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The Brutally Honest Truth about Ghostwriting - 2/10/2015 -

The Brutally Honest Truth about Ghostwriting

Whether or not your association employs ghostwriters — or if you are one, yourself — here are some ideas about this common practice that will make you think.

By Demian Farnworth

From September 2011 until June 2012, I wrote more than 220 blog posts. These weren’t pushover posts. We’re talking, on average, 1,400 words per article. A few were in the 4,000 range and one was more than 10,000 words.

For those of you counting, that’s five articles a week. One a day.

For each article, I generated ideas, wrote outlines and finished drafts. The research was deep, the editing long. Each article took me between four and eight hours to complete.

Furthermore, I wrote on topics outside of my normal discipline (copywriting and advertising): advanced search engine optimization techniques, business innovation, startup challenges and web analytics.And these articles landed on notable websites like Mashable and TechCrunch, so the pressure was on to look good.

It was enough work and exposure to make me into an authority.But there was one problem: Not one single article has my name on it. Someone else got all the credit.

That was on purpose. See, I traded credit for cash. In other words, I got paid to be a ghostwriter.

The Four Flavors of Ghostwriting

It’s common in the content marketing and publishing community for busy CEOs and executives to hire writers to write in their name. Here’sRand Fishkin, CEO of MOZ, on ghostwriting: "If you are, yourself, a talented writer or a great communicator, and you possess a unique voice, attitude, and style, ghostwriting is tough. It may communicate the same concepts, but the message, branding, and style can get lost. That may mean less impact from a social media perspective, fewer links, less enjoyment and engagement from readers, and these things, directly and indirectly, can negatively affect your SEO.

"If, on the other hand, you’re a great communicator through non-written means and you need help to put your ideas into written language, then by all means, use a ghostwriter — if you can find one with the talent to properly convey your message, and your brand.”

Not all ghostwriting is the same. Here are four common varieties:

  • Anonymous sales letters. Someone hires you to sell their product. If it’s a letter from the CEO, it’s clearly ghostwriting. But, if you are creating copy that is anonymous — say, on a sales page where personal brand recognition is not a concern and nobody is getting recognition — then this is not a case of ghostwriting.
  • Their ideas and words. In this scenario, someone pays you to turn their ideas into an article or book. You listen to them talk or take their notes and develop that into content. Or they email you a rough draft. It’s your job to clean up that rough draft.
  • Their ideas, your words. In this scenario, someone pays you to write from an outline or transcript they’ve given you. You do all the research, and they approve the final draft. They might make substantial changes.
  • Your ideas and words. Here, someone pays you to come up with the ideas yourself, create the outlines, and write the book or articles. Their only involvement is to approve. This would include social ghostwriters (hiring someone to run a Twitter account for someone else, for instance).

Pros and Pitfalls of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting is usually the first job a freelance writer gets fresh out of the corporate cubicle – especially a writer that’s fretting about bringing in income. Busy people are always looking for writers. And you can get a free education as a ghostwriter if you research and write about a new field.You also don’t have to worry about taking the public criticism of your content. You just write.

However, there are some disadvantages:

  • You may get taken advantage of. A wet-behind-the-ears-freelancer may not have the experience or courage to negotiate a good fee. And the temptation of volume will depress the per-article fee, meaning you work harder and faster for less. Like the Ghostwriting Dad Sean Platt put it, "Ghostwriting for SEO is rarely worth it because most people willing to hire a ghostwriter aren’t willing to pay the rate needed to do a future proof job. With Google constantly updating (improving) their algorithms, only the highest quality content will work. Otherwise, you’re climbing a mountain of sand.”
  • You are at your clients’ mercy for referrals because your name isn’t on any of your work. You may land a friendly, generous client who liberally shares your contact information with everyone you meet. Or you may meet someone who is absorbed in business affairs and forgets to recommend you even if you do a slamming good job.
  • You won’t build your expertise. We all know content marketing is a hot topic. The demand for content is high, and is only going to rise over the coming years. There is a need out there. So you can make money now, but you need to also consider the long term, like building your expertise (in something other than being a ghostwriter). In the age of authorship, being anonymous won’t help your career.

