Updated: Jul 26, 2021
My very first work from home gig paid me (via check) to fill new websites with keyword dense content. It was 2005, just as the Julie & Julia style blogging days were coming to an end and a new era of SEO was stepping into the light. And I had zero complaints.
I happily clicked away at my keyboard, marveling at how wonderful it was to tap into this apparent talent I had for writing and see the fruits of that minimal effort in my mailbox a few weeks later.
After cycling through a small batch of key phrases—I believe “closed circuit home security cameras” and “pole dancing for exercise” were among them—I reached my end with that company as new gigs landed in my plate. Looking back, I have to assume that smalltime SEO company met their own end not too long after that anyway, as so many of them have.
Over the years that followed, the assignments and payouts changed but the wonder remained.
I could rewrite titles for Demand Studios with Dr. Horrible running in the background and watch the literal pennies add up? I could work my way up to five stars on [name] and see my rate move up alongside it? This person would pay me $25 for an article? That one would let me turn their blog series into a shiny new Amazon Kindle E-Book?
In each new mini-venture, a recurring theme kept on playing in the background—a consistent drumbeat dividing us all into ranks: there are people who write and people who don’t.
Years later—surrounded by curious brand-builders at a marketing event, hungry for someone to help them with content—I thought I’d landed on a logical business niche. After all, there are people who want to write, and people who need others to write for them. I could combine the former in my network with the latter, meeting busy professionals where they are to literally help them draft content that changes their world.
The one problem? In most of those cases, we’ve got our wants and needs all wrong. And if you stick around here long enough, you’ll know just how important it is to understand the right wants and needs.
The bottom line is this: the thing you think you want (someone to write content for you) may be a distraction from what you really want (to have your content represent who you are to the people you want to reach)—and what you’ve got to access to get it.
Fight, Flight, Freeze…or Fling?
Technology has increasingly removed the barriers to entry that once separated the writers from everyone else. Generations of shifts have taken us from ancient scribes to increasing literacy to simpler printing to letters to the editor to early blogging platforms and all sorts of steps in between. Now that we also have print-on-demand self-publishing and social media, literally anyone with something to say has a way to be heard. In theory.
Of course, actually getting that material to the people who need to hear it is a different story. And there’s still some merit to being vetted and approved by traditional publishing gatekeepers. But for those who want their thoughts and ideas to reach beyond the void, there’s always a way.
But to flip an old platitude on its head: where there’s a way, there’s a won’t.
That’s where a recurring request for content writing kept falling in my lap. “I can talk about this stuff all day long,” folks would tell me. But ask them to sit down and type it up into a piece of content? A blog or a newsletter or a white paper? It just felt too inaccessible. Even though (as we just established) the old barriers to writing have fallen away.
True obstacles tend to motivate us to find a way forward against the odds. We get indignant.
Did you just tell me no? And you are…?
Clear a path for us, though, and suddenly there are a thousand reasons to hold back.
We don’t have time. We don’t know how. We’ve got writer’s block.
And then there’s the kicker: We’re not writers—that’s someone else’s job.
Unfortunately, the most insidious resistance is always rooted in something true.
It is true that most are not writers (by trade). It is true that our schedules are packed. And without feeling confident in your abilities and approach, it is incredibly easy to freeze. Even with the right levels of confidence and free time and experience you can get stuck. And it is absolutely true that content writing, ghosting, and copy are skills in their own right that should be valued and, when necessary, used. I still offer it on occasion, when the circumstances are exactly right.
But in my experience, the “I’m not a writer” dilemma rarely comes from ability, and the request for a ghost or content writer rarely comes from need. Rather, most of the appeal tends to be rooted in fear.
Each fear is as different as the non-writer in need of writing, of course. Fear of looking bad or making the brand look bad. Fear of misappropriating your time. Fear of the blank page. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of judgment or failure. Fear of success.
And what’s the human reaction to things that we fear? An adrenaline rush. Fight, flight, or freeze. Some do fight through the resistance to figure out their rhythms and voice and ultimately realize their work (however painfully that may happen). Others freeze indefinitely, and still others flee their responsibility to share their story, instead spinning fantastical stories about why they don’t need content instead of weaving stories for their audience.
Allow me to suggest a fourth fear response, specifically for this context: Fling.
This is where my whole industry thrives. When the content is important but the fear and confusion is real, many folks nope right out of the task and hire out someone like me instead.
If they’re really running, they’ll hire out someone who is not like me—someone who will let them stick to the surface level, churn out a book that’s “good enough,” and never dig down to the raw material.
As a writer, I’ve been rather grateful to have some of that work flung into my lap. And in many contexts, my clients were lovely to work with, feeling grateful and relieved to have that weight taken off of their shoulders. And I was equally grateful to help them birth their ideas into the world.
But in far more frequent situations—often shorter form, ongoing content or books that they simply weren’t ready to write—the model was simply unsustainable.
The first sign ghosted content wasn’t working? Eventual frustration with every hired-out solution they’d tried.
Including mine, because it doesn’t have to be bad content to be the wrong content. And choices based in fear are doomed from the start.
The fling is fun at first, but if it’s not coming from a place of creative partnership, it won’t have the staying power we need.
