Shava Nerad: Blog Ghost Writing Amplifies Authentic Voices

This response was originally posted on Shava Nerad’s blog Memesplice. It is used with permission.


This is a response to Ja-Nae Duane’s article, which in turn responds to Dave Weineke’s article, both on, Dave’s blog.

You should go read both.  But briefly, Dave thinks a blog article written by one person and posted under another name is a violation of ethics.  Ja-Nae, speaking as a client, begs to differ.

Let me, as a professional, explain why Ja-Nae is not only justified, but supported by a long history that should be admired and respected.

Those of you who know me in person probably know I come off better in print than I often do in public.  I’m not a stylish dresser.  I’m a bit geekish, and when I am not on a podium, my speech is overly-mannered and too fast.

But I can write.  And I have a terrific ear.

I have ghost written a blog for a Harvard professor and have ghost written speeches for a major figure in philanthropy and a number of politicians.  I have written articles for CEOS and professors that were placed in major publications, and ghosted an article by a major magazine editor when he was asked to write a guest column for Newsweek.

My name not on those works.  Not only that, but in many cases, I am contractually or otherwise professionally obligated not to list those works on my resume or mention the clients by name.

But I have to say, I was paid well by most of them (some of the political work was volunteer).

Is it ethical to publish an article solely in our client’s name?  It always has been.  We might be listed as staff on a publication, or a roster.  The thoughts we write are not, technically, our own.  We don’t really do much more than a radio journalist does when interviewing a public figure, cutting small talk, removing the um’s and ah’s, and re-recording and restating questions to better fit the time allotted for a story.  Oh, wait — you mean you didn’t know they did that either?

Even when ghosting is transparent, it has been quickly forgotten or overlooked by the public in the past.  Every American history reader knows President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country!”

But Kennedy only *said* those words, which are attributed to him in every reference work of quotations in the world.  A genius speech writer, Ted Sorenson, wrote those words for him.

Sorenson, an intelligent, intellectual, modest man, did what he did out of purpose and love, with a finely honed sense of language — and an intimate understanding of the man he worked for.

His words carried Kennedy’s authentic voice around the world.

The job of a ghost or speech writer is to get so far inside the mind and skin of her/his client that you are no more “faking” the person’s words, than a hairdresser is “faking” the person’s hair. Ideally, a professional makes the expression of style a natural extension of the individual. The client runs a comb through, and every word falls in place as though it grew that way.

Sometimes, the “fix” is obvious.  Did anyone think Sarah Palin solo’d her book?  Authenticity is transparent with or without a ghost (Lynn Vincent, senior writer for the Christian publication World Magazine).  The Christian Science Monitor estimates that 90% of politicians’ books are ghosted, Obama’s being a notable recent exception.

Some of us do this better than others.  We have, in the parlance of social media, been “delivering authenticity” for longer than any media workers.

True, in Rome, senators were required to study rhetoric and elocution and deliver oratory that could run over six hours of prepared speech at a time. But European and later American tradition is not so demanding. We tend to nearly ignore who actually wrote the great speeches of our history.

George Washington asked Hamilton and Madison to help draft his farewell address.  Lincoln famously wrote his own copy.  Winston Churchill was lauded for writing his own speeches — as an exception from a more common case of hiring help, especially after the advent of radio.

Although Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great speech writer and worked the profession himself as a younger man, Sam Rosenberg wrote or helped to revise many of FDR’s speeches.  Rosenberg stayed on to enhance Truman’s delivery.

Obama depends on a very young speechwriter, Jon Favreau, (b. 1981) who I am in awe of — but he wrote his speech on race, the “A more perfect union” speech, himself (and, honestly, you could hardly claim to tell his own style from Favreau’s).

The recent insistence that public figures write all their own copy (speeches, articles, books, social media) expresses more of a fashion in media than an understanding of its history.  It also reflects the sometimes ugly requirements of our cult of celebrity.

We are not asking public social media figures for autographs; we’re asking for the essence of their  thoughts.  Most are busy people, and many are simply not writers, even if they might be able to speak; some are not speakers even if they may be able to code, manage, or act.

If these non-writers don’t hire social media professionals who can be delegated to accurately and authentically portray their ethics and character, and even their style of delivery, then they need to find better staff. (I have hours available!)

It is as easy for a professional to anticipate what a client would say in any situation as it is to know what a mother or a father or a best friend might say.  And as easy to know when you aren’t sure and should check in.

A professional knows when to have a draft reviewed, when a personal touch is absolutely required or a critical statement must be made.

We are human, and we do make mistakes.  Hey, you’ve watched West Wing, right?

Social media is in deep denial of its emergence as the child of public relations and speech writing, which has traditionally been delegated — and, yes, purchased — by athletes, actors, singers, CEOs, coders, and many others.

These media fashions are changing to disadvantage non-writers.  I find that unfair and cruel, and far more unrealistic than the concept that you are getting a translated window to a genuine person.

The best speech writers bring a bardic voice to  the client’s message — and the client will find it more truly speaks his or her own heart, whether in a traditional speech to the public, a press release, or a tweet or blog.

We have been invisible, and as such, unrespected.  But behind the curtain, speech writers and our sister professions have delighted and inspired you your entire life.  Transparency may destroy the illusion, but don’t vilify us.  Most of us are genuinely good people, doing authentically good work.   Our clients do have a brain, a heart, and courage — we just help them realize it.

Make it a reason to admire what we do, when we amplify an authentic voice.

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