Is Ghostwriting Ethical?

The dominating argument for ghostwriting is that it is a common practice. It’s a business transaction. You get the hunch it’s not unlike being a paid assassin. This is exactly what ghostwriterRob Philbin has said: "I…like to think of myself as some sort of copywriting hit man when ghostwriting. No questions asked. Just do the job. Get paid. And get out.”

Smart ghostwriters learn how to bank off the growing success of their clients by incorporating royalties and success measurements into their contracts.So if your client’s work becomes a bestseller or you’re bringing gangbusters traffic to their blog, you reap the additional success.

Ohers argue that hiring a ghostwriter is notnot unlike buying someone else’s research and calling it your own. And what would happen if your client’s readers discovered she did not write the blog posts or book she said she did? Would that tarnish her reputation?


Word sometimes gets out when well-known people use ghostwriters. People get disappointed, but it doesn’t cause many ripples. Most readers have a hunch that busy, well-known people may not churn out all their published content on their own. We all shrug and keep pushing forward — usiness as usual.

Which should make you pause.

Violating the Contract with the Reader

When someone sits down to read an article, book, or blog post, there is an unspoken contract that says the name on the content is the person who wrote it. So if a real person is claiming to be the author behind a book or blog but hires someone else to write the content, is he or she violating that contract?

"As a reader, I lose respect for someone who used a ghostwriter,” says Paul Magee of Turnaround Magazine. "To not give credit is to pretend you did it, which shows a lack of character in my eyes.”

I asked marketing and SEO consultant AJ Kohn his take on ghostwriting, and this is what he had to say:

"Ghostwriting is an established practice in the publishing and speech-writing world. A few consumers might understand that, but most don’t. They think it’s really written by that person and that seems to be OK. Behind the scenes, there’s obviously a market for good ghostwriters.

But Kohn then went on to summarize the basic problem with ghostwriting in the SEO world:

"For SEO, it gets more complicated. From Google’s perspective on authorship, whoever is claiming it, is the author. So if the byline says it was written by the CEO, then the CEO is the author, even if it was written by a ghostwriter.

"So I think it works within the online and SEO arena, but only to a certain extent,” he continues. "To my knowledge, most ghostwriters work with the ‘author’ to ensure that the content is authentic. Where I think it falls apart is when there is little or no collaboration, when the ghostwritten content is not authentic and doesn’t really speak for that person. That disconnect can be dangerous, because the content doesn’t ring true and any further outreach by that person creates a type of juxtaposition: ‘You wrote this, but you’re saying something different.’”

Two Takeaways on Ghostwriting

So here’s some commentary for the people on both sides of the ghostwriting relationship: the client and the writer.

For the writers. The first thing every writer should ask is this: What do you want to accomplish as a writer? Is building a personal and visible platform important to you? Will it help you in the long run?

For the clients: Resist hiring a ghostwriter. Instead, learn how to write or hire people who can write for you — in their names. This is an opportunity to nurture a rising star, to move away from a consolidation of power and cult of personality and expand your reach within your own ranks.

This is why big media try to hire notable writers. They know the company will rise with the tide of their stable of writers. They can benefit from rising writers. In other words, there is no reason to consolidate power behind one individual.

Here’s one more comment from AJ Kohn: "So you can certainly employ ghostwriters for SEO purposes but … it has to be done in the right way. And in the end, I think it may rob the real ‘author’ of connecting with the audience and building their authority and expertise.”

To me, it’s not that the writing has to be precise but that it has to be real. You can feel passion through writing, and only a few gifted ghostwriters can accomplish that for another person.

Demian Farnworth is Copyblogger Media's chief copywriter.


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