Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Take my words, please

As someone who spends a lot of his time putting words in other people’s mouths, I like it when my clients care enough to own what I have written for them. Whether the project is a speech, article, op-ed or letter, it’s most satisfying to collaborate with the person for whom I’m ghostwriting and to go back and forth a few times until they are comfortable with the content.

After all, they – not I – will speak the words, get the byline or sign the letter. When it comes to ghostwriting, anonymity suits me.

I remember once – once – trying to get my props by letting a colleague know that I had actually written the joke the company president told at the awards banquet the night before; the very joke the colleague was now retelling to great acclaim. Narcissus was punished for his vanity and so was I. That colleague gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect on the value of staying anonymous by teasing me mercilessly about my presumed ability to control what came out of the president’s mouth.

I found myself thinking about the importance of speakers owning their words recently when India’s foreign minister delivered three minutes of someone else’s speech at an important conference. He did not realize his mistake and presumably would have gone on longer, but an aide stopped him and suggested he start over, this time reading his own script.

Talk about not owning his words – this guy didn’t even recognize them. Certainly he had not rehearsed thoroughly before taking the stage and it is possible that he hadn’t even reviewed the speech someone else had written for him. Seems to me this should be the minimum standard.

That reminds me of two of my favorite anecdotes about ghostwritten materials, both from the world of sports. Upon being asked whether his original autobiography was the first book he had ever written, Pete Rose supposedly remarked that it was in fact the first book he had ever read. I bet he was telling the truth.

Charles Barkley claimed he was misquoted in his 1992 autobiography “Outrageous,” later admitting the “misquotes” were his own fault. “I should have read it first,” he said. This is not turrible advice.

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