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 than imaginable.

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 took off.

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.

A 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.

Startup 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 high-flyer.

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.

First 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."


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 respond.

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 up?

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 help.

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)

Book cover



Read or print the Intro and Chapter 1.

Read the book reviews at Inc and 1-800-CEO-READ.

Read the publisher's press release.

Buy this book from Amazon.com.

Visit the companies that Tom discusses in the book

Hear a recent lecture by Tom on the Startup Garden


Buy my book and I will send you a worksheet and list of local and industry resources for your startup. Simply send me an email with your zip code and type of company and I will email you the free kit. Thanks!


Just Managing – articles that Tom wrote for The Industry Standard and some Business Articles written for Inc., Fortune Small Business, Harvard Management Update, and other places.


Read about other books and web sites about starting your own business.


© 2001-2003 Tom Ehrenfeld | Site design by Tim Swan