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How to Ghostwrite a Book in Six Months

How to Ghostwrite a Book in 6 Months

by Ed on July 4, 2010

Post image for How to Ghostwrite a Book in 6 Months

I realize that there’s no right or wrong way to ghostwrite a book. But I thought I’d take this opportunity to outline my ideal process, to hopefully give potential ghostwriters and authors an idea of what’s involved—and to provoke some commentary from other pro ghosts on their particular ghostwriting tips and tricks.

The first step, as I’ve mentioned before, is to meet your author. I like to do this on their turf, so I can see them in their most comfortable environments and watch them interact with friends, family members, and colleagues. This makes it easier for me to get inside their heads and learn how to write like they would.

For two days or so, I hold formal interviews with my authors. We usually do one at breakfast, one at lunch, and one in the mid afternoon. In between, depending on the project, I’ll either go to meetings with them or do additional interviews with people in their inner circle. If we’re riding in a car, I’ll continue asking questions, but it’s a lot more free-form and informal. All my conversations are taped, and by the end of the initial meeting I’ll have about 10 hours of recordings.

When I get back home, I’ll start transcribing the interviews, brainstorming title and subtitle ideas, and deciding how I want to organize the book. This process usually takes about two or three weeks, on a part-time basis. I need lots of diversions when I work on books, especially during the tedious transcription process, and I rarely ever work on them full-time unless I’m under deadline pressure. I like keeping the ideas percolating in the back of my mind, and letting inspiration hit me.

As tedious as transcribing tapes can be, I believe it’s critical for the ghostwriter to do directly. I would never want to hire someone to do it, because I always add my own notes and thoughts to the material as I go along. Plus, it’s another way to connect with the language of your authors, get the key messages of your books into your mind, and, perhaps most importantly, get a sense of the information you’re missing.

At this point, I usually check in with my authors to tell them how things are progressing, and to follow up with a request for some additional information.

By the third or fourth week of the project, I prepare my first deliverable for my authors: A list of title ideas and a table of contents. This is a good way to start bringing a book to life for an author, while still keeping things loose and flexible. It’s easy to make changes at this point, and you’ll get a really good feel for how an author likes to collaborate by how much input they give you at this stage.

Within another week or two, you and your author should be able to agree on the title, subtitle, and chapter organization. At this point, I go back to my transcripts and cut and paste all the text according to the agreed upon outline of the book. Sometimes I’ll put the same text in a few different places, to decide later where it makes the most sense.

This takes another week or so, bringing the project to the two-month mark, give or take a couple of weeks. At this point, the writing can begin! I try to start at the beginning because it’s more comfortable for my clients to go in order during the review process, but sometimes I’ll skip around a bit to get the rhythm going.

Once I get that first chapter done, in about week or two, I send it to the author for review, and suggest that we have a phone call every week or two to go over things. These calls give the authors a chance to comment on the chapters, and give me a chance to ask additional questions. This process continues for about two months. At that point, we can start looking at the manuscript as a whole, and start adding embellishments like quotes at the beginning of each chapter, summaries at the end of each chapter, and maybe an index or an appendix at the end. For the next month, you’re really taking the raw manuscript and shaping, polishing, and editing it to make it perfect.

When that’s done, I like to meet with my authors again in person, and go through the book page by page. I give them a copy of it in a three-ring binder, and they’re usually overwhelmed when they see it in real life like that. We sort of sit there and read it together, and make any final changes before the manuscript goes to a few different proofreaders.

I like to use multiple proofreaders, just to make sure we catch as much as possible before the book is printed or sent to an agent or publisher. If it’s an in-house production and I’m responsible for designing the book, I’ll hire more proofreaders to review the book after it’s laid out. You can never have too many eyes on your book!

So that’s pretty much it. By the end of six months or so, you should have a book that your author’s proud to call his or her own, and one that you can be proud to have ghostwritten. Be sure to celebrate by sending your author a bottle of champagne if they’re out of town, or by taking them out to dinner if they’re local. Congratulations!

[Photo by babasteve]

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The Plight of the Ghostwriter
August 9, 2010 at 8:01 am

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie Jongsma July 5, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for this summary of your process, Ed. It’s helpful to see you “in action,” and to learn why you do things the way you do. Makes sense! Keep up the good work.

Ed July 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Hi Melanie,
I’m glad the post was helpful to you. It was helpful to me to actually think about the way I do things and write it down…normally I just do them. I hope you’re enjoying the long holiday weekend.

