As someone who has done it in the past, ghostwriting can certainly be a bit spooky at first.Wondering whether you’re doing your subjects and their ideas justice can run a chill down your spine.
From my perspective, taking the fear out of ghostwriting comes down to knowing when to use your subject’s voice or your own.And it should be a half-and-half blend — too much from column A, and the piece can lack structure; too much from column B, and you’re just writing, not ghostwriting.
I learned early on that some Frankenstein-esque combination voice where you try to write as yourself and your subject simultaneously isn’t really a thing, so save yourself the headache and divvy up their voice and your voice like so.
Essentially, ghostwriting is when someone else has the byline on a piece you wrote.
1. Interview the person you’re ghostwriting for.
The most important part of ghostwriting is understanding the material that you’re writing about. As a ghostwriter, you probably write about a variety of topics from industry blogs to memoirs. Before you dive into each piece, it’s essential to talk to the person you’re ghostwriting for and discuss the topic in depth.
Pam Bump, the Audience Growth Manager on the HubSpot blog team, says, “If you can, interview the person you’re ghostwriting for over the phone or on a video call. This will not only allow you to take down all the key details they want to cover in the content, but you’ll also learn more about how they speak or present tips. This can help you write content that naturally reads as if it was written by them.”
2. Make sure you understand the voice of the person you’re writing for.
Jumping off that last point, interviewing the person you’re ghostwriting for will help you get a sense of their voice. We’ll dive into when to use your voice or the client’s voice below, but each piece you write should have a distinct style and tone.
Bump adds, “If you can’t interview them to get a sense of how they talk or present their thoughts, you can alternatively read some of their other blog posts, social media posts, or published works to get a sense of how they write.”
3. Find the themes.
When you’re interviewing the person you’re ghostwriting for, it’s important to think about the narrative and structure of the piece you’re writing.
Karla Cook, HubSpot’s Senior Manager of the blog team, says, “It’s important to meet with the person you’re ghostwriting for at the beginning of the project and have a conversation about what they want the written piece to cover. This is their chance to share their brilliant, unfiltered thoughts with you, and it’s your job as the ghostwriter to identify themes, strong phrases, and potential narratives for when you approach producing the piece later on. This is also an opportunity to get a feel for how your subject approaches communicating, and can help inform how you represent their voice.”
4. Be flexible.
While interviewing the subject is the best way to learn about the topic you’ll be writing about, being adaptable and flexible is important to succeed.
Cook adds, “People who use ghostwriters are usually busy, so if you can’t meet with them in person, ask them to record a voice memo or even jot down a few notes in a document to get started.”
Now, let’s dive into one of the most important aspects of ghostwriting: when to use your own voice versus your client’s voice.
When to Use Their Voice
1. Main Ideas
The argument of the piece should be determined by your subject, no matter what your personal take on it is. Bear in mind that it’s going to be published under their byline. Your opinion is moot, and therefore should be mute.
Thesis aside, I also steer clear of adding or subtracting ideas. If a subject bothers to bring up an argument that means it’s important to them, and should be featured in the finished product in some way. Conversely, if the subject does not mention a topic, don’t bring it in, no matter how much you think it would bring the point home, clarify the argument, or sound awesome.
It’s simple: If they don’t say it, I don’t write it.
2. Signature Words or Phrases
If I were writing an article for Emeril Lagasse, you can bet it would be peppered with “BAM!”
You would be hard-pressed to find me using this phrase in my day-to-day life — heck, it’s not even my go-to exclamation. But Emeril says it, and for that reason, I would write it.
“Bam!” is a fairly innocuous example, but I bet you can think of some favorite turns of phrase that are senseless, silly sounding, or unnecessary. But if this is how the subject talks, then this is how the subject would presumably write. Including signature words makes the article seem more genuine, especially to readers familiar with the person.
The only time I would strike or edit a favorite phrase is if it’s unintentionally grammatically incorrect. All other instances of “BAM!” “fuggetaboutit,” “survey says,” and “that’s all folks!” stay in.
3. Data Points
Data is in almost every business article these days, and rightly so. Nothing can support an argument quite like the perfect statistic or chart.
The problem is there are plenty of statistics out there that aren’t perfect. Sometimes, a subject offers up great data to support their points, and other times … less great. But I try to keep in mind that I’m not the expert here — there’s a reason why the subject used this specific piece of data, and it’s not up to you to judge whether it’s up to par.
I aim to use the majority of data points that subjects give me, but I always inquire after the source. That way, if I really feel shaky about the numbers, I can go back and check into their accuracy on my own. If I find a problem, I bring it to my subject’s attention and let them determine if it should still be published.
When to Use Your Voice
Generally, people who use ghostwriters are busy doing fascinating stuff. That means that their minds are crammed with interesting information, and with so much on their plates, they may not always be the most organized speakers. They probably didn’t have time to document exactly what they would like to talk about, and they might interject an off-topic fact or two.
The subject’s ideas should be the meat of the piece, but it’s the writer’s responsibility to organize those thoughts in the most logical and effective way. Set the subject up for success by grabbing an anecdote they mentioned in the middle of your interview and moving it up to the opener if you think that’s where it belongs. Similarly, conclusions can come from anywhere — carefully listen for a solid closing thought, and bring it to the last paragraph.
List out the arguments presented, and arrange them in whatever way you think flows best. Odds are, your subject will be grateful for the organization help.
Not many people move from one point to the next with perfectly crafted segues. Instead, they jump back and forth, interrupt themselves, or abruptly change directions.
That means it’s up to you to add the nice transitions. I find that these are easier to provide in your own voice, since everyone has their own way of making arguments flow. Trying to mimic someone else’s segue style might result in a garbled article.
3. Very Necessary Explanations
I try not to insert any points that weren’t at least referenced by my subject, but there is an important exclusion to this rule: explanations.
Some subjects are so embroiled in their area of expertise that it can be difficult for them to break down their arguments for laypeople. The writer should act as a proxy for the audience, and if they think a point could use some clarification, they should circle back to the subject. If the subject fails to deliver an adequate explanation, ghostwriters should then take it upon themselves to provide succinct supporting information — but it should be done in no more than a few sentences.
Bonus: When You Shouldn’t Use a Voice
Just as important as understanding which voice to use is knowing when to not use any voice — in other words, recognizing what should be cut.
As I mentioned above, subjects who rely on ghostwriters are often brilliant, passionate people. That said, they can sometimes go off on a tangent.
You don’t have to make the article representative of the time spent talking about each point. Maybe you covered one argument in five minutes, and another in twenty. You should include both in the piece, but try to allot each equal space by paring down the second. Cast an editorial eye to which details are important and which aren’t, and cut accordingly.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August 2014 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.