Five Traits of a Great Ghostwriter
If you know you’ve got a book in you, and have time or lack of writing experience working against you, a ghostwriter might do the trick. There are good writers available in all fiction and non-fiction genres, if you know what to look for.
Here are the elements I think matter most based on writing for hundreds of university faculty and staff as a pr professional and serving as a ghostwriter for book proposals and select books. Some traits to look out for relate to the writing process; others are about someone's ghostwriting mindset, experience level and organizational capabilities.
Hired Pen Mentality
A key factor to being a professional ghostwriter is recognizing that your role is to fill the shoes of someone else, not make your own “shoes” shine. During early conversations, pay attention to whether a potential hire asks you about the main messages you want to convey with the content, who your audiences are, and what end result you seek from publishing a book. The more you can verbalize your goals and any concerns you have related to the book’s success, the better the potential writer can check whether they can meet your expectations.
Once you’ve hired someone, consider asking them to recap key decisions made in conversations to ensure you were understood. Also, whenever possible, I’d recommend asking for a chance to review and provide feedback on some early content. A conversation or two in which you roughly define draft a title (held at least a few month’s in) is another way to help ensure things are moving forward with you both on the same page.
If your highest priority is getting an understandable book out the door asap, many experienced ghostwriters can meet that need. Some writers, though, focus more on craft than others. It can make the difference in audience appeal to find someone with a passion for working with the sound of words and for other craft matters that can really make passages sparkle.
Ask a potential ghost how long they have been professionally published regardless of your approach on this matter, and what they do to keep up their skills if you want extra attention on craft. For instance, I’ll sometimes analyze someone else’s writings to see what steps they took to make a topic interesting, and I still take writing and editing courses. I’ve taken courses most recently on editing for an author's voice and language flow (sometimes called line editing), which will help me improve those elements when ghostwriting memoirs and other non-fiction in the future.
Unless you’ve been trained to consider readers’ needs, it’s fairly common to miss the mark when trying to get across what you mean to say in writings. So rather than typing up your thoughts for a ghost, it’s usually better to be interviewed by the one you've chosen during the research phase of the project so they understand how to express your passion for your experiences or for your area of expertise.
Not everyone is gifted at conducting interviews, though. It requires doing research ahead of time, and knowing when to dig deeper during a conversation to capture key elements of your viewpoint. Ultimately, the ghost’s goal is to help you express your truth. But in some cases, they may need to help you nail down the essence of what you want to say as part of the interview process; bringing that out of you takes more advanced interview skills – as well as effort on your part to be clear, and sometimes vulnerable, about what you have to share.
Another plus of doing video or phone interviews is that that gives a ghostwriter a chance to pick up on how you tend to structure sentences, idioms you favor and the like. People rarely write in as casual (and therefore, in as accessible) a way as they speak. As a result, talking to you also helps a ghostwriter capture elements of your voice and tone that they might otherwise miss. Those elements go a long way to making your published work more emotionally rich, which keeps readers engaged.
Some of the most talented writers I know are a bit reclusive; they’re more the "fly on a wall” type who excel at being empathetic and observant, but are not overly expressive. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule. But it wouldn’t be surprising if you don’t feel ready to go out and shoot some pool with a ghostwriter. Regardless, your collaborator should feel approachable and easy to talk to, including making you feel comfortable expressing concerns or ideas that might be relevant to your book. After all, it is your work, so any sense that someone is disconnected from what you’re saying or would be talking down to you should be a red flag.
Equally important: do they genuinely want to understand your perspective (particularly if you’re developing a memoir), and are they psyched about the topic your book will cover? Check to see whether the website of a ghost notes not only what genres they work in, but their hobbies. Or look for their volunteer activities and memberships in their CV or on LinkedIn. Seeing whether they’ve written some magazine features or other content related to a topic also helps.
If you can’t find detes like these, just ask what their exposure has been to a topic, as a writer or otherwise. Passion can certainly trump experience if someone’s basic ghosting skills are solid, as they might be genuinely thrilled to learn more about a topic while writing about it. That is, if your subject matter doesn’t involve a lot of specialized language or background exposure to grasp, you might find a ghost who suits your needs just fine but has little topic exposure.
However, a better connection might come out of collaborating when their worldview, concerns or experiences overlap with yours. For instance, I grew up in a community of mostly African Americans. That background helped me become interested in providing content to address the needs of students of color in higher education and so on. I note writing about diversity topics as an interest on my website, and now am ghostwriting a book about meeting social justice needs of underserved communities.
Another important consideration is project management abilities. You’re not only hiring someone to write in your voice. You’re hiring them to write in a certain time frame (likely), and to present your content in a way that’s clear and engaging to readers.
By the time you’ve shared most of the book information, the ghostwriter should give you some sense of how long it will be before you see early chapters. And your collaborator should provide and meet agreed-upon deadlines (as should you), updating you on future deadlines as the project progresses.
Unless the writing is on a fast track, you should receive some updates about the status of content along the way to gauge how the book is progressing and help ensure the direction of things is meeting the mark. A stellar ghostwriter should be good at structuring content too, which not all writers have mastered (even at The New York Times apparently, according to an editor I’ve heard talk about it). Moreover, a ghost should help you develop a big picture view of the work as the writing progresses.
Among the organizational/check-in steps I use to help keep an author in the loop are:
Providing an early Table of Contents and sharing updated versions of it as I better understand the content and author preferences.
When sharing early chapters, noting any text I want an author to pay particular attention to in order to ensure I have captured a point accurately.
Offering an outline of more gnarly chapters for feedback, or of a complex section of a chapter. For example, in the social justice-related book noted above, the author will be reviewing an outline for part of a chapter that recaps the historical and other challenges members of African American communities can face in U.S. society.
As part of keeping the big picture in mind, your collaborator might also provide feedback on approaches or elements that could work against your larger goals if incorporated, or that may unintentionally cause harm. As an example, if you suggest a word in a book’s title that could alienate a key audience, an experienced ghostwriter would guide you in considering alternate possibilities. They might also recommend that you think about whether naming someone could cause them harm if the wording is potentially inflammatory, and share ways to overcome that concern – although the decision to use or lose any wording remains your call.
That is, it should feel like a ghostwriter helps with the nuts and bolts of content creation, and has your back as an author, while still acknowledging that you’re the one who’ll ultimately be standing in the spotlight.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez
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