What a Journalist Can Learn by Ghostwriting a Book

unnamed-3Robert Harris wrote a novel, The Ghost, about a ghostwriter, and at the beginning of each chapter is a sentence or two of reflection about what you learn writing a book that has someone else’s name on the cover.

Harris, whose best-sellers include Fatherland, Enigma, and Imperium, is a Brit, and The Ghost is about a writer hired to write the memoirs of a former British prime minister. Some of it is set in England, but a lot of it in Martha’s Vineyard, where the former prime minister is trying to escape a scandal.

The main ghostwriter is the second hired by the prime minister—the first either committed suicide or was murdered. Once the second ghost finds out what kind of trouble he might be in, the novel is less about writing and more about staying alive.

Some of the ghostwriting reflections apply to more general editing and writing. An editor sometimes has to do a lot of rewriting—almost ghosting—to save a story, and the way a ghostwriter tries to open up his subject is much like what writers often do in their reporting.

Here are the lines—Harris borrowed them from another book, Ghostwriting, by Andrew Crofts.
Of all the advantages that ghosting offers, one of the greatest must be the opportunity that you get to meet people of interest.

A ghost who has only a lay knowledge of the subject will be able to keep asking the same questions as the lay reader, and will therefore open up the potential readership of the book to a much wider audience.

If you are painfully shy or find it hard to get others into a relaxed and confident state, then ghosting might not be for you.

The ghost will also be able under pressure from the publishers to dig up something controversial that they can use to sell serial rights and to generate publicity at the time of publication.

It is essential for the ghost to make the subject feel completely comfortable in his or her own company.

I have often been told by subjects that by the end of the research process, they feel as if they have been in therapy.

Quite often, particularly if you are helping them write a memoir or autobiography, the author will dissolve into tears when telling the story. . . .Your job under those circumstances is to pass the tissues, keep quiet, and keep recording.

Authors are often busy people and hard to get hold of; sometimes they are temperamental. The publishers consequently rely on the ghosts to make the process of publication as smooth as possible.

What if they lie to you? “Lie” is probably too strong a word. Most of us tend to embroider our memories to suit the picture of ourselves that we would like the world to see.

It is perfectly possible to write a book for someone, having done nothing but listen to their words, but extra research often helps to provide more material and descriptive ideas.

There may be occasions on which the subject will tell the ghost something that contradicts something else they have said, or something that the ghost already knows about them. If that happens, it is important to mention it immediately.

The book is not a platform for the ghost to air their own views on anything at all.

Half the job of ghosting is about finding out about other people.

If you are going to be the least bit upset not to see your name credited or not to be invited to the launch party then you are going to have a miserable time ghosting altogether.

A ghost must expect no glory.
From Jack: Speechwriting also is a form of ghosting. Here’s how that sometimes plays out.

In January 1968 I had taken a break from journalism to start a Congressional Fellowship in the Senate office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. At that point in 1968 everyone assumed President Lyndon Johnson would run for re-election and Humphrey again would be his running mate. That changed in March 1968 when Johnson decided not to run for re-election and Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for president.

My boss was Norman Sherman, the Vice President’s press secretary, and my first job was to send telegrams to organizations that had invited the Vice President to speak but he was saying no.

Writing telegrams quickly got old and I thought it’d be educational to write a speech for the Vice President. I went to Doug Bennet, Humphrey’s speechwriter, and he said sure, the Vice President is speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce next month, go ahead and write a speech for him.

I worked on the speech for maybe 10 days. My first job in journalism had been writing the UPI broadcast wire so I thought I knew something about how to write words that would be spoken. I gave Bennet a speech draft—he glanced over it and said something about it reading well.

It came time for the Vice President to give the speech and early that day the text of Humphrey’s speech was released to the media. I eagerly picked up the advance text and discovered that Bennet hadn’t used a single phrase I had written.

Not the end of the story: I went to the Chamber of Commerce dinner. Humphrey gave a good speech and he didn’t use a single phrase Bennet had written.
Doug Bennet went on to run the Agency for International Development, National Public Radio, and Wesleyan University. One of his sons, James, was the longtime editor of the Atlantic and now is editorial page editor of the New York Times. Another son, Michael, is the U.S. Senator from Colorado.



  1. Great story, Jack!

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