The Ghostwriter’s Guide To Working With SMEs

09 Apr 2019


Imagine walking into a small conference room where a dozen engineers, all experts in technology design for the heavy equipment business, are seated at two rows of tables, looking like the world’s most disgruntled jury. Their company is launching a thought leadership program and these women and men are tasked with coming up with the copy—something that’s likely way outside their comfort zone.

They are the subject matter experts, the SMEs. And while it’s true they know their subjects better than anyone else and have plenty of expertise, probably very little of it is in preparing marketing white papers or webinar scripts. This is a job that sounds difficult, if not dreadful, and will take time away from what they do best.

They just want to Get. Back. To. Work.

Which is why the company has brought in a professional writer, someone who can take the pain out of the assignment and make it a pleasure, instead.

The marketing manager introduces you. Then, to lighten the mood, he says, “You can’t see her, though, (dramatic pause) because she’s a ghostwriter.”


This is going to be a tough crowd.

Talking Tech to a Non-Tech Audience

In truth, working with subject matter experts can be tough, tricky, and trying for ghostwriters—and, ultimately, extremely gratifying. SMEs are busy people with a lot on their minds, facing grueling assignments and often impossible deadlines. Asking them to concentrate on one more thing is asking a lot.

Yet it has to be done. As thought leadership becomes an even more valuable B2B marketing tool, SMEs and ghostwriters will be collaborating more often—and the time better be well-spent.

Writing doesn’t necessarily come naturally to the typical engineer or technical director. It’s not always easy for them to take what they know and put it into words—at least words that the average, less technical buyer might understand. And that’s who many companies are talking to these days, the non-engineering procurement staff who will influence the buying decision.

Which is why the ghostwriter is there in the first place: to slice through the jargon and make the content as accessible as possible.

The Secrets to Starting Strong

Even if they’re the first to admit they’re not great writers—and they think having to create a thought leadership piece is a drag—SMEs are brilliant, highly accomplished individuals who bring at least a little bit of ego to any assignment. They want to succeed. The first step for the ghostwriter, then, is to assure the SME that they are embarking on a collaboration that will expand the SME’s reputation as an industry leader. That’s a pretty difficult offer to resist and it’s likely to increase buy-in on their part.

At the same time, they want to feel as confident in the ghostwriter’s skills as they are in their own. It’s appropriate for ghostwriters to mention their own credentials and portfolio—not for the sake of showing off (that comes when the ghostwriter does an amazing job with the copy) but to prove that they have the chops to understand and explain complex concepts, and aren’t simply word merchants.

Of course, going in no one expects the ghostwriter to have a firm grasp of the SME’s topic. But neglecting to do at least a few hours of homework before hand is a major mistake. Some basic understanding is required to at least kick off an intelligent conversation and prepare some thoughtful preliminary interview questions. (By the way, while the ghostwriter needs to talk the SME’s language, there should be no expectation that the SME understands writing lingo. Writers know “cutlines,” people know “captions.” Captions it is.)

To wrap up the initial “getting to know you” phase, there should be agreement on what the assignment is. That may sound like an unnecessary step, but SMEs accustomed to preparing materials for conferences and professional journals may need help understanding, for example, how a marketing white paper is different from a technical white paper.

Now’s the time to agree on interim and final deadlines, determine what the review and approval process will be like, talk about what success will look like, and find out as how the SME wants to be contacted—email, phone call, or text. That last point comes with the ironclad promise that the ghostwriter won’t bother—er, reach out to—the SME unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Guided by Style

Engineering personality-type jokes aside, no two SMEs are alike and the amount of writing support they want can vary widely—and it doesn’t always match the amount they need. Some SMEs will take a crack at a first draft and let the ghostwriter make only small edits, others will hand over their notes and give the ghostwriter free rein. The company’s marketing team typically acts as arbiter, helping to negotiate the right balance and getting everyone on the same page.

Another area where dust-ups can occur is around writing style. Accustomed to preparing technical pieces, SMEs often have trouble letting go of formal language and seeing their words presented in marketing-speak. And this can go to extremes—after a ghostwriter deleted Mr. and Mrs. before the names of co-authors, the SME put them back then asked whether they should be there or not. It’s useful to know that the SME was not a native English speaker but he was writing for an American audience. (Which brings us to another point: the “brash American” isn’t a myth. Ghostwriters may have to tone down their personalities or amp up the politeness factor when working with a SME from another country.)

In the end, patience, a thorough understanding of the company’s Style Guide, an intimate knowledge of a third-party resource like AP Style, and a good relationship with the marketing team can be the ghostwriter’s most important tools.

Big Risk and Big Rewards

Invariably, ghostwriters have to make some “high-risk” decisions about how content is presented—like when the SME’s copy is so dense or high-level only another SME would have an inkling about it. In cases like this, what works best is for the ghostwriter to make the appropriate edits then explains why. A note in the margin that says, “This is what I’ve done; I hope I haven’t introduced any inaccuracies,” goes a long way toward getting the SME to agree to changes while ensuring technical precision.

Once the thought leadership piece is in print, it’s time for the SME and ghostwriter to look back, assessing what worked, what didn’t, and how things could be improved next time. Because if the ghostwriter has done the job right, there will be a next time, and it might be something the SME even looks forward to.

Barbara Adams 

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