Not once, in my four years as an English Literature major and in the additional two years of study as I pursued an MFA in Creative Writing almost a decade ago, was ghostwriting given considerable attention in my coursework.
Looking back, this is quite odd—most every work I’d been taught to study was presented to us as though a single author penned it all by themselves. Additionally, though many of the well-known authors from various time periods were employed by the king or government at the time, there was an assumption that ghostwriting was never part of those relationships.
Ghostwriting, for better or worse, is still viewed as the kind of dark side of creative writing—an element to the history of literary arts that we all know has existed from the very beginning but that isn’t granted much attention.
While it’s safe to say that ghostwriting has been around since the beginning—or at least since someone who could put words together was asked to help or was hired to do so under the name of another person—the secrecy of the field has meant it can be difficult to track who wrote what and for which person.
Some of our most prized literary works and some of our most sacred religious texts have benefitted from the work of ghostwriters. Which is to say that, historically, ghostwriting has always been about thought leadership.
While the term “thought leadership” may feel relatively new (and overused) these days, it’s been around for ages. Likewise, ghostwriting and thought leadership have always been inextricably linked. In fact, ghostwriting, in its very essence, is an act of creating thought leadership content for another person—whether or not either party speaks of it in such terms.
Before we dig into what ghostwriting for thought leadership looks like, let’s first answer this question:
What is thought leadership?
Thought leadership is when a person or group of people have produced content that has shaped the thought of others in their field and/or in the larger public arena.
This can take a variety of forms—from Sir Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation which paved the way for many of humanity’s modern thoughts about gravity, to Maya Angelou’s poem titled Still I Rise which has inspired resiliency in generations of people.
But thought leadership doesn’t only include works of science and art. Writers and speakers of all types are producing thought leadership content, and those writings and speeches that have stood the test of time most closely resemble the more modern concept of thought leadership.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that thought leadership is usually not a black or white issue. What constitutes what is or isn’t thought leadership can be tough to pin down. How many people must this content reach or move? How influenced were those consumers of this content? Did this content inform the thoughts of only one person, of an entire field, of the world?
Today, the term “thought leadership” is typically used to describe the process of consistently creating content to position a person or group of people as a respected and ideally go-to source for information on a particular topic.
As such, modern thought leadership is closely tied to content marketing.
In positioning a person or group of people as a thought leader, and of course doing so through content, today’s thought leadership strategies are made of two equal parts—the part that wants to elevate the positioning of a person or group of people, and the part that wants the consumers of this thought leadership content to take actions that are beneficial to that person or group of people.
In other words, thought leadership is closely tied to business goals. In many cases, thought leadership content is the primary method by which a business is attempting to grow.
In this sense, thought leadership can be broken down into a 3-step process:
- content is consistently created;
- this content is strategically shared to grow the base of content consumers;
- the content consumers are strategically encouraged to take actions beneficial to the named content creator.
Here’s another glimpse into what that type of thought leadership for content marketing process can look like:
And this leaves us with yet another question I often hear people ask:
Who are thought leaders?
As alluded to above, thought leaders come in all spheres of influence. An aunt in one family may be a thought leader within the realm of that family. People may go to her for advice on particular topics.
On a larger scale, a company like Patagonia is viewed by many as a thought leader on how to wrap environmental advocacy into your brand. And many business people and philanthropists see Bill Gates as a thought leader in the various domains he works in.
So let’s try to answer this question as simply and clearly as possible:
Who are thought leaders?
A thought leader is a person or a group of people viewed by another person or group of people as respected sources of information.
Now that we’re on the same page, here are six of the most common questions I hear about ghostwriting for thought leadership:
- What is ghostwriting for thought leadership?
- Does ghostwriting for thought leadership work?
- How do you hire a ghostwriter for thought leadership?
- Is ghostwriting for thought leadership ethical?
- Who uses ghostwriting for thought leadership?
- When should you use ghostwriting for thought leadership?
