7 Things to Look for When Hiring a Ghostwriter

1. Compatibility

It’s important that you and your ghostwriter are a good fit because writing a book takes months to complete. Even if you leave much of the work to the ghostwriter, writing a book is a personal endeavour and during those months you’ll be in regular contact with your ghost. You’re the expert, and your ghostwriter’s job is to elicit from you the interesting facts and anecdotes and stories – and angles – that will make the book an interesting and possibly compelling read. If you’re a good fit, your writer and you will often start to think about old things in fresh new ways. If you’re a bad fit, the book will be the poorer for it.

Your ghostwriter should be interested in you and curious about your subject from the very beginning and remain constantly curious about your subject and your thoughts weeks and months later. For your part, you need to be as honest and transparent as possible, because a good collaborator asks questions, lots of questions. That doesn’t mean you need to be friends with your ghostwriter, but it does mean being a team that maintains a positive and mutually respectful working relationship. Just as the most effective teams are collaborative rather than hierarchical, the best ghostwritten books are those in which subject matter expert and writer are in sync. To borrow from Patrick Lencioni, the client-ghostwriter relationship should be one of:

  • trust
  • willingness to debate
  • commitment
  • accountability
  • results

But none of these attributes will emerge and flourish if the author (client) and writer (ghost) aren't a good fit. How will you know? Usually after your first conversation.

2. Reliability

To keep your book on track, your ghostwriter must be dependable. Deadlines must be met. Not all ghostwriters are schedule-driven, and even some of the more dependable ghostwriters may overcommit to multiple projects and become unable to meet their time commitments. Your time is precious. A reliable ghostwriter understands this, puts the primary focus on you, and works within and around your schedule.

3. Business expertise

Ghostwriters of business books tend to have (or should have) business backgrounds. It makes the process smoother and easier for the client, and adds value and quality to the material being produced. Financial planning, for example, is not an abstract concept. It is very real, and there is a great deal of logic behind an investment strategy, for example. But the process is also very fluid because emotions cannot be entirely eliminated. A ghostwriter who has the right expertise and experience, who brings prior understanding and perspective to the process, who knows how to connect many of the dots and collaboratively communicate the process (all the while knowing there are different strategies to building wealth) brings added value.

4. Ability to ask the right questions

Jargon and complexity is an inevitable by-product of being an expert in your field, whatever that field may be. A good ghostwriter takes complexity and turns it into plain English so it is accessible to a wider audience. This is done by asking clarifying questions, and sometimes by drilling down and asking the five whys (here is a simple example of the five whys). When the expert says something that sounds intelligent but appears opaque, the ghostwriter must keep at it, asking the “dumb” questions (back to ‘fit” again) until another better way is found to express those thoughts so that every reader will understand.

5. Structure

Structure is about developing a coherent theme and organization, which means the ghostwriter must have the ability to organize and structure the book’s contents so the argument builds and flows in a convincing way. At their core, most business books are simply just an extended argument. Their quality is defined by how persuasively the author makes her case. Unlike an academic thesis, however, a business book must work on multiple levels – inspirational, emotional, intellectual and visceral.

For example, the overarching theme or argument in Live Well Retire Well was simply: you don’t need to sacrifice the quality of your life today in order to live well in retirement tomorrow. The theme and the topics that flow from it are the building blocks that give the book energy and push it forward to its inevitable conclusion.

6. Voice and tone

Finding the right voice and tone can be subtle and sometimes difficult to grasp, but an experienced ghostwriter knows how to put creative ego aside and quickly discover the author’s authentic written voice. I said the written voice because the voice on the page differs sometimes markedly from the spoken voice. Even the most articulate speaker will appear a little less polished when her words are seen (transcribed) on the page, so a certain amount of polishing is always necessary—but never too much or her personality will get lost in translation.

7. And then there is the trust factor 

Trust between writer and subject matter expert sometimes takes time to fully develop, but there doesn't always have to be love at first sight -- a passionate "meeting of minds." If you are committed to going ahead with your book but have a concern about your ghostwriter's ability to capture your voice, your writer should be willing to show you some sample published pages or possibly even write a sample page for you.