging an audience, and not everyone has the time or skill to do that. A PR’s job is to help their client present themselves well, and to that end, ghostwriting can be crucial.
After all, celebrities, politicians, and the business leaders you admire use ghostwriting to hone their messages, so why shouldn’t you?
If you’d like some help getting your voice heard, don’t be scared; get in touch!