Being a Good Ghost

6 Jun

My first ghostwritten article for a magazine shocked me. For one thing, I had submitted the piece with my own byline and I had received a letter of acceptance from an editor with a proposed publication date. As a young writer breaking into the technology publishing business, every byline meant progress in my career and fed my fragile ego.

It was 1982 and I was working at a company called Sytek in Silicon Valley. My title was Market Analyst/Writer. I spent my days cranking out prose about an emerging technology called local area networks or LANs. Sytek was in a fierce battle with companies like Ungermann-Bass, 3Com, Davong, and others. We promoted a technology called broadband while most competitors pushed baseband or token ring. It was pretty arcane stuff back then. (Maybe it still is.) So I wrote a lot of basic stories about what LANs were and how broadband was the cat’s pajamas.

At the time, these introductory articles were gobbled up by East Coast magazines seeking to be at the forefront of the latest advances coming out of Silicon Valley. So that’s where I sent my work and quite a bit of it got published.

Many weeks after I had gotten my letter of acceptance I was surprised to get a phone call from a more senior editor at the magazine. His voice was redolent with a lifetime in New York and, I guessed, more than a pack a day of cigarettes. The conversation went something like this:

“You the kid who wrote this story?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Market analyst writer, huh?

“Yes, sir.”

Long pause. “What’s your boss’s title?”

“She’s the marketing manager.”

Longer pause. “What’s her boss’s title.”

“Director of marketing.”

“What’s his name?”

I told him.

“Let me talk to him.”

I patched him through and about a half an hour later the director of marketing came into my office and told me he was getting the byline on the story.

He said, “The editor didn’t like your title. Didn’t sound senior enough for him. But I made sure you’ll get the check.”

I was crushed. My boss’s boss had nothing to do with the story. Hadn’t even read it before I submitted it. Yet, he’d get the glory. As a young writer, that glory was more rewarding than the small fees earned from freelance work. My goal was to get a job on a technology publication and for that I needed glorious bylines.

A thousand or so bylines later, I actually prefer ghostwriting for my paid work. Frankly, it generally pays much more than similar work assigned by a publication or website. Also, I enjoy the collaborative process of interviewing people, teasing out their ideas, and then feeding those ideas back to them in written form. But the ideas are theirs, not mine. I’m just the scribe. So the glory should be all theirs.

To me a true ghostwriter never accepts credit. As a ghost you should be invisible. No “as told to” or byline in smaller type. It took me quite a few years to learn that lesson. Sometimes, though, there isn’t a big fat check for the ghostwriter. There’s only the promise of one if the work sells. In that case, a co-byline is important because it can lead to the next paying assignment.

There are more benefits than money in being a ghost. One of the better ones is gratitude. People still like to see the inchoate ideas they’ve carried in their heads suddenly expressed perfectly on the page. Because they’re not professional writers, they also get a pure sense of glory at seeing their bylines. As a rule they offer their thanks effusively and often express wonder at the ghostwriter’s talent, wishing they, too, could write well. And that nourishes this ghost’s ego just like a byline of old.

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2 Responses to “Being a Good Ghost”

  1. Paul June 7, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    ….”from a more senior editor at the magazine. His voice was redolent with a lifetime in New York and ,i guessed, more than a pack of cigarettes a day”. Nicely written. (Shuffles off to shower and brush teeth)

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