Must a ghostwriter adopt the author’s voice?

If you are a ghostwriting a book, must it reflect the voice of the author for whom you’re writing it?

I first encountered this question in a PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) conference talk by Blythe Campbell. Blythe speaks and writes eloquently about how public relations professionals need to listen to and understand their clients (typically, business leaders) so that they can write in a way that appropriately represents the client.

But her advice seemed a bit strange to me as a ghostwriter. Admittedly, Blythe’s advice was more for short pieces — such as emails and blog posts — than for books and articles, which are what I write for clients. But she made me wonder how important voice was in what I write.

(In this post, when I refer to the “author,” I mean the client for whom you are writing a piece. When I refer to the “writer,” I mean the person who’s doing the actual writing. For example, when the cover of a book says “by Jeff Jones with Josh Bernoff,” Jeff Jones is the author, but Josh Bernoff is the writer.)

Start with ideas, write with authority

I always start with ideas. If you can understand and appropriately represent the author’s ideas, you’ve won half the battle.

In a typical business book or article, the job is to clearly explain and support those ideas with logical — and sometimes clever — examples. Just as importantly, the writing must pull you along from idea to idea.

This type of writing demands what I call the authoritative voice. If you read most business books, you’ll see how this voice has pervaded the way people write them. It has these characteristics:

  • It’s not overly formal. It avoids long sentences (typically, sentences are less than 20 words long) and connects directly with the reader, often using the word “you” and commands (for example, “Do your research first before you start to write.”).
  • It uses the occasional rhetorical flourish, such as one-word sentences and paragraphs, to keep your attention. For example, “Is this all you need to learn to become an expert in your field? Hardly.”
  • It tells stories in narrative form, focusing on what happened, not superfluous details like people’s appearance.
  • It may include diagrams to clarify concepts.
  • It uses tools like subheads, bullets, and italic to break up the parade of paragraphs.
  • It cites research properly, including the names of those who did it, without making a fetish of footnotes as academic writing often does.

If you’re a regular reader of my posts or an adherent of my book on writing, you might read this and say “That’s just your general writing advice.” And that’s not a coincidence. This is how nonfiction business writers generally write, whether in a book or in a corporate setting.

This is why, if you read the books I wrote or cowrote, such as Groundswell, and the books I ghostwrote, Marketing to the Entitled Consumer and The Age of Intent, you’ll see a great deal of commonality of style.

I’m a mathematically trained, ethnically Jewish writer with a quirky sense of humor. My Groundswell coauthor Charlene Li has an MBA and came from a Chinese family. Dave Frankland, one of my client authors for Marketing to the Entitled Consumer, has a charming Irish accent, and P.V. Kannan, the client author for The Age of Intent, is originally from India. How is possible that they (we) all write in the same voice?

The answer is that all of us agreed, tacitly, that the authoritative voice was the right voice for our business books. Charlene agreed to work with me because, in part, she liked how I wrote. Dave and his coauthor hired me because they wanted a book written like the ones I’d already published. So did P.V.

There is some variation. For example, I will use (or eschew) profanity depending on the author’s preferences. If the author hates a particular way of expressing things, I’ll avoid it. And often, authors are at pains to carefully describe their main ideas with language they’ve honed over time with their own clients, customers, and coworkers. I’m going to adopt that language, even if is a bit like trying on someone else’s clothes.

Generally, business books of this kind — books about ideas — don’t get much into personal details about the authors. This makes it easier for the author to read my prose and adopt it as their own. You have to be careful, though. I wrote a passage about juicy and delicious Butterball turkeys in my book for P.V. Kannan, but like many ethnically Indian people, P.V. is a vegetarian. I had to rewrite that, because anyone who knew him would read it and say “P.V. would never write that!”

Voice is much more important in a memoir

I’m currently at the pilot stage of a project to ghostwrite a business memoir. And I’m paying far more attention to voice.

A lot of this process consists of listening to the client author tell stories. I’m still not obsessing about things like the cadence of his sentences or the words in his vocabulary.

But I am listening for other things. How does he talk about his former colleagues: just how honest is he about their strengths and failings? When he talks about his own emotions in past moments, what words does he use? What ideas does he come back to over and over, and how does he talk about those ideas?

It’s still my job as a writer to organize that jumble of material into a narrative, and to make him sound good and logical and interesting. But now I want people to recognize him in the memoir, and I want him to recognize himself. As a result, I’m picking up cues, some unconscious, that I then infuse into the prose about his life.

It helps that my potential client worked in an industry I studied for ten years, because much of the subtext of what he’s talking about relates to a business environment I intimately understand.

It’s still a business book, and the stories are still business and entrepreneurial stories, which is one reason I think I can wrap my head around this type of prose.

It also probably helps that he is a straight white man, like me. I don’t know if I could properly write a woman’s story, or a gay man’s story, or a trans woman’s story, or a Black man’s story — I don’t know if I could get inside their experience in the same way. I once turned down the chance to ghostwrite about a book about a woman’s experience with gender challenges in business; I just didn’t believe that I, a privileged man who did most of his work in the sexist 80s and 90s, could do an authentic job with writing that.

(I’m not saying that every ghostwriter must match the gender and ethnicity of their author — just that I don’t have the skill to make that translation.)

It’s much easier to edit than to ghostwrite

I edit all sorts of books by all sorts of people. I’ve edited women and Black men whose experience was very different from mine. Right now, I’m editing a woman whose career was in the military, a world that I have no experience with.

The difference is that the focus is on making the prose logical and effective, even as I maintain as much as possible of the author’s voice.

In editing, my job is to stand in for the reader, who may be very different from the author. I need to make sure that reader can understand what the author is saying.

In ghostwriting, my job is to represent the author as I speak to the reader. That requires a far deeper understanding of who that author is.

I still believe that for business-oriented books, voice is not the most important of qualities: ideas and clarity are. But I’ve started to pay closer attention to the author’s voice, because it informs the choices that shape the prose. It’s a subtle thing that doesn’t call attention to itself.

In fact, when I do it right, it’s so subtle, neither the author nor the readers even know that I’m doing it.

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  1. In his 2015 memoir The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim recalls what it was like to write speeches for Governor Mark Sanford. As the Washington Post explained, “He quickly learned that his job was not to compose soaring rhetoric but to cobble together the kind of speeches the governor would write for himself if he had the time. And this governor couldn’t write.”