Emily July 6, 2010 at 8:00 am

This is a very helpful post. All of the postings on this site are helpful and enlightening, but as a ghostwriter new to the scene, I keep finding myself confused and unsure of how to proceed. Thanks for sharing your process. It has given me some ideas to make the whole thing go more smoothly.

Ed Sweet July 6, 2010 at 8:12 am

Glad you liked the post, Emily. Please be sure and share your ghostwriting experiences with us. The whole purpose of this blog is to share knowledge and learn from each other. Welcome to ghostwriting!

Emily July 6, 2010 at 8:03 pm

I’m wondering if creating an outline would be a good idea. It certainly would make me feel better I think. Right now I’ve been meeting with him twice a week to record him, then I type up transcriptions of the tapes before I write what he has told me so far.

I’m also a little concerned about the plans for this book. He wants to get it published with the view of possibly making money off of it, but there is no way I can guarantee that. He keeps asking me if his stories are interesting enough, and I say yes of course, but I am really not sure if it is ultimately publishable.

Thanks for your encouragement. I really love this website.

Ed Sweet July 7, 2010 at 5:41 am

Hey Emily,
There are never any guarantees in publishing. You might want to suggest to your author that you work on a proposal instead of writing out the whole manuscript at this point, so you can gauge interest in your project among agents and publishers. Check out my post, “A Decent Proposal”, for some tips.

I don’t know what arrangement you have with your author. You mentioned that you were new to this so it might be worth it to you to do the project on spec to get the experience, but usually ghosts get paid a flat fee upfront.

If you have enough material to outline the table of contents for the book, then I’d say it’s a good idea.

Thanks for the kind words about the site. I’m happy you found us and that we can be of use to you!

Melanie Jongsma July 7, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Hi Emily, I have found it helpful to explain to would-be authors what their options are in terms of publishing. Most of my clients have chosen to write a book mainly as a memoir to share with their family, so I help them with the writing, and then I use Lulu.com to print as many copies as they want. I can send them the link to their book, and they can order directly whenever they need more copies.

If your client has dreams of making a lot of money through book sales, you might want to manage his expectations. It just takes a LOT of sales (and a lot of self-promotion) to make any money, especially if the book has been published by a traditional publisher. He might want to consider self-publishing or e-publishing if he has a sense of how to market his book. You can even offer to help him with this, for an additional fee.

Ed Sweet July 8, 2010 at 10:00 am

Good points, Melanie!

Emily July 8, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Ed and Melanie, thanks for the advice!

lynn August 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm

What do you suggest if I am working with a subject who wants to write the story of his business success? He has worked with some others, but each time they tried to make his story their own and it did not “sound” like him.

I think this is a great opportunity for me and I want to do it right. I have done a lot of informal writing, business writing and corporate writing but nothing quite like this..

Ed August 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Hi Lynn,
There are a lot of variables that I don’t know about, like how well you know this person, if it’s a spec or a paid project, how comfortable he is with you as a writer, etc. That being said, I’d probably start small and perhaps offer to write something that will prove to him that you can capture his voice, even if it’s a letter or the beginning of a speech or something. I’ve found the best way to capture someone’s voice is to tape record interviews with them and review the recordings for speech patterns, favorite phrases, etc. and include them — without overdoing it — in your writing. You can do this live, too, for the obvious ones, but I’ve always found listening to recordings over and over and highlighting things while transcribing them to be very beneficial. Hope that helps!
Ed

Lynn August 25, 2010 at 8:53 am

I have worked with him to re-write all our company marketing materials so I have somewhat of a feel for his style. a book is a much larger project though so I wondered if you had any tips for the first timer…

Melanie Jongsma August 25, 2010 at 4:44 pm

It might help to keep him very involved in the project as you’re working on it. You know, write a chapter and then show it to him, maybe even have him read it out loud to you. If you’re making changes to his writing, explain what you’re doing and why, and ask if he feels like his voice is being lost. Working on it together like this will be a much longer process, but that might be necessary. It will help you gain the confidence and experience you need, and it will help him feel respected and involved.

Ed Sweet August 25, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Lynn,
It’s a huge plus that you already have a relationship. And Melanie’s advice is right on the money. A little extra time in the beginning would certainly save a lot of hassle later on, and maybe after you do a couple sections or chapters he’ll let you go off on your own. Since all ghostwriting is pretty intense, it’s always best to be open and honest and work together to establish a process that makes both parties, but most certainly the author/client, the most comfortable.
Please let us know how the project progresses!

sylvie shene May 3, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Thank you Ed. Very interesting! I wish I had found this site sooner! It would have helped me a lot!

