The two crucial questions every ghostwriter must ask

Ghostwriting is full of potential pitfalls. Asking two questions can help you avoid them and get your pricing and process right.

What you will read in this post is based on my own experience ghostwriting two nonfiction books and many proposals, and from war stories from other ghostwriters.

The two questions you must answer before starting any nonfiction ghostwriting project are: Where is the content going to come from, and what process will the chapters go through?

Where ghostwriting content fuel comes from

When ghostwriting a nonfiction book, the results depend almost completely on the relationship between the author (that is, the client) and the ghostwriter.

The author has (hopefully) an idea. Soon after that idea is settled, the author and the ghostwriter need to settle on a planned table of contents.

After that, if you, as a ghostwriter, want to price and plan for a project, you must know the answer to this question:

“How will I get the raw materials for each chapter?”

The results will determine the level of effort required. The level of effort determines the price. Fail to agree on this, and you could find yourself doing a lot more work than you planned on. This is the number one reason for ghostwriters complaining: “Crap, I had no idea it would be this much work!”

Haven’t thought about this? Then when the author says “Write!”, you’ll say, “Write what?” Whatever follows that exchange, it’s not going to be fun.

These are all possible ways to get the content from the author to the ghostwriter:

  • The author provides general ideas (say, in a call), and the ghostwriter is responsible for finding and refining the ideas, identifying examples, doing research, and writing up the results.
  • The author supplies a bunch of written raw materials; the ghostwriter must organize those materials into a chapter that makes sense.
  • The ghostwriter conducts a series of interviews with the author and assembles them into chapters.
  • The author dictates the raw material for the chapter; the ghostwriter listens to the dictation and tries to massage it into workable content.
  • The author’s organization supplies raw materials; the author isn’t directly involved at all.

Of these, I’ve done the first three. All worked, but the experience was completely different each time.

These are, of course, not the only possible methods; I’m sure there are many other ways to generate content. But the content has to come from somewhere.

The second most important question

After you’ve determined where the content is coming from, the next question is this:

“What process will we use to go from drafts to approved chapters?”

There must be a disciplined process for moving drafts to completion. Unless that process is understood and settled, you can’t make progress — you’ll just go around in circles.

Here are some typical processes:

  • Ghostwriter writes fat outline; author approves; ghostwriter writes draft; author reviews and makes suggestions; ghostwriter revises.
  • Ghostwriter drafts chapter; author reviews and makes suggestions; ghostwriter revises; author reviews revision and approves or requests more changes.
  • Ghostwriter drafts chapter; two coauthors review; conduct conference call to discuss revisions; ghostwriter revises.
  • Ghostwriter drafts chapter; author’s representative reviews and makes suggestions; ghostwriter revises; author gives final approval. (This works only if the author’s representative has a very clear idea of what the author wants.)

Unless you know the process, you can’t really assess the amount of work involved or the cost.

You can settle these questions by doing a sample chapter

Since most authors who hire ghostwriters are doing it for the first time, their ideas of how things will work may be different from what eventually actually happens.

The simplest way to settle process questions is to attempt to generate a chapter. You’ll see what’s easiest for the author, and what process seems to make sense. It’s a sort of trial run.

I often do this in the process of creating the sample chapter in a book proposal for the author. At the end of creating and revising the chapter, I have a pretty good idea what it will be like to create the other chapters.

At this point, the ghostwriter can price the project accurately, and the author can decide if it’s best to keep working with the same ghostwriter or, if the process didn’t work well, to find a different one.

That’s one way to make sure everyone has a clear idea of what will happen – and what it will cost — before we’re all hip-deep in unanticipated chaos.

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