Become a Ghostwriter: Here’s How to Write in Someone Else’s Voice

Become a Ghostwriter: Here’s How to Write in Someone Else’s Voice

“A ghostwriter.”

“So, do y—”

“No, I don’t write about ghosts. And I don’t wear a sheet with holes cut out for eyes while I write.”

“That’s not what …”

“Yes it is, and you know it.”

“OK. You got me. So what do you actually do then?”

“I write books for other people. Their ideas, my words.”

“Isn’t that cheating?”

“No. My clients have great ideas. They just don’t have the time or the know-how to finish writing a book. It’s a win-win.”

“But how do you write it so it seems like they wrote it?”

“I’m a ghost. It’s what I do.”

I’m a nascent ghostwriter, with just one title to my resume and two more nearing completion, but I want to do more. Consequently, I’ve been marketing myself as a ghostwriter. Because of that, I’ve had some variant of the conversation above more times than I can remember.

When I talk with other writers, they often want to know about two specific issues: how to break into ghostwriting and how to write in another person’s voice. The first issue requires equal parts hard work and luck, but the second can be learned — although it tends to require a significant amount of trial and error.

I learned the significance of finding the right voice after one of my clients pitched his half-written book to an agent. The agent replied that it was too academic in tone to reach a popular audience, which the author wanted to do. After I was hired to rewrite and expand his initial book, we focused on “popularizing” his book without leaving behind the important information he wanted to convey.

Through this process, I learned a number of methods on how to write in another person’s voice. (In fact, with proper modification, these methods can be used to find a company’s voice for marketing and to discover characters’ voices in novels.)

1. Listen

The simplest and most effective way to write in someone else’s voice is to listen to that person’s voice.

For instance, this client had 10 hours of video from a conference he’d led using information that would ultimately be in the book. He sent me the video and I transcribed every word. Painstaking? Yes. Worthwhile? Quite.

In being forced to listen to the way he spoke about his book’s topic, I discovered his voice hiding in plain sight. He wasn’t academic; he was understandable. He wasn’t dull; he was funny. His spoken-word, real-life delivery was much more engaging than what he’d written.

But you don’t have to rely on your author speaking about his or her topic (though, of course, that’s ideal). You can glean their voice from the conversations you have with them. With their consent, record your conversations, then jot down a few notes after the fact about what struck you: Did he use large words? Did she seem confident in what she was saying? Did he pause for long periods of time? Did she often quote others? What did his body language convey?

In asking other ghostwriters about how they listen to learn an author’s voice, they offered a number of excellent suggestions for instances when a meeting may not be possible:

  • “Read everything you can from that person: books, speeches, even emails, and any notes-to-self that they’ll share.” — Jennifer Harshman
  • “Write out physically something the author has written. Do it over and over until you get a feel for how things are worded. Talking like that person out loud can help too.” — Jim Woods
  • “Watch videos they may have. Record your calls. Skype if possible so you can also learn their body language. Visualize them speaking, then pretend to be that person as you write.” — Alice Sullivan
  • “Try to never do a ghostwriting project without an in-person meeting. Also, if the client is a speaker, discuss the difference between spoken and written word.” — Mike Loomis

Essentially, you’re searching for the ways in which they best engage an audience. If you can capture that aspect of your author’s personality in writing, you’ve accomplished much of what’s required of a ghostwriter.

2. Write

Robert Frost wrote, “I can see no way out but through.”

Once you start hearing your author’s voice in your head at night, that’s just about the right time to begin ghostwriting on their behalf. If you never begin writing, you’ll have no idea whether your idea of their voice will translate well to the written page. You must go through to get out, and it will be a laborious process of questioning every word choice, every transition and every edit.

With the best clients (and I’ve been fortunate to work with all “best clients” so far), you can write and submit a chapter, then receive feedback within an agreed-upon timeframe. This has vacillated between a day and a week with my clients.

Remember, these are busy professionals who hired me precisely because they’re so busy. Consequently, I have to be flexible with their timeframes, though they still have to be responsive to my needs so that their respective books can be finished on deadline.

Mike Loomis offers two superb tips for the writing phase: “Ping-pong one chapter until it feels right to everyone” and, “Try to get feedback from a spouse (or someone close to the author) when possible.”

Feedback is when you’ll really learn whether or not you’ve captured the author’s voice.

