Modern Communication’s Big Open Secret

A photo collage of four different hands all typing on a keyboard at once
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Updated at 1:00 p.m. ET on April 15, 2021.

In the late-19th-century play Cyrano de Bergerac, the eloquent title character gets a woman to fall deeply in love with another man by ghostwriting letters, as him, to her. The details are a bit messy—Cyrano himself is also in love with the woman, the woman is his cousin, and the other guy dies in Act IV—but much of the play’s drama revolves around the letters’ secret authorship.

One hundred–plus years later, in the age of texting and emailing, the world is full of Cyranos: Getting quick, surreptitious help writing high-stakes messages has never been easier, whether that means enlisting friends to consult on a flirty note in a dating app or turning to a co-worker for assistance on a sensitive email to your boss. Although this sort of collaboration is widespread, people still generally assume that the messages they receive were composed by the sender alone. Acknowledging how many of our supposedly one-on-one communications are written by committee would risk undermining the comforting illusions that “private” conversations are truly private and that we are all enlightened communicators who never need to look to other people to know what to say.

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The feature of written communication that makes this kind of ghostwriting possible in the first place is “revisability,” to use a word introduced to me by Jeremy Birnholtz, a communication professor at Northwestern University. Because people can perfect messages before sending them, Birnholtz said, they often take advantage of that ability to increase the odds of a positive response. Plus, the fact that digital messages can be saved indefinitely, to be reviewed at any time, can add pressure to nail diction and tone.

Revisability is not a 21st-century innovation—it’s a feature of letters too, as Cyrano can attest. But what’s different about today’s ghostwriting is how quickly and easily it can happen: To get instant feedback, all you have to do is forward an email thread or screenshot a text exchange. This ease has enabled ghostwriting to flourish in all manner of everyday communications, whatever the author may need a second opinion on.

Work seems to be a particularly fertile environment for ghostwriting, because people tend to be navigating power dynamics as they make requests, and trying to balance directness and politeness. Elias Boyer was recently in that position—he felt he was being taken advantage of at work, because he had been assigned additional responsibilities when his supervisor was laid off but never received a raise. Boyer, a 30-year-old construction-project manager in Philadelphia, wanted to send an email to convey his frustration, and the “first draft, filled with emotion, was accusatory, confrontational, aggressive, and truthfully quite scattered,” he told me. Suspecting that the draft might be too raw for a professional message, he asked his parents to review it.

His mother and father, both law professors, stepped in as ghostwriters, toning down some of the emotion and finessing some of the wording. After multiple rounds of edits, Boyer ended up with a more levelheaded message that focused primarily on his request for more money but still indicated his frustration. And it was effective: Sending it started the conversation that led to a raise. (He acknowledged, though, that not everyone can turn to two legal experts for help refining a written argument.)

Ghostwriting can also work against dynamics that give some workers advantages over others. Sexist norms can discourage women from advocating for themselves, and to try to offset this, Liberty Howard, a 32-year-old who works at a tech company in London, asks male friends to review important work emails in which she’s making a request. “They generally make them shorter, less apologetic, and more assertive and fact-based,” Howard told me. “I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable sending them as they have been edited, as they make me feel as though I’m being demanding. But they always get a better result.”

Another context that’s conducive to ghostwriting is dating. “I’m even my single friends’ single friend,” Rebecca Acevedo, a 30-year-old who works in customer service in Queens, New York, told me. As such, her specialty is helping newly single friends interpret whether a message from someone they know is flirtatious. (In most cases, Acevedo thinks it is, but her advice is not to take it seriously until the person actually asks you out.)*

Of all her ghostwriting work, Acevedo is proudest of a tactic she’s developed to shut down unwanted romantic attention. For instance, if her friends get a message complimenting them on their appearance, Acevedo advises, “just say thank you—that’s it. I’ve helped people with ‘This is just not working for me’ kind of texts, I’ve given feedback on ‘I think we need a break’ kind of texts, but I think the best one, the pièce de résistance, is just say thank you. Let him just sit in that.”

