Ghostwriting on the Go

Tips for School Communicators from Professional Ghostwriters

By Marie Kressin Last Updated: April 23, 2024
An Illustration of a Pirate Ship


On the Go

By Marie Kressin Last Updated: April 23, 2024

If you’re a superintendent, have you ever asked one of your staff members to write up a letter to families on your behalf? Have you ever asked someone to write one of your speeches, to draft a letter to the chamber of commerce with your signature at the bottom, or to post to social media under your name? If so, you’re an author. 

If you’re a communications professional, have you ever been asked to do the writing? Have you ever produced drafts or written copy in the voice of your superintendent? If so, you’re a ghostwriter. 

Ghostwriters are writers who work collaboratively with authors to produce a written work. Think of it like this: A rocket scientist wants to write a memoir. The rocket scientist knows all the pertinent information about the field and about their own life, but they’re a terrible wordsmith. If they were to write the book themselves, chances are, it would be filled with choppy sentences and poorly organized ideas—and their book would likely sell only a few copies at best.

So instead, they choose to outsource to a professional. Working closely with that professional writer, they’re able to share their ideas in a way that is digestible to the broader public. The rocket scientist is the author. The hired professional is the ghostwriter.

Happy ghost with a

Is ghostwriting inauthentic? 

When we say “This place is a ghost town,” we mean it’s been abandoned. If we say, “Give up the ghost,” we’re talking about failure. “He ghosted me” means we’re accusing someone of disappearing without an explanation. Rarely does the term “ghost” have a positive connotation. So it’s no wonder there are misconceptions about “ghostwriting.” It can feel strange to sign your name to something written by another person. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if it felt outright inauthentic.

Every superintendent cares about establishing trust with their community. And for many school leaders, establishing trust means building a personal brand of authenticity. One misconception about ghostwritten works is that they are somehow less authentic. But that simply isn’t the case.  

Dr. Tiffany Yecke Brooks is a literature and writing professor and a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter. “If you have a garment with a Ralph Lauren label on it,” Brooks says, “you know that Ralph himself did not design every button, zipper, or drape of fabric. Your garment is simply under the umbrella of the Ralph Lauren brand. Similarly, the job of a ghostwriter, or of a communications director, is to communicate a specific message while staying consistent with the values of the brand.”

When a superintendent asks their communications professional to ghostwrite a document, that document still falls under the umbrella of the superintendent’s personal brand. Maybe part of their personal brand is being direct and transparent. Maybe they’re warm and friendly. The job of a comms director is to ensure that every written communication transmits information effectively and aligns with their superintendent’s voice, their values, and—ultimately—their personal brand.

Here’s another way to think about it: “Ghostwriting is a service,” says Leslie Hinson, a professional ghostwriter. “I am a service provider. It’s like how I don’t do my own taxes anymore. My CPA does. He has skill at a level that I don’t have, so I trust him. I have experts come to me who are brilliant—but they don’t know how to structure a book or write great sentences. And that’s okay. Their businesses and their expertise don’t revolve around writing great sentences. Mine do. Think of ghostwriting as any other thing that you’d outsource to an expert.” 

The fact is, when school districts hire communications professionals, they’re hiring experts—experts who write speeches, draft emails, and post to social media, often under someone else’s name. It’s common practice, and it is not inauthentic.

How to Write in Another Person’s Voice

The role of the ghostwriter is to clearly communicate their author’s message. “The objective here is effective transmission of essential information,” Brooks says. “Are you communicating effectively? Are you getting the most important points across to your audience?” It is not the ghostwriter’s job to include their own opinion or to adjust the meaning of the author’s message in any way. Moreover, an effective ghostwriter conveys the author’s message in the author’s voice. So, as a communications professional, how can you get into the voice of your superintendent—or whoever else you’re writing for?

Listen and learn as much as you can.

Identifying specific words or phrases to use or avoid is crucial. Maybe, like Chef Emeril Lagasse, your superintendent’s catchphrase is “BAM!” Any emails you write on their behalf should probably include a “BAM!” or two. Maybe you’re from Wisconsin, but your superintendent is from Georgia. What Southern colloquialisms do they use in their speech that they might also use in their writing? And finally, what organization-specific language does your superintendent use? Is the district “Eagle Nation”? Does your superintendent always refer to students as “scholars”?

“If you can, ask for copies of past speeches, past letters to parents, past newsletters—anything to get a feel for how they talk and write,” Brooks advises. “But then also find out if they were happy with those communications.” It won’t help to study something that your superintendent doesn’t consider exemplary.

Ask questions.

“Something I’ve found in my experience is that it’s important to ask your author if they want their voice captured accurately or if they want to come across differently,” Brooks says. In fact, Hinson shared an experience with us about a client who hired her in part because she wanted her writing to have a different tone. 

