E. Mark Windle 18 July 2023
They’ve been around for thousands of years, quite literally. Scribes were used without accreditation to capture oral histories and folklore from their communities and reproduce them in the written form, to copy and embellish existing religious texts, or to take on tasks of ancient senate office. Over subsequent centuries, the work of the ghostwriter diversified (even if the term wasn’t actually coined until the 1900s), to where we are at now – a discrete professional service hired to provide marketing copy, speeches, scripts, articles, non-fiction books and to a lesser extent, fiction, all in collaboration with their client.
There’s no question ghostwriters provide a recognised and valuable function within the commercial sector, but nothing seems to divide public opinion more than the concept of a ghostwritten biography. There’s no skirting around the fact that in less informed circles some feel the practice of employing a third party to write in the first person is tantamount to collusion. Clearly I’m here to tell you otherwise, though I do see why that thinking can be perpetuated when fuelled by displays of poor shows and bad receptions. Recent examples aren’t too hard to come by – take former Pulitzer Prize winner JR Moehringer’s work on Prince Harry’s memoir, published earlier this year. Spare is the fastest selling non-fiction book in the world (3.2 million copies sold within the first week of publication), yet simultaneously it has taken a hammering from critics and public alike. Moehringer even felt the need to defend himself by publishing a 7000-word retort (which unfortunately for him was equally ill-received). Then there are Isabel Oakeshott’s shenanigans as Matt Hancock’s ghostwriter. Some say an NDA breach was in the public interest. Others slate her for committing the mortal sin of breaking discretion, the one principle supposed to be upheld by all ghosts (she did have a history of doing this kind of thing, and Hancock should have seen that one coming). At the end of the day there will always be bad apples, or episodes of misjudgement, and these don’t do much to enhance the profession’s reputation. Negative public perception can be a hard thing to shift, and sometimes it’s justified.
Most book readers these days will not be at all surprised that A-list celebrities who wish to ponder over their humble origins and the paths to glory, or defend their fall from grace, often use an expert third party to assist them with their prose. Due to the nature of the beast, statistics are tricky if not impossible to obtain, but it’s been suggested that almost half the non-fiction books appearing on a certain US east coast newspaper’s bestseller list have had ghostwriter involvement. The notion that the practice is a devious one that intends to deceive is misinformed though, reflecting a lack of insight into what the role actually involves: identifying and presenting the client’s voice, whether that means brand image in the copywriter’s world, or that of the OG storyteller’s identity and personality in a biography writing context. It’s not a case of conning the reader. On the contrary, at its core ghostwriting is all about accurate representation.
More myth busters. Romanticised ideas of the profession, like spending months swanning about in some exotic location to work alongside your client and raking in huge amounts of cash along the way, are sadly way off the mark. Ghostwriter discretion generally extends to earnings, and figures vary depending on how big the project brief is. High profile projects do of course pay well – Moehringer is at the top of the tree, reportedly having received £850,000 for his contribution to Spare. But for the rest of us, juggling three, four or more gigs at the same time is commonplace and a financial necessity, as is constantly planning six months to a year ahead to ensure the calendar is full. It’s a competitive game, not only for independent writers, but also for those positioned within the writing pools of bio services.
So what defines a ghostwriter? They are more than technicians purely employed to conduct a series of interviews, transcribe, and get “it” all down on the page, thus saving the client some graft. Ghostwriters come from a variety of backgrounds, and have fingers in a number of pies. My own portfolio includes other non-fiction work (all author-declared by the way), such as articles, books and commentaries on music, culture and healthcare themes. Fiction, not so much – though of course creative non-fiction is actually a thing. In fact that’s exactly what a biographer does. A narrative has to be woven that flows, conveys character, and tells a life story in a cohesive, intriguing way that holds the reader’s attention, drawing their empathy and emotion. Commonly recognised elements of fiction writing are just as applicable to biography composition: story arcs and structure, appropriate use of dialogue, exploration of the five senses, focus on voice, character and setting, and so much more.
Some clients are natural storytellers, and others will freely admit having difficulty in stringing a sentence together. The majority are somewhere in the middle, but all have worthwhile stories to tell. The ghost has to extract that life story using semi-structured process, which not only explores the chronology and factual detail of personal events, but also identifies and emphasises underlying and recurring themes, and how life’s circumstances, opportunities and barriers influence choices and self-development. The tools needed to capture all this are varied. Research skills, an awareness of social and historical context, and interpersonal communication skills all feature.
Collaboration and rapport are crucial too of course. An arena has to be established where the client feels they can communicate openly and in a transparent manner, while trusting the writer’s prudence and discretion. Without striving for meaningful, two-way communication and maintenance of positive relationships, the project will stumble. Certain areas of investigation will require sensitivity and discussion regarding which rabbit holes to go down, or which stones are best unturned for moral or legal reasons. Impartiality should be part of the ghostwriter’s make up, as prejudgement results in tension and communication breakdown. Moral stand-offs between the parties can occur, but that’s where another skill comes in: conflict resolution, to identify the issue, and find a way forward.
Yes, the ghost is more than a literary technician. Add confidante, confessor, collaborator, negotiator, and above all, advocate. But let’s be clear, deception doesn’t appear on the resume of any self-respecting ghostwriter.
(Copyright 2023) E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). To discuss services for hire please contact Mark via https://windlefreelance.com/contact/