By: Jon Finkel
I’m reading Ron Chernow’s immense, important and incredible book, Alexander Hamilton. You won’t believe me but the book has been sitting in my virtual library to read for about five years now, long before the new play became a Broadway and cultural blockbuster. It’s a behemoth of a book and deserves every accolade it has earned. His life and his rise to power in America may be one of the single most improbable rises in the history of history…but I’m not going to talk about that. You should just read it, honestly. But I will talk about something I was not aware of…which is that for about four years, Hamilton pretty much ghost wrote all of George Washington’s correspondence to his generals and to Congress and to almost everyone, so much so that after a short time, he stopped even conferring with Washington about the contents of letters and simply made decisions on his behalf.
It was the greatest mind meld in history.
I always knew that Hamilton served as part of Washington’s war time “family” and became his aide de camp and most important staff member. What I didn’t know is that he eventually was able to issue orders over his own signature.
Think about that. He was speaking freely for, and making decisions for, the most powerful, important person on the continent.
Ghostwriting, especially when you’re not even acknowledging that there is a ghostwriter, is equal parts art and acting. It’s learning the verbal nuances of your subject, perfecting them, and then capturing the voice to the point that the person being ghostwritten can’t tell the difference.
I had the honor of ghostwriting Joe Weider’s monthly column (founder of Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, Shape, etc.) as well as several columns for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In order to get it right, you need to do two things well:
1: Write As If
What does this mean? It means you need to write as if you were the person you’re ghostwriting for. This is far easier said than done. No matter how good of a writer you are, if you’re ghostwriting for someone, you need to write as if you’re an authority on all of the things they are an authority on. No equivocating. You have to remove your brain and your thoughts and your possible insecurities about a subject or topic and write as if you are the expert. I probably know less than 1/10th of what Arnold knows about weight training, but when I channeled the Austrian Oak for his column, I had to write with the confidence that I was the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived, that I was THE authority in lifting and that the words that I put on paper were going to tell people how to achieve their goals. Anything short of that and I had no chance of sounding like Arnold. Fortunately, he had input and approval over the column and actually read it, so there was a safety net there.
Hamilton, on the other hand, had no net. He didn’t have e-mail or Word or the technology to let Washington read everything before it was sent out. After a short trial period, where Washington was sure that Hamilton was up to the task, Ham was simply on his own, issuing orders, commanding troops, commissioning Congress, all as if he was Washington… If he screwed up, the consequences would not simply be betraying Washington’s trust, but it could lead to catastrophic decisions in battle, death and setbacks in the American Revolution. No shit.
That’s what makes what Hamilton did all the more impressive. Not only did he have to become George Washington on paper and sound like him, he had to write with the authority of the General to the level that other high ranking officers would follow his orders and that Congress would honor his requests.
And this is the second thing that Hamilton had to do well:
2. Assume Responsibility for the Words on the Page
If the first part of ghostwriting well is to take on the voice, style and tone of the person being ghostwritten for, the second part is to take on the responsibility of what is being written as well. You simply can’t have one without the other. There is no way to write as someone else without also putting yourself on the line with the words being written. If you divorce yourself from that responsibility, then you aren’t being true to the author. If it goes wrong, people are never going to care that the “ghostwriter” or “co-author” screwed up. The mistake will be pinned to the anchor author.
As a ghostwriter, that can never happen. In this case, you cannot think of yourself simply as a polisher of words. You need to think of yourself a protector of words; as someone who takes what the anchor author is trying to say, makes it sound as good as it possibly can while maintaining the integrity and authority of the message.
In this regard, Alexander Hamilton may have no peer in the ghostwriting world. I realize that many important people before and after Hamilton were chiefs of staff or assistants and wrote things for presidents and CEOs and kings, etc… But few did so with the birth of the future greatest nation on earth hanging in the balance.
For that, when it comes to ghostwriting, Alexander Hamilton is the G.O.A.T.
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Jon Finkel is the author of Forces of Character with 3x Super Bowl Champion and Fighter Pilot, Chad Hennings, Heart Over Height with 3x NBA Slam Dunk Champion Nate Robinson, as well as Jocks In Chief, the hit fatherhood book, The Dadvantage – Stay in Shape on No Sleep with No Time and No Equipment, and all twelve volumes in the Greatest Stars of the NBA book series for the National Basketball Association, which won several ALA Young Reader Awards.
As a feature writer, he has written for Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, GQ, Details, The New York Times, AskMen.com, ComedyCentral.com, Yahoo! Sports’ ThePostGame.com and many more. His work received a notable mention in the 2015 Best American Sports Writing anthology.