Ghostwriting: How to Know If You Need to Hire a Ghostwriter or Not
by Adam Reger
This is the fourth (and, for now, final) installment in a series of blog entries about ghostwriting. I’m attempting to provide practical information for those who may be considering hiring a ghostwriter. The series started with some misconceptions about ghostwriting and continued with a rundown of the different ways you might work with a ghostwriter, followed by some questions to answer before reaching out to a ghostwriter.
Now that I’ve walked through what ghostwriting is, the various logistics of how you might work with a ghostwriter, and some things you can do to prepare yourself for success with a ghostwriter, let’s ask a seemingly dumb question: do you actually need a ghostwriter?
I know, I know—shouldn’t that have been the very first question?
Well, not necessarily. Sometimes it’s only once you’ve done some self-reflection on your needs and, especially, the nature of your project that you get clarity on what you actually need. And sometimes, talking through practical matters such as how you’d like to work with a ghostwriter and what kinds of materials you have available to give to him/her exposes a surprising fact: maybe someone writing this project for you isn’t what you need at all.
As I described in my first post, many will find that they need help from the ground up, from organizing their thoughts to writing the first word. The reasons vary: English may not be your primary language, or you may simply not like writing. If you’re in that boat, a ghostwriter is certainly an excellent and efficient option.
For many others, however, your answers to some of the big getting-started questions I proposed last time might indicate: that you have already begun writing your book, but aren’t quite happy with the pages you have; that you’ve written other pieces—newspaper articles, journal entries, blog posts, white papers and more scholarly articles—that you feel could go into a book, provided they are rewritten or reworked in the right way; or that you’d like to write the book, you feel you’d enjoy it and would do a good job of it, but something is getting in your way. (Usually the obstacle here is time, a sense of not knowing where to begin, or some combination of the two.)
The options I go through below are aimed at the people who fall into this category. Depending on the nature of your project and what kinds of material you’ve already generated, you may find some of the following helpful as alternatives to hiring a ghostwriter.
Hiring an Editor:
Especially if you have a manuscript that is fully or partially completed, you may find that what you really need is someone to help you rework it. A good editor can help you do everything from reorganizing the manuscript to resolving tense issues and nipping all those typographical errors out of the text.
Many people associate editors with proofreading and finding small errors, but if you make sure to look for what’s sometimes called a developmental editor (or, in reaching out to a potential editor, making clear that what you want is a substantive edit), you can get a lot more than someone marking your misspelled words with a red pen. A good editor can be like a writing coach, pointing out places that don’t make sense, raising vital questions, and in general identifying problems and issues that might exist in your blind spots.
In general, editors will not rewrite your work for you—ghostwriters are still your best bet if that’s what you find you truly need—but they can guide you toward ways of reformulating your work (again, from the “macro level”—moving chapters around, cutting pages from the text, etc.—down to the “micro level” of using who or whom and avoiding the passive voice).
Finally, don’t rule out hiring an editor as an option just because you may not yet have a complete manuscript. I’ve worked with a number of clients on a chapter-by-chapter basis, taking a look at each new chapter as it was completed. Getting feedback from an editor one chapter at a time can be a useful way to continually sharpen and reformulate your thinking about the project as a whole.
Joining a Writers’ Group:
Finding a local (or online) writers’ group or workshop to join is also a fantastic option if you are interested in writing your book yourself. Many of the benefits are the same as with hiring an editor: getting feedback that can really expose the things you’re not seeing, the issues you haven’t thought about, etc.
(Really briefly, if you’re not familiar with workshops: This simply means that student work is distributed to the group and is then discussed at an appointed time. That’s the basic set-up, with additional value coming from getting copies of your work back with margin notes, as well as from the free and open-ended discussion of the work in an actual workshop meeting. My cardinal rule for workshopping is to be kind and helpful, but that isn’t necessarily a universal value. The writing workshop is the basic unit of creative writing instruction in this country.)
