Finding Your Client’s Voice

A few days ago on LinkedIn, I came across someone who was trying his hand at ghostwriting for the first time. He had jumped in at the deep end and was writing from recorded interviews rather than a draft, and the client objected that what the writer produced wasn’t in his voice. According to the aggrieved novice ghost, his client’s voice “is pretty much gibberish.”

Some clients do, alas, suffer from a certain lack of coherence, particularly during interviews, where they may be hunting for the best way to express something, or even formulating their ideas on the fly. A straight transcription of such a conversation reads like a fox backtracking through a stream to throw the hounds off its trail. But correcting grammar, eliminating redundancy, and getting to the point fast enough to keep the reader from falling asleep don’t have to neuter your prose. Even if you have no actual writing samples from which to deduce a style (or the writing is as hopeless as the conversation), your client still has a voice.

Everyone uses characteristic expressions when speaking and writing. Some of these are regional; some are generational; some passed down in a family; and some may be unique creations of the user. Chances are you can easily list several such expressions used by your close friends and family members. My mother always used to say “destructions” for “instructions.” (Sometimes I do, too, as a result.) I had a high school friend who would say “Damn skippy!” where others said “Damn straight.” My housemate says “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” when she wants to contrast two situations. Neville Hobson’s predilection for the word “kerfuffle” has become an inside joke on the For Immediate Release podcast, as has his co-host Shel Holtz’ classic consultant’s answer, “It depends.”

Famous ghostwriter Claudia Suzanne includes such expressions among what she calls an author’s “tells,” along with characteristic sentence structure and perspective or intent. Everyone, no matter how poor a writer, has these “tells,” and part of what distinguishes you as a ghostwriter from other writers is your ability to discover and preserve your client’s “tells”—and to be aware of and eliminate your own.

If your client is not a native English speaker, and you are not fluent in your client’s first language, it’s much harder to identify these “tells,” but not impossible. Vocabulary is the biggest challenge, unless your client is very fluent, because you don’t know whether word choice is dictated by a limited phrase book or is actually meaningful. In most cases, you’re going to want to correct any misused words, however charming the error.

But even when you can’t get a direct experience of your client’s natural writing and speaking style, you can certainly get an impression of his or her personality. Sometimes it’s more illuminating to ask the client’s friends or colleagues than to rely on your own impression, because s/he may be more reserved or formal with strangers or people from another culture. Is this a person of few words or many? One whose natural style is academic, learned, even a little dry, or passionate and energetic? A big-picture person or a detail person? Does s/he care about being approachable, or respected? All of these things can help you choose an appropriate writing style.

In the case of the client who has long, rambling telephone conversations, it may be necessary to preserve a rolling style, with multiple clauses per sentence, rather than writing the short sentences you think are better suited to the reader’s short attention span. A client who wants to be approachable wouldn’t write with intimidating vocabulary words or lots of jargon, but one who wants to impress people might.

Unless you know your client very well, you’re unlikely to get the voice perfect in the first draft. Ghostwriting is a collaborative process. It’s your client’s job to go over what you’ve written and make corrections for voice as well as for facts, then give the draft back to you for revisions. As you make the corrections and discuss the manuscript with your client, you’ll develop a better feel for the best way to convey someone else’s identity in writing.

Can You Trademark a Book Title?


As I discovered when working with Eve Abbott on How to Do Space Age Work with a Stone Age Brain™, the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) includes books in the class of “paper goods.” Whether or not that classification represents an accurate definition of a book in the 21st century, it’s one of the hardest to qualify for. The applicant has to be using the “mark”—that is, the book title—for at least three different products in that class. They could be a series of books, or a book, a workbook, and a supplement to the book, or a series of books, but there’s not really a way to protect the title of a single book, either through trademark or through copyright.

The same is true for films. It can be confusing at times, if more than one book or film (or CD, for that matter) of the same name becomes famous. Still, the pool of possible titles would be extremely limited if everyone had to search the trademark database before coming up with a book title, especially since many books with the same title are in completely different genres and wouldn’t directly compete with one another, no matter what the USPTO might think.

