How to Work with a Ghostwriter
By Laura Sherman
You have a great story to tell or wisdom to impart and wish to write a book. However, your demanding schedule leaves little time to put pen to paper. In addition, this is new territory for you, and you might not be fluent with all the rules of writing and storytelling. This is the moment where most people reach out to me as they realize they need to work with a ghostwriter.
A ghostwriter is a professional writer who specializes in helping her clients bring their stories to life. She writes the book and you own the rights—you’re the author. Although you’ll need to be involved, she will do 90% of the work and will help see your project through to completion in a timely manner.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve had the pleasure of partnering with many different clients on over three dozen memoirs, novels, and business books. While each relationship was unique, I’ve picked out some common steps you can expect to take if you decide to work with a ghostwriter.
Selecting the right ghostwriter
Your first course of action is to interview and select the best ghostwriter for you and your project. The most popular way to find ghostwriters by searching for them online. You’ll find there are a lot of choices, but you can begin whittling down the list by determining three important requirements before you start interviewing.
First, know your budget. At least know your range. For instance, if you wish to write a 100-page (25,000-word) book and have a budget of $12,500, that’s fifty cents per word. Don’t contact someone who charges two dollars per word. Find writers within your range. This will save you a lot of time and frustration.
Second, know the genre of your book. You don’t want to waste your time on interviewing a writer who specializes in novels when you intend to write a business how-to book.
And, third, prepare a brief summary of your book. I can’t tell you how many clients spend over an hour sharing their entire story with me during our initial conversation. It’s draining and exhausting for the author and the writer. While you need to share the overview of the story to determine that the ghostwriter will be a good fit, it should be an elevator pitch lasting only a few minutes so that you have enough time and energy for the rest of the interview questions.
After you’ve determined that the potential ghostwriter is qualified, has a lot of prior experience, and is within your price range, it’s time to interview her on the phone. Prepare a list of questions ahead of time. For a little advice about the kinds of questions to ask, please read my article: Interview Questions for a Ghostwriter.
When you speak on the phone, make sure that you and your ghost can talk comfortably and easily. You want a ghostwriter who listens well and asks intelligent questions. Ideally, she will immediately engage in your story. And there should be an immediate bond; it should feel like you’ve been friends for years.
Signing with a ghostwriter
Once you’ve found your perfect match, it’s time to make it official. Your ghostwriter should have a ghostwriting contract for you to sign. Always put all the important details in writing so there are no confusions later.
Your contract should include the following:
Plan to pay 25% of the total fee upfront. This covers research and outlining, which in my experience is often the most time-consuming phase. I work on a milestone approach so that my clients always know what to expect with each payment. For example, with the first payment they will receive a detailed outline within two or three months.
Gathering research information
Now that you’ve selected your ghostwriter and have signed the contract, it’s time to gather all your research information and notes. Don’t worry if your notes are messy and disorganized. Personally, I never mind if the notes provided are riddled with typos and grammatical errors. All I’m interested in is the information, so that I can begin formulating the outline for your book. Then I’ll set up an interview schedule to fill in the gaps.
Notes can come in a variety of forms. Over the last twenty years, clients have given me:
If you want to work with a ghostwriter, but don’t have any written notes prior to signing the contract, that’s completely fine. Your ghost will be able to guide you, so that you can give her the information she needs.
For instance, if you desire to write a memoir, I’d ask that you jot down a list of crucial incidents. This list can be very basic. The wording should be designed to help you remember what happened. For instance, you might write “the time I met Mary on the subway,” or “graduation day,” or “the big argument with my brother two years ago.” You know what each phrase means and can instantly remember all the details. Of course, if you’re so inclined, you could also note a few details at this time.
In the case of a non-fiction book, your notes would take the form of chapter titles for a preliminary Table of Contents. Under each chapter title, you would list out the subheads you plan to incorporate into that chapter, along with a few comments about what you want to say.
As you work with a ghostwriter, she will take these notes and use them as a starting place to create her interview questions. These questions will help her get more details to flesh out your story.
Settling a few important details
As you pull together the research notes, consider these important aspects of your book:
While you determined the general genre of your book before starting your search for your ghostwriter, now you can get more specific. This will help your writer when she begins outlining.
For instance, if you’re a successful businessperson, you might have a choice between writing a memoir or a how-to book in which to share your hard-won knowledge. Or if you have led an exciting life, you might choose between writing a memoir or creating a fictionalized version of your story, turning it into a novel.
