How does a ghostwriter keep the voice?
One of the toughest tasks of my working week is writing this blog. It’s not that I don’t like writing because I do. I love it and I have loads to say too. Indeed, I’m constantly aware that I have the best job in the world. No, it’s because I spend most of the week being someone else completely and it’s occasionally difficult to switch back to being just me.
Over the years I have been both male and female. My age has spanned from late teens to the ripe old age of 92. I’ve spent a distinguished episode as a World War Two pilot and captained a nuclear submarine. I’ve been a leader of various industries, a billionaire inventor of a household product, the mastermind behind a new technology, a government minister, a ditsy, but very loveable (fictional) hairdresser and even a stripper.
The reason I have immersed myself so deeply each time is to capture the voice of the author. As you may imagine, each of the people I have collaborated with has a very different turn of phrase from the next person and it is my job to take the time and effort to capture the essence of that voice and put it on the page. As I often tell authors I work with, the idea is that if their best friend, or close colleague, read their book, they’d never suspect that it was penned by another. If a ghostwriter achieves this goal, they’ve done a great job.
There are many aspects to accurately capturing someone’s voice. One of the easiest things a ghost can do is, well, listen to an author speak. I generally spend up to twenty hours, sometimes more, with the authors I work with. I record all our interviews and, as well as using content from the transcribed material for the text, I also replay the recordings. This is the way to get inside a person’s head and hear not only the most powerful or emotional aspects of their factual story, but also to attune to the rhythm of their voice, the quirks and characteristics, the way of speaking that makes that person them. Listening to the conversation that second time really helps to hammer home the personality behind the words.
Listen well to what has been said and you’ll get the measure of whether the author tends to use large words and complex sentences, or likes to keep things simple and concise. Do they prefer flowery descriptions, or do they like to get straight to the point? Do they come across as supremely confident, or are they generally quite self depreciating? To build on the picture I also make use of any available YouTube videos, or online material. This is also useful to see how they come across in other situations that are not as intimate as a one-to-one interview.
It’s crucial to listen out for signature words and phrases. Everyone has them. You may not even realise what yours are, but trust me those around you know them very well. It’s how you talk. The onus is on a ghostwriter to seamlessly include these often used words into the copy. It immediately makes the book seem more genuine, particularly if the reader is familiar with the author. I should add that this doesn’t include documenting frequent swear words, or any phrases that are so grammatically incorrect they make the text seem silly or offensive.
A book should reflect what the author feels passionate about. If they go to the trouble of outlining their view, I try to recreate it as faithfully as I possibly can. While it is tempting for a ghost to add a bit of their own spin to the subject matter, to help bring the point home, its best not to. When you are aiming for authenticity, steer clear of adding ideas. Equally, it’s important not to subtract them either, even if you don’t entirely agree with the author’s viewpoint.
Ghostwriters are not obligated to include everything an author says, word for word. During the interview process, it’s highly likely the author will talk about a wide range of subjects, some of which will be completely off topic, or just not in line with the ‘meat’ of the book. It’s the skill of a ghost to organise the material, arranging the stories in the strongest possible way, while still retaining the personality of the person who will have his or her name on the cover.
Of course, the person who best knows an author’s voice is always the author themselves. This is why a ghostwriter should send regular chapter updates to the author as the manuscript builds. I encourage authors to let me know if I have included words or phrases that they would never, ever say and after that I make sure I don’t use them again. This way, over time, I build a stronger and stronger picture of their voice and nothing creeps into the manuscript that will detract from it.
A skilled ghost doesn’t just tell a story. They tell it in a voice that is recognisably the author’s voice rather than a flat one that could belong to virtually anyone. It’s a hugely immersive and also highly rewarding process. It’s also the reason why some days I may struggle to find my own voice.