To gain a more holistic understanding of what ghostwriting looks like as it relates to thought leadership, let’s briefly break each of these down:
1. What is ghostwriting for thought leadership?
Ghostwriting for thought leadership is the process of using the skills of a ghostwriter to create content under you or your company’s name for the sake of developing and/or growing your own or your company’s reputation.
2. Does ghostwriting for thought leadership work?
The short answer is yes and that it has throughout history. Many of the ideas we live by today are ideas a person or a group of people had a ghostwriter shape for them. Now, can ghostwriting fail to have the intended impact? Absolutely.
When it works best, however, is when there is a long-term relationship between the ghostwriter and the thought leader. This doesn’t only mean they “get along.” It means they have a long-term strategic process in place for how to make it all work. That process is typically identical to that of any successful content marketing strategy.
This means there are editorial processes in place for a few of the following aspects, among others:
- which content will be created and why?
- who will create the content and how often?
- how will that content be distributed? and;
- how will the impact of that content and the overall strategy be measured?
In this sense, when it comes to ghostwriting for thought leadership it’s either important to have a great content marketing strategy in place or to hire a ghostwriter who thoroughly understands content marketing.
3. How do you hire a ghostwriter for thought leadership?
Well, for starters, here are all the advertisements a Google search for “hire a ghostwriter to blog” brings up:
But there are of course ways other than clicking on these ads, including reaching out directly to independent ghostwriters and writers who write about ghostwriting, or opening up discussions with others in your industry about if ghostwriters play a role in their thought leadership strategy. If so, ask them what advice they may have for how to begin the hiring process.
Lastly, How To Hire A Ghostwriter For Your Book may provide applicable insights.
4. Is ghostwriting for thought leadership ethical?
This is a question as old as the profession itself. Is it ethical to have someone else write your words, and yet convey to the content consumers that that piece of content is yours?
Here’s one way to look at the ethics of this:
Being a thought leader doesn’t necessarily make you a writer. In fact, I’d argue that most thought leaders aren’t actually good writers. So then the question becomes, are you hiring a ghostwriter to be your thought leader and write your thought leadership pieces? It’s unlikely.
Far more likely is that you are the thinker, and that you need help getting those thoughts down in ways that feel polished and save you time.
So then the question of ethics is basically about the reader. Is it a big deal to you that the reader may or may not have envisioned you as the only person sitting at a desk to painstakingly craft the words of your blog post or your important speech?
If you care this much about their possible perception, however naive, then perhaps ghostwriting for thought leadership will always feel unethical to you.
If, however, you see thought leadership in its more historical, team-based context, and assume your audience understands that content of all forms typically isn’t produced by a lone wolf, then you may see ghostwriting as a perfectly ethical part of your thought leadership strategy.
Did you ever write a speech and have a friend offer up an amazing quote that became a critical part of that speech? If so, was that ghostwriting? Did the audience care who that quote came from?
5. Who uses ghostwriting for thought leadership?
People and companies of all types and of all levels of notoriety and success use ghostwriting for thought leadership. Because of its relationship to content marketing, thought leadership ghostwriting in the more modern sense actually involves the building of a person or group of people into a thought leader.
This debunks the myth out there that ghostwriters are only used by people or groups who are already thought leaders—although this certainly is one way ghostwriters are used.
Be it in the form of blog writing or speechwriting, or writing a memoir or a company’s history, ghostwriting for thought leadership is used by business executives, entertainers, athletes and people from all walks of life who simply need help creating content.
6. When should you use ghostwriting for thought leadership?
I typically see this coming down to time, money and skill.
On time: If you are busy, for example, leading the operations of your business, ghostwriting can be a way for you to maintain your important work in this regard while simultanously building yourself and/or your company into a thought leader.
On money: There are many dimensions of thought leadership ghostwriting, and your financial standing will play a role in determining which dimension is most beneficial for you to pursue.
On skill: As stated earlier, thought leaders aren’t necessarily great writers. If you have the time and the money, but are lacking the skill, it’s up to you: Do you want to use your time to undertake some critical study so you can pick up the skill, or would you rather bring in a ghostwriter and use your time elsewhere?