Mystery tends to swirl around ghostwriters and what they do, but it needn’t. I’m pleased to lift the veil . . .
First, there isn’t one singular job description for a ghostwriter. Nor is there one uniform way a ghostwriter can help you. There are many possibilities, and the relationship can be explored and developed based on your specific needs.
While a quick Google search may yield multiple descriptions of what a ghostwriter is or isn’t, in reality, the profession is far more dynamic than black-and-white definitions might suggest. At least that’s how I approach my role as a ghostwriter, and it’s the perspective I offer here.
Let’s begin with you
What do you want and need, and what have you written so far? Do you have a manuscript you’ve been toiling over intermittently for years, yet are so close to it that you’ve lost perspective? Are you wondering if you have anything of value, and if you might benefit from hiring an editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, or some combination?
Alternately, are you brimming with ideas for a book (or books), but you haven’t yet written one word? You have valuable expertise and insights you want to convey for the benefit of others, but writing is not your thing. You’d very much like to find the right person to do the writing for you, someone who really understands you and your vision and can articulate your clearest voice and skillfully reflect your best thinking.
Perhaps you’re more of a speaker than a writer. You’d prefer to “talk your book,” and you hope to find a ghostwriter who can interview you and to whom you can tell your stories. Or maybe you’re a public speaker with loads of recorded material of your talks and workshops, but you have no idea where to begin. You’d love for someone else to pore over the hundreds of pages of transcripts, glean the juiciest parts, create a cohesive whole, and weave your teachings into a compelling book for your target audience.
These divergent examples represent a few of the many possible scenarios in which a ghostwriter can help. As you may have guessed, I didn’t pluck these from thin air. I have ghostwritten for clients that align with all of these (as well as other) situations. Whether you already have an abundance of written material or none whatsoever, you might benefit from an exploratory conversation with a ghostwriter. Who knows? They might tell you that you don’t need them after all, and that you likely can receive the support you need from an editor or writing coach.
Should I keep my ghostwriter a secret?
It’s totally up to you. Historically, and in the narrowest, most traditional sense, ghostwriters are hired to write for other people, and those people are fully credited as the author. This practice is particularly common with celebrities, politicians, executives, and others who are part of timely news stories or current events and from whom the public wants an intimate glimpse into their lives or to read “their side of the story.”
Depending on the ghostwriter’s level of involvement in the writing and shaping of the book and the arrangement they make with the author or publisher, the ghostwriter may be credited with an “as told to,” or a “with,” or a shared author credit. Or perhaps they are acknowledged as an editor, contributor, researcher, or not at all. Sometimes, when dealing with the most famous clients, a ghostwriter is required to sign a strict confidentiality clause obligating them to remain anonymous. Confidentiality clauses, along with natural curiosity about who really wrote that great book by the movie star, musician, or cultural icon, can stir up intrigue about the ghostwriting world. There’s also the not insignificant matter of where the ideas and content originate. It’s typically understood that an author is the creative source of the material, while a ghostwriter serves as a translator, interpreter, and conveyer of the author’s ideas. When the relationship is genuinely this unambiguous, it’s appropriate to credit the author as the sole author, even if the ghostwriter does most or all of the actual writing.
However, in my experience, things aren’t always so clear-cut. Sure, I’ve been involved in projects where I am purely serving as the interpreter, while the author is the originator of the content and credited as such. But more often than not, the author (client) and I opt for a deeper, more collaborative relationship in terms of conceiving of the book’s themes, content, and substance, as well as its organization, development, and writing.
Doing so requires that I have substantial subject matter knowledge of my own, and that we have compatible working styles, chemistry, vision, and goals. It’s worth mentioning that I tend to ghostwrite and consult on books in areas of my own professional expertise, which include personal and professional growth, business, women’s issues, spirituality, and memoir. And while ghostwriters write both fiction (e.g., screenplays and novels) and nonfiction, my specialty is nonfiction, and as such, nonfiction ghostwriting is the context for this article.
As I alluded to earlier, I don’t rigidly adhere to narrowly defined parameters of what collaborations should or shouldn’t look like. While I ask each client to specify the level and types of support they want and I honor each particular arrangement, I also understand that a client might desire more or less support as a project evolves. And I’m open to revising roles as requested, if it feels useful and in integrity with the book. For example, a client hired me to be a very hands-on, intensive developmental, structural, and line editor for her memoir. We worked together closely from the inception through the completion of her book.
When it became clear that the beginning of her book just wasn’t right, and that a completely different introduction and first chapter were needed to properly frame and launch her story, I asked my client if she’d like me to give her notes and suggestions on how to approach this. She requested instead that I ghostwrite the beginning of the book for her. I agreed to don the hat of ghostwriter for the initial chapters of her book in an expanded role as her editor. The arrangement worked for us both, and she is thrilled with her published memoir.
Who’s the ghost?
I’m currently working on an unusual and quite special project. After a client who hired me as her editor and writing coach unexpectedly received a terminal cancer diagnosis with a projected timeline of just a few weeks left to live, she asked me if I would switch gears and finish writing her memoir for her. There was a lot left to write. With our backs up against a stunning and literal deadline, we devised a way I could do that while preserving her voice and telling her story exactly as she wanted it to be told.
Relieved that we had conceived of a joint creative vision for her book while she was still alive, I encouraged her to write an author’s note about the unique circumstances of her book’s evolution, especially since the book would be released posthumously. In her note, she quipped, “I’d say Stacey is my ghostwriter, but this time I’m the ghost and she’s the writer.”
I guess this ghostwriting business contains mystery after all—as well as grace, trust, creative partnership, love, and care.