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What the Heck Is a Ghost Writer?

ghost I got my marketing start in copywriting. Despite what Mad Men would have you believe, it's a role that requires a great deal of humility in addition to creative talent. (Think Peggy Olson in the early years.) There is very little room for recognition as a copywriter. Even in an agency, the majority of what you do remains cloaked in anonymity, with credit going to your client. As someone once pointed out, Nike's "Just Do It" is one of the most famous slogans in the world, and the only person that knows who came up with it is that guy's mother." (Actually, there is a story behind the slogan, but you get the point.)

What is a ghost writer? While most people are aware that agencies and freelancers are often the masterminds behind marketing strategies and advertising campaigns, what many people don't realize is that there are thousands of ghost writers flying under the radar as the public voices of CEOs, thought leaders and industry influencers. In its most simplified form, a ghostwriter is someone who writes books, articles, stories, reports or other texts that are officially credited to someone else. (Surprise! That social media guru you follow? That CEO whose witty post you saw in Fast Co.? Entirely possible someone else wrote their posts.)

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What!? Yep. It's true. But it's not as icky as you might think -- and I guarantee it's a heck of a lot more common than you could possibly imagine.

How does ghost writing work? Demian Farnworth compares ghost writing to being a hired assassin in The Brutally Honest Truth about Ghost Writing. I prefer to compare it to the lifecycle of a really good meal. The farmer puts in the time and energy to sow, grow and harvest food. It is then trucked off to a restaurant where the chef uses her special blend of culinary creativity, vision and artistry to turn raw ingredients into a menu-worthy symphony of deliciousness.

Ghost writing works in pretty much the same way. Business leaders are busy people. They've spent years of their lives sowing the seeds to grow their companies, and their minds are packed with knowledge, advice and insights. In some instances, they are self-professed "crappy writers" and simply want someone to make them sound as intelligent on paper are they are in person. (And who can blame them?) In almost every instance, taking a few hours out of their day to write an article is not a good use of their time, especially when they could simply hop on a call, answer a handful of questions and let someone else do the heavy lifting (or at least the lifting of the pen). And that's where a ghost writer comes in.

Is ghost writing ethical? One of the biggest questions surrounding ghost writing is whether it is "entirely ethical." Is it wrong for a CEO to outsource thinking and writing to a ghost writer, then get on stage at TEDx to present those thoughts and words as her own? Is it ethical for a social media guru to give advice on how to blog when his posts are created by a team of ghost writers? Does the simple exchange of money for services make this all okay?

I view my clients as people, not a means to a paycheck, and I don't work with anyone I wouldn't want to be friends with in my personal life. I'm of the opinion that there are different types of ghost writing -- and all are not created equal. For me, the true deciding factor is a matter of partnership. Should writers be selling their independent thoughts to the highest bidder? That feels a little weird to me. Using their skills to polish the thoughts and experiences of others, however, makes perfect sense. The crux of my role as a ghost writer is taking the raw knowledge and expertise a client has amassed in order to turn it into something smart, inspiring and shareable. By working together, I get to help send their ideas out into the world to educate and inspire the masses. And you can rest assured, I sleep well at night knowing I've saved my clients valuable time, energy and money.

Need a pen-for-hire? Let's talk.

12 Tidbits of Wisdom for Writers (via Ernest Hemingway)

hemingway Ernest Hemingway would have been 113 on Saturday. In honor of the grand (and oftentimes irreverent) thinker, writer and life enthusiast, I spent some time digging back through the litany of wisdom he left behind.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

“As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.”

“The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.”

“In order to write about life first you must live it.”

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

“Write hard and clear about what hurts. ”

CHIME IN: What’s your best piece of writing advice?

Saying a lot in a little: Tag(line), you’re it!

Copywriters are not typically known for our brevity when it comes to words. Ask any designer, they’ll tell you. There is an epic battle between designers and writers waging on in agencies around the world. Designers: Can we chop the copy by half? Writers: Can we alter the design to include the copy?

As wonderful as wordiness can be in the right situation, there is an undeniable impact that comes along with being able to convey a grand message, passion or purpose in a few succinct words. The best spirit lines, mission statements and vision statements are proof of the point. If you’ve ever sat down to craft one of these streamlined beasts, you’ll understand.

Saying a lot in a little can be one of the greatest challenges a writer will ever face. When it’s bad, it’s really bad. It falls short and fails to capture the spirit of the message you want to convey. It can come off as lazy, misdirected, cliche and boring. But when you get it right, it’s golden. People pay attention. They remember you and your brand.

I recently discovered one such tagline in an unexpected place: a bag of manure. Or “Moo-nure,” rather. Moo-nure is an organic soil containing a not-so-secret ingredient: cow poo. When I lifted the bag into the back of my car, I noticed Moo-nure’s tagline: We Are Number 1 in the Number 2 Business. It made me laugh out loud.

When you know who you are as a brand, understand what you do and have a vision for what you want to become – you want to share that with the world. Finding those few, precious, perfect words may not always be easy, but when you do, you’ll know it. And others will remember it.

And now for a little exercise. A friend recently passed this link along to me.

One life. Six Words. What will yours be?