Grant Writer as Ghost Writer: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Conundrum

At our most basic level, we grant writers are nothing more than ghost writers. Ghost writing is sometimes referred to as the world’s second oldest profession, and there’s probably some truth to that. While ghost writers haunt (sorry about that) every strain of writing, ghost writing is largely veiled from the real world. Andrew Crofts’s new book, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, provides a rare glimpse into the profession.

Like me, Crofts has spent about 40 years writing under other writers’s bylines and toiling in the shadows while making a tidy living and seemingly enjoying his anonymous vocation. Crofts points out correctly that his clients view him as ranking “somewhere between a valet and a cleaner.” In my view, our clients actually view us more in line with the purveyors of world’s actual oldest profession, but his point is well taken: when someone wants a grant writer/ghost writer/valet/hooker or some similar service, they want it right now and they probably don’t want to be reminded that they felt compelled to use the particular service.*

While we don’t worry about not having our writing attributed to us, our anonymity presents some challenges when we’re asked for references. Since we’ve been in business for 21 years, we have lots of potential references, except for a few minor issues. One is anonymity: as mentioned in the footnote, not every client wants others to know that they did not write a particular proposal and may decline to provide a reference or even deny our involvement. Crofts points out the reality: clients who hire ghost writers don’t necessarily want to be public about it.

Hillary Clinton just released her state department memoir, Hard Choices, which has been widely panned by reviewers as a real snoozer, but at least Hillary admitted to the Washington Post that this tome was actually written by her “book team” (I wonder if the team had matching t-shirts). This is better than President Kennedy, who accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which was largely written by Theodore Sorenson without attribution. Interestingly, Sorenson also wrote Kennedy’s stirring Inaugural Address, once again without public credit.

To return to our own story, we’ve also been around so long that we’ve outlived many of the contact people we worked with, who retire or move on to new jobs. There is little institutional memory in most nonprofits. For example, about 15 years ago, we wrote several large funded proposals for a small nonprofit that oddly used arts education to provide English as a second language (ESL)** instruction to immigrant children. As a result of these funded proposals, they became a much larger organization, but for whatever reason they stopped hiring us. About five years ago, I received a call from the new executive director of this same nonprofit inquiring about grant writing assistance.

The old executive director had left some time before and the new guy was amazed when I told him that we’d written the original funded proposals that launched them into nonprofit glory. He was skeptical, so I emailed him a proposal we’d written about ten years earlier. He declined to hire us and the organization eventually sunk back beneath the nonprofit waves again. They couldn’t effectively write proposals. Nonprofits that can’t write winning proposals or find some other way of funding themselves die.

Talk about ghost writing reminds me of one of my favorite John Ford Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Told in flashbacks, the storyline is that Jimmy Stewart’s righteous, nonviolent lawyer character Ransom Stodard (called “Pilgrim” by John Wayne’s laconic and quick with a gun rancher character, Tom Doniphon) is forced by circumstance to face down and “shoot” the local desperado, Liberty Valance, played with snarling fury by Lee Marvin.

Or did he? As “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” Stodard becomes famous and is elected a senator. It turns out, of course, that John Wayne’s character actually shot Liberty over Stodard’s shoulder. In effect, John Wayne was Pilgrim’s “ghost shooter.” When Jimmy Stewart finishes telling the true story to the local newspaper editor in real time at the end of movie, he says to the editor, “you’re not going use the story?” The editor replies, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Like all ghost writers, we grant writers just print the legend.


* This is one reason why we don’t list past clients on our website and always disguise them when we mention one in a post. We don’t just sell grant writing; we sell discretion.

** “ESL” is actually a somewhat archaic term in grant writing these days. The newer term is English language learning (ELL), making the the students ELLs. Now you know. In a couple years the nomenclature will probably change again, for no reason apart from fashion.

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