Still, if you can come up with a unique title for your book, it’s an advantage. It doesn’t hurt to check or Books in Print to see whether anyone has published a book with your number one choice of title in the past 10 years.

It’s also good to remember that your publisher may change your book’s title, so there’s no point filing for a trademark until after you have a contract.

Post adapted from the answer to a LinkedIn question on March 23, 2008.

What’s the Difference Between a Copywriter and a Content Writer?

Asked by Jordan Thompson on LinkedIn.

Copywriters get paid more. 😉 Seriously, the term “copywriter” is older, and it refers primarily to people who write advertising and marketing copy. “Content” has become the catch-all term for material (not always text) that gets published on websites, and its purpose might or might not be to sell something. Blog posts are “content.” You might hire a “content writer” to write blog posts for you, but not a copywriter. (And me, I’d hire a blogger.) And you might not want to hire an all-purpose “content writer” to create a sales letter for you, either.

Writing advertising copy is a specific skill. So is technical writing. So is journalism. Very few people are equally good at all types of writing, so even though it can be convenient to lump all online writing under the heading “content,” it’s not very useful if you have a specific job for which you need to hire a writer.

What Does a Ghostwriter Do?

Asked by Adam Fields on LinkedIn, August 9, 2009.

Real ghostwriting, as opposed to what self-publishing guru Dan Poynter calls “contract writing,” involves writing in another person’s “voice.”

To explain the distinction, contract writing is “Go write me an article/blog post/white paper on topic X, and give it to me when you’re finished.”

Ghostwriting means I sit down with the client and get to know him or her, the way s/he speaks and thinks, what really matters to him or her, why s/he wants to write a book, etc. Then I use materials such as recordings of the client’s speaking engagements, interviews, notes and other written materials the client has (from e-mail messages and blog posts to short articles), to help me build up the book.

Then we pass the manuscript back and forth to make corrections for accuracy of style, tone, fact, and grammar, and finally we have a book that’s a joint effort. The client’s name absolutely belongs on this book: it’s his or her ideas and expertise that the book contains.

My name could go on the book, or not. I certainly appreciate having an acknowledgment. But I get paid for the work I’ve done, and the author and publisher might not if the book doesn’t earn out its initial investment. The obscurity is worth it.

How Do You Hire a Ghostwriter?

Randy Kemp posed that question on LinkedIn, or rather, he asked what advice to give someone who wanted to hire a ghostwriter. He included my public answer in his April 26th blog post, but I thought I should post it here, as well, and add some of my further contributions from our follow-up discussion.

There are a number of factors to take into consideration when hiring a ghostwriter. Budget is an important one, because if this is a major project, it’s going to involve considerable time and effort on the writer’s part. To know how much you can afford to spend, you need to know what the book (or other project) is worth to you in terms of expanded business opportunities, increased pay scale, etc. (Sad to say, it probably won’t earn you that much in royalties.)

Expect a good ghostwriter to cost you a substantial chunk of money. The least I’ve ever charged anyone for a full-length non-fiction book is about $7,000, and she did a great deal of the writing herself. We are talking about as much as 200 hours of work, after all. (That project, by contrast, came to about 70 hours.)

To get a sense of the range of rates for ghostwriting, you can look at the Editorial Freelancers Association’s listing for Developmental Editing (which is not the same thing, but sometimes comes close) and the “What to Pay” guidelines at They give a range from $10,000 to $50,000 (Canadian, one presumes) for a book, or your entire advance plus 50% of the royalties. Rainbow Writing, by contrast, offers “highly affordable” ghostwriting at a standard rate of $5,000 for a 200-page manuscript (where a “page” is defined in the old-fashioned double-spaced typed fashion, or about 250 words). Five thousand is pretty much rock bottom. You might find someone cheaper than that on Elance, but I don’t think you’d want to hire them.

Now that I’ve gotten the sticker shock out of the way, let’s get to the important part. Of course a ghostwriter needs to be able to write well. Some people insist on hiring writers who have published their own books, or writers who are journalists. You should certainly be able to see samples of the ghost’s writing. But that much is true of any writer you hire.

