Editor’s note: Aimee Millwood covers e-commerce marketing, growth and engagement for the Yotpo blog.
Before I quit ghostwriting, I wrote for publications like Forbes, Inc., The Next Web, and even TechCrunch. I worked as a behind-the-scenes magician, penning content that helped CEOs and companies gain Internet fame and glory, all the while wondering how much I was selling out by giving away my byline.
I strongly believe in the power of online content, but after a few years subsidizing my freelance work with ghostwriting, I couldn’t help getting the eerie feeling I was working in the seedy underground of an otherwise strong system. After seeing how it worked from the inside out, I understood the serious damage ghostwriting was doing to online content, and I loved content marketing too much to be a part of it anymore. I’m coming out with what I saw behind the scenes so you can learn where your content is really coming from.
Why Ghostwriting Works
The companies who hired me wanted to boost their online reputation, and while I respected their goals, I couldn’t help but feel the method was awry. The quantity-over-quality mentality killed the content marketing game. Rather than building valuable content by hiring writers who were experts in their fields to contribute intelligent, well-researched pieces, or asking writers to help better organize thought leaders’ ideas into eloquent articles, companies paid people like me to write content in subjects we had no expertise in.
At one point, I was hired to work for almost a dozen startups, writing thought leadership articles that were published by CEOs whose work I knew nothing about, or creating guest blog posts for big publications on topics I had no more knowledge in than a degree from “Google It” Academy.
The problem isn’t ghostwriting – it’s how it’s being used
Ghostwriting in itself isn’t bad – in fact, far from it. For one, it allocates talent where it belongs. There are plenty of talented and respectable ghostwriters who have made their careers off of using their writing skills to help bring ideas to life that otherwise may never see publication. Ghostwriting for companies can also be viable.
Many CEOs may not be the best writers, just as many writers would not necessarily make the best CEOs. Ghostwriting can be done in a way that is both sustainable and beneficial. For ghostwriting to work, it needs to listen to the “Write what you know” mantra, and ghostwriters should only be hired to write on subjects they actually have authority to write about. Ghostwriting, like anything, has its appropriate place, but online, it’s finding its way into some spooky settings.
Quality online content is possible, but the current model for creating content isn’t making it probable. The future of writing and online content is in a state of precarious flux, and someone needs to tell companies that creating content for the sake of creating content is killing quality.
Why ghosts aren’t getting spooked, but you should be: the future implications of ghostwriting
The majority of online ghostwriting today is used to fuel content strategies (I’m using the word strategy lightly here, because simply doling out weak keyword-heavy blog posts is clearly no real strategy at all). Giving ghostwriters too many assignments for too little pay purely for the sake of making more content floods the Internet with fluff pieces that damage the work true thought leaders, journalists, content writers and marketers are putting in serious time and effort to contribute.
I was writing nearly 50,000 words a month, and it’s nearly impossible for anyone to write such a high volume of content across so many subjects with no time for proper research or copyediting. However, the companies who paid me wanted a lot of content, not good content. And that’s what they got.
I can say firsthand that working as a content cow, I churned out plenty of articles that were loosely researched and poorly written. More often than once I was put in a position where I was asked to write as an authoritative expert on a subject I had no knowledge in and given barely any time to understand before producing a post. I was writing for startups I had never heard of before, positioning myself as an expert on how to be a better salesperson (although I couldn’t sell a heater to an Eskimo) and integrating cloud technology into your business (when my knowledge goes no further than Google Drive). The result was I turned to other articles and posts published online, but as we all know, creating content built from recycled opinions and inauthentic ideas kills originality and innovation and replaces it with poorly repurposed (and often terribly written) work.
As a ghostwriter, what scared me most was realizing I wasn’t just losing my byline, but my voice. I had created hundreds of articles, yet a quick Google search for my name turned up barely anything. I began to feel like a true ghost.
Where ghostwriting is hiding, and how to keep online content accountable
Ghostwriting is becoming so prevalent that we don’t know ghostwritten content when it hits us in the face. In fact, computers are better than humans at detecting authenticity – both in written online content and even human facial expressions. Ghosts are hiding in plain site – on blogs, social media accounts, and even reputable online publications that are unknowingly being fed content under an inauthentic name. Whether we are aware or not, we are all complicit in this system.
My ethics led me to work at a company that backs up verified content from the ground up. Their content strategy follows tried-and-true methods I respect: value on expertise, quality, and hard work. I look to Linda Bustos’ career at Elastic Path as inspiration – she proved that through a writer’s individual sense of responsibility for producing excellent content, a company’s content marketing can flourish, because it relies on the fundamental understanding that when we feel pride and passion for what we produce, we desire to make something great.
The only way we can return to an equilibrium where high-quality, well-researched content rises to the surface is when there is a system in place to keep content creators and distributors accountable. Just as scrupulous fact checking and an emphasis on unbiased reporting cemented authenticity and authority in journalism, so too online content needs a system to keep it honest to itself.
Companies need to adopt a strict no-ghostwriting policy and give freelancers due credit. Until then, web content is at risk for being a black market for something much worse than ghostwritten articles: ghost-produced thoughts.