A writing group can often also top the experience of working with an editor because of what I call the “market research factor”: you get a few different opinions not just on how well your ideas and writing are coming across, but on what people are experiencing when they read your writing, how they are understanding—or misunderstanding—your words. This is an underrated aspect of the writing workshop, in my opinion. I have had my own work discussed in workshop and found that lines I hadn’t given a second thought to presented my readers with major stumbling blocks, totally canceling the effect I had intended or giving them a very different interpretation of the work.
Just as important, the average writers’ group is usually a good approximation of the reading public you are trying, ultimately, to reach. (Obviously this will be more or less true depending on the intended audience for your work: unless you find a writers’ group for pharmacists, the local workshop might not be the best test of that pharmacy textbook you are working on, for example.)
A writers’ group can also duplicate the benefit I mentioned, above, in connection with working with an editor on a book one chapter at a time. I’ve found the members of local workshops I have joined to be supportive, attentive, and passionate readers whose comments often helped me get my head on straight as I worked through a longer project. That help included everything from noting inconsistencies from one chapter to the next to asking incisive questions about the broader narrative arc the book seemed to be following.
Finally, though, a couple caveats. Remember that writers’ groups are made up (primarily) of nonprofessionals. They are dedicating a portion of their free time to their love of writing. Generally, you can expect to have your work come up in workshop once a month, seldom more frequently. In my experience, many clients are hoping to have a book more quickly than that.
Also, as nonprofessionals, many fellow members may express opinions that you find . . . less than helpful. To be clear, you’ll also get tons of incisive, smart, generous comments. But you will have to sift through the feedback, taking some suggestions and ignoring others. In that respect it is very different from the more passive relationship you may fall into with an editor or a ghostwriter, in which you may find it comfortable to defer to an “expert.” (Although I would hope that, this being your book, you would think critically about the advice being offered.)
Take a Class:
Many of the benefits of taking a writing class are the same as finding a writers’ group—and in my creative writing classes, at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, I often encourage students at the end of the term to keep in touch by forming their own writing groups, or joining existing groups in the community. A writing class can give you the structure, support, and—last but not least!—the deadlines and “peer pressure” to sit down and produce pages, often one of the biggest challenges for writers of all levels of experience.
Depending on the instructor, a class can also offer you a combination of the benefits of a workshop and hiring an “expert” editor. Assuming that you take a class that’s run in a workshop style, you’ll get comments from the group just as you would in a community workshop, along with the teacher’s opinion. I always stress to my writing classes that my opinion is just one more data point for them to consider, but I think it’s simply inevitable that the instructor’s opinion carries a bit more weight.
An additional benefit of taking a class is that it can aid your project in ways that extend beyond simply producing pages. I generally teach fiction classes, in which we isolate specific craft elements such as character, point of view, detail, etc., and conduct in-class writing exercises aimed at strengthening these skills. While some writers’ groups may operate similarly, most are dedicated solely to workshopping members’ work. A class like mine could offer you a little something extra by stimulating your thinking about, for instance, which point of view you might like to write your book from, and what questions to ask yourself as you go about answering that question. Finding a memoir class, by extension, could get you thinking about issues of memory, historical accuracy, and being sensitive to others’ versions of what happened in a way that a writers’ group simply can’t.
So there you have it. After spending several thousand words and three blog posts getting you ready to work with a ghostwriter, I’ve now laid out all the ways you can avoid hiring someone like me.
While it may seem as if I’ve just undercut my central purpose in writing this blog piece, I want to make clear that a ghostwriter is an incredibly useful professional to have in your corner. None of the solutions mentioned above can match the efficiency, skill, or quality you are likely to get from working with an experienced ghostwriter; indeed, a ghostwriter offers many of the benefits of working with an editor, but simply goes much further in building your book, one word at a time. (It bears repeating, as I discussed here, that a ghostwriter should never make anything up or invent the actual content of the book.)
If, however, you are interested in the challenge of writing your book, enjoy writing, or perhaps feel that it would enhance the meaning and satisfaction of the experience to write the book yourself, I hope that the options I’ve laid out above, complete with pros and cons, will be useful to you as you contemplate your next step.