A Ghost Speaks
What ghostwriting can teach any businessperson about writing
In the past five years I have done considerable work as a ghostwriter,
a job that was not a childhood dream of mine. When the other kids
said they wanted to grow up and become astronauts or firemen, I
didn't pipe in, "I want to tweak other people's prose."
Nonetheless, I love the work. I fell into this profession after
developing a specific set of skills as a writer and editor at Harvard
Business Review and then Inc. Magazine. When helping business people
produce an article, my set of tasks came to include interviewing,
taping, transcribing, drafting, copyediting, and polishing--in short,
doing whatever it took to make the piece work on paper. I say this
to take nothing away from the authors. My job then, as it is now,
was simply to provide that which they--for reasons of time, temperament,
or experience--could not.
Working as a ghostwriter for others has taught me powerful lessons
about writing that I believe are instructive to anyone struggling
with the craft. Here are a few:
Focus on what you have to say--and not on how you say
it. Worrying about how your words sound on paper is like
fussing about the shade of color of paint on your house before drafting
up blueprints or finding financing. In other words, too many would-be
writers obsess over the least important thing first: the cosmetic
appearance of their work. People don't build houses without a blueprint,
and there's a reason. You need structure, and a foundation for what
you plan to build.
The first thing I do with clients is have a simple conversation
about what they have to say. I ask the author to describe, simply,
the guts of the book. We rarely talk about which adjective sounds
best in a particular sentence, or what rhetorical device will serve
as the best lead. Rather, we focus on the simple question "what
do you want to say?" Once we have discovered and decided the argument
such decisions are relatively easy.
Grammar and syntax and voice are as critical to the finished project
as a fresh paint job and pleasing garden complete a house. But these
matters cannot begin to address the woes of a house with a shaky
foundation. If the hard work on structure has been done, the smaller
details will resolve themselves far more simply and organically
Prove it. Authority matters more than argument.
While my first question to an author is "what do you know?," the
second, and equally important, is "how do you know it?" Unless the
author can reveal the source of their knowledge, the proof for their
assertion, then no degree of rhetorical force can convince the reader
of their claim. Authority doesn't mean a God-like omniscence about
a topic: it simply means that you know what you are talking about.
This source of knowledge can be research or personal experience.
Journalists tell their stories with direct observation, facts, and
quotes. So should authors. For example, my authority to make these
preachy rules derives from my work with leading business authors.
I distinguish between the words writer and author. Though one
person often wears both hats, a persuasive piece of writing calls
for matter and art. And as the "writer" helping shape the prose,
I have learned that while I can help someone state their case clearly,
I cannot provide authority to someone else's work. You must know
what you are talking about.
Tell me a story. The best proof for an argument,
and the most solid source of authority, is your direct experience.
So share that story. For example, when I was helping a client write
about a technique of his that enabled managers to communicate better,
he kept tapping deeper into the theory of the tool to explain its
use and value. When he finally switched gears and talked in detail
about how a group of factory workers actually changed their way
of working together as a result of his coaching, the manuscript
Write to your customer. Like any successful product,
books and articles are produced for a specific market. They are
written with an audience in mind, and they are complete only when
read by that person, or people. One of the editor's most important
responsibilities is to keep that audience in mind--to give context
to the author's content. Her guidance helps shape the material to
resonate with the appropriate (which is not to say the largest)
audience of readers. When writing always keep that audience in mind.
Write, write, write! Writing is a process that
leads to an outcome. My most important task is having a conversation
with the author that helps him or her articulate what he wants to
say. On your own, your writing acts as that conversation. You discover
the heart of the matter through the act of writing. The iterative,
accumulative process of uncovering the stuff, and then playing with
it helps the best material emerge. That's why first drafts are often
bad. But they represent a start. And it is better to get the material
down on paper than to edit it mentally and in so doing produce nothing.
Precision is for the next draft.
If you want to write well, then read. It's that simple. You benchmark
competitors on their speed to market and their core processes. Why
shouldn't you pick up invaluable lessons by seeing how masters tell
their tales? The following selections exemplify at least one of
the principles outlined above.
Collection of Essays by George Orwell
"Good prose is like a window pane," says Orwell in "Why I Write,"
the last piece in this excellent collection of formidably written
essays. Orwell's writing is deceptively simple. At first glance
plain and direct, his voice, his "style," contains far more nuance
and complexity than most fiction writers. Two essays stand out above
the rest. The frequently-cited "Politics and the English Language"
is a shrewd, pointed article on how to say exactly what you mean:
how to use language rather than be used by it. Orwell goes on to
practice precisely what he preaches in the essay "Shooting An Elephant,"
which recounts a wrenching experience of peer pressure, imperialistic
embarassment, and simple youthful folly he encountered while stationed
in India. Read this essay for content first; and then a second time
to see how he crafts such a powerful story.
by Jerry Kaplan
Kaplan's wry voice informs every element of this story of a startup
gone South. Rich with data and insight, Kaplan's book shows how
a story can convey more insight than a library of analysts reports.
