How To Be A Non-Fiction Ghostwriter: Hear It From the Experts

The last in our three-part series on ghostwriting.

The last two articles in this ghostwriting series talked about how to be a non-fiction ghostwriter and gave tips on the techniques needed to write ghostwritten non-fiction. But, as they say, all theory and no practice makes for dull reading. So, here in no particular order, are sage words of wisdom from commissioning editors and ghostwriters.

Thom Lemmon, (ghost)writer

I got my first ghostwriting project by referral from a publisher. Ghostwriting has helped me gain skills in strategically analysing content (both fiction and nonfiction) to make sure the structure is apparent.

Best advice? Always be alert for opportunities to extend your network.

Amy Boucher Pye, freelance commissioning editor

I’ve worked in the publishing business for yonks, and early in my career commissioned a book on ghostwriting within the Christian community, especially as related to the challenges or unethical practices. Sadly, the author never delivered the manuscript – yes, I guess he needed a ghost. When I worked for two large corporate publishers, we used co-writers on projects, but we would call them co-writers or collaborators, not ghosts. We always put their names on the cover and inside title page as a point of integrity. Now with my (freelance) work with Authentic Media, I haven’t yet commissioned a collaborator, but we have employed what I would call book doctors, who come in and do a heavy job of editing and recommending rewrites. I’ve worked as a book doctor for many projects myself as well, and two autobiographies in particular where I could have been called a collaborator (I shy away from using the term ‘ghost’).

My advice for newbie collaborators is to keep your subject’s voice prominent at all times. You are there to tell their story; you are their servant. Try to make yourself and your style as invisible as you can, so that you’re not imprinting a different style onto their story. The two women I worked with (as mentioned above) were both older Americans, but vastly different in character. One thought deeply with an academic style; the other prized beauty and the power of story. For each, I was able (over many hours) to help them release their voice. Telling one’s own story can be filled with fears about one’s audience, memories that might be buried, concerns about what to say… There can be a lot of untangling that a collaborator or book doctor can help with.

The joys of helping someone to unleash their voice are great. And the intimate closeness that results from the writer/collaborator relationship has for me been a gift beyond compare.

Gill Tavner, (ghost)writer

I landed my first ghostwriting project by temerity and effort. Having published a series of retellings of classic literature (, I identified my skills as being stealing someone else’s story and adopting their voice to tell it. This led me to think about ghostwriting. I specifically wanted stories about ordinary people who had done extraordinary things to make the world better: inspiring stories. I drew up a short list and contacted them all. This led to work with two people on the list – both very different and both fantastic to work with. The books will be published in summer 2013 and some time in 2014.

How my writing has improved as a result of my ghostwriting? My latest project having been writing with a physicist, I’m far better now at paying attention to minute details within the story. I think I’m also better at seeing the potential shape of a story – largely thanks to help from the commissioning editor at Lion.

In terms of the advice that I would give to newbie ghostwriters, I feel as though I’m just muddling through and so have little advice to give, other than to chase the work that interests you. It would be extremely hard work if you found the subject matter dull. A good relationship with your client is invaluable – this means absolute integrity, respect, reliability and confidentiality on your part. You also have to be able to take constructive criticism on your writing – after all – if someone else presumed to write the story of your life, and said they could do it in your voice,  do you think you’d be 100% happy with their first draft? Oh… and think very carefully before you give up your day job.

Alison Hull, commissioning editor, Lion Hudson

Why did your publishing house use a ghostwriter for your project?

It isn’t that simple. In fact, in the case of both Jimmy and The Eye of the Storm, the projects, when they were put to us (one via an agent) already had ghostwriters on board. Often if people want their story told but know they cannot write it themselves, they will find their own ghostwriter and then approach a publisher. But ghost-writers are necessary, whoever finds them, for books where the person whose story is being told either does not have the time, or does not have the expertise (or both), to tell their own story in a way that others will want to read it.

What do you look for in a ghostwriter?

They have to be able to say what the person whose story it is would say if they could write. So they have to lose themselves in that person’s story, find their voice, and stick to it. They have to be transparent – we look through their writing to see the main character. And they have to be able to write well, to create character, to stick to deadlines, to create a good story arc, to handle descriptions, to have, in short, a strong grasp of all story-telling skills.

Your tips and techniques for newbie ghostwriters?

Read and read and read and read. Read books that have been ghostwritten – and read novels, autobiographies and memoirs, to see how other people have recreated the past, captured a description, a time, or a situation. Analyse what you read. Come on our next writers’ course in November where we will be looking at writing memoirs and biographies, as well as telling stories.