Exploring the art of ghostwriting: Unveiling the invisible craft

Ever wondered about the brilliant minds behind some of your favourite books? Ghostwriters, the unsung heroes of the book world, play a crucial role in bringing captivating stories and insightful knowledge to life. In this short article, I give you an unadorned look at the craft of ghostwriting, five famous books penned by invisible hands, and a few tips for working with a ghostwriter.

What is a ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter is a person who is paid to write books that are published under other people’s names. The other person is known as the author.

Ghostwriters have been around probably for as long as books have been around. It makes perfect sense. When you hire a professional, you can continue to concentrate on what you do best and know that the job you hired out is being done well.

Five famous ghostwritten books

Jack: Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch – ghostwriter: John A. Byrne
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – ghostwriter: Nell Scovell
Life by Keith Richards – ghostwriter: James Fox
Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson – ghostwriter: Edward Whitley
7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey – ghostwriter: Ken Shelton

Does this mean the book is not actually the author’s story or ideas?

Absolutely not. On the contrary.

A skilled memoir ghostwriter will ‘inhabit’ the author’s life, story, and ‘voice’ so well, that close friends of the author will exclaim, “The book sounds exactly like you!” and “Everything described is exactly as it happened.”

A skilled ghostwriter hired by a professional or leader to write a book that shares the author’s knowledge, expertise and experience will work closely with the author to ensure they understand and articulate the author’s ideas clearly, accurately and effectively for the intended audience.

What does a ghostwriter actually do?

Each writer has their own way of working, but in general, the process of ghostwriting a book typically involves all of the following:

Research: reading press releases, newspaper or magazine articles, research papers, corporate documents; looking up the weather on a particular day in a particular time and place, Google Image and Google Street View searches, Wayback Machine searches; reading or researching in books; listening to speeches; watching videos; looking up governmental records; and of course countless other types of internet searches – whatever is necessary for the ghostwriter to gain a detailed picture and understanding of the story or the information. The research can even involve going ‘on location’.

Interviews: multiple interviews with the author, and often interviews with other people, such as members of the author’s family; friends of the author; employees, leadership, clients, customers, contractors of the author’s company. The ghostwriter then typically works from transcripts of the interviews.

Collation and organization: The ghostwriter sifts through the huge volume of material to understand it, absorb it, and see the best way to structure the story or the information to be presented. The writer looks for themes and groupings, narrative thread, logical flow, and other aspects of a well-written book.

Note: Some ghostwriters will do these first three before sitting down to write; for others it’s more a fluid back-and-forth process of writing and research. And for others it’s a bit of both.

Writing: There are two main ways the writing can take place:

  1. The ghostwriter writes the whole book and then sends the completed first draft to the author for review.
  2. The ghostwriter sends the author a chapter at a time.

Before the writer begins work, the author and the writer need to agree on which method they want to use.

For memoir, method 1 can work well, because memoir is very similar to fiction, and so it is not always written in a linear fashion.

For every other type of nonfiction book, method 2 is probably best, because it enables the author to offer direction and feedback on how the information is presented. The writer can then make adjustments as they go along and save having to go back and rewrite half the book.

Revision: When the first draft is complete, the author reviews it and gives the ghostwriter notes and feedback. The writer then revises the manuscript.

Some ghostwriters will include an additional round of revision in their price:

Additional revision: The author can get feedback on the manuscript from a professional editor and/or beta readers. The ghostwriter will then do an additional round of revision to incorporate that feedback.

Then the manuscript is ready for the next phase: editorial feedback, design, proofreading and publication!

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