Not only that, but he has a great story to tell: his ill-fated launch
of a pen-based computer company that failed for lack of a ready
market. Today the CEO of Onsale, a successful internet auction company,
Kaplan has applied the lessons he learned in this story to his current
The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. (Selected,
arranged, and Introduced by Lawrence A. Cunningham; available for
$20 from the author at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, 55 Fifth
Avenue, New York, NY, 10003) There's a correlation between the simplicity
of Buffet's investment philosophy (he has been quoted as attributing
his lifelong success to no more than a dozen decisions) and the
clarity of these essays, which are culled from the letters to investors
from the annual reports of Berkshire Hathaway. Buffet's strong opinions
on what makes a company, and thus a stock, great, come through in
forceful and engaging prose.
Person: Tales of Management Courage and Tenacity
by Thomas Teal, (HBS Press)
Each of these articles picked from Harvard Business Review reveals
more than the simple lessons from dynamic businesspeople; they show
how that person came to their epiphany. As Teal says in the introduction,
"Not all these stories are success stories in the usual sense. Not
all of them end happily. But they all include struggle and error
leading to insight, and all of them say something vital about the
nature of good management--even when good management is not enough."
COMMENTS ABOUT WRITING FROM BOOK EDITORS:
Adrian Zackheim, Penguin Putnam
Ghostwriters end up being involved with 90 percent of the books
we publish. With the majority of books that we publish (as opposed
to other parts of this publishing house), the authors are not writers
by profession. They are employed fulltime at another job, which
in most instances is a very demanding one.
The one thing I've noticed with business experts is that they
have a very considerable store of expertise, and so the challenge
of most writers is to persuade them that their knowledge exceeds
the boundary of a single book. The discipline of writing a book
is the discipline of focusing around a core set of ideas. Consultants
are used to thinking in terms of the entire body of thought that
they offer clients. In the course of any longterm consulting engagement
they share an enormous amount of content with their client, and
they believe they have to put all that in one book.
That's why I often get involved over the issue of deciding what
gets in and what is left out. If your main author has a worthwhile
body of information then you have to struggle to narrow it down
to a booksized piece of work. And once that author has been working
with a writer for a while they get so inundated with the content
they lose the capacity to discern what is critical or not.
Cedric Crocker, Jossey-Bass
Anybody who developed a body of ideas over time usually has them
really well crystalized. The difficulty comes when they try to translate
that thinking into a book. Most of our authors have had some face-to-face
experience in articulating their ideas with people, perhaps as a
teacher in a classroom or a trainer in front of a hotel room. I
ask them to imagine those situations and think about how they paint
the picture of what they want to get across. The biggest challenge
is getting them to focus on a specific audience. They need to imagine
the questions that that person would pose to them and how they would
The challenge is to get the author to think beyond simply getting
across just what they know. The tendency for most experts is to
tell you about specific pieces of the topic that they know--rather
than then whole thing in a structured manner. They may have a lot
of pieces, but a book requires the integrative process approach
that ties things together in a logical and experiential way.
Without a really clearly articulated thesis you can't create anything.
I ask my authors to describe the book in one sentence. If you can't,
the book won't have an impact. It will be diffuse; and it will ask
too much of the reader. I ask authors: What is the map of the book?
Where is the person you are talking to now and what is the path
that the book takes them along? And where do you want them to end
I think the best business books combine the content of the textbook
and the devices of a novel. That is, a textbook is subject and topic
driven. You are presenting discrete topics in a logical way. The
novel, on the other hand, engages the reader so he enters into the
book through identifying with the characters. I like my authors
to bring those two devices together.
I ask my authors to put a lot of work into writing a preface,
which I consider the vision statement for the book. It makes the
connection with the reader around the topic of what the book is
going to do. You should be able to give it to somebody, and in a
couple of pages they get whether they want to read the book or not.
If you get people to state the thesis in a sentence or two, write
a preface of 2-3 pages that is speaking directly to the audience
about the book, and create the map of the book; then the rest of
it is still a lot of work, but there are a lot of ways that I can
Carol Franco, Harvard Business School Press
Know your audience. Authors sometimes try to popularize or lighten
up a professional work for a popular audience that might be nonexistent.
Years ago an author was trying to write a piece about regulation
in utility industry for an audience that didn't exist! Authors should
not dumb their message down so that they don't deliver for a specific
audience. It doesn't work and then they are disappointed when they
don't reach that broader audience.
I always caution authors to write about what they know. I get
nervous when an author says what do you want me to write about?
The author should stick to what he or she is highly knowledgeable
about and bring that to the audience.
Nick Phillipson, Perseus
I think the one word that comes to mind--specifically in the context
of writing business books--is clarity. The primary function of most
business books is to inform rather than simply entertain; and clarity
is the essential element.
I focus on making sure that the manuscript has a logical flow.
As a person is introduced to the ideas they should feel the arc
of the ideas and have enough cues so that the next step does not
feel condescending or burdensome. The clarity of the message is
a function of being direct as well as true to your idea. I also
find clarity when authors don't repeat words or ideas, when their
pages aren't cluttered with irrelevant or tangential ideas. I often
find myself editing away things that aren't on point.
Think carefully about what elements can best articulate your ideas.
Do you have an opportunity to present them in a way that marries
narrative text with other elements? This can include graphics, check
lists, exercises, photos; any visual aides that don't limit you
to straight text. Sometimes you find yourself able to best express
yourself with a combination of these elements rather than text alone.
But don't be so enamoured with being cute or clever or overly produced
that you miss the power of the written word.
Allow yourself to have some creative time as you are working with
your ideas. I believe that people process information on many levels
simultaneously, and in a business book you need to have an opportunity
to capture these processes.
(This article appeared in Harvard Communication Update)