What You Need to Know About Working With a Ghost Writer

I’ve had the fortune to help a few people write their books. Two of them have been Amazon best-sellers. Another is bound to be. Others have fallen short of expectations. But it’s not the successful books that have taught me about how to make a ghost writing project work. It’s the bad ones that reveal the secrets to success and here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Show Up. 

As a pen-for-hire, I make a commitment to my clients to make their project/book a success. I take my time and consider what success will require in terms of investment – of time, effort, stress and trips to the gym to work through that stress. I commit to being there, to doing the work, to making the project work. But on more than one occasion I have taken a contract to write a book and the person who hired me has basically given up. Working with a ghost writer is all about relationships. You need to have a relationship that is built upon mutual respect and mutual devotion to the end result. Don’t hire me, do one or two interviews and then stop taking my calls or begin canceling our meetings. Show up, be ready to work. A ghost writer is a partner, not a panacea. I am part project manager, part writer, part journalist and part therapist. It’s my job to lay the path for us to walk down together, to keep us on track and to hit our deadlines. It’s your job to show, be willing and ready to talk and to focus on the task at hand.

2. Have an Idea… Beforehand.

I get it. You’ve amassed some success, lived through a harrowing ordeal, discovered a break-through secret to doing something better, more efficiently, more profitably. Writing is not your primary skill set and you don’t have the background in publishing to make things work. Fine. That’s why you need me. But before you commit to working with me, have an idea of what you’d like to do. I once worked with a client who was very – read: very, very, very – successful in life. He was a successful owner of several businesses, a millionaire several times over and a person fairly well-known to the community. He had some brilliant ideas and most were driven by passion. He was passionate about energy independence and had a plan to save energy in the consumer market. It was, to be clear and fair, a great plan and for the first couple of months, we wrote about it. It was when he insisted on pivoting book from a straight-forward examination of American energy usage to a political thriller that things went to hell. He changed his mind, he wished and washed, he obfuscated the project well passed the point of no return. The result was a sluggish mess that went nowhere. I liked him as a person, a lot, but his lack of a clear vision put an unfair onus on me. Now, I advise my clients to carefully consider whether or not that have a book with several ideas or several ideas that may require several books – or, better yet, blog posts, podcasts or other smaller scale executions.

3. Don’t haggle.

Or do, but do it upfront. I negotiate a price with my clients up front and I used to break that cost down into monthly installments. But some clients would change terms mid-way through the process and try to rip me off. I do not appreciate this. If I commit to writing your book, I will be spending hours a week writing for three to twelve months. I will have factored in interview time, travel (if necessary), the opportunity cost of taking on the work in the form of other projects, time with my kids and work load. Trust me, you are getting much more than you pay for. Writing is hard and you should know that. It’s the reason you hired me. It takes focus, concentration and a boatload of time alone trying to articulate someone else’s thoughts and ideas into a voice other than your own. If you’ve ever been asked to help someone write a wedding toast or an e-mail than you know what I mean. But those are a couple hundred words max. This book is anywhere from 60,000 to 150,000 words. It’s a lot of coffee, frustration and time alone and it’s done not for fame or accolade – those are yours to keep – but for a fee and perhaps a referral. Have the decency to live up to your end of the bargain – I am living up to mine.

4. Follow through. 

As a ghost writer, I am architect, engineer, general contractor and day laborer. We will spend time considering your goals and ideas, we will make a plan and I will bang my fingers sore on the keyboard to hit deadlines and make changes. When we get your manuscript sold, the acquisition editor is going to have questions. Be willing to help answer them, answer questions when I send them to you, be willing to do your part. It’s a process working together. I love the process and have no choice but to follow through. Be willing to do the same thing, show you’re committed to this project all the way to the end and beyond. One of my favorite clients answered my e-mails within minutes – even in the middle of the night – because she understood that ours is a partnership built upon a passion to make something amazing.

5. Open up.

I’m not the Wall Street Journal. I’m not the New York times. I’m not here to ‘get you.’ I’m here to understand you. To that end, if I have questions that you don’t want to answer for the book, fine, but let’s talk through your reasoning. Don’t tell me ‘no comment’ or ‘that’s off the record.’ You hired me to be the harshest critic you’ll have. I’m here to ask hard questions, to challenge you. It’s not because I like being a pain in the ass. It’s because I need to understand. If I don’t know what you want to say, how am I supposed to help you say it? If I don’t understand why you’re hesitant to say something, how am I supposed to help you avoid the question? I’m not out to get you. I’m here to help. I won’t take on the project unless I’m interested and that’s warts and all. I’m interested, I’m curious. I have to be. I’m paid to be. If you aren’t going to open up to me, if you aren’t going to trust me, it’s probably best we don’t work together.

6. Enjoy the difficulty.

The process is not easy. I work hard to make it as easy as possible, but writing a book – or taking on any creative endeavor for that matter – is full of pitfalls and missteps. There will be times that we have to try writing something over and over until we get it right. That’s the process. It’s how this thing works. If I’ve put something in front of you, chances are pretty good it’s closer to my tenth draft than my first, but you need to be willing to work with me to get it right. We will. We will find the voice and the story. We will find the right tempo and rhythm. We will make this dance a success. Enjoy the process of going back and forth and over and over things. It will make the day that first copy arrives in your mailbox that much more worth it.

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