What is a ghost writer?
A ghost writer is someone who writes a book or other materials on behalf of someone else. Celebrity autobiographies are often written in this way – just take a look at the title page for a “with John Smith” note or in the acknowledgements (some don’t acknowledge using a ghost writer). People use ghost writers when they’re not confident of their own writing ability or don’t have time to write a book. A good ghost writer will capture the style and “voice” of the celebrity so it really does sound like it has been written by the celebrity themselves (this is where we can help).
How does the ghost writing process work?
Typically, the writer will spend a set amount of time interviewing the subject. This might be done in an office, in the subject’s home or out and about with them. Sometimes, the subject will submit their own tapes they’ve dictated themselves.
The writer will send the transcriber the tapes to transcribe. These are typically quite long, as they want to get the value out of each session. They might go through the subject’s life chronologically, they might not. Sometimes they will interview other people in the subject’s life, and sometimes there will be a two-person interview. Often there will be a few interviews after the initial rush where the writer seeks to clear up issues or confusions.
Timescales can sometimes lag a bit here, as you’re working with your client, the writer, and their client, the subject, so there’s lots of room for delays. Expect these, but also tight turnaround times when the tapes do come in.
Special features of ghost-written projects
Ghost-written projects have some interesting and unique features which it’s worth knowing. When in doubt, remember that you’re there to a) help the writer, b) help represent the subject in their own words. I’m assuming you will check what the writer needs in terms of time stamping, etc., at the outset.
- Retain the voice of the subject. The book is going to be written in “their words”, therefore the writer needs you to take down exactly what they say and how they say it. Once you’ve checked whether they want you to include all ums and ers, make sure you copy the way the subject speaks as precisely as you can. Get known for this and you will be recommended on from writer to writer (this happened to me).
- Don’t mock the subject. If they have a very Yorkshire accent, for example, don’t go overboard with taking down their accent, all oop t’mill this and that. It will look like mockery and the writer will have to undo it all.
- Do your research and keep a glossary. If it’s a musician, look up their band member, album and song titles. A film star, have a list of their roles and co-stars handy. I take down notes in a glossary and ask my writer if there’s something that comes up a lot that I can’t make out. They will still fact-check but make it as easy for them as possible.
- Admit when you don’t know. Use [unclear 01:45] for something you can’t hear at all, and [? 10.45] for something you’re not sure of. Then the writer knows they need to check the tape and clarify what their subject said. If you plough on regardless, guessing what they’ve said, the writer will assume that’s what they said and might not have time to check every word.
- Set expectations – after a few tapes you know how long an hour of this person’s voice takes you to transcribe. Don’t be a hero or offer to work all night: set sensible expectations.
- Be discreet. You might well have to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) – I have a standard one I send out anyway. Don’t tell everyone whose book you’re working on.
It’s fun working on ghost-written projects and seeing “your” book on the shelf in a few months’ time. Some ghost writers are given acknowledgements of their own and you might see your own name in there! But usually they are pretty hidden and so you’re completely hidden: no, that’s probably not fair, but that’s how it goes.
I hope you found these tips for working with ghost writers helpful.
Other transcription articles on this blog
I’ve written lots and lots of articles on transcription: here’s a list of all of them.