Ghostwriting may not be the most obvious writing career, but, it’s certainly one that should be explored. Like most ghostwriters, I fell into it purely by accident and I can truly say that it’s made a difference to my writing (and my bank balance). I’ve learnt some great techniques that I’ve been able to apply to other areas of my work and even discovered ideas for my fiction books!
If you’re thinking about being a ghostwriter, this post can help you explore the various options available and also give you tips on getting started.
The basics of ghostwriting.
1. Have you got the skills?
Ghostwriting is not the easiest job in the world. It requires considerable communication skills – and extreme patience in some cases – for you to be able to do the work. You’re required to be a listener and a researcher par excellence. This sounds easy, but if you happen to be working with a taciturn subject, then it can truly feel like a bloodbath.
Added to that is the ability to be able to weave a spellbinding tale out of your ghostwriting project – even if you’re writing about Roman concrete (and yes, I’ve done this – written about Roman concrete, I mean).
If this is not something you think that you can do, perhaps it’s best to look another type of writing career.
2. It’s always about the subject, not the ghostwriter
Ghostwriting doesn’t leave any room for egos. As a ghostwriter, your job is to tell your subject’s story, in the same way as they would tell it, if they could write it. In other words, it’s all about them, not you. If you’re fine with this, then a good ghostwriting career awaits you. If not, then perhaps you should think of other options.
3. Identify your niche
While it’s tempting to want a broad ghostwriting portfolio, the fact is that having a specialist field will make you an expert in that niche, and you are more likely to get better, high-quality ghostwriting work in that area.
This is one of those, how long is a piece of string? scenarios. I cannot tell you how much to charge for your first ghostwriting gig, because there are so many factors involved, like your writing experience, professionalism and so on. I will say this: do not under-estimate the level of work needed to pull off a good ghostwriting project and do not over-estimate your writing skills in this niche either. If you’re new to ghostwriting, you won’t be able to charge as much as the veterans – it’s common sense. Do some research on Google to find out what the rates are.
Again, this is down to you. I accepted a flat fee for my work (50% on commission and 50% on completion). From my experience, most ghostwriters do the same, and I would advice you to follow suit.
If a client (traditional publisher or individual who would like to self-publish the book) tell you they’re willing to share a percentage of future earnings with you, in return for no/low fees, I wouldn’t take them up on their deal, but that’s just me. I can’t see into the future, so I don’t know how successful the book will be. Take the money and run, that’s my motto.
If you’re looking for validation, ghostwriting probably isn’t for you – most ghostwriters aren’t credited as the author of the books they write, and that’s fine by them. Having said that, some publishers, as a matter of principle, list their ghostwriters as ‘co-authors’ or collaborators on the book cover.
6. Very important: you need laser-like interviewing techniques – like, seriously
Successful interviewing is the key to a good ghostwritten autobiography. You can start by interviewing your subject in an environment that they’re comfortable in, but not so comfortable that you do everything else (eat and chat away like old friends), but the interviews needed to get the information you need.
Ask probing questions: What did you mean when you said you had to leave, immediately?
Probing questions will give you detailed answers and ample material for the book.
Do not ask leading questions. The focus of the interview should firmly be on your client. After all, it is their book, not yours. Asking leading questions such as, I guess you mean that you felt ashamed? unconsciously informs and alters your client’s thought process. Instead, try, Can you tell me how you felt when that happened?
Stay focused. Keep to the task. It’s natural for your clients to want to know more about you, the person helping them to write their life story. However, this needs to be managed carefully, if you want to do the job that you’re being paid to do, well.
When they ask you questions about your life, give short answers (ahem, diplomatically, please!) and bring the focus back to your client.
Here’s a typical scenario:
Client: ‘So, how did you get into ghostwriting, then?’
You: ‘My mother knew I loved writing, so she asked me to write the family history. Can I just clarify what you said about your first time in Borneo?’
And, last, but not least. Let your client talk. In fact, the more they talk, the better, because it means that you will have more material to draw from.
Stage 1. Research, research and then, more research
Personally, I don’t like to do too much research before meeting the client, for fear of forming preconceptions about them that may impact the work.
However, when I’m interviewing them, I try and clarify the information I’m being given as much as I can. For example, You said that you and Mary were in Burma in 1978. But, last week, you said you were in Panama that year. Can you clarify the dates and country for me, one last time, please?
Doing this reduces the research (fact-checking etc) that I would have to do after the interview.
Quality research also gives you the opportunity to confirm the information that your client has given you. Doing this doesn’t mean that you disbelieve whatever they’ve told you. You’re just fact-checking and qualifying the information that you have been given. As the ghostwriter (and researcher), that is your job.
Besides, post-publication, the last thing you want are irate readers picking out holes in your work.
Imagine the emails…That did not happen in Burma in 1978. I should know; I was there!
Stage 2. Writing the book
By the time you finish interviewing the client, you should have an idea of the best way to approach their story. Make sure you discuss this with the client before making the decision yourself.
