Why the Best Bylined Articles Are a Team Effort

I’ve never liked pure “ghostwriting”—that is, writing all of the words under someone else’s name without any input from the person who’s actually taking the credit. I’m not annoyed that I don’t share the spotlight. I just think that writing falls flat when there’s no authentic input from the “author.” This is especially true when writing bylined articles, a staple of marketing and PR. Media editors constantly bemoan the lifeless, “me too” bylined articles that read like they were written by a software program, and are devoid of passion or a real call to action.

Your agency can’t write a successful opinion article for a thought leader without getting a few actual thoughts from that person. And we don’t mean getting a third-hand download from the PR person who got a few notes from the corporate communications VP who got them from the thought leader’s excomms staffer. We know that the people balanced at the top of the ladder are crazy busy. But do you want that bylined article to end up in Fast Company—or don’t you?

Even allowing us five or ten minutes on the phone with a busy company leader can help us to understand the thought process behind the article’s angle: why it matters, why it’s important to the executive, and how it plays into the market/audience you’re trying to influence. In those few minutes we’ll also glean word choices, tone, and genuine feeling, which we can weave into our first draft. Every little bit helps.

Here’s an example of how this process should work, assuming we can get some access to the author. For a recent bylined article, my first step was a short chat with the executive, during which time he explained in his own words why this opinion needed a hearing.

From there I sketched out a lead and a rough outline with placeholders for sections that could bolster the message. That outline went back to the executive so he could tinker with the lead to add his spin, and so he could build out the supporting ideas. I polished his rough copy, working behind the scenes with my editor, and then the executive and I went back and forth a few times to refine the message. Because he had a hand in crafting the topline message—with my editor and me doing the heavy lifting—the article rang authentic. And it won over the Fortune editor who published it.

Contrast this iterative approach with one that involves building a compelling article out of, well, thin air—that is, without a hint of the executive’s own opinions or the gut feelings behind her viewpoint.

I can’t tell you how many bylined articles have never seen the light of day because they lacked that spark of life that telegraphed the author’s heartfelt opinion. Editors can sniff out the difference in a second.

The lesson? To “ghost” effectively, your writing team needs a few minutes of communication with the person whose name will be on the article. (At the Content Bureau, we can help to maximize the value of even short interactions with thought leaders.) The time will pay off in more articles that actually win an audience, and fewer articles that deliver only wasted time and money.

By Chris Kent