Working with a Ghostwriter

Ghostwriting fascinates people—not just the ethics of being a ghostwriter, but the mechanics of it. Lately I’ve had a lot of people asking me “So how do you work?” To me, that question breaks down into two parts: “How do you do what you do?” and “What’s it like to be your client?”

I addressed the first question in “How to Write Like Someone Else.” The craft of impersonation is only one aspect of ghostwriting, but it’s the main thing which differentiates ghostwriting from other forms of writing. Writing novels and plays—anything that requires getting into the heads of and creating dialogue for different characters—is good training for ghostwriting, even if you’re ghosting nonfiction. (Yes, “ghost” really is used as a verb “in the trade”.) Ghostwriting also has quite a bit in common with acting and with translating, which provide practice in rendering someone else’s words accurately and authentically.

Supposing, however, that what you want is not to become a ghostwriter but to hire one. What can you expect?

Compatibility is the Key
Dan Poynter, self-publishing guru and author of more than 80 books, says that you should never write a book with anyone you wouldn’t go camping with. This is as true for ghostwriters as for co-authors, particularly if the subject of the book is your life or your business. The ghostwriter needs to be able to get under your skin, and all the publishing credits and writing skill in the universe can’t overcome fundamental incompatibility.

This doesn’t mean you and your “ghost” have to have a lot in common. You just need to be able to get along, and the ghostwriter has to be able to understand what really matters to you, and why. You may be trusting this person with telling the public things you’ve never revealed before—or with not telling them.

It’s easier to develop this kind of trust when you can meet with someone face to face, so shop locally first when seeking out a ghostwriter. You may also have other reasons to want a writer “on location,” and it may not be feasible to fly the top talent in from across the country and provide room and board for 3-6 months.

Ghostwritten Book Proposals
Suppose you have a great idea for a nonfiction book but you know you don’t want to write it by yourself. You’ve got all the right credentials to be the author of the book and a pretty good idea of who your market is and how to reach them. You’re well-known in your field and willing to do the speaking, radio interviews, and other promotional and marketing activities required of a successful author. The only problem is, you don’t have $20,000 to pay a ghostwriter. (The cost of hiring a ghostwriter is in fact widely variable, but writing your book will probably require 200 hours, and you do tend to get what you pay for.)

The good news is that if you’ve got a salable book idea (or better yet, a series of ideas), publishers will actually pay you to finish writing your book. In order to land a publisher, you need a good book proposal. How you divide the work of creating the proposal is up to you. You might choose to do all the market research yourself and compile the list of competing and complementary books, create the promotion plan, and solicit endorsements or a foreword from celebrities, and have the ghostwriter concentrate on coming up with a zinger of a title, a solid subtitle, an irresistible hook, and a compelling chapter outline, then putting it all together into a polished proposal agents and publishers will jump on.

This will still cost you money, but it’s a much lower initial outlay, and if the proposal doesn’t get results, you’ll know it’s not worth investing in the book. If the proposal does get results, the publisher will give you an advance against royalties which will let you pay the ghostwriter to finish the book.

Providing Raw Materials
Just because you’ve hired a ghostwriter doesn’t mean you won’t work hard on creating your book. For one thing, the writer has to have something to work with. If the book is about you and/or your business, then the writer will want to interview you and the people who know you best, such as family members, employees, and clients. If you’ve written articles or white papers, or recorded seminars and presentations, those are also good raw material for a ghostwriter. Your ghost may also want to read the books or see the films which have influenced you most, and will certainly want to read any competing and complementary books.

Give and Take
Writing a book with someone else can take longer than writing it by yourself, because the manuscript (though these days it’s by no means a manuscript and usually not even a typescript but a word-processing file) has to go back and forth to be revised. You might write the first draft of a chapter and then send it to the ghostwriter to rewrite. Alternately, the ghost may create the first draft based on interviews or recordings and then give it to you to correct.

The corrections a ghostwriter makes may cover structure, style, grammar, and spelling—for instance, converting passive verbs to active verbs, compressing and clarifying long passages, or substituting plain English for scientific jargon or business buzzwords. The corrections an author makes usually relate either to facts (“That happened in the third year of the business, not the fourth”) or to style/characterization (“I don’t talk like that”).

After the first round of corrections, a new version is produced, and so on until the author is satisfied with the result. There may be some disagreements along the way, but the final result will be something both author and ghostwriter can be proud of.

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