Stephanie Tong, a communication professor at Wayne State University, has found in her research on online dating that it’s common for people to get their friends’ input when sending messages or swiping through potential matches. “A lot of times, people want to eventually introduce their significant other into their social networks, but with online dating, people are doing that at a really early phase,” Tong told me. “Friends are actually getting in on the selection [process], which is new in a way.” The future significant other just doesn’t know it yet.

To some extent, a ghostwriter’s value comes from their writing expertise and overall social savviness, but just as crucially, it is about being able to observe a situation with some emotional remove. Many of the people I interviewed for this story turned to the ghostwriters in their life for validation, to make sure that what they were saying—and, for some of them, what they were feeling—was reasonable. Whether they realized it or not, they were engaging in something like therapy; the writer expressed their unfiltered feelings, and the ghostwriter listened, empathized, and then figured out how to best package that emotional truth in written form. This might be another reason ghostwriting is so common: Regardless of the outcome of a message, the process of writing it collaboratively can provide some emotional release and bring people closer together.

On the other side of the exchange, ghostwriters are game to provide help and validation, because doing so is an act of love—a way of fortifying the people they’re closest to for difficult conversations. Samuel Vo, a 42-year-old middle-school teacher in Fontana, California, told me that he’s occasionally helped his wife, a pharmacist, write work-related communications for about 20 years. He assists her with phrasing requests to superiors and, because English is not her first language, polishes her spelling and grammar. This process, which can include drawn-out conversations about technical aspects of her job, might take hours for even a two-paragraph email. “It's a pain, but I do it because I love my wife and I want to help her out,” Vo said.

The benefits of ghostwriting are clear enough for the sender, but recipients might feel misled if they learn that a message they thought was personal was actually ghostwritten. This reaction, though understandable, is in some cases a little misplaced: Getting help writing a message doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not genuine. Consulting ghostwriters can be a sign that someone cares enough to try to get the message just right.

At any rate, ghostwriters’ roles usually stay secret. One strange dynamic is that although everyone is aware of ghostwriting on their side of a conversation, they very rarely imagine that the person they’re emailing or texting is doing the same thing.

Perhaps we choose to overlook ghostwriters because recognizing their true influence would mean questioning two collective fictions about the nature of one-on-one communication. The first is the expectation—or, really, the hope—that sensitive conversations will be kept private. Even if people wouldn’t exactly be surprised to learn that their most intimate or vulnerable messages have been shared with people whom the recipient trusts, it’s certainly less stressful to just pretend that this doesn’t happen. As Acevedo put it to me, “You don’t want to know that [your significant other’s] best friends know what’s going on in your relationship.”

The second illusion is that people benefit from appearing to have all the answers. Especially in the contexts of work and dating, people often feel pressure to present themselves as more capable and confident than they actually are. And the person on the other end of the conversation might react poorly if they detect a ghostwriter’s presence—your boss might feel weird about giving you a raise if they knew your parents were telling you what to say, and your partner might hesitate to accept your apology if they knew it was written by your best friend. Acknowledging the importance of ghostwriting would reveal how much help we get from other people; instead, we strain to put up a front of self-sufficiency.

Communication would perhaps be more honest and less stressful if we could somehow do away with these two myths, though there aren’t many examples of what that would mean in practice. Tong wonders whether the collaborative aspects of online dating she studied might eventually be brought more into the open, instead of being kept between friends. In her research, she came across elements of dating-app design in which the two myths had begun to erode: Tinder has a feature that allows users to send a profile they come across to a friend, and Wingman and Chorus, two nonmainstream apps, are expressly designed for people’s friends to manage their dating life.

It is hard to imagine what parallel developments in other realms of digital communication would look like: People aren’t going to start cc’ing their parents on emails to their boss or forming group chats with their significant other and their best friend in order to resolve relationship issues. The value of even the illusions of privacy and self-sufficiency is too high. So we’ll keep relying, secretly, on the Cyranos in our lives.


* This article has been updated to clarify Rebecca Acevedo's advice about interpreting a possibly flirtatious message.