Professional Writing Tips from a Ghostwriter
Embarking on a ghostwriting project? To help you out, here are some professional writing tips from ghostwriter extraordinaire, Marissa Matteo.
I met Marissa when she interned at Writers House. With her dynamite personality, great writing skills, and genuine curiosity about people, I wasn’t totally surprised to find out some years after her internship that she had “made it” as a successful celebrity ghostwriter who has had seven books published by HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin. She is currently working on her eighth and ninth.
MARISSA’S GHOSTWRITING TIPS
1) No Tape Recorders. It makes people tighten up, which is the last thing you want. Explain to them that you will not be recording at the beginning and why. Try to type as much as you can as they are talking, and develop a shorthand. If you miss anything, follow up via text, phone calls, or emails. Explain this to them as well.
2) Hang Out. You need to find their voice and the best way to find their voice is to do things together. In my experience, I have always become very close friends with whomever I have been writing for and we have traveled together. That’s when the best stories come out–and that is when you find their voice.
3) Do Not Hold Interviews, Have Conversations. And don’t be afraid to go out of chronological order. You cannot get the good stuff if you are adhering to a strict set of questions and demanding someone remember their life story in a linear way. Memory doesn’t work like that. It’s your job to put the story in order.
4) Be Open with the Material. I have found that the best way to write a book for someone is to let them read chunks of the book to make sure they like the voice and so they can add stories as we go along. I think it is a better system than handing over a full-manuscript and praying they don’t freak out. (They are going to freak out. I have written seven books and for five of them I was the second or third ghostwriter on; in each of those five cases, the previous writer turned over the manuscript at the end, and the freak-out ensued.)
5) Be Tight-Lipped. You are going to find out things that are extremely personal, and, especially during moments when guards are let down, you are going to find out some skeletons in the closet. Do not tell people’s secrets. Whether you have signed a non-disclosure agreement or not. You are their friend and their confidante. Act accordingly.
6) Check Your Ego at the Door. This is their book, not your book. Do not try to inflect your opinion, voice, or agenda in the material.
7) Be a Blank Slate. Don’t come to the project thinking you know anything about the person you are writing for or the industry they work in. You don’t.
8) Do Not Trust Wikipedia. Or anything on the internet. Of course, you should research your subject like a crazy stalker, but everything you find on your Google search, you must discuss with the person you are writing for. And here is where you will find out that ninety-seven percent of what is written about celebrities on the Internet is pure fabrication.
Print out Marissa’s tips and bring them along with you to interviews (they’re applicable to journalism, too)!