The thing that distinguishes ghostwriting from other kinds of professional writing is the importance of moving beyond conveying the client’s ideas to writing with the client’s “voice” or “style.” As a ghostwriter, you don’t just need to tell the world what your client would have said, but how he or she would have said it. A ghost’s goal is to create something the client’s own friends and family wouldn’t know was ghostwritten.
In order to work her way into the client’s mind, the ghost has to spend time immersed in the client’s world, through interviews, recordings, and written work. That’s why one of the chief characteristics to look for in a ghostwriter is compatibility. You’re going to have to work closely with this person, and open yourself up (even if you do it at a distance through recordings).
A ghostwriter also needs to have a talent for mimicry—not the mocking kind, but the kind an actor uses to create a great performance in a biopic. (Think of Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia,” or Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote.”) Writing in someone else’s voice is a bit like learning to speak another language with a good accent and a bit like studying a part for a play. of course, it’s possible I think of it that way because I used to translate for the stage and my first ghostwriting client was the Roman poet Plautus.
Some writers have too distinctive a “voice” of their own to set it aside and assume someone else’s, just as some actors seem always to be themselves rather than the characters they’re playing. These writers may be prizewinning novelists or journalists, but won’t make very good ghosts.
Ghostwriting vs. Co-Authoring
Ghostwriters are paid to contribute their writing skills to a book. In a typical ghostwriting agreement (and certainly mine), the ghost operates on a work-for-hire basis, and the client (known as the author) owns the copyright in the completed work. It’s the client’s name on the book and the client who collects the royalties (if any) from the sale of the book. The ghostwriter has more of an emotional investment in the client than in the book. It’s my job to get to know my client so well I can think like she does, but the book is a job. It’s a job I want to excel at, but it’s not my firstborn child.
I actually find not having my name on the book incredibly liberating. It frees me from my perfectionism and lets me get down to business. When the book is not part of my ego, I can become part of the book’s purpose, and of the author’s purpose in writing it.
Co-authors are people with expertise to contribute to the book. They get their names on the cover, own part of the copyright, and get a share of the royalties (if any) when (if) the book is sold. They have both an emotional and a financial investment in the book. On the plus side, you don’t have to pay them out of pocket. On the minus side, they have a say in everything. Once you bring in a co-author, the book is no longer yours.
Lots of great books are written by co-authors, and many people really enjoy the experience. I don’t want to put you off that kind of collaboration with a colleague whose perspective enhances yours. But you need to understand that a co-author is a partner with an equal say in things, not a ghostwriter working on spec.