Ghostwriting Part 2: Four Tips for Journalists


  • By David Burda
  • October 02, 2015
Ghostwriting Part 2: Four Tips for Journalists

Good journalists possess all the right tools to become great ghostwriters. In last month’s blog post I explained why.

In short, they’re subject matter experts, they’re gifted storytellers and they’re disciplined in the ways of publishing content.

But good journalists can’t become great ghostwriters unless they know how to use those tools effectively. In this post, I’ll offer four tips to journalists who want to be ghostwriters. The tips also double as qualities that companies should look for in the ghostwriters that they retain.

The first thing journalists-turned-ghostwriters must accept is that the relationship between the writer and client is fundamentally different from the relationship between the reporter and source. In both relationships, the writer and the reporter are trying to extract information from the client and source that will be useful to the target audience, whether that’s a customer base or the public. But how that information is extracted is very different.

Proper Preparation

As a reporter, I always want my sources to be prepared. I tell them why I want to talk and give them a few general questions ahead of time. I never tell them the angle of the story, and I make it clear that my questions will not be limited to what I give them in advance. Interviews are in person or over the phone; never by e-mail. Hand-written notes only. Nothing recorded, and no transcript.

Ghostwriters should also prepare their clients—as much as possible—because a ghostwriter may only get one shot at it. Prior to an interview, I would recommend sending the client:
 
  • The angle of the piece if not a draft lead for the piece
  • Links to background material (articles, studies, reports, etc.) to read
  • An outline of talking points
  • Five to 10 detailed questions that will be asked.

Interview Techniques

Interviews should be done in person or over the phone, and they should be recorded and transcribed.

Assuming the client reads the background material, reviews the questions and is prepared—and that’s a big assumption—it’s time for the interview. I would urge the ghostwriter to do it himself rather than listening in while a junior executive interviews a senior executive or a customer. As a trained journalist, a ghostwriter can pick up what’s important, what’s missing and what needs clarification and then ask the appropriate follow-up questions.

Write Something New

Now the fun part: the writing. It’s a cliché to say write for your audience. But that’s hard to do regardless of whether you’re a journalist or a ghostwriter.

I know as a reporter, I more often than not write for myself. I see myself as the proxy for the audience and write what I (they) want to know. For ghostwriters, the trap is writing for the person who signs the check. If a ghostwriter makes that person look good, the ghostwriter will get more assignments. That might work in the short term. But in the long term, that approach will fail because no one will read what the ghostwriter wrote under the client’s name. The question that should guide ghostwriting is: What does the audience need to know about this topic?

Answering that question is the next writing challenge journalists face as ghostwriters. As Rod Stewart sang in “Every Picture Tells a Story,” it’s all been said before. I consume a disproportionate share of blog posts, columns, essays, case studies, white papers, surveys, studies, reports, webinars, videos, podcasts, speeches and presentations about the healthcare industry. And Rod the Mod is right. Most are cliché-filled pieces that basically say the same thing. They don’t add to the conversation. They don’t make anyone think about something in a fresh way.

The goal of the ghostwriter is to pick through the interview and pluck out the client’s thoughts that say something new, that add to the conversation and that make someone think about something in a fresh way. It’s no different from a business reporter combing through an SEC filing in search for a clue to big financial news or a political reporter at a press conference listening for subtle but significant change in a candidate’s position on an issue.

Three hundred words that say something new, add to the conversation or make someone think about something in a fresh way are worth far more than 2,000 words that tell an old story.

The writing itself can be another tar pit for the journalist-turned-ghostwriter. To the reporter, quoting someone accurately means quoting someone verbatim. If you’ve read an interview transcript, you know that people rarely speak in perfectly constructed sentences, lay out their thoughts in a logical manner, stay on topic or get the name of a law or report right. Ghostwriting a blog post or guest commentary verbatim is impossible. Not nearly impossible or next to impossible. Impossible.

The ghostwriter should think of the interview transcript as notes. He should identify the salient points and borrow a few keywords or phrases used by the client to personalize it. But, the ghostwriter should write it himself following the tone and point-of-view guidelines agreed to prior to the interview. The result will be a highly readable version of what the client wants to say.

Proper preparation, sound interviewing techniques, story recognition and clarity in writing. Good journalists possess all four skills. Good journalists who know how to use them the right way can make the best ghostwriters.