And that moment right before opening your author’s first email reply after you’ve sent the first draft? It’s enough to make any writer want to hide under a sheet.

3. Bow

Lastly, be humble when you receive feedback. Though it is your book, it’s not really your book.

As the client paying you to write a book on her behalf and in her voice, if the author says, “I wouldn’t use that word,” you must delete all instances of that word without hesitation. In fact, the more you can discover about the particular words and turns of phrase the author prefers, the more you’ll be aligned with her voice.

Quick tip: To prevent yourself from inadvertently using a word the author wouldn’t choose, use a text expansion app like aText (or one of these Windows options) to essentially autocorrect any unintentional word usage.

Ultimately, you must realize what’s supposed to be on display isn’t your talent — it’s your author’s voice. Like a ghost, the best writers for other people disappear behind the author’s needs.

If you’re a ghostwriter, what practices and strategies do you use to get inside your author’s mind? If you haven’t tried ghostwriting, will you?

Filed Under: Craft
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16 comments

  • Interesting article. You had me really laughing at the opening too.

  • Pimion says:

    Thanks for the article.
    But I think being a ghostwriter is a little bit upgrateful job. Everyone knows your book but not you.

  • Trish says:

    Most of my work is copyediting, and even in that field, it’s important to find and maintain the author’s voice. At first, I was reluctant to do much rephrasing, and I did a lot of querying, but I gained confidence as I worked with more and more authors who practically pleaded with me to take a freer hand with their work. As I came to recognize the trust they were willing to place in me (a recognition that can be very humbling even as it is a source of pride), I began to think of my job as making the manuscript into what they would have written themselves under ideal writing conditions: Plenty of talent, plenty of skill, plenty of energy, plenty of time, plenty of perspective. No writer has “plenty” of all of those all the time, which is why everyone needs an editor. After I had a few editing projects that involved so much rewriting that I almost felt like a ghostwriter, I added “ghostwriting” to my list of available services.

    There are many legitimate reasons for seeking a ghostwriter, and I’ve come to realize how fair it is for the “author’s” name to be on the cover rather than the “writer’s”: An author is the one who gives the project its impetus, without whom the book never would have existed. The ghostwriter is just the person who fleshed out that existence in words, and I’m happy to be that person.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Nicole Webb says:

    I’ve recently started ghost writing and like you Blake, I find the best way is to read as many articles/posts etc by the person in question, so that you can ‘hear’ their voice in your head as you write. Sometimes, I find I’m half way through an article and feel like I’m reverting back to my own voice; in this case, I jump out and read a few more pieces of their work to get me back in the zone, so to speak!
    It’s quite rewarding when you pull it off. Cheers, Nicole

  • Brenda says:

    I am an aspiring ghostwriter. I will definitely use the advice of reading and listening to how the author speaks so that I may capture their voice using the appropriate words. My biggest struggle is asking the right questions to get them to open up and talk about what they are writing. Nonetheless, this is a great article.

  • mtune says:

    man i am excited helpful work cheers

  • Hi Blake,

    I ran across this article today when I was researching something else. I found it very intersting. I run a company named “WOLF”, an abbreviation for World of Loyal Freelancers. My company provides “Ghostwriting” services for companies around the world. We also hire new and beginning ghostwriters on a regular basis, plus offer a training program. The majority of our work is volume articles, mlm product descriptions, product reviews, website reviews, and other “bulk” website content. We also offer administrative and virtual assistant services. Now, this being said, the pay is not the greatest but the volume and the knowledge gained is found by the freelancers, approx. 50 freelancers at any given time, to be lucrative and interesting. As they move out of ghostwriting, they take on virtual writing projects and administrative tasks, which pay per hour instead of per word. To learn more about WOLF, please visit my website.

    Thanks, Trish

  • Daniel says:

    Hello Atwood
    Its really through Allah that i came across this article
    I find it helpful and really helped me a lot to find how to be a great ghostwriter

    Thank you

  • Paige says:

    Thank you for this article!
    I am just now breaking into the freelance ghostwriting niche, specifically about horses, and I found your information and pointers extremely helpful! It was especially interesting to see you discuss the importance of writing in the author’s voice rather than your own. I didn’t give it much thought until this article. Awesome work!

  • Simplicia says:

    Becoming a web writer is one of my intent but I always have an insecure feeling of not being good, your ghostwriter ideas inspire me to look again I like writing somebody’s mind and voice without exposing myself as the writer.

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