How to Write Like Someone Else

A good ghostwriter doesn’t just write someone else’s story: she writes in that person’s own words. This can be challenging, since ghostwriters are hired to write in words that express what the author (the person whose name is on the book) means better than the author can himself. The idea is to say what the author would have said if he’d been the one writing the book.

How do you write in someone else’s style? It’s a little bit like learning a foreign language—especially the accent.

First, listen. How does this person talk in ordinary conversation with friends? What about in more formal settings, such as radio or TV interviews or public presentations? Does he use regional expressions, or expressions common to a particular era? (For instance, Jane Austen uses “to colour” instead of “to blush.”) Does he use long or short sentences? Big or small words? How about foreign expressions? Which words does he use frequently?

If you listen to a person over a period of a few days, you’ll be able to answer all of these questions. You can answer them now for your friends and family members if you think about it. (You might know some of those expressions better than you want to, if they use them all the time.)

Use the author’s actual words wherever possible. If he has hours of recordings from seminars and presentations, you’re ahead of the game. If there aren’t any recordings, make some. Don’t just record your interviews with the author; record him speaking to his employees or clients or in a public forum (with his permission, of course). Listen to any radio or TV interviews your client has given. Transcribe at least parts of them yourself, to get the feel of writing those words.

Second, read. Some people write the way they speak; some do not. But everyone has an unconscious, individual writing style. Writers of fiction usually have distinctive styles. If you read two or three books in succession, you start to notice techniques. Does every chapter end on a cliffhanger? Does the author use a lot of sentence fragments or run-on sentences? Do certain vocabulary words reappear in every book? (I don’t think Anne McCaffrey has ever written anything without the word “deft” in it; Patricia Cornwell is fond of using “prepossessed” to mean “preoccupied.”)

The more sample material you have to read, the better you get to know the author’s style. And if the author has a really compelling style, you may find yourself thinking in that style while you’re reading the book. Your client’s style may be more subtle and less literary, but you can still learn to think in it.

Third, practice. Of course you’ll get practice with your client—that’s part of the job. But if you’re not used to doing this kind of writing, do some practicing in advance. Try rewriting some neutral text in the style of different famous authors: John Updike, Michael Crichton, Shakespeare.

Fourth, get your client’s input. Once you’ve created a draft in a style which sounds like the author to you, show it to him. He will be able to tell instantly whether your writing sounds like him. If your client says “I’d never say that,” ask “What would you say instead?” Then go back and revise it.

Fifth, ask a third party. Ask one of the client’s friends or colleagues to read what you’ve written. You can even do a blind trial and not tell the person ahead of time that your client didn’t write it, but you need to be very careful about this. You don’t want to upset or offend your client’s associates, and you don’t want to mislead them, either. A better approach is to give the person two pieces of writing, one by your client and one by you, and ask him or her to guess who wrote which piece. If they can’t tell, you’ve got it down.

The longer you work with your client, and the more closely you work with him, the easier it will be to write in his style. By the time you finish the book, it will be the author’s book. Readers will develop a relationship with the author, which is why the author wants a book in the first place.

Ghostwriters need to be as invisible to readers as the keyboards on which they type. The personality which comes through the writing has to be the author’s. To be a successful ghostwriter, you gotta have style.

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