Copywriting

Ghost-writing, and how to avoid being too precious

Life as a copywriter is great, even when someone else takes the credit for your work. The key to successful ghost-writing is to avoid being precious.

As a copywriter, I’m often asked what my favourite kind of writing task is.

My answer has never been, nor will it ever be, white papers. My peers may enjoy getting stuck into a multi-page document with many thousands of words, mostly repetitive, but not me. I’m more of an article writer, and I enjoy scripts and web copy, that sort of thing.

“What have you written that I might have seen?” is a common question.

“Unless you read corporate blogs or CEO emails, probably not much,” is a common reply.

And where friends and family persist in taking an interest in my work, I point them to articles that are hard to prove are mine, because they don’t include my name. This is because, as most copywriters know, ghost-writing plays a significant role in the everyday life of a professional writer. Simply put, we write stuff for other people to take credit for.

And a professional copywriter who’s been around a few years has come to terms with this. For me, the thrill of being published for the first time came and went when Princess Diana was still alive. It’s still great to see a credit in a new publication, but the lustre has dimmed. My bills are more often covered by writing anonymously, and I’m content. Where I’m most often emotionally challenged is when someone wants to change my work, but this too is something to get over, and it lies at the core of this article.

The (perceived) skills gap

The difference between a writer and a designer is that a designer will often be credited for their work. They can reinforce their expertise more proficiently than a writer. The problem with writing is that everyone thinks they can do it, including those who can’t.

Question a designer about their design and they may not speak to you for a while. Question a manager about their management skills and your life will become a misery. Question a CEO about their leadership skills and you may be sacked. But the writer is questioned all of the time, because everyone thinks they can do it. I spend a fair portion of my time pretending to agree with people’s suggestions, only to revert to how it should be done, or at least find a compromise. (Good suggestions are always taken onboard.)

However, where you’re ghost-writing, I advise learning to let go. Add your expertise, and cajole people to see the benefits of certain inclusions, but not at the expense of serving the client. If their name is on it, they get the last word. Even when they’re absolutely wrong. I would want the last word if my name were on it, too. Of course, you should save revisions – include the changes the client wants to make in drafts, so that you can always go back when they change their mind. But don’t get caught up in too many drafts. Draw a line where a line needs to be drawn, otherwise you’ll spend all day making changes you don’t believe in and not being paid for them.

Being precious isn’t worthwhile. You will still be paid the same rate regardless of whose name is on the article. Feeling appreciated isn’t part of the contract. Nice clients will now and then offer plaudits and thank you for writing on their behalf, and only when they remember who’s actually doing the writing.

I’m aware of having painted a bleak picture of the life of a copywriter, but it’s only because I just drank cold coffee. It’s a fabulous profession, a great skill to have, and I’m rewarded whenever I see my work published for the world to see, even when my friends and family don’t know it’s me.

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