“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.)
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.
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.
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?