If you want a ghostwriter—someone who can take the knowledge in your brain and the passion in your heart and distill it into words in your voice—then you need someone who has more than just writing skills.

You need someone you can develop an intimate personal relationship with, because the ghost is going to be getting inside your head. Rapport is critical.

You need someone who listens to you. Don’t be surprised if your ghost spends more time asking questions, recording, and taking notes than actually writing.

You need someone with a gift for mimicry, someone who writes in multiple styles and genres. Established authors with too strong a “voice” of their own are not always good at this.

You need someone who understands enough about publishing to be able to keep the purpose and audience of your book in mind, and help you refine and develop your ideas to achieve that goal.

So far as I know, ghostwriters don’t have a union or a professional association. We are, by our nature, anonymous. You can find us lurking in the acknowledgements pages of books when we don’t have “as told to” bylines, which we often don’t. (I’ve never asked for one, but then, I mainly write business books, not celebrity biographies.)

The best way to find a good one is probably to ask for a referral from another author. You can, of course, search LinkedIn and read recommendations here. Check out the books they’ve worked on. Read their blogs. Meet them (or have a video interview) and see if you click. Find out how they work and whether your subject is interesting to them. (The more interested they are, the better their writing will be.)

Then go on and enjoy a wonderful collaborative experience building something neither of you could have created alone.

How Do You Write Your Presentations?

Werner Beckman asked this question on LinkedIn on May 29, 2008.

I usually outline and arrange my presentations using Mind Manager from MindJet. That lets me get the ideas in order and collect the links, and also makes a fine online handout if you export it to HTML.

It can export into PowerPoint, as well, but since I usually use slides primarily for illustrations, with occasional quotes and video or audio clips, I normally create the slideshow from scratch. (I’ve heard good things about Apple’s Keynote, but I’m a Windows user, so I’ve never tried it.)

I do think it’s worth distinguishing writing the presentation from delivering the presentation. Presentation software is just an electronic version of the old-fashioned slide projector, and no one who used film slides ever wrote their presentation with a slide carousel. And it was a little more obvious, back then, that putting tons of text onto a slide was a bad idea. (It was also not easy to photograph the printout in order to turn it into a slide.)

Your presentation is not the same thing as your notes. The presentation is a live whole including your delivery, the audience, audio-visual aids, and also the text or notes you’re working from.

In many cases, a completely scripted presentation is dull—and doesn’t equip you for dealing with unexpected occurrences like total equipment failure or an audience that turns out to know either more or less than you’d anticipated. You should always be prepared to give your presentation without the computer, without the screen, without the speakers. The slide show is an aid; it can make things much easier and better for the audience. But the presentation is you and your knowledge.

What’s the Best Way to Protect Electronic Documents from Being Copied?

Jean-Louis Potier asked this question on LinkedIn:

What is the best solution for securing from all saving and copying techniques in the publishing industry without damaging the reader experience (exemple an e-newsletter)?

There isn’t one. In general, DRM (digital rights management) interferes far more with the experience of honest people than with criminals. There’s not much a professional hacker couldn’t crack and redistribute; the Home Shoplifting Network on Usenet is proof of that.

You can use secured PDFs to prevent people from printing, editing, and copying, and then only a really determined person will take a screen shot, scan it in, run it through Optical Character Recognition, and go merrily ahead and do all the things you were trying to prevent. PDF security is at least fairly unobtrusive, and it’s generally a good idea to use, but the best it can do is make copying the file more troublesome.

But the only things that would come close to providing you with unbreakable security would make it so difficult to access the information that people probably won’t bother trying, or they’ll spend more time complaining about the DRM than taking whatever action you wanted them to take as a result of reading your newsletter.

The best thing is probably to establish your brand and style in such a way that people will automatically recognize the content as yours if someone tries to pass off a copy. (And there are ways to track where your articles show up; for help see Plagiarism Today.)

How Do You Get in Touch with a Publisher?

This question came from Sanket Dantara in Bombay, India, on LinkedIn: “How do you get in touch with a publisher? Is there some directory of publishers? Do you just cold call them?”

