I previously wrote about a ghostwriter’s need to be able to step into the client’s shoes and tell the story in the client’s voice and tone and style. To effectively do that, a ghostwriter must respect the client, the story and the information behind the story. Or the ghostwriter must decline the work.
Everyone must understand that this is a partnership, and each side must honor the other. The person’s story is important enough to them that they want it written. The ghostwriter must not mock the person or the story.
Throughout the process, the person will have to be vulnerable, as story details that are emotionally uncomfortable will have to come out to give the story its most dramatic impact and effectiveness. The ghostwriter must understand which details are needed, then must explain why such deeply personal questions must be asked, then listen carefully and sensitively to the answers, then write it with the care and decency the information deserves.
I can’t stress the importance of trust. I once had a client who was married to a psychopath. As this was her second marriage and she mentioned her sex life, I felt it important to see if this guy was a better lover. That meant I had to ask general questions about their sex life and how it compared. She understood and answered all my questions. Fortunately, there was no difference, so I quickly decided I could stop this line of questioning and omit it from the book. She appreciated that I did not trample over that very sensitive part of her life.
Another key to respect is to know who’s the expert. Remember that having the story is one thing, but writing it is something else entirely. They require two different skill sets. The person has the story, so he/she/they are the expert. The person who wants to have a memoir ghostwritten knows the experiences, events and emotions behind the story. He/she/they know who the target audience is and what that audience will get out of reading the story, whether that’s just an emotional release or a call to take some action.
If the person has a business story to tell, he/she/they know the target audience, the product or service, its purpose, its advantages, its benefits, and the practical and emotional details of how and why this product or service exists.
The ghostwriter needs to respect the person’s expertise. Similarly, the client should recognize that the ghostwriter is the writing expert, so they should defer to the ghostwriter on matters of organization, punctuation, grammar, style, thoroughness and dramatic impact. When the ghostwriter asks deep, probing questions to get more detail, the client should understand that the ghostwriter is doing that in service of the story, not to be salacious or voyeuristic or indecent.
They can debate and negotiate what details are critical to the story and which can be cut. But they really need to stay in their lanes, so to speak.
The following has happened more times than I wish: A stranger contacts me and inquires about my ghostwriting. I hear him say he has written something and wants me to look at it. But make no mistake, he has the final decision.
When I hear that, I proceed cautiously because it doesn’t sound like he understands that the work I would do for him is always going to be in service of his story. I’m never going to rewrite anything that doesn’t sound like him, but he needs to understand that he can’t control the entire project. There is give and take. He is the expert when it comes to the story; I’m the expert when it comes to writing.
Understanding that — and the trust that goes with it — is the critical first step toward working together.
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