As a freelance writer and editor with a passion for books, I’ve spent a couple of decades trying to avoid ghostwriting. Alas, I’ve not always succeeded. There were lean times at the beginning of my career, and ghosting gigs were often available.
Today I avoid those gigs. My job is to ease clients into the act of writing. I will use any tactic or trick in the book, including benign deception.
I’m happy to edit what people write. But I want the core intellectual energy to come from them.
When I urge my clients to do their own writing, they sometimes throw hissy fits. They threaten to hire someone else. That’s fine. My job is to remind them about the downsides of ghostwriting.
1. You avoid thinking
As an entrepreneur, you can delegate many tasks. You can hire someone to manage your calendar, make your travel plans, cook your meals, and do your laundry.
However, there are at least two things that you cannot delegate. One is sex. The other is thinking.
Unfortunately, ghostwriting is based on the idea that you can delegate your thinking. This flies in the face of reality. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing. The two are inseparable.
By forcing you into crap detecting, the act of writing deepens your understanding and changes you at a fundamental level. When you rely on ghostwriters, this transformation does not happen.
2. You undermine your expertise
If you avoid thinking, then you distance yourself from the act of discovery. You miss the process of grappling with ideas to make them more clear, more useful, more elegant, and more memorable.
Yes, this is hard work. Many people will do anything to avoid it. But if you avoid this work, you will never fully own your subject matter.
This point is crucial for people who do a lot of public speaking. As Paul Graham so eloquently reminds us, speakers can get away with bullshit. Writing forces a higher level of thinking than speaking, which ultimately forces you to keep learning. And without continuous learning, your expertise—the lifeblood of your business—is toast.
3. You break an implied contract with the reader
As an idea entrepreneur, it is your sacred vocation to actually work with ideas. Readers want to know that you’ve gotten your hands dirty, grappled with complex problems, and created novel solutions. This is how you create value for people. Why else would anybody buy your books, read your blog, pay you to speak, or hire you to consult?
If your audience finds out that you took the easy way out with a ghostwriter, your credibility instantly suffers.
In his book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book, Guy Kawasaki says it well:
I have a hardcore attitude: a “self-published, ghostwritten book” is wrong because the concept behind self-publishing is that you have knowledge or emotions you want to express. When people read a book—particularly a self-published one—they have a right to expect that it’s the person’s writing, not cleaned-up dictation or slapping a name on a book that someone else wrote.
This applies to any book, self-published or not.
A personal note
True confession: At the deepest level, I avoid ghostwriting because of karma. I care about my legacy. On my death bed, I want to be at peace. I don’t want the epitaph on my tombstone to read: He helped people avoid writing.
Is this selfish? Don’t judge me until you make the effort to write your own stuff.
For more, see Let’s Talk About Ghostwriting.