November 15, 2003
Ghost-writing vs Over-editing
by Doreen Simmons
Ghostwriting is a special form of the writer’s craft. It often takes time for an author even to find his or her own voice; but the ghostwriter has to assume the persona of someone else. Novelists and dramatists are free to invent the characters and the content of what they say; but the ghostwriter has to take someone else’s information and opinions and present them with an authentic voice. Is this a natural gift, or a skill that can be learned?
Dear Aunt Eva,
I am a rewriter and subeditor working mainly on formal writing, and my job is to see that it is clear and accurate. The writers are either anonymous bureaucrats or academics compiling factual reports. The less personality that comes through, the better. Recently, however, I have been asked to lend a hand with some personal letters and even speeches, and here I feel a little diffident. Aunt Eva, do you have any advice for those of us who are taking our first steps in writing for other people? To what extent do we need to “become” the person who will be the official user of our product?
Aunt Eva answers:
Aunt Eva got into one of her most profitable sidelines quite by chance. Two young teachers started work at the same time. Miss Pearson was everything Eva was not: tall, athletic, strikingly beautiful, adored by the students, and favored by the Headmaster. Eva’s advantages were less obvious: she had a chameleon personality, two more years of college, and an easy way with words.
At the year-end all the homeroom teachers had to write up a short account of the events of the year for their own class, to be read out by the Head in the final assembly.
With half an hour to deadline, the young goddess was shaking with panic. It was her inability to write connected sentences, she confided, that had kept her out of university. What are friends for? Eva sat down at the staff room typewriter and said, “Just tell me what you want to say and I’ll string it together for you.” Twenty minutes later the report was handed in.
Later that day, Eva was summoned to the Headmaster’s study. In a fatherly way he explained that her report was not quite up to snuff; the content was adequate but the writing lacked something. Then he reached for a page from the top of the pile, and (you guessed it!) said, “Now, Miss Pearson’s report is excellent. She has a real gift for writing. I want you to take it away and study it carefully; then do yours again, and try to bring it up to her standard.”
Eva dropped her eyes and undertook to carry out his wishes; then bubbling with mirth sped back to the staff room and reported what had just happened. Her friend was aghast. “Oh, I’ll go straight away and own up!” she offered. “No, don’t do that on any account,” begged the young Eva; “He’ll be angry with both of us for making a fool of him. Let him go on thinking he’s God.” And this was how Aunt Eva unintentionally got started on an interesting and profitable sideline which continues to this day.
Ghostwriting requires you to be a bit of an actor, or at least a role player; you have be able to put yourself in someone else’s place; you have to see the point of view of the person into whose mouth you are putting words.
The “as told to” celebrity book is a commonplace these days, and takes ghostwriting to a new level, for the real writer is credited. Highly competent writers can make a living in this way. But this is the result of a collaboration. This kind of writer is actually a skillful interviewer who knows the right questions to ask, the right buttons to push, and in the process of garnering the celebrity’s reminiscences, also acquires the mannerisms and the attitudes of the subject. A good writer can produce a far more authentic voice than the real person could manage; for, as Aunt Eva has observed before, writing in a conversational style is a skill; it doesn’t happen naturally and it certainly isn’t the same as “just setting your thoughts down on paper as they come to you.” You can see that sort of writing all over the Internet chat rooms, and it doesn’t read well.
Of course, there is also the reverse responsibility: the front person for whom the ghostwriter is working needs to check carefully the content as well as the expression. Quite often the “front” is getting a far bigger fee than the person who is doing most of the work, and has a corresponding responsibility to keep abreast of the content. One of Aunt Eva’s most satisfying jobs, from the point of view of results rather than rate of remuneration, was for an aging politician who wanted to take one final step up before his retirement, and saw a heightened international presence as the way to go. This included making speeches in English.
He defined the event and the audience, and as succinctly as possible listed what he wanted to say; then there were script conferences to iron out content and expression, and sometimes to drill him until he was using a useful new expression fluently; finally a script was produced that said what he wanted to say in words he was comfortable with—even the phrases were tailored to fit his breathing pattern. There were also a few little rubrics to indicate where to glance up quizzically to warn the audience that his last remark was intended as a joke. Finally a basic “rhythm and stress” recording was made, for listening to in his chauffeur-driven car. He also insisted on a debriefing after one speech, to see if any useful lessons could be applied to the preparation of the next.
After a year of “heightened international presence,” his career was crowned with the coveted Cabinet appointment. This included a staff of bureaucrats who would henceforth write all his letters and speeches. Aunt Eva, feeling like a wrung-out dishcloth, gratefully retired—but the invitations to his receptions kept coming for years.
But before the stars get in your eyes, Monica, listen to another experience at the other end of the “personal satisfaction” scale. Aunt Eva used to spend hours drafting moving and elegant speeches for a VIP whose actual utterances were crude and tactless, as subsequently quoted in the press. An explanation was later forthcoming: his handler observed to a mutual friend, who reported to Eva, “I don’t know who dreams up this stuff that comes to us; he can’t pronounce it so I just write out a few simple sentences that he can manage!”
How to sum up, Monica? Aunt Eva can only advise you to start small if it’s possible, and do the best and most honest job you can. Don’t hesitate to negotiate if you are asked to write something that may sound good in Tokyo but you know won’t play in Peoria. If you do have a talent for characterization, this will emerge as you gain experience. If you are working for a perceptive person who will also work with you, it can be very rewarding at a number of different levels.
There is one vocational risk: at one time Aunt Eva was drafting 20-plus letters a day, to be signed by a dozen different people, but at home there was a great pile of unanswered mail; she was suffering from letter-writing fatigue, and in any case had lost the knack of writing as herself.
From Newsletter No. 103 (November 2003)