Sunday, November 1, 2009

Anatomy of Successful Collaborations

"How does that work?" It's a question ghostwriters frequently try to answer after we reveal what we do for a living. There's no simple response--book collaborations take many different forms, from a named co-author to an invisible ghost who helps the author tell his or her story. I've collaborated on about a dozen books and each engagement has had its own quirks and conditions.

An easier question is "How does that work well?" I've found there are some definite hallmarks of successful collaborations. When these are in place, the process is enjoyable, exciting, and produces a darn good manuscript.

Clear goals. The ghost and the author each need to understand why the book is being written. Is it going to be used to build the author's credibility as an expert or speaker? As a business tool? To share specific ideas that will appeal to a particular audience? To use personal stories as a call for action? A good ghostwriter will help the author develop a manuscript that supports the book's goals.

Content outline. Whether I'm ghosting a book that will be published by a publishing house or self-published by the author, the first phase of the project always includes a content outline. This helps us develop a logical content order and ensures that the finished project is interesting and informative. Without a content outline, projects can lose momentum and stall because there's no plan for divulging the content order. The outline also ensures that we don't overlook key points.

Timeline. Like any big project, writing a manuscript needs to be well-managed to ensure it is completed in a timely manner. The author and the ghost should work together to determine milestones--chapters, word count, etc.--and the amount if time it will take to complete them. Authors and ghosts need to carefully consider other demands on their time, including the author's existing business obligations and the ghost's project load to ensure they allow enough time