Can Ghostwriting Really Be Thought Leadership?



As much as 25 percent of the books on the New York Times bestseller list are ghostwritten, by some estimates. And if it’s a memoir by a politician, celebrity or well-known business person, you can definitely bet a ghost writer was involved.

Does that mean the stories and information in those books are made up? No.

It just means the person to whom they belong didn’t have the time (or the skill) to write them down. Instead, the person shared the ideas and anecdotes with a professional writer—usually a former journalist—who asked probing questions, determined a compelling narrative structure, and then worked to capture the person’s unique voice on the page.

The same thing is done all the time with short-form writing. Whether it’s a blog post on a company website, or an opinion piece on or GreenBiz, ghostwritten articles are an effective way to increase the visibility of a thought leader or organization, and to generate web traffic and business leads.

But Is It Really Thought Leadership If Someone Else Writes it?

The quality of the ideas put forward is what determines whether or not a piece of writing is thought leadership.

It’s true there are plenty of organizations and individuals out there hiring writers to crank out articles on their behalf, with little or no guidance. They may do it for SEO purposes, or because they want to provide followers with a steady stream of useful or entertaining content. Both are valid strategies, but that’s not the kind of ghostwriting I’m talking about here.

A very small fraction of those ghostwriters may be coming up with original ideas, but the vast majority of them simply research and remix information and ideas that are already in the public domain.

Thought leadership is when a credible expert shares his or her unique opinions or information on the way that something can or should be done. It’s an op-ed on education policy. Or a commentary on best practices for supply chain engagement. Or a letter to the editor about Urban planning and zoning laws.

Whether or not the bylined author typed every word of the article is irrelevant to the purpose and effect of sharing the expertise.

So How Does Ghostwriting Thought Leadership Work?

I find most ghostwriting thought leadership clients fall into one of two categories—sometimes both.

The first is an incredibly busy leader of a business or nonprofit who doesn’t have the time to dedicate to writing. The second is a person who has important information and ideas to share, but doesn’t have the necessary skills, discipline or experience for the writing.

A good ghostwriter customizes the process to fit the client’s need. For the busy leader, this typically means one or more recorded interviews to gather insights and supporting details. In my experience, these leaders usually have enough ideas in their heads at any one time to support several different articles.

The work of the ghostwriter is often to help determine which ideas are most compelling. That’s another reason why former journalists make good ghostwriters. Because they often keep up with what’s hot and what isn’t in industry discussions.

After selecting and discussing a topic, the ghostwriter will usually create an outline for the client to revise or approve before writing a first draft. (These days, shared documents make it easy for clients to make changes or suggest revisions to outlines and drafts.)

While ghostwriters do their best to write in the voice of their clients, the purpose of a first draft in thought leadership writing is primarily to try to capture and present the client’s ideas as accurately as possible. Then, as the client reviews the writing to make sure it correctly represents what they are trying to say, he or she will also make revisions to better reflect how they would say it. 

The complexity of the topic will usually determine how extensive the revision process is and how many drafts need to be bounced back and forth to reach the final version. But on average, a busy client only needs to spend 3-4 hours on the process, while the ghostwriter may spend anywhere from 10-20 hours on a 1,000-word article.

Ghostwriter as Coach or Editor

For the second category of client—the one who lacks writing skills—the ghostwriter serves largely as an editor or coach.

If the client struggles with the blank page, the interviewing, outlining and drafting process is similar to what I described above. But once the ball is rolling, this type of client will usually have no problem taking over the lead of the drafting process.

Some clients have the exact opposite problem. They spill too many ideas onto the blank page and need help clarifying and supporting a single idea or logical progression of ideas. In this instance, the ghostwriter is actually serving as an editor from the start, chopping away the irrelevant material and structuring what’s left.

Similarly, it’s the ghostwriter’s job to make sure the quality of the final draft is as high as possible. That often means pulling additional examples and anecdotes out of clients to be sure articles are balanced and readable. Or it may mean insisting on a better structure or narrative pacing, or correcting grammar. For my academic clients, who only write academic papers, it means condensing long, dry conclusions into commentaries with enough opinion to appeal to the editors and audiences of mainstream publications.

Lastly, the role of the ghostwriter for this type of client is to provide encouragement and accountability. Clients often have good intentions when committing to a writing project, but it’s the first thing to get pushed aside when more pressing concerns arise. Friendly reminders and deadline agreements are key to keeping the collaboration moving forward and ultimately achieving the client’s goal.

How Does a Ghostwritten Article Get Placed in the Media?

Technically the job of the ghostwriter is complete upon approval of a final draft by the client.

However, thought leadership ghostwriting is sometimes performed as part of a PR contract, in which the ghostwriter or a colleague will take responsibility for placing the article in a publication that will achieve the client’s publicity goals. (This is yet another reason why former journalists with good media contacts make successful ghostwriters.)

Unless the client already has an in-house PR manager, this is a good arrangement, because in addition to contacts, finding a placement also takes time and experience.

If I’m handling the article placement for a client, we’ll agree on a list of preferred top-tier publications as well as acceptable mid-tier publications. Multiple submissions are generally discouraged, so we begin pitching the article one-by-one to editors at the top of the list and work our way down. It can easily take up to three weeks to get a response from a single publication.

Competition is intense for placement in top-tier publications, which is why we’ll often begin reaching out to editors at the beginning of the ghostwriting process. This sometimes allows us to get feedback on the topics we’re considering and improve the chances we’ll produce something the publication is excited about.

Occasionally an editor will request revisions to an article we’ve already completed, in which case I’ll circle back with the client to determine whether or not we want to make the changes, or keep looking.

Let’s Wrap This Up

I hope this answered your questions about ghostwriting for thought leadership.

At New Growth Communications we’re passionate about helping clients express their expertise. In bringing our skills and effort to their ideas, we feel we’re helping to make the world a better place.