10 Secrets to Finding—and Working with—the Right Ghostwriter
You have a book idea. You want to write it. You’ve thought about your purpose and goals for publishing it. But you know you need help getting from “words on a page” to a book that is engaging, useful, focused, and effective.
You need creative guidance, writing chops, book publishing expertise, a sounding board, and a whole lot of time management help. Cue the ghostwriter. At this point you are ready to find your writing partner.
As a literary agent who does nothing but matchmake ghostwriters with experts, leaders, and personalities, I’ve learned that the first essential element to a successful collaboration is to truly understand the roles and expectations each person is bringing to the project and to be honest with yourself and each other.
I would ask you to consider the following 10 “secrets” as a guide:
What you need to bring to the table:
- The goal for your book. As with any creative process, you need to begin with a seminal question: What is the goal of this book? Why do you want to write it? Do you want to share your legacy in the form of a personal business memoir? Do you want to leverage your expertise by writing about a unique approach to business? Do you have a dream of writing a book that builds on your visibility and platform? Is your book a promotional tool to grow your business?
- An initial vision for the kind of book you imagine writing. What is the actual “type” of book you envision? In the book publishing world, the same subject could be developed in numerous ways: as a how-to guide, an inspirational and unique leadership story, a business fable, a collection of insights from your company’s experience, or a lessons-driven memoir. Answering this question can help you refine your thoughts and focus on what you want to write. It will also help you find the best writer attuned to your vision.
- The core content for the book. Think about the actual content of the book and how you imagine developing and refining it. Where will the ideas, stories and examples come from? Do you have the time for extensive interviews? Will your prior writings and speeches, interviews with experts or colleagues, and suggested research inform a major part of your book? Will it be written in your voice or in the third person
- Time. While a general book idea is great starting place, throughout the process you are still the visionary at the wheel—even with a writing partner in place. It will take time and energy to facilitate the partnership. You’ll need to carve out space for thoughtful feedback at every stage of the writing and revision process. You’ll need to be available for interviews and direction and for general support and commitment to the project. Remember, the ghostwriter is there to both mirror your thoughts and to guide you. If you opt out mentally and emotionally, it will be reflected in the end product.
- A desire to collaborate. The ghostwriting process takes two. You can’t “phone it in” to your collaborator and expect a result you’ll be proud of. Your willingness and openness to the process sets the stage for the mutual trust and the relationship you need to develop for a successful collaboration. Writing a book is time-consuming and hard work—even if you’re not doing the heavy lift on the page. It’s like a marriage, the more you put into it …
What you need to ensure the ghostwriter brings to the table:
Each ghostwriter will have their own approach to the collaboration process but the key aspects of the role that you’ll want to explore in your search for your writing partner include:
- Thought partnership. A ghostwriter should be considered a thought partner, but not the driver, of the content. Make sure you connect well with the ways the potential writers think, bring out your ideas, and talk about the process.
- Proven expertise. Have your potential ghostwriters been published at major publishing houses or in relevant journals and media? Have they collaborated with experts in areas similar to yours? Do they have knowledge of and experience in your field? A basic level of expertise will shorten their learning curve – and the time you have to invest in bringing them up to speed–and at the same time will bring their ideas, references, and a built-in sense of the audience to the writing process.
- A shared vision—and a voice that matches it. The shape and direction of a book will evolve from the early to later stages, but it’s important that the writer you choose shares your vision. You need to feel understood, in sync, and simpatico with the writer and his or her vision for how your book is evolving. Along with the vision is the voice of a book, which is a bit like the book’s heartbeat. Consider the writer’s range of styles, adaptability, and previous writing assignments. You want to look for a writer who naturally complements or echoes your own voice and desired style.
- Availability and accessibility. For the most part, geography doesn’t matter but accessibility does. If you strongly prefer working in person, you’ll need to find someone who lives near you or who can travel to be with you. If you need someone available nights, weekends, or “on call,” that’s important to know. Do you work best with a constant flow of emails and phone or Skype calls, or are you more structured and compartmentalized? Be open to the processes your potential ghostwriters recommend, but also think about what works best for you. And I always recommend an in-person working session of two, three, or four days early in the process. Nothing beats face time: it establishes a level of comfort and allows the writer to familiarize themselves with your voice and your background. Many gems—unique ideas, unexpected stories, memorable phrases–come out of these intensive sessions. When appropriate, giving the writer the opportunity to meet your family, friends, and/or colleagues can bring a human touch to your book. In-depth familiarity with your background helps inform the sense of who you’ve become and what enabled your success. Nothing beats stories to engage the reader.
- Publishing know-how about book writing AND the process of writing. While every book is unique, there are processes that writers rely on. It’s important to understand the approach and style of the person you will be working with. A smart ghostwriter might ask you if there are published books that you admire or would like to emulate, or if there is a book you have read in your field that has struck an important chord with you. The writer might suggest several books as “models” for you to review based on your initial conversations. The writer may also have preliminary thoughts about developing or revising a detailed outline, a recommended cadence for the process, and questions about your audience, goals, and vision of “success.” The writer will also ask, in so many words, about the “roles and responsibilities” as you see them to help assess if you’d be a good fit for working together.
A few practical thoughts on finding a writing partner
I love helping leaders and experts think through these ten “secrets.” Most people I work with apply rigorous questions to their primary work but they haven’t thought to apply them to the “creative” process of writing a book. As the vision and goals for the project become clearer, the matchmaking to find the right writer falls into place. Once the direction and needs are clear, I have my clients always consider 2 to 4 writers, review their CVs, read samples of their work, and reach out for referrals to clients who have worked with them previously.
Everyone has a well-meaning friend, or knows of someone who has written a book. But beware of signing up with a writer who has a credit—or several. If you’re writing a business book, a health writer is not the person for you – no matter how many books the writer has under his or her belt.
Finally check in with your gut—who feels “right”? Which writer do you click with and feel a natural rapport? Don’t let prestigious credits override your feelings. Don’t sign up with someone if your instinct tells you it won’t work—gut instincts are invariably correct – listen to them.
A professional ghostwriter can be costly–but worth every penny you are able to spend. You will have a guide, an experienced creator, and an expert who knows how to bring a project to completion. And you may develop a professional and personal relationship that lasts through many years and many projects.
Madeleine Morel is a premier New York-based literary agent with over 30 years of book publishing experience. As the founder of 2M Communications, she focuses exclusively on matching thought leaders, experts, and personalities with industry-leading ghostwriters and book collaborators.