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5 Things Ghostwriting Taught Me About People

by Bryce Emley Mar 12, 2014

WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO BE a writer for hire, you agree to writing pretty much anything people will hire you to write. Sometimes that means agreeing to write for a celebrity dentist/beautician when you’re a disgusting bearded guy with no healthcare. Sometimes that means convincing Nobel laureates to attend a global forum on a topic you got a 1 on for your high school AP exam.

My point is, if you’re not an expert in something, you learn how to sound like one if you want to get paid, and by proxy you figure out how to sound like the people who actually are the experts. And through it all, you learn some valuable things about people, as I have.

Not all gay men say “fabulous.”

In my few years of ghostwriting, I’ve publicly pretended to be multiple relatively high-profile gay men who, if you have cable, literally might be on your television right now. As I wrote for these men, throwing myself into their voices without ever actually watching their design shows, my instincts screamed the word “fabulous” basically every time I needed a positive adjective.

Then I remembered that I should probably do some research about the people I was imitating, and read their blogs and social media feeds (which in all probability were at least partially ghostwritten by another dude just like me) to find not one use of the token-gay-friend-in-a-’90s-sitcom go-to word. Lesson being: People are complex, no matter how much you may find yourself trying to simplify them into something replicatable, something thinly defined.

Interior designers don’t drop Star Wars refs.

I’ve had a startling amount of highly successful designers as clients, which is not an ideal market for a guy whose idea of feng shui is hanging a dartboard over a 5 x 5 sheet of plywood next to his desk. After the initial surge of anger at finding that people pay other people they don’t know more money than I will make in the next 20 years to decide what color their couch should be, I realized that writing for a woman like this would require me to change my creative mindset completely.

I know, this sounds obvious, but one of the biggest issues I’ve seen for ghostwriters is the tendency to allow things to slip from their own realm of experience into the words of a surrogate author who doesn’t share those experiences. If you’re representing a national brand for someone whose market and image are highly refined, middle-aged, and almost definitely not into any of the things you are, you have to control your impulse to say things you would say. No matter how perfect you think that Tosche Station reference fits, remember that you have to forget everything you like and become a person who doesn’t know anything about where to find power converters.

Not everyone is funny.

Building off the last section, sometimes the hardest thing to do as a ghostwriter is pull back on personality aspects most people appreciate if it isn’t aligned with the personality traits of the surrogate author’s. This is especially difficult for pun-lovers, because practically everything you write will have an opportunity for a pun somewhere, and you will want to exploit it.

Nobody wants to admit they have no sense of humor, but sometimes it’s more a matter of the person’s industry than his/her voice. The only thing more important in ghostwriting than knowing the voice you’re taking on is knowing the audience you’re taking on, and those two things need to be in harmony. So don’t crack the pun just because it’s there, don’t make a joke because you think the post could use a little levity. In short: If your client wouldn’t say it, don’t say it.

Not everyone needs perfect grammar.

The internet has its own rules of grammar and formatting. Every blog isn’t Chicago style, phonetic spelling is okay, and not everyone knows how to use a serial semicolon. That doesn’t mean you need to allow “there/their” mishaps, but you should find ways to rephrase what you’re saying if it means avoiding alienating syntax or complex grammar most other people don’t know. It also means that if your client writes things like “WAAahhHooOO!!” or uses “good” as an adverb or sometimes accentuates an ellipsis with two extra periods, then you need to suck it up and get over your need to control people and follow suit if it aligns with the expectations of his/her audience.

I’ve been called a grammar Nazi in my day, and I don’t disagree that I have been at certain times in my life. However, the main point of grammar is to establish clarity of communication, and sometimes ditching the “rules” allows you to communicate in a clearer or more compelling way. Ghostwriting has helped me understand that and allow for it, even in real life. I don’t correct people in conversation anymore, and my life and relationships are better for that.

People are okay with not giving you credit.

I remember reading in an article in Poets & Writers that it’s likely the vast majority of books written by politicians and celebrities are ghostwritten, which probably means the real writer interviewed the “author” for a while and then wrote the whole thing and got a thumbs-up if it sounded good. That’s not much of a surprise, probably, but think about it: How many times have you seen a book written by a big name non-writer and saw credit on the cover given to a ghostwriter? Probably not many.

Of course, sometimes credit is given discreetly in small print — as it is with story outsourcers like Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy (RIP) — but sometimes it isn’t at all. When I found that one of my clients’ clients (for whom I wrote/edited and managed a blog) had won a blogging award and an all-expense-paid trip to NYC for a presentation, I joked to our “middlewoman” that this client might mention me in her speech at the ceremony. “Oh no,” she told me, “I advise my clients specifically not to do that. It hurts their credibility.”

At least I got paid, I guess.

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