“For a while, I was writing for an author who was so sweet, just the nicest person,” Hinson recalls. “But when she would write, she’d come across as very cold. She’d say, This isn’t me. I don’t write like me. I need you to warm my writing up. So you can ask your superintendent: What do you not like about your own writing?

Once your first draft is finished, it’s also important to ask for feedback. Which parts does your superintendent like? Which parts do they think aren’t quite capturing their voice? Have some quick conversations, or let them mark up your draft if that’s easiest for them. If your superintendent isn’t available to offer feedback, run your draft by someone who knows their voice well, like their administrative assistant or the assistant superintendent.

Understand your audience, and voice will follow.

“Voice really boils down to the audience,” says Hinson. When she is teaching her ghostwriting class, she uses comedian Sarah Silverman as an example. Silverman is most known for her raunchy stand-up, but she also occasionally performs read-alouds of children’s books. When Silverman sits down to read to kids, she isn’t going to be snarky and irreverent. She’s going to be warm and inviting. “There’s only a slim margin of what’s appropriate for every audience,” Hinson explains.  

Of course, it’s never a bad idea to ask your author high-level questions about the tone they’d prefer you write in. For example, should the writing be academic? Friendly? Conversational? Beyond that, Hinson recommends not getting too enmired in the details. Think about it like this: Your superintendent wants you to write an email to families reminding them to vote in an upcoming bond election. You’ll probably want the writing to come off as equal parts urgent and warm. You don’t have to spend years with your superintendent to know that. Write with an urgent and warm tone, sprinkle in some of your superintendent’s favorite idioms, and there you have it: You’ve found their voice.

Don’t be afraid to go method.

You’ve heard about method actors—people who “become” their roles. If you’re struggling to get into the voice of your superintendent, why not go method? “Don’t be afraid of playing the part,” Brooks says. “Close yourself in your office and put yourself in the mindset of your author. Tell yourself, I am the superintendent. What is she thinking and saying and feeling? Pretend to be her.” 

Another way to think about this is to imagine you’re a comedian doing an impersonation of the superintendent. Go ahead—talk out loud! Move around the room. What are your superintendent’s idiosyncrasies? What might their body language be like? We aren’t telling you to make fun of your superintendent by any means. Rather, we’re telling you to try putting yourself in their shoes in order to get your own mind out of the way.

Managing the Author/Ghostwriter Relationship

Even the best ghostwriters can’t hope to produce a quality product if they don’t have good rapport with their authors. That’s why it’s important to set some ground rules for how to navigate this deeply collaborative process.

Set clear expectations.

Seeing your own ideas written out by someone else’s hand can be surreal. If a few details are inaccurate or an idea isn’t landing quite right, it’s easy for authors to get frustrated. “I’ve heard of authors freaking out because their ghostwriter described the ocean as being on the right when it was actually on the left—little one-word changes like that,” Hinson tells us. “But there are going to be details that are wrong in the first draft, and you just have to set authors up for that.” Writing is an iterative process. Simply remind your authors to expect errors, and clarify that they’ll have opportunities to make corrections. 

Positive rapport makes disagreements manageable.

One of the most difficult situations that a ghostwriter might encounter is having to write something they disagree with. Maybe you don’t agree with the message your superintendent is sending out to staff about an ongoing teacher strike. Maybe your superintendent has asked you to write a newsletter about a new policy that you’re against. “Your job is to communicate the policy,” says Brooks. “Don’t cross moral lines, but this is not your opportunity to editorialize as much as you want.” 

So, as the ghostwriter, what can you do? “This is a business of relationships,” Hinson tells us. “You don’t want to tarnish the trust between you and your author, but you can say, Let’s dig a little deeper.” A while back, Hinson found herself working on a project where she strongly disagreed with the content of one of the book’s chapters. However, because Hinson had positive rapport with her author, she was able to ask several follow-up questions to learn more about their perspective. After gaining a better understanding of her author’s point of view, Hinson was able to write the chapter—and the final product ended up all the better for it.

Happy ghost with a finished paper

Where do we “ghost” from here?

“It’s not weird to not be able to do everything,” Hinson tells us. And it’s true. We all have our own expertise. What’s it matter if the superintendent can’t write in a warm, conversational tone that will make the staff want to read the district newsletter? So what if they can’t use semicolons correctly to save their life? 

“This person is telling their story for a purpose,” Brooks says. “They’re sharing this memo or this policy or this alert for a reason. Your job is to make sure they are communicating in the most impactful way possible. And that’s a good thing. That’s a noble thing.” Communication is a joy. So what if everyone can’t do it perfectly? That’s why we have professionals—school communications professionals, to be exact.

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