Next, you need to determine the readership of your book. This will help you choose which incidents to include in your story and the style in which they will be written. After all, a college textbook would be quite different from a romantic comedy. Or a World War II memoir would be written in a very different style from a space opera science fiction novel.
And finally, you need to clarify your goals. Do you hope to gain financially? Do you wish to share your wisdom and experience to help others improve their lives? Or do you simply wish to record your family history for your loved ones? When you know why you wish to publish your book, you can work with a ghostwriter to realize those goals.
Interviewing with a ghostwriter
Some people I speak to seem to have the impression that a ghostwriter is someone who follows a celebrity around all day, perhaps living in the guest house or in a spare bedroom. While I have seen this portrayed in movies, in real life it isn’t terribly practical.
I find that it is most effective to interview clients over the phone and via email. It’s rare that I ever meet them in person (although sometimes I have had the pleasure). In-person interviews aren’t necessary and don’t make the process easier.
During these interviews a ghostwriter will gather details on all the incidents in your memoir or novel. If you’re writing a how-to book, your writer will want to interview you to gain insight into the information, techniques, and tips which will be featured in the book. In addition, successful nonfiction books include funny anecdotes to hold the reader’s interest. These are usually best communicated through interviews.
As you continue to work with a ghostwriter, an effective way to pass on important information is through written materials, such as documents, notes, emails, etc. But ongoing oral interviews are key to a successful outcome because they give her the opportunity to master your voice. Becoming familiar with the way you express yourself will allow the writer to convincingly write in your style. After all, this will be your book and your name will be on the cover.
Tips on interviewing
When you are interviewed, be prepared to be honest and candid. Don’t try to hide things. Take responsibility for your actions. If you attempt to blame others, your readers will lose respect for you and interest in the book. Embrace what happened, no matter how embarrassing or messy it may seem to you. That’s important. Then be sure to express how much you’ve learned from your mistakes. This will resonate with your readers. After all, we’ve all been there.
Another tip is to consider all of your senses when you describe a scene. People typically default to their sense of sight and describe what they saw. While these descriptions are crucial, it’s important not to forget all the other perceptions.
For instance, let’s say you’re sharing the story of your tenth birthday with your ghostwriter. Think about the sounds of the outdoor party. Were there birds singing or perhaps cicadas buzzing and clicking? Then try to remember the smells of freshly mown grass or grilling hamburgers. You should probably also delve into the emotions of the day. Were you excited or disappointed? There are so many possibilities. The more sensory details you add, the richer your story will be.
And finally, I’d suggest that you and your ghostwriter limit each conversation to about an hour. While an hour and a half can be fine, I wouldn’t recommend marathon three-hour talks. You’ll get worn out, and your ability to recall the details might diminish.
Planning your schedule
When you work with a ghostwriter, she will do the heavy lifting for your book, but remember that you also have a key role in your project. Some ghostwriters collect all the information upfront, learning as much as they can, and quickly deliver a first draft for the client to review. They basically complete the book without continued input from the client. Once the rough draft is finished, that’s when they request feedback and make adjustments accordingly. I feel that is a potential recipe for disaster.
Personally, I want to make sure to be delivering the style of writing the authors expect. To that end, I send pages to my clients for feedback on a regular basis, as I write them. That way I can be sure to be on the right track and deliver what my clients envisioned.
It is important to be upfront with your ghostwriter about your available time. In the beginning, you should plan to spend minimally a few hours a week on interviewing, answering questions, and providing feedback. A good ghostwriter is flexible and, with some forewarning, can work around your schedule.
When you work with a ghostwriter, she will require feedback. It’s important to be specific in your comments, so that she can learn and improve. For instance, don’t simply say, “I didn’t like that.” Rather, explain what you felt was missing from the passage or what nuance you felt wasn’t correctly captured.
It’s also key to point out what you felt your ghost got right. Good feedback is just as helpful as correction. We learn from both equally.
It’s a good idea to give a quick turnaround on edits to your ghostwriter, as that will speed up the process and help her learn faster. Ideally, you can tell her when you’ll be able to review the document so she can schedule around it.
I like working with MS Word. I find Track Changes a helpful editing tool because the client can make changes within the document and I can immediately spot the edits. Plus, he or she can write comments that help explain the changes made. It’s a great tool for any writing team.
Your story is important and deserves to be heard. If you don’t have the time or know-how to write a book yourself, having a ghostwriter help you is a real option. Knowing how to pick a ghostwriter allows you to find the person who is best suited for you and your project. And understanding how to work with a ghostwriter allows you to two to become a strong team, one that works together smoothly and effectively to bring your story to life so that you can share it with the world.
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