Finding names of ghostwriters for articles, books, and other thought leadership content is, in many ways, a relatively simple task. Thanks to the dramatic decline in the number of journalism jobs and the rapid growth of freelancer platforms, marketing organizations can assemble the names of a large number of collaborative writers and editors to work with executives who have limited time or ability to write themselves. Organizations can also reach out to their networks for word-of-mouth referrals. (In this article I’m using the terms ghostwriting and collaborative writing and editing interchangeably.)
But once you find a writer or editor, how do you know if that person really has the ability to ghostwrite at a sophisticated level? That’s the hard part, and it’s a problem made even harder when the person evaluating the writer or editor is not a professional writer or editor themselves. The truth is that executives and marketers too often don’t know who is good or bad — until they get started on a project and it doesn’t work out.
That’s when many people I’ve worked with have come to me. Sourcing high-level creative talent with a track record of success at ghostwriting for leading organizations is the reason why elite editorial talent agencies like the Insight Content Lab exist. Unlike most agencies, we have edited creative talent directly on hundreds of thought leadership writing assignments and we know their strengths.
Finding collaborative writers and editors is not as simple as hiring people who have a lot of great writing experience on their own articles and books from impressive brand names. Collaborating with a subject matter expert to advance their ideas, and to write in their voice and under their byline, is a different craft from developing one’s own research and ideas, under one’s own byline. The editorial skills required are more akin to magazine or newspaper editing. There is no reliable AI-powered skills test you can administer to find these kinds of experienced ghostwriters.
Over more than 25 years of ghostwriting, editing, and writing for leading organizations, I have spent much of my career identifying, managing, and coaching large networks of freelance writers and helping hundreds of writers and editors do their best work. In the process, I’ve learned a few tips about how organizations can get started in their search, and ensure a much higher chance of success.
Determine what you need. Some executives like to talk through their ideas with a collaborative writer and then edit and refine what they receive back from a writer over a number of drafts. They think through writing. Others already know exactly what they want to say, and may even have written an outline or draft themselves. These executives may need an ace editor to restructure, rewrite, and polish their prose — or to provide detailed developmental feedback — so that the writing and thinking meet the exacting standards of a professional-quality publication. Some people may have more or less research and thinking done before they start a project. The starting point and overall context for ghostwriting can vary widely. It helps greatly to articulate where you fit into the spectrum of assistance a writer or editor can provide, as well as to talk with an expert who can help you determine what you need.
Look for a track record of successful ghostwriting. This isn’t a situation where you want someone learning ghostwriting on the job — your job. You want a ghost to have attained “the knowledge” already from years of mastering their unique craft. Elite ghostwriters sometimes work under nondisclosure agreements that limit how they can share examples online or take credit for their work. That said, some examples and clients, or at the very least general details about the type and caliber of client, can be shared one on one.
Hire for expertise. Just as important as testing for writing ability is finding a person who has written about the topic. Does a writer seem to understand the issues facing your industry or function? Does he or she know what the senior-level people you want to reach care about and want to read? Look for examples of work in similar or adjacent fields. It’s more likely you’ll find someone with expertise in your broader industry or function rather the precise subsector or function you’re an expert in. That said, most people who are fluent in the topic can learn the specifics of your situation fairly quickly. (Being a quick study is an essential part of the job description for journalists, by the way.)
Explore how well writers work with others. Ghostwriting is a writing collaboration, and the best ghostwriters are skilled at collaboration. Ghostwriters must be part doctor, part diplomat, and sometimes part therapist. They need advanced emotional intelligence skills to read and respond to what’s going on with others skillfully, constructively, and with care and respect. They must know how to influence busy and powerful people — people who they do not control. The above skills fall under the amorphous category of “bedside manner.” It’s a way of working with others in a two-way dialogue, rather than getting others to grudgingly agree with you because you are “right.”
Evaluate project management skills. The process of helping take something from good to great, or at least making it better than where it started, can be a time-consuming and iterative process. Patience is the ultimate virtue. But getting the job done efficiently is also a necessity. Writing for busy executives requires someone who can keep the trains running on time, as well as someone who can create a smooth process for working together over a number of meetings and drafts.
Look for a thought partner. This isn’t stenography — that is, simply writing down what someone says. Collaborative writing should be a true partnership of ideas, as those ideas evolve and get sharpened through the writing process. Can the writer diplomatically push you to clarify and strengthen your argument? Can they politely tell the emperor that their idea has been done before by others, and sometimes done better? After all the back and forth, however, the writer ultimately keeps in mind that this is the client’s content, not theirs. The client’s name is on it, after all.
Invest in experience. Just as you wouldn’t think of building a house without the valuable expertise of an architect, structural engineer, or other skilled professional, you shouldn’t develop high-stakes thought leadership content without the expertise of a professional writer or editor. Collaborative writers and editors range widely in cost, depending on market rates in the sector, the starting point of the content, the scope of the work, and the level of skill and experience required. You can always find inexpensive people just breaking into the job market, as well as people who will rush out an inferior product for a low price. But for the most experienced talent on the most demanding projects, expect to invest as much as you’d spend with any highly skilled professional advisor you hire. In the grand scheme of things, the value of a job well done far exceeds the investment, particularly when you are building a long-term brand and platform. The time and resources wasted on poorly executed content has an even higher opportunity cost.
Higher-order skills like those described in this article may sound easy to discern, but they are often not. That’s why many executives find it more efficient to work with someone who has a long history of finding and developing experienced creative professionals. Working with an expert can take the risk out of projects and help ensure they succeed. When these projects work well, executives can focus on developing their ideas through the ghostwriting process, not on troubleshooting how to fix an often mysterious process when it goes off the rails.
Next up: How to take the risk out of collaborative writing projects and increase their chances of success.
Do you need advice about finding an experienced ghostwriter? Contact us for a free consultation.