I don’t know any publishers in Bombay, but I thought the same general approach would probably work anywhere:

The usual process is: find the publishers who produce books in your subject area. Up-to-date contact information and submission guidelines can be found in Writer’s Market for English-language (and particularly US-based) book and magazine publishers; if you want a publisher in India, the check-the-library (or check-the-bookstore) method may work better.

While you’re checking, see whether any of those authors mentions an agent in the acknowledgements, then see whether you can find contact info for the agent.

In general, you send a query letter to the agent or publisher, who then asks to see a proposal including a detailed marketing plan and a short sample of the book. (Or says “No, thank you.”) If the publishers like the proposal and think they can make back their investment in your book, they’ll offer you an advance and a deadline for the completed manuscript.

Competition is fierce for English-language books; most first-time authors get many rejections before finding a publisher, if they ever do. It may be that the supply-and-demand ratio is better in India.

You can skip all these steps and self-publish. There are many Print-on-Demand houses that will make your book available to order online without charging you much up front. In order to produce a professional book, however, you’ll need to hire your own copyeditor, book designer, and cover artist. This could get pricey.

By “check-the-bookstore method,” I mean go to the section of the bookstore (or library) where books similar to yours are shelved and write down the publishers’ names and addresses from inside the book’s title page. Almost all publishers have websites these days, and many of them provide submission guidelines. I first learned this trick (as it applied to finding possible agents for books) in Susan Page’s classic, The Shortest Distance between You and a Published Book.

What’s the Hardest Part About Editing and Rewriting Content?

That question comes from Jacob Bear on LinkedIn:

What’s the hardest part about editing and rewriting content?

As a copywriter, I get asked a lot to rewrite web pages, press releases, direct mail and other content. I try to avoid doing this (creating original copy is a lot more fun and more lucrative), so I’d like to post a series of online video tutorials to walk people through the process.

I’m trying to get a sense of the biggest writing challenges, so I can address them in the videos.

Actually, the thing that’s really hardest for me is writing what copyeditors call “queries” rather than just fixing problems. But that wasn’t the kind of editing Jacob was talking about, so I said this instead:

Editing other people’s content is actually fairly easy; the challenge is to preserve their “voice” if the writing is informal/personal. Editing your own material is harder because you’re close to it. It’s best to take a break from it, wait a few days, do something to get it out of your head so that you can look at it with fresh eyes. You could ask a friend or family member to read it and tell you whether there’s anything confusing.

One successful author I know recommends doing all your editing on hard copy: print it out, take it and your red pen away from the computer, sit down, and write in the edits and comments, without changing anything yet. Then go back and make the changes at the computer.

Or, of course, you could just refer clients who want editing rather than original work to someone who’s happy doing rewrites.

And, incidentally, I charge the same amount whether I’m writing new content or editing. You may find that raising your rates for editing a) makes you more willing to do it and b) reduces the frequency with which you get asked to do it.

There were a lot of good answers posted. It’s worth going over to LinkedIn and reading all of them.

Giving Wow to Obscurity

Here’s a great LinkedIn question that Will Conley posed on February 21, 2008:

What are some effective ways to communicate a web development company’s complex, obscure abilities in a way that is accessible—without sacrificing the wow-factor?

You can substitute the name of almost any industry for “web development company” without changing the meaning of the question, because if you get down to the details of the processes involved, almost anything is obscure and confusing to outsiders. And probably not all that interesting, either. That could be why every marketing coach I’ve ever met warns you not to talk about the process when people ask what you do.

But here’s what I actually said:

There won’t be a wow factor for most people if you can’t describe what you do in plain English. Showing it may also help—before and after shots of websites you’ve revamped, or your widgets in action.

Perhaps sit down with someone who isn’t in your industry, show your stuff, and ask him or her to describe the bits that s/he found most impressive. Remember to ask how these services make the client’s life easier and benefit the client’s business.

That’s what I used to do when interviewing members of the IT department at a client’s company for the newsletter I used to write for the rest of the employees to read. I knew the readers didn’t care about the details of hardware and software. They cared about how the changes were going to affect them.

And even the geekiest prospects only care about a product’s features or a consultant’s skills because of the results they achieve. That’s where you find the wow.