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Tips for Working with a Ghost Writer

Once I stood up in front of a room of people said, “If anyone ever tells you that you should write a book, they’re probably lying. What you should do is pay me to write the book for you.” The line served its intended purpose—it got a laugh and let the audience know what I do for a living—but the sentiment notwithstanding, working with a ghost writer the wrong way can cause as much or more trouble than not hiring a writer at all.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for making sure that you get the desired return on the not-inconsiderable investment you’re making by hiring a ghost writer.

1. Pick the right one – There are hundreds of ghost writers out there, fitting every niche you could possibly imagine. They’ll vary on cost (from early career and inexpensive to high credential and super expensive), writing style, work method, personality, preferred genre, location and any number of other factors. Don’t feel like you need to get stuck with the first one you find. Establish your budget, interview people who fit that budget, read their samples and see if it’s a match. If it’s not, don’t be shy about letting them know. Most ghost writers—especially ones who are well established in their careers—have worked on projects that weren’t a good fit for them, or where the client started having reservations early on in the process, and they no doubt found that their experience, and their client’s experience, was not a good one. But if the shoe fits, everyone will be happy.

2. Get clear on expectations up front – Make sure everyone knows what the process is going to look like, how long the book will be, what it will look like and what the ghost writer does and doesn’t do. Personally, I like to manage the entire editorial process from writing all the way through to final proofreading. I subcontract out a copy-editor and several proofreaders, so that the client doesn’t have to worry about any of the content at all. But not all ghost writers do that. Some ghost writers hate interviewing their clients. So be sure you know what stage the content will be in once it gets to you and what the process will be to get it there.

3. Talk a lot A few weeks ago, 12-year-old Will Lucas pitched the 35th no-hitter in Little League World Series history. The following morning he appeared on The Dan Patrick Show and delivered one of the worst interviews of all time. Fortunately Dan Patrick is a pro and he made the best of the situation, but there’s no denying that the kid’s interview was every bit as terrible as his pitching was excellent; every answer he gave was just a couple of words long, and he made his interviewer do all of the work.

In short, the best interview is the one who knows how to talk. Every now and then I interview someone who apologizes for talking too much, and I tell them they’re crazy if they think that’s a bad thing. The one thing a writer needs more than anything else is content. Much like a documentarian’s job is to turn hundred hours of footage into two hours of riveting story, a writer is taking every bit of information he can find and culling it down into the most fascinating parts. So talk as much as you possibly can. Or, if you’re the type that’s writing it down and passing it onto your ghost writer to wade through, write everything that pops into your head, without censoring it. Your ghost writer needs as much information as possible in order to tell the story you want to tell, so give it to him.

4. Trust the process I was once hired by someone to develop some content for their website. I sent him a questionnaire, he filled it out, I took the info and developed the half-dozen or so pages there were to develop, and then sent it to him. And immediately he was terribly upset that I didn’t give him what he wanted and was afraid I was trying to take advantage of him. I calmly let him know that this was just a rough draft, this was part of the process, and I’d be happy to make whatever changes he felt were necessary. The funny thing? The changes he wanted were actually pretty standard—a few words here, a paragraph there—in the end, the rewrite was about as extensive as every other website I’ve worked on.

So, to be clear, it is completely expected (depending on your personality) that your ghost writer is going to come up with something that you’re not happy with for one reason or another—either it’s not in your voice, or some of the content is inaccurate, or it’s got different information than you want in there, or whatever. Don’t freak out. Just go through it, let your ghost writer know what needs to be changed and how, and your ghost writer will fix it.

Now that’s not to say that your ghost writer won’t argue over certain things that he feels strongly about, especially if it has to do with the content organization or the quality of the writing. Remember, your ghost writer is a pro at this—his job is to make you sound good, so in the instances when he does fight for something, listen real closely.

In the end, it takes two to tango. If you expect to send your ghost writer off and have everything be perfect, you’ll likely be disappointed, Like a marriage, it’s up to both of you to communicate expectations and make sure that it’s worth the effort you put in. Because nobody wants their ghost writing relationship to end in divorce.

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David Kassin Fried is an award-winning ghost writer and book editor. He blogs at dkfwriting.wordpress.com, and his writing-related musings can be followed on twitter @dkfwriting.