“You keep using that word…”
The apparent need for outsourced content creation feels and is very real. No one has to be told how important it is to demonstrate your value to your audience, give generously of your voice and ideas, and allow people to find and connect with you in a range of media that speaks to your niche. And partnerships are sometimes necessary to make that happen—especially if you can show up fully as the expert you are and allow a professional writer to meet you there with their own expertise.
So what are we missing?
Let’s pause for a moment to differentiate wants and needs, because that’s a baseline that’s going to matter a lot around here.
We’ll start simply: your audience knows they want something from you, right? They show up with fairly predictable expectations of you based on your industry.
Coaches get folks who want answers. Consultants get folks who want specific solutions. General contractors respond to folks who want a project completed. You get the picture. Setting a niche for yourself had to begin with identifying the “want” you hoped to respond to. Without that component, you’re trying to serve everyone, which will in fact help no one.
The next layer is the need, which you may or may not be able to name in your industry until you’ve been at it a while.
Maybe they say they want answers, but you know that they really need validation and support as they find the answers themselves.
Maybe they want a specific solution, but you know it’s a broader system that they really need or that solution won’t ever work.
The contractor answers the call for an aesthetic remodel but knows when they get there that out of date code will need to be addressed first.
We can stay at surface level wants, but that requires a lot of hustle and grind that tends to wear us down. There's very little differentiation, no depth, no meaning there. The best in their field know that there's something more than what you show up asking for—and if you don't access that thing, you'll never really get to what you want anyway.
This matters for every marketing effort, every piece of content, every good client relationship you'll ever have. It matters for the expectations you set for yourself and your material as well.
And—dammit—apparently I have had to take my own advice and use that same framework to shape my own work. I hate it when that happens.
People tell me they want ghosted content.
Nine times out of ten, what they really need is confidence in their own approach to their own content.
Well Intended Ghosting Theories
For years, when someone said they wanted content, I simply answered the call. Over time, I learned to sift through the kinds of content I created and the specific personalities I wanted to work with, thinking that’s how I needed to find my niche. The biggest niche limitation I set—the one I thought was “it”—was to only ghost books. Not blogs.
Yet the call for web content kept coming. It still does. The idea of cutting back or eliminating content services felt like a coach not coaching or a contractor not building, so I even embarked on a last ditch (but initially promising) effort to bring blog ghosting service to life.
The theory made sense—though trusted advisors cautioned that few content models actually work. The connections existed—though it would require some leg work to get things up and running. And some generous clients were willing to experiment.
Months later, with several iterations and attempts under our belts, yet another evergreen, pillar content generation platform was clearly a “no,” for all parties involved. I was miserable, they were struggling, and we all wanted out.
I won’t lie. It didn’t feel great. People wanted content, and I wanted to help them. And after years of trial and error, I thought I knew what we all needed to get there:
Creating more of a connection to their voice, thoughts, and expertise
Escaping the constant churn of blog noise through evergreen pillar posts
Setting finite limitations so we didn’t lose interest or grow resentful over the investment
Having clear content objectives so that each word, each post had a specific purpose
Playing with deadlines to allow time for creative exploration
These are good guidelines for your relationship with a content writer. I stand by then. But even with all of that criteria in place, it just wasn’t the right fit for me or my clients. Because it wasn’t what either of us actually needed.
In fiction, this would be the all is lost moment—when the protagonist has exhausted every possible avenue to get what they want. They even had an idea of what it would take to get there, but they still can’t access it. All options have failed and there’s nothing left to hang onto.
That’s when they’re faced with a core truth that they’d been missing, and are given the opportunity to seize it or turn away.
In this case, seizing our truth was turning away. With one client, we stopped altogether; with the other, we pivoted to a coaching model instead of creation.
I won’t say it’s universally true, because it isn’t. But it’s worth checking in with yourself to see if this is you:
Some folks say they want someone to write for them, when what they need is accessibility—to the knowledge, tools, and support that it takes to convey their thoughts and passions more effectively.
And the thing they’re missing to get there…well, that’s something we find out together, case by case, project by project, client by client.
Just as readily as we list off the reasons we don't write, we can name a number of reasons our writing partnerships haven't worked or aren't currently working, including:
It's going well, but the writer gets a better gig and moves on
You're not seeing an ROI that feels like it justifies
The content doesn't feel like you
Your turnaround and/or volume needs don't match the writer's abilities
The fit is "off"
In part two, we're going to look at how identifying wants and needs shifts the level of content we create. But here, I want (ahem) you to look closer at these surface negatives.
What do you say hasn't worked about your writing or writing partnership?
What solutions have you tried? What have you given up on?
Have you hit your "all is lost," where you're all out of ways to keep your content flowing? What have you given up on—blog, book, or the idea that you should have content at all—in response? Are you fighting through, writing or paying writers because you have to? Are you running from your responsibility to share your story? Are you stuck, forever putting off the tasks related to content, letting it occupy valuable emotional real estate? Are you holding out hope that you can just fling the work to someone else—if only you can find the mystical right fit?
The good news is you don't have to keep powering through anymore. Writing shouldn't be painful. Working with a ghost shouldn't feel like a drain.
The bad news is, you may have to name some hard truths and face some fears to get there.
For more on stopping the content fling, keep an eye out for part two—or hop on my calendar for a quick chat to see what’s got you stuck.