The Savvy Ghostwriter: 7 Smart Questions to Ask About the Process -Before- You Sign the Contract

If you are asked to ghostwrite a book for an individual or someone who is part of a larger organization, there are some things you must know about the “process”—how you and the author are going to work together. Some of the following questions apply in both cases; some are specific to situations in which there are multiple people involved. If you are writing for one person now, there may be other assignments in the future where you will want to ask all seven of these questions.

1. Who is in charge? (In other words, who is the client?)

If you are writing for one individual, that is the person to whom you will report. But when your client is the CEO of an organization, but you are reporting to VP of communications, you have two bosses. One is the project manager; the other is the author. They may not have the same goals, writing styles, or expectations. This is a potential landmine.

2. Who else is involved? (How many people)? What are their roles?

There are many cases in which you are asked to interview several people and then to extract the information you need from multiple interviews. You need to know up front who these people are, what they do, and the nature of the information they will provide. Otherwise, this is a recipe for confusion on your part.

3. What is my role as the ghostwriter? (What does the client expect of me?)

This is a varied as the authors you will deal with. Some clients want you to take the lead, tell them what you need, and run the show. Others seem to want glorified secretaries: they speak, you record, transcribe, and “fix.” In between are those who want a collaborative relationship in which they know the subject and you know how to communicate it to the reading public. Obviously, that is the best arrangement in my opinion.

4. Who is writing the outline? Who approves it if I write it?

The outline may be furnished by the author, or you may be asked to write it from her material or just an idea. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the author knows the subject and how it should presented. On the other hand, you may feel this is not the best way to organize it. When you are given little more than a topic, don’t panic. Sometimes, that’s a gift, especially if the author doesn’t communicate as well as you’d like. (I have written several books based on little more than a phrase!)

5. Where is the information going to come from? How do I access it?

The source of the information is critical to the ghostwriting process. Without the content, there is no book. At one extreme, you may be deluged with paper and resources. At the other, you may have to fight for every shred of information, feeling that you will end up with a 10-page book if this continues. Ideally, you get what you need, when you need it. Few ghostwriting arrangements are ideal, of course, but you can build your expectations on this matter into your contract.

6. How will the manuscript be submitted/edited (all at once or in stages)?

It’s best to submit the sections of the book according to a timetable you work out in advance, rather than all at once. For one thing, you need to know from the start if you’re on the right track. Not only should you submit it in bite-sized chunks, you need immediate feedback. If you don’t get it, stop writing until you do. You can’t afford to eat up the time getting it wrong.

7. What is the drop-dead deadline for the finished manuscript? Does that include revisions? (Is it feasible?)

You need to know this before you start. Authors are often completely unrealistic about how long it takes to write a book or that “writing” includes several drafts, corrections, revisions, and approvals. When an author tells you she needs it by a certain date that you know is impossible, state your reasons and stick to your guns. Do some arithmetic. If you have written books in the past, you know how long it takes. Break it down into hours, divide by the number of weeks you have and again by the days. If you come up with seven hours a day, seven days a week of nonstop writing, be aware that, unless you’re in great physical shape and have no other life, you’ll be unlikely to be able to keep up the pace. Think of the answers to these questions as deal makers or deal breakers. Assuming you want the assignment, you also want it under circumstances that make sense. While you are asking each question, stay tuned in to how you feel—not what you think, but how you feel— in the pit of your stomach. If your stomach is sinking, that’s a good sign that this might not be a good job for you. Pay attention.

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