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Executive Ghostwriting: A Brief Primer

Ghostwriting has become embedded into the literary culture. Byline language such as “and”, “as told to” or “with” underscores the normalization of ghostwriting, which is generally considered an ethical practice. Celebrities, chefs, across businesspeople and even novelists like James Patterson employ ghostwriters.

In the movie The Ghostwriter, a scribe (played by Ewan McGregor) contracted to ghostwrite a book for the Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) finds himself entangled in political scandal. Being the speechwriter of a head of state is an esteemed and respected position.

It goes deeper than modern pop culture, too. The list of works expected to have been ghostwritten is long. Rumors that William Shakespeare’s work were ghostwritten have led to a movie on the subject – Anonymous – in which Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is posited as Shakespeare. Or was the great playwright actually Francis Bacon, the 17th century scientist? The works of Homer have been rumored to be ghostwritten.

The list of ghostwriters in American history is long. George Bancroft wrote speeches for James Polk and Andrew Johnson, Archibald MacLeish and Robert Sherwood wrote for FDR, Doris Kearns Goodwin and John Steinbeck wrote for Lyndon Johnson, William Safire and Pat Buchanan wrote for Nixon, Hendrik Hertzberg and Chris Mathews wrote for Carter, Thomas Mallon wrote for Dan Quayle, and Walter Lippman for Woodrow Wilson and JFK.

George Washington’s most famous speech, the Farewell Address (1796), first appeared in almost every American newspaper, Washington didn’t write that speech, either. Alexander Hamilton, Washington, and James Madison wrote the piece.

President Warren Harding employed a full-time “literary clerk” named Judson Welliver, who wrote Harding’s speeches. Buchanan had an assistant write his memoirs from dictation in 1867.

Franklin D. Roosevelt preferred ghostwriting-by-committee, including actor Orson Welles – the man behind the “War of the Worlds.” Historians debate to this day who coined the “New Deal” phrase. Roosevelt’s first inauguration was penned by Raymond Moley.

According to, American University began to offer a course on ghostwriting in 1952. That is not long before US President John F. Kennedy received the Pulitzer Prize for his book Profiles in Courage. Kennedy’s speechwriter Theodore Sorenson, in his autobiography, said he had written a large amount of JFK’s book.

“Jack Kennedy,” political columnist Drew Pearson said on ABC’s The Mike Wallace Interview, “is the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize in a book which was ghostwritten for him.” By the 1970s, there was Hendrik Hertzberg, Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter.

Malcom X didn’t write his autobiography, for Alex Haley, author of the celebrated novel Roots worked as a ghostwriter, penned the influential work. He turned long interviews with Malcolm X into the autobiography that was completed mere weeks after Malcom X’s assassination.

There’s many more. Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative (1960), and Richard Nixon’s Six Crises (1962), all of which relied on ghostwriters to different degrees.

In 1927, the Authors’ League held a meeting on ghostwritten celebrity books, concluding that
“the public was at one time completely credulous on the point. Now it seems unlikely that it believes in any of the noted athletes, singers or politicians who break out in print.”

The press noticed when Hillary Clinton did not thank her ghostwriter in the acknowledgements of It Takes a Village (1996), as well as that Bill Ayers wrote Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father (1995)

Executives work with ghostwriters, as well. GE CEO, Jack Welch’s book, Jack: Straight from the Gut, was ghostwritten by John Byrne. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is credited to Stephen Covey, though ghostwriter Ken Shelton wrote most.

Me Cheeta was written by the famous chimpanzee that starred in the Hollywood Tarzan films – surely, he had the help of a ghost. James Lever admits to at least helping out.

What is Ghostwriting?

Ghostwriters write books, blog posts, business plans, and more for another person who is named as the author on the work. Ghostwriters often receive no credit, while authors receive all the credit. Ghostwriters often charge a flat fee, price per word or royalty. The ghostwriter might be a freelancer or a full-time employee. The client receives author credit, whether that is a social media status, blog or a book.

Ghostwriting is when someone writes a book on someone else’s behalf. How a ghostwriter works differs from work to work. A ghostwriter might mostly act as an editor or write an entire novel or biography based on someone else’s story or outline. For instance, Tom Clancy works in many ways similar to a director when he oversees the production of his novels by his team of ghostwriters.

David Beckham’s autobiography My Side was ghostwritten by broadcaster and actor Tomm Watt, and Michael Jordan’s autobiography Being Jordan was also written ghostwritten. Nancy Drew novels are written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, but written by a team of ghostwriters. The Hardy Boys, too, was written through the process of ghostwriting.

Some books have covered the subject, such as Robert Schlesinger’s White House Ghosts and Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History, but it’s a rich one.

Historical figures and many others hire ghostwriters because they are busy, and don’t have the time to write the piece themselves.

What Do Ghostwriters Write?

Ghostwriters don’t only write books or political speeches. These days, they write tweets, Facebook statuses, and LinkedIn statuses for their clients. In many arrangements, the ghost writerpens some work, it gets edited (or at least should get edited), and then sent to their client for approval.

Many PR agencies supply ghostwriters who write on behalf of executives and brands. The PR agency might do outreach to publications in order to get their client covered. The PR agency might also play a big role in penning any content that appears (especially in the case of FAQs and opinion-editorials) in the press. The PR agency could reach out directly from their client’s email account, too – a mixture of ghostwriting and sales.

Some copywriters, who specialize in sales copy on behalf of particularly individuals, qualify as ghostwriters. Generally, only experienced and sought-after ghostwriters see their names alongside the author on the cover of a book.

How Does Ghostwriting Work?

We recommend you interview multiple ghostwriters to get a feel for their philosophies, style and if you can work with them. Once you’ve chosen your ghost, you will want to work closely with them to define project scope, manuscript length, and what exactly will be included in the manuscript the ghostwriter turns in.

Be communicative with your ghostwriter, and they will likely turn to you regularly for input. Regular phone calls (weekly?) might be a great way to keep the project on track and inject it with as much of the client’s essence as possible.

If you expect the ghostwriter to do their own research in addition to the interviews, make sure this is made clear in the outline of the project’s scope, as well as if they need to include graphics, photography, and creating an index. Make sure you and your ghostwriter agree on who will hold the copyright – otherwise you likely both will.

Ghostwriters often interview clients for many hours, and oftentimes more than once. Authors should detail as much as possible with ghostwriters before the writing starts. This includes what not to include in the book. Outline the chapters with subheadings and bullet points to make the main topics and ideas for each chapter clear. Expect that, in the beginning, your ghostwriter might not be perfect on the first draft, for it can take time to learn a tone and voice.

Milestones and deadlines will help keep the project on track. These deadlines can also function as checkpoints to ensure the content is heading in the right direction.

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