Why Journalists Make Great Ghostwriters


Nobody starts out wanting to be a ghostwriter. Something happens along the way that makes them want to pursue that vocation. For me, it came in stages. 

First, I was a journalist. I wrote for two Los Angeles daily newspapers, in the sports departments, and I discovered a gift for getting people to open up about themselves and share details that they wouldn’t normally share. For whatever reason, I made people comfortable sharing private details about their lives. These included:

A softball playing describing how being a perfectionist made her hard to live with.

A different softball player overcoming a childhood in which her mother took her to cocaine dens to get her next fix.

A basketball coach who beat cancer.

A track coach who beat cancer, only to have it return five years later, after most believe you’re out of the woods.

A handball player who didn’t let cancer stop him from competing.

The second stage was years later. I had left newspapers and gone out on my own as a copywriter. A networking contact introduced me to a Philadelphia-area schoolteacher who wanted me to ghostwrite his memoir. Over parts of four calendar years, I did the research and the interviews, then wrote his story. It was the most rewarding experience, and it reminded me of all those past newspaper stories I so loved working on and writing.

So, I turned to it full time. Journalists make great ghostwriters because they developed certain skills that allow them to get into somebody’s head and bring out their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and words.

Research — Before any words are written, a ghostwriter needs to get to know the subject. That means reading about them, watching videos, listening to audio recordings — anything to give the ghostwriter a sense of the person. 

It also could mean reading what they’ve written. I once hadn’t a client who suffered from PTSD, so the writing samples I received were very stream-of-consciousness. Still, it proved helpful because within that hard-to-follow text were her words, and I needed to know them.

Interview — Whether there are any media on the subject to research, a ghostwriter has to spend a majority of time interviewing the client. That means asking open-ended questions (the kind that begin with who, what, where, when, how, and why).

Active listening — After asking the open-ended questions, the ghostwriter must expend energy actively listening to what the answers are. Writing down the exact words is a good start because the best way to write as somebody else is to use their words. Are the words so simple that a child knows them all, or is the client sprinkling in some SAT words? Does the client use contractions? Peak plainly or use jargon? Remember that imitation works here.

The ghostwriter also must analyze the sentence structure: Are the sentences simple declarative ones, or run-ons? Do they start sentences with a conjunction? Do they use active voice or passive voice? 

Additionally, the ghostwriter must listen to the cadence and tone of voice; the body language, including mannerisms and gestures (if applicable), and the emotion behind the answers. Is there humor or playfulness? Does the client sound morose and serious all the time? Is there any wit or sarcasm evident?

Writing — After working through the three previous steps, the ghostwriter can start to put it all together.

Feedback — Of course, ghostwriters are human and sometimes miss the mark. Therefore, it is very important to regularly check in with the client and get guidance, assistance, and suggestions from the client. If something isn’t factually correct or doesn’t sound like the client, the ghostwriter immediately makes the necessary fixes.

Writing as somebody else isn’t easy, which is why not everybody can do it. But top ghostwriters can because they have the set of skills that allow them to get a story out of a person’s head and onto the page.

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