Working with a Ghostwriter
By Zac Sprunger and Sarah Hemmersbach
At some point in your career, you will probably work with a ghostwriter, a professional who turns your thoughts into an article, a website blog or a whitepaper. Whatever the situation, it is important to understand the end goal of the collaboration and the process to get there. Your ghostwriter isn’t just helping you get words on a page; they are collaborating with you to tell a story. That story can be how you share who you are, what you do and how you think as an architect. It can be about why and how you design something or the impact of a new space. Whatever the topic, the story drives the conversation and your collaboration.
Our Lives are Built with Stories
Storytelling is a buzz-worthy marketing term these days, but the concept of telling a story as a brand, as a professional, as a community and as a person is built within our culture and our nature. We tell stories to connect, to learn and to document our history.
When thinking about storytelling as a tool, it is important to take a breath and get back to basics. What are the main tenets of storytelling? How will my ghostwriter and I use them best? What do I need to think about ahead of time?
Start with Why
At a young age we learn the tenets of a story structure: Who, What, Where, When and Why. Many people start working their way down that list and figure out the Why at the end. However, the why is integral to finding out who this story is really about, what it means to your audience, where it will go and when to focus on the details. If you start to think about the Why of your story, you will be setting yourself up for success to work with your ghost writer. Why a design was created, why a business exists and why you do what you do are filled with stories.
One of the best examples of this concept is an article we wrote on school restrooms. Restroom design is not a topic rife with excitement. However, we asked multiple team members if they had a story of their most inspiring restroom design. We ended up talking about design strategies for a special education campus in Washington, D.C. The article focused on how the restroom design met the specific needs of these very special learners. The editor later told us that the article was “the best restroom article we’ve ever received.” The story and the Why made that possible.
Avoid the Curse of Knowledge
Often in our careers we become so entrenched in our field that we develop the curse of knowledge. We forget what it was like before we knew something that has become so ingrained in our day-to-day. Jargon, acronyms and even basic details of how things are done evade our memories because they’ve become second nature. A ghostwriter will help you work past that to find the core of your story. This not only helps your ghostwriter connect with your story, but it helps your overall story connect with a larger audience.
How to Prepare
Collaboration with your ghostwriter starts with an initial interview, either in person, over the phone or through email. When preparing for this conversation, start by thinking about your audience. Who is listening to this story? What are their challenges? What will they learn? Think about conversations you’ve had with similar people. What questions have they asked? What is their motivation? What problems are they trying to solve? There are many stories to tell. Developing empathy for your audience will make sure you pick the right one.
After considering the perspective of your audience, begin to think about your own passion and ideas. Chances are you have already been telling stories related to your topic. Think about those conversations you have with your colleagues, your friends and your family. What details do you share with them? What anecdotes do you repeat again and again? What themes have you already developed? These details are the foundation of your conversation with the ghostwriter.
To write a good article or blog post, the story must be authentic to you. So don’t be afraid to raise a red flag if the proposed topic is not fertile ground. On one article for a national trade publication, the initial interview revealed that the author did not have a compelling story to tell. We reassigned the story to other team members, and the resulting article turned out great. Remember to be honest about your passions and areas of expertise. It is better to have someone else write a great article than to write a boring one yourself.
Owning the Process
When working with a ghostwriter on an article, the process doesn’t end after the initial interview.
One of the biggest mistakes architects make is to treat the first draft like the end of the collaboration. Instead, think of it as the midway point.
When reading the first draft, go back to the initial exploration of your audience. Does the article answer their needs? Have you addressed their common questions and motivations? If not, then you need to rethink and dig deeper.
Also, evaluate the first draft based on its position in the broader marketplace of ideas. Are you making the same points as everyone else? Are you talking about things in the same way? If the answer is yes, don’t be afraid to rethink your approach and content.
The willingness to honestly evaluate a first draft led to one of the most successful articles we’ve ever written. The topic was media centers, and despite our best intentions, the initial draft came out as the typical recitation of strategies: reducing collections, maximizing flexibility, adding technology – all the old chestnuts. It was a passable article, but not a great one.
Rather than settling for good enough, the author insisted on a new direction. He came up with the idea to explore how Design Thinking allows clients to determine the best future use for a media center. As a ghostwriter, I was thrilled. Our article now had a focus and a purpose. It had a story. We used many of the same details, but gave them a new context. The fresh idea reinvigorated the article, and after its publication, several potential clients reached out to our firm with questions. Each one of them had the same comment: “We never thought about it this way before.” We had told a different story.
So remember, even though a professional is helping you write, ultimately these are your words being published. Make sure they reflect your best thinking.
Think in Pictures
Pictures are our oldest storytelling tool. As you iterate through your edits with the ghostwriter, begin to think how images will supplement your content. You want to choose pictures that clearly illustrate your main ideas. The ideal picture is both striking and informative. If possible, the picture should also stand on its own, without the need for captions. Captions are an important part of the storytelling process, but they are often missed by readers who are skimming for information.
The last part of your collaboration with the ghostwriter involves a series of back and forths as the article or blog post takes shape. The more input you give, the better the article will be. When reviewing the final draft, make sure the technical details are spot on. Your ghostwriter is trained in grammar and punctuation, but they aren’t an industry expert. You are the last line of defense against misused terms that will undermine your authority and your story’s impact. Remember, this story is yours, so you need to own it.
Working with a ghostwriter is an opportunity to tell the best possible story through collaboration. By working hand-in-hand, you will tell a story that informs, inspires and improves the architecture industry as a whole.
Zac Sprunger is director of communications for Fanning Howey, an architecture, interiors and engineering firm specializing in learning environments. Sarah Hemmersbach is a communications specialist with Fanning Howey.
(Return to the cover of the 2020 PM Digest: Architectural Writing)