Ed Sweet May 3, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Glad you liked the post, Sylvie! It was fun for me to read it again after nearly a year. :-)

Sara Taher January 23, 2012 at 6:30 am

Dear Ed,

I just took on my first ghost writing project; my client is looking to publish a book about events. As a published author, I’m not in unchartered waters, however I am finding the process a bit daunting as my client is quite ambivalent.

Just a few moments ago, I was given a list of experts to interview for case studies and casually told to “please have it ready for publishing in 2 weeks”!

I am currently powering through it, while simultaneously preparing a noose over my desk as a back-up plan. Come what may, I enjoyed reading this piece and thank thank you for the helpful tips!

Ed Sweet January 23, 2012 at 8:18 am

Congratulations!
Impossible deadlines can sometimes lead to great things, but sometimes they’re just impossible deadlines. I’d definitely keep your client updated on your progress, and your roadblocks: The more open the lines of communication are, the better! I’ve found that the hardest part about interviewing experts is getting on their schedule, so you can always blame them for missing your deadline. :-) Do your best to show that you understand your client’s urgency, but also get him or her to understand that quality writing takes some time. But please avoid your noose strategy at all costs! Keep us posted,

Nancy Brown August 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm

What a great website! After 32 years of teaching special education, the last 17 primarily co-teaching English, I just retired. Well, sort of. I’m too young (at least in my own mind) to be fully retired, so am off to the next phase of my life. One thing that I do very well is edit and proofread papers for both students in my classes and teachers pursuing higher education. Most importantly, I love it! I have been spreading the word that I would like to do this in my “next career.” In doing so, I have a friend who wants me to edit a book she’s writing, based in part on experiences of her own life, but put into fiction. Another approached me about ghost writing a book for him. To be honest, I didn’t even know what that meant. He has given me the notes from a conference he presented on the topic and feels the next step for him is to write a book (he’s written other books before); however, he doesn’t have the time and has asked me to considering ghost writing it for him. I’m honored and flattered that he would ask me, but REALLY need help in knowing how to go about doing this and what to charge. Your step-by-step outline of how to go from beginning to end is very helpful. What other advice would you give me to get started?

Ed Sweet August 15, 2012 at 8:39 am

Hi Nancy,
I’m glad you liked the post and I hope it helps you in your new career. We haven’t been working on the blog for a long time, but it’s nice to know that it’s still helping people.
The only other advice I can give you is to make sure you get all the financial stuff agreed to in advance. I like to get half of my fee in advance and the other half on completion, but you could do a third/a third/a third, or even monthly billing.
A great resource is Ghostwriting by Andrew Crofts…That book helped me a lot when I was just getting started, and I still refer to it all the time.
Good luck and let us know how your career progresses.
Best,
Ed

Andrew Crofts February 13, 2013 at 10:19 am

Hi, Ed,

Thanks for mentioning my Ghostwriting book and I’m glad that you found it useful. Robert Harris quoted it at the beginning of each chapter in his thriller “The Ghost”, which Roman Polanski later made into a film with Ewan McGregor playing the ghostwriter. I like to think that has done a lot of help the general public understand what it is that people like you and me do.
Keep up the good work.
Very best wishes,
Andrew Crofts

Kira March 30, 2013 at 11:42 am

I would like to talk about writing a book with your help. 469-307-4414

Iowa substance abuse resources October 14, 2014 at 9:58 am

There’s certainly a lot to learn about this issue.
I like all the points you’ve made.

Ed Sweet October 14, 2014 at 10:11 am

So glad you liked the post! I hope it helps you with any projects you might have coming up.

what is a career coach October 16, 2014 at 4:14 am

Hi there I am so excited I found your blog page,
I really found you by error, while I was researching on Yahoo
for something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like to say many thanks for a fantastic
post and a all round exciting blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t
have time to read through it all at the minute but I have book-marked it and also added in your RSS
feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read a lot more, Please
do keep up the great b.

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Jonathan February 17, 2017 at 11:48 am

Hi Ed
Liked your process post. Not so fond of your advice to Emily about ghosting her first book on spec. No ghost should do that unless her time (which is likely to be considerable) is of no value to the client. And if it is of no value then Emily should consider another line of work. Writers constantly under price themselves and if the have talent and tenacity they should always be rewarded no matter how green they may be.

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