Ghost writer. I like the phrase — I love the movie. I enjoy the strange looks I get when I say that’s what I am. Of course, when I use that particular job description I’m usually fishing for a reaction. In reality, ghost writing is just a part of what I do.
What is a ghost writer?
In case you don’t know, this is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines a ghost writer:
A person whose job it is to write for someone else who is the named author.
Yes, ghost writers work behind the scenes (often uncredited) translating their clients’ stories into print.
Famous people use ghost writers all the time. Have you ever wondered how that mono-syllabic pop star managed to string together a 50,000-word autobiography? Well, thank their humble ghost writer.
In this post I use a recent project to illustrate how ghost writers work. If you find this useful please subscribe to my blog. I welcome your comments.
Airwork Ltd is a leading New Zealand aviation company. They hold several major contracts and employ over 350 people in New Zealand and abroad.
Majority shareholder, Hugh Jones, purchased the company in 1984. So, this year marks 30 years under his stewardship. To celebrate, it was decided a coffee-table-style book, for employees, customers and associates, would be a nice touch. So, I was approached to write the book and manage its production.
My brief was to highlight notable events (good and bad) over the past 30 years. The book was to be an easy read with plenty of pictures — the kind you can flick through at your leisure.
Now, I’m not a graphic designer by any stretch of the imagination — the book was designed by Saskia Nicol of the Gravity Bureau. I, however, acted as an intermediary between Airwork and Saskia by gathering images and ensuring they were suitable for publication.
The planning stage
I kicked off the project by meeting Hugh at his office in central Auckland. I needed to establish what he wanted included and what he didn’t. I also wanted to discuss tone — casual or formal? Did Hugh want the book to be written in first or third person? By the end of this first meeting, we’d drafted a timeline of important events, which became the chapters, and decided on a relaxed first-person narrative.
In total, I interviewed Hugh for about four hours over two sittings. All the interviews were recorded on my Dictaphone — I never did master short hand. Recording the interviews meant I didn’t miss anything and enabled me to study Hugh’s language style, turn of phrase, etc. My goal was to capture his personality. I wanted those who know Hugh to feel like he is talking to them directly.
As you would expect, I prepared a list of questions for each interview. However, as so often is the case, some of the best material emerged when we veered off topic.
With the interviews complete, the next step was to transcribe the recordings and start writing. I began by creating an Airworks folder on my laptop and transferring the audio files to the folder from my Dictaphone. It may appear sensible to transcribe all the interviews in one go. However, I’ve learned it pays to handle large projects one chunk at a time. This way I’m able to solicit feedback from my client to ensure they are happy with my approach before I get in too deep. So, I transcribed the first chapter into a Word Document, keeping note of its location on the audio file, and began writing.
This was my routine:
- Transcribe a chapter
- Email completed chapter to Hugh for feedback
- Make edits
- Transcribe the next chapter ….
Once I was confident things were on track, I requested feedback less often.
Staying on track
Large projects can often seem overwhelming. When things get tough, it’s easy to procrastinate, which only makes things worse. So, it pays to be well organised and have a routine. To keep myself focused, I work in units of 30 minutes, sometimes an hour if I’m on a roll. I set the timer on my phone and stay at my desk for 30 minutes — no matter how badly things might be going. It’s surprising how much progress you can make doing this.
With a project like this, edits are inevitable. So, as a ghost writer, it’s important to let go of your ego and adopt a mature attitude towards requests for changes. After all, it’s your client’s story and their name on the finished product — they have their reputation to consider.
This book was mainly about the major contracts Airwork had won over the years. So, Hugh was mindful of his business relationships. As you would expect, he didn’t want to include anything that could possibly offend. As a result, several paragraphs were either deleted or re-written during the review process.
The finished result
The finished result was a 205 mm x 205 mm hard-cover book of about 5000 words. By all accounts, it was a great success and Hugh received plenty of compliments.
The book is a fitting tribute to a company that has contributed so much to New Zealand aviation. For customers and investors, it serves as a reminder of Airwork’s capabilities; for employees, it gives them a reason to feel proud.