Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Re: On Ghost Writing

Dear Mr. McErlain:

I appreciate receiving your email. You make comments that should be put in front of people, so I am posting what you said, along with the following brief responses to some of your points.

  1. A fundamental social question is that of honesty. CEOs could say "I would like to thank all those who helped greatly with this speech [or article]." That would honestly tell people that the work is not that of the CEO alone. Nor would it sound like an Oscar acceptance speech that specifically names each of a large cast of characters.
  2. Much academic work is collaborative, no less than in the corporate world. Collaborators should receive proper credit in the academic world, and, in my judgment, in the corporate and other worlds also.
  3. I am aware that executives are enormously busy. But then, so too are a lot of academics. So are some judges -- Dick Posner, for example, has written over 30 serious books and hundreds of articles, and the vast preponderance of the books and articles, I would guess, were written while he was a judge and was therefore writing judicial opinions too. If academics and judges can write their own stuff in addition to many other things they do, why can't top corporate guys?

And consider this: if corporate guys would write more of their own stuff, instead of focusing exclusively on "a thousand other priorities," perhaps this would help them think better about, and more successfully address, some of their business problems.

To conclude, let me thank you again for your trenchant email. The email bespeaks the fact that you obviously are quite good at what you do.

Lawrence R. Velvel, Dean

----- Original Message -----
From: Eric McErlain
Sent: Wednesday, October 06,
2004 11:51 AM
Subject: On Ghost Writing

Dean Velvel,

I found your blog via a link at the Volokh Conspiracy and was very interested in your email exchange with Judge Posner on the culture of writing. After kicking things around for a while, I thought you might appreciate some perspective from someone like me who works as a speech writer.

The bulk of my career has been spent writing and preparing speeches, video scripts, magazine articles and even the odd book chapter for a variety of corporate executives. I've worked for a Fotune 500 company, an Internet high flyer, and am now employed at an industrial trade association in the Washington area.

While I can see your point about how doing your own writing is a vital component of superior legal scholarship, I don't see the same connection in the corporate arena. For a law professor or a judge, writing and research are intrinsic to the profession. But while superior writing skills are always helpful to any CEO (or any business professional for that matter), it simply isn't an intrinsic part of the job the same way it is for a law professor or a judge.

For a corporate CEO, the most precious commodity is time, and how to use it wisely. Spending 7-10 hours (or more) outlining and writing a speech simply isn't a terribly productive way to spend your day, not with a thousand other priorities -- like grilling a sales VP over why his revenue projections are off -- begging for attention.

I should also point out a major cultural difference between academia and the world of business. In academic writing, there is a premium put on the effort of the individual, that someone is using their own wits and smarts to conquer some concern or issue without much help or intervention from others (just as it is in the classroom). In business, the process of problem solving instead is collaborative. For example, at one telecom company I worked for, it wasn't unusual for a number of different executives to take credit at one time or another for the incredible success of one high profile marketing campaign.

Was somebody lying? No, not necessarily, as each and every one of those executives was involved in one way or another with some aspect of a program that eventually generated hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue. Credit, in the end, didn't matter, only financial success.

That sort of collaborative arrangement extends to speech writing as well. For example, the project I'm working on now was kicked off by a team meeting with five other executives who all expected that their input would be included in any draft that I create. In addition, my first draft would, in part, be based on some internal documents that my organization has already developed.

Once I complete a first draft, the speech will likely be vetted by all five of those execs, and that's before the CEO gets his first shot at the draft. If he took the time to thank everyone who helped with the presentation from the podium, it might start to look like an Oscar acceptance speech.

There is one area where you are right beyond words, and that's in the wholesale failure of the education system when it comes to writing. I can remember from my days in high school when I first discovered that I actually liked to write, just how much many of my peers struggled with the written word. By the time I made it to college, I was convinced that I could make more than a decent living taking advantage of this. It's been 15 years, and I haven't been proven wrong yet.

By the way, I also run a sports blog, a welcome relief from my professional duties.

Best wishes,

Eric McErlain
Off Wing Opinion
"Commentary For The Free Market Sports Fan"
Named By Forbes As One Of The best Sports Blogs

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