Perhaps the most daunting task of a ghostwriter is nailing your client’s voice. The ability to become a literary chameleon is what separates the great ghostwriters from the rest.
There’s no formula to being a great mimic. Capturing a client’s personality and idioms requires careful study and a great ear. You must be able to pick up little details, phrases, and pacing that other people blissfully ignore in day-to-day interactions.
When I talk to clients, their #1 concern is often the subject of voice (well…after money). They’re concerned those who know them best will be able to tell they didn’t write the work—and rightfully so.
Part of making the sell to a potential client is being able to on one hand assure them you’ll sufficiently represent the core of who they are in your writing and on the other hand calm their fears that people will see through it all. The reality is that people aren’t good readers, and with a few well-placed phrases and idioms, they’ll buy the illusion of authorship.
But the fact that most people can’t tell an author has hired a ghostwriter doesn’t mean we can produce sup-par work and skimp on the work required to nail a client’s voice.
Here are five simple methods I employ with clients in order to successfully morph my writing style to fit their personality.
Watch and Listen
If you’re lucky, your client will have some history with being recorded. A recent book for which I did collaborative edits is authored by a prominent Pastor who speaks to thousands of people at a time. He’s a very talented speaker, but as he found out speaking talent rarely translates into writing talent—in fact, it can be a hindrance.
I was able to go through and watch hours of sermons on video. As I did, I took note of often-used phrases, the pacing of his words, and how he delivered his points. I also logged away great stories and antidotes that I used to illustrate points in the book.
You can do this with your clients easily. It doesn’t have to be video. Any recording will do. Some people may have radio interviews or corporate meetings or any number of possible situations in which they’ve been recorded. Use everything you can get your hands on.
When I take on a new client, I ask them to send me anything they’ve written professionally from business presentations to emails if they feel comfortable. If you’re really lucky, your client will have already published work either on his or her own or with another writer who has established a voice for your client.
When I began working with Robert Kiyosaki he was already a well-known author. I went back and read all his books, as well as many articles published on Yahoo! and other sites. Once again I took detailed notes and noted good stories and examples to be used or adapted in future writings. As a result, I found myself thinking like him and it was easy to replicate his voice.
The ability to follow a client around for a day or two can give you incredible insight into their personality and how they truly communicate. While watching, listening, and reading work from your client’s is extremely valuable, shadowing will give you a more personal insight into you client’s personality because they are bound to have unguarded moments over the course of a day or two.
When you speak or write, you’re very aware of your “public” persona. But your day-to-day interactions reveal more about you than any book or talk could ever do.
In the same vein, the interview can create some great moments of authenticity that will translate well into a written work. Prep well for you interview. Have your questions ready and be familiar enough with them to feel comfortable chasing a few rabbit trails during the interview and still be able to come back around to your main questions.
When I do interviews, I always record and then transcribe them. I find the process tedious, but well worth the effort. Having pages upon pages of interview transcripts will give you priceless material from which to build your authors voice authentically.
I always set the expectation that my client must give me feedback on the writing. As good as I may (or may not) be, I’m not omniscient. The client is an invaluable tool for building voice in a book. When I hand over first drafts, I always do so with instructions to my client to be especially aware of the voice. I ask him or her to mark up anything they think doesn’t sound anything like him or her and to offer alternative phrasings, words, and more. Together we make the book a true reflection of the client’s personality, passions, and voice.
One caveat, however. I don’t take every bit of input from the client and passively put it into the manuscript. Many times, especially with public speakers, they want to use poor grammar (I mean really poor, not the ending-in-a-preposition poor) or dialectic writing like some mid-19th century author to capture their “voice”. I use these opportunities to humbly educate my client on the difference between writing and speaking. Most of the time the client will listen—most of the time.
So, those are my methods. How about you? What do you do to get into your client’s head?
[Photo by ebertek]