Monday, April 30, 2012

Guest Post: Looking for a Ghost


This article originally appeared on Publishers Weekly.

I’ve ghosted books on nearly every conceivable subject. The first question every new ghostwriting client asks is, “Are you an expert or do you know anything about [fill in the blank]?” My answer is almost always the same: “No.”

So how do I do what I do? Furthermore, why do these people hire me?

Answer: While it is somewhat helpful to know a little about a subject before ghostwriting about it, it is absolutely unnecessary to be an expert. Why? Because the client is the expert. If I were the expert as well as the professional writer, why would I need the client in the first place?

Every field of interest has that dreaded thing called “jargon.” Experts use jargon endlessly and without pause. It is the language of their field. Fortunately or unfortunately, when people reach out for a ghostwriter, it is often because they are looking for an audience beyond the narrowness of their field and its accepted experts.

Enter the Dejargonizer. This is my superhero name. When my client rambles on about “Invertilizing the DRC of the SMU, we econometrically strafe the LLG, which leaves us in a much better astrometrical situation,” I stand up and scream, “Enough! What the heck does that mean?” As the Dejargonizer, I get to revel in my ignorance. My lack of expertise is my greatest weapon. When a client says, “Wow, you really are stupid,” I respond by saying, “Thank you.”

I take jargon and make it understandable. This is not “dumbing down.” I hate that phrase. It is “universalizing.” You can be a genius expert in one field and totally lost in the jargon of another. This is not a measure of IQ. Writing is communication. I am hired by people who are often relatively poor communicators to those outside their field.

Yes, conveying this at an initial hiring interview is dicey, but since I am a paid communicator, my first job, my proving ground, is to get my potential client to understand all this. If I am successful, I am hired.

It also helps that I am old enough to be referred to as “mature.” Ghostwriting is actually one of the few occupations where, I believe, somewhat older practitioners are at an advantage. When I am asked if I know anything about [fill in the blank], there is a far greater chance that I have at least a nodding knowledge of it simply through life experience. A long life has also taught me humility. I used to be really, really smart, but now I’m dumb as a tree stump. This ingratiates me to people; don’t ask me why. I seem less apt to try to take over someone else’s dream project and make it my own. I don’t feel the need to do such things. In the end, this is the client’s dream, not mine. When I was younger, I doubt I would have understood that.

How should a person go looking for a ghost or editor? Should a would-be author ask a potential ghostwriter or editor if they know much about his or her topic? Sure. But a person should do it more as a way of finding out if the ghost or editor has any interest or feel for the topic at all. If you are an expert on Australian Rules Football, the ghost or editor should at least have a passing knowledge or interest in sports in general. That’s often as good as it gets. Beware the writer who says, “I know nothing about that, and in general I hate sports. But I have lots of bills this month, so I’ll write just about anything.”

You should also see if you personally connect with the writer, since you will be spending a lot of time with him or her. Many friends of yours have no expertise in what you do in life, but you’re still able to bond with them because they take an interest in you and have inquiring minds. The same holds true when hiring a writer.

Look for a writer you connect with, someone who maybe has a tangential knowledge or interest in your topic and really wants to spend weeks or months immersed in it with you. Find that, and you’ve found your ghost.

Kerry Zukus is a full-time professional, published, and agented author and ghostwriter of more than 40 books. His first novel, The Fourth House (Madison Park Press) was a featured selection of the Book of the Month Club.


Rosemary Carstens said...

Kerry, good post. Thanks for the tips. I'm working now on my first ghostwriting project and how to deal with the question of experience in certain subjects has been on my mind for future projects. Now I know how to handle that. And I completely agree with you about the need to maintain a sense that your client's success is your success. It's very satisfying to feel you are helping someone get an important message out to the world. Although I'm new to ghostwriting, I've essentially done the same thing many times when working closely with a client on a substantive editing project.

Cynthia Starks said...

Hi Kerry -- I really liked your post. Not only did it make an excellent case but made me laugh as well. Thanks! Cindy Starks