Is your ghostwriter making you look like bad?

If they are, it’s probably your fault.

Content is now a game nearly every business is playing, and I think it’s great. Done well, content marketing — even at the most elementary level — can lead to big rewards.

However, the reality is few people have time to craft business content that actually drives results. Yes, there are a handful of entrepreneurs and VCs and solopreneurs who do a swell job writing excellent, in-depth content that I am actually envious of — and I say that as someone who used to get paid to do that (these days I edit more than I ever write) — but they are almost certainly outliers.

And that’s OK, because a whole crop of marketplaces and individuals have risen to meet this relatively new business need, not unlike the influx of social media managers a couple years ago. Definitions for that job role have changed a lot too, and now there is a whole set of jargon and requirements that goes well beyond, “Someone under the age of 30 who wants to update my company Facebook Page in between Facebook messaging their friends.” And that is a wonderful development (despite the jargon), because social is also a highly visible and customer-facing content marketing channel, and we should all put good people in those roles.

But outsourcing your content creation is still tricky.

I’m not going to delve into every detail; there are extraordinary companies out there doing an excellent job of extending the content-creation abilities of brands from small to very large. However, many of those companies have an agency-like model, so they are not a fit for everyone. (Read: you’ll be paying a retainer.) As such, many business owners turn to individuals, who charge much lower rates.

I know, because I was one of them.

In theory, this could lead to a nice tidy relationship for a small business owner. If you’re mostly trying to capitalize on opportunities to, say, write an interesting blog or article every now and then, having one person as your go-to guy or gal might be just the thing. That person could grow to really understand your voice, your purpose, your areas of interest, and rather quickly, become an expert — in you. And that is awesome. I always tried to be that to my clients. It is not easy, it takes time, and it takes relationship-building skills (on both parties’ parts). It costs a lot more than a couple of hours of research and writing. It’s personal.

But somehow, even people who have this go-to person still end up with crappy content. Voiceless and generic, it’s often stylistically OK, mostly accurate, but very YAWN. Or worse, it’s overwrought and full of adjectives and jargon that make everyone feel pretty good about themselves — except the reader.

It stands to reason that this happens because, like social media people and web designers, if you don’t have expertise in something yourself, you may not be the greatest judge of the result. I get that.

The other possibility is you’re paying too little and/or you just have the wrong person on the bus.

If you think you are working with the wrong writer, here’s what to do next.

  • First, read the last piece they turned in. Ask yourself: Is this me? Could I conceivably have written this? Would a friend of mine recognize this as me?
  • Give it a second read. Ask yourself: Does this interest me?
  • Hand it to someone in your target audience or at least, who matches most or some of your target demographics. Ask this person: Does this interest you? Why or why not?

Note that the best writers were great stylists and great storytellers. I understand that your business blog is not a novel or an epic poem. But there is a stark difference between interesting, heartfelt writing that sounds like the person whose name is slapped on the top or bottom — even if the content, advice or opinion isn’t going to move mountains — and regurgitated BS. Your customers/investors/hires/team can tell too, FYI.

If the answer to any of the above is no, you need to have a rethink. Here are 5 things to do next:

  1. Talk to a professional. Not the young people you interviewed via Craigslist/a marketplace/your local colleges and universities, but to an actual credentialed journalist or business writer. Ask them to list some skills and qualifications they might expect a low-level hire to have. Include those in your job listing.
  2. Ask for referrals.
  3. If you don’t get any, ask the writers whose applications you are considering to provide you with references. Call or email those references. Listen for endorsements that point to a high EQ and a results-driven approach, like, “They really got me,” and, “I was able to achieve X, Y or Z thanks to this person,” and, “They are amazing and trustworthy/professional.”
  4. Require candidates who pass an initial screening to do a small ghostwriting project initially. Ask the same 3 questions as suggested above. Obviously, pay market rates for this work.
  5. Be verrrry wary if the person you might hire can somehow get started on said project without communicating with you directly (phone or Skype is good) to gauge your voice as well as your expertise, or at least, accessing past writing/communication in your desired voice.

Remember: There are a lot of talented writers in the world, and a lot of smart young people and would-be poets and authors and journalists who need challenging work, and you will find the right one.

And when you do, you will read their work and think, “God, I’m good.” Trust me.

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