How to Ghostwrite a Book in 6 Months

I realize that there’s no right or wrong way to ghostwrite a book. But I thought I’d take this opportunity to outline my ideal process, to hopefully give potential ghostwriters and authors an idea of what’s involved—and to provoke some commentary from other pro ghosts on their particular ghostwriting tips and tricks.

The first step, as I’ve mentioned before, is to meet your author. I like to do this on their turf, so I can see them in their most comfortable environments and watch them interact with friends, family members, and colleagues. This makes it easier for me to get inside their heads and learn how to write like they would.

For two days or so, I hold formal interviews with my authors. We usually do one at breakfast, one at lunch, and one in the mid afternoon. In between, depending on the project, I’ll either go to meetings with them or do additional interviews with people in their inner circle. If we’re riding in a car, I’ll continue asking questions, but it’s a lot more free-form and informal. All my conversations are taped, and by the end of the initial meeting I’ll have about 10 hours of recordings.

When I get back home, I’ll start transcribing the interviews, brainstorming title and subtitle ideas, and deciding how I want to organize the book. This process usually takes about two or three weeks, on a part-time basis. I need lots of diversions when I work on books, especially during the tedious transcription process, and I rarely ever work on them full-time unless I’m under deadline pressure. I like keeping the ideas percolating in the back of my mind, and letting inspiration hit me.

As tedious as transcribing tapes can be, I believe it’s critical for the ghostwriter to do directly. I would never want to hire someone to do it, because I always add my own notes and thoughts to the material as I go along. Plus, it’s another way to connect with the language of your authors, get the key messages of your books into your mind, and, perhaps most importantly, get a sense of the information you’re missing.

At this point, I usually check in with my authors to tell them how things are progressing, and to follow up with a request for some additional information.

By the third or fourth week of the project, I prepare my first deliverable for my authors: A list of title ideas and a table of contents. This is a good way to start bringing a book to life for an author, while still keeping things loose and flexible. It’s easy to make changes at this point, and you’ll get a really good feel for how an author likes to collaborate by how much input they give you at this stage.

Within another week or two, you and your author should be able to agree on the title, subtitle, and chapter organization. At this point, I go back to my transcripts and cut and paste all the text according to the agreed upon outline of the book. Sometimes I’ll put the same text in a few different places, to decide later where it makes the most sense.

This takes another week or so, bringing the project to the two-month mark, give or take a couple of weeks. At this point, the writing can begin! I try to start at the beginning because it’s more comfortable for my clients to go in order during the review process, but sometimes I’ll skip around a bit to get the rhythm going.

Once I get that first chapter done, in about week or two, I send it to the author for review, and suggest that we have a phone call every week or two to go over things. These calls give the authors a chance to comment on the chapters, and give me a chance to ask additional questions. This process continues for about two months. At that point, we can start looking at the manuscript as a whole, and start adding embellishments like quotes at the beginning of each chapter, summaries at the end of each chapter, and maybe an index or an appendix at the end. For the next month, you’re really taking the raw manuscript and shaping, polishing, and editing it to make it perfect.

When that’s done, I like to meet with my authors again in person, and go through the book page by page. I give them a copy of it in a three-ring binder, and they’re usually overwhelmed when they see it in real life like that. We sort of sit there and read it together, and make any final changes before the manuscript goes to a few different proofreaders.

I like to use multiple proofreaders, just to make sure we catch as much as possible before the book is printed or sent to an agent or publisher. If it’s an in-house production and I’m responsible for designing the book, I’ll hire more proofreaders to review the book after it’s laid out. You can never have too many eyes on your book!

So that’s pretty much it. By the end of six months or so, you should have a book that your author’s proud to call his or her own, and one that you can be proud to have ghostwritten. Be sure to celebrate by sending your author a bottle of champagne if they’re out of town, or by taking them out to dinner if they’re local. Congratulations!

[Photo by babasteve]