2.1 Tips to approaching your client’s story:
- Think about them as a character in their own story
I write fiction, so I tend to think of my client as characters in a novel. They are the central character and the novel evolves with other characters (friends, family or other people who’ve impacted the client’s life in some way), plot lines (events in their lives) and a satisfying conclusion (a summary of events and where they are now, in their lives).
- Stick to a theme or single story line
Having a single theme or story line running throughout the novel will help keep it focused. So, you and your client should decide on what year, facet or season of the client’s life that you want the book to focus on and run with that.
Breaking into ghostwriting: what the experts say
Here in no particular order, are sage words of wisdom from industry practitioners who either commission ghostwriters or have ghostwritten books.
I got my first ghostwriting project by referral from a publisher. Ghostwriting has helped me gain skills in strategically analysing content (both fiction and nonfiction) to make sure the structure is apparent.
Best advice? Always be alert for opportunities to extend your network.
I’ve worked in the publishing business for yonks, and early in my career commissioned a book on ghostwriting within the Christian community, especially as related to the challenges or unethical practices. Sadly, the author never delivered the manuscript – yes, I guess he needed a ghost.
When I worked for two large corporate publishers, we used co-writers on projects, but we would call them co-writers or collaborators, not ghosts. We always put their names on the cover and inside title page as a point of integrity. Now with my (freelance) work, I haven’t yet commissioned a collaborator, but we have employed what I would call book doctors, who come in and do a heavy job of editing and recommending rewrites. I’ve worked as a book doctor for many projects myself as well, and two autobiographies in particular where I could have been called a collaborator (I shy away from using the term ‘ghost’).
My advice for newbie collaborators is to keep your subject’s voice prominent at all times. You are there to tell their story; you are their servant. Try to make yourself and your style as invisible as you can, so that you’re not imprinting a different style onto their story. The two women I worked with (as mentioned above) were both older Americans, but vastly different in character. One thought deeply with an academic style; the other prized beauty and the power of story. For each, I was able (over many hours) to help them release their voice. Telling one’s own story can be filled with fears about one’s audience, memories that might be buried, concerns about what to say… There can be a lot of untangling that a collaborator or book doctor can help with.
The joys of helping someone to unleash their voice are great. And the intimate closeness that results from the writer/collaborator relationship has for me been a gift beyond compare.
I landed my first ghostwriting project by temerity and effort. Having published a series of retellings of classic literature (www.realreads.co.uk), I identified my skills as being stealing someone else’s story and adopting their voice to tell it. This led me to think about ghostwriting. I specifically wanted stories about ordinary people who had done extraordinary things to make the world better: inspiring stories. I drew up a short list and contacted them all. This led to work with two people on the list – both very different and both fantastic to work with.
How my writing has improved as a result of my ghostwriting? My latest project having been writing with a physicist, I’m far better now at paying attention to minute details within the story. I think I’m also better at seeing the potential shape of a story.
In terms of the advice that I would give to newbie ghostwriters, I feel as though I’m just muddling through and so have little advice to give, other than to chase the work that interests you. It would be extremely hard work if you found the subject matter dull.
A good relationship with your client is invaluable – this means absolute integrity, respect, reliability and confidentiality on your part. You also have to be able to take constructive criticism on your writing – after all – if someone else presumed to write the story of your life, and said they could do it in your voice, do you think you’d be 100% happy with their first draft?
Oh… and think very carefully before you give up your day job.
Alison Hull, former commissioning editor
Why did your publishing house use ghostwriters?
It’s not that simple [but I will try]. Often if people want their story told but know they cannot write it themselves, they will find their own ghostwriter and then approach a publisher. But ghost-writers are necessary for whoever finds them, for books where the person whose story is being told either does not have the time or expertise (or both) to tell their own story in a way that will mean others will want to read it.
What do you look for in a ghostwriter?
They have to be able to say what the person whose story it is would say if they could write. So they have to lose themselves in that person’s story, find their voice, and stick to it. They have to be transparent – we look through their writing to see the main character. And they have to be able to write well, to create character, to stick to deadlines, to create a good story arc, to handle descriptions, to have, in short, a strong grasp of all story-telling skills.
Your tips and techniques for newbie ghostwriters?
Read and read and read and read. Read books that have been ghostwritten – and read novels, autobiographies and memoirs, to see how other people have recreated the past, captured a description, a time, or a situation. Analyse what you read.
Ghostwriting can be a hugely rewarding career. I ghostwrote three books before deciding to focus on my fiction work exclusively. However, I will say this: don’t go into it thinking it’s an easy way to make money – anything worth doing well is never easy.
Go into it with the intention of being the best storyteller out there – that’s how you build credibility. I earned four figures for my first ghostwriting gig, and by the time I got to the third, I was well into comfortable five figures. By then, I’d earned my stripes – built credibility.
Follow the same approach (determine to do a great job, deliver the work and don’t be afraid to seek out those opportunities, much like Gail did) and you’ll be fine.
Tools for the job:
- Digital recorder (or smartphone)
- A transcription service: these are worth their weight in gold. Unless you fancy transcribing 100 hours of interviews yourself
- A secondary storage system eg, Dropbox to back up your files. Trust me: you’ll need it
Also published on Medium.