I was talking with a friend the other day about being a ghost writer. It’s such a great term: ghost writer. Haunting and secretive, because a ghost writer is the invisible spirit and voice behind a piece of writing that carries another person’s name as the author.
But the task of ghostwriting is anything but secretive. It’s deeply intimate.
I’ve served as a ghost writer for university presidents, CEOs, and the chairmen of publicly-traded companies. When someone else is signing their name as the author of something I’ve written, I have to do more than write well, I have to become that person: their personality and their voice has to become distinctive and illuminated.
The first time I wrote a CEO Letter to Shareholders for an annual report, I did some research by looking at other letters, undoubtedly written by other ghost writers for other CEOs.
It was this opening line, from Michael D. Eisner, the chairman and chief executive officer of Disney, that inspired and instructed me: “As the first rain of El Nino descends on Los Angeles, I find myself indoors and excited about writing my letter for the annual report.”
A simple, almost innocuous opening, but in reality so much more.
Did Eisner write those words? Or did a ghost writer? The question is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that Eisner is immediately portrayed as a person beyond his role in business, a person who notices the rain, a person who has feelings—and therefore someone with a personality. Right away, the reader cares.
That’s the law of ghostwriting: to reflect the personality, to uncover the authentic voice, to portray the mood and reveal the attitude of the person you are writing for.
To do achieve that, you have to spend time with the person, you have to ask probing questions (thus the intimate nature of the work), and you have to rely on insight and inventiveness.
My training as a novelist—inventing characters and investing in them, making readers believe in them and be empathetic toward them—has served me well as a ghost writer. And being a ghost writer—convincingly portraying someone else—has served me well as a novelist.