Techniques For Writing Non-Fiction:Tips for Ghostwriters

The second in our three-part series on how to be a ghostwriter.

This article is mainly aimed at budding ghostwriters who would like to specialise in writing autobiographies.

It’s a given that anyone intending to embark on a ghostwriting career will already have the requisite writing skills. However, there are some specific techniques needed for a successful ghostwriting career. Here, we look at the basics.

Interviewing techniques

Successful interviewing is the key to a good autobiography. So, start by interviewing your clients in an environment that they’re comfortable in, but not so comfortable that you do everything else (eat and chat away like old friends), but the interviews needed to get the information you need. And yes, it can happen.

Ask probing questions: Probing questions will give you detailed answers and ample material for the book. For example, What did you mean when you said you had to leave, immediately?

Do not lead your client. The focus of the interview should firmly be on your client. After all, it is their book. Asking leading questions such as, I guess you mean that you felt ashamed? unconsciously informs and alters your client’s thought process, putting your words in their mouth. Instead, try, Can you tell me how you felt when that happened?

Keep to the task at hand. It’s natural for your clients to want to know more about you, the person helping them to write their life story. However, this needs to be managed carefully, if you want to do the job that you’re being paid to do, well.

When they ask you questions about your life, give short answers (ahem, diplomatically, please!)  and bring the focus back to your client.

Here’s a typical scenario:

Client: ‘So, how did you get into ghostwriting, then?’

You: ‘My mother knew I loved writing, so she asked me to write the family history. Can I just clarify what you said about your first time in Borneo…’

And, last, but not least. Let your client talk. In fact, the more they talk, the better, because it means that you will have more material to draw from.


Research, research and then, more research

Personally, I don’t like to do too much research before meeting the client, for fear of forming preconceptions about them that may impact the work.

However, when I’m interviewing them, I try and clarify the information I’m being given as much as I can. For example, You said that you and Mary were in Burma in 1978. But, last week, you said you were in Panama that year. Can you clarify the dates and country for me, one last time, please?

Doing this reduces the research (fact-checking etc) that I would have to do after the interviews (interviews can take place over a series of days, weeks or months – circumstances vary).

Quality research also gives you the opportunity to fact-check the information that you’ve been given. Doing this doesn’t mean that you don’t believe your client’s story. You’re just fact-checking and doing your job, that’s all.

Besides, post-publication, the last thing you want are irate readers picking out holes in your work. Imagine the emails…That did not happen in Burma in 1978. I should know, I was there!

Writing the book

By the time you finish interviewing the client, you should have an idea of the best way to approach their story. Make sure you discuss this with the client before writing their story. Do not make the decision yourself.

Tips to approaching your client’s story

Think about them as a character in their own story

I write fiction, so I tend to think of my client as the central character in a novel (essentially, their life story). The novel will evolve and be enriched with other  characters (friends, family or other people who’ve impacted the client’s life in some way), plotlines (events in their lives) and a satisfying conclusion (a summary of events and where they are now, in their lives).

You may have other ideas, but I find this useful.

Stick to a theme or single story line

Having a single theme or story line running throughout the novel will help keep it focused. So, you and your client should decide on what year, facet or season of the client’s life that you want the book to focus on, and run with that.

Tools for the job

These are the basic tools you need for your ghostwriting career.

  • Digital recorder
  • Microphone
  • A transcription service: these are worth their weight in gold. Unless you fancy transcribing 100 hours of interviews yourself 
  • A secondary storage system eg, Cubby or Box, to back up your files: trust me, you’ll need it
  • Camera

Recommended ghostwritten books

  • Bob Hamer, The Last Undercover
  • Gayle Haggard with Angela Hunt, Why I Stayed

Over to you: what other tools or techniques do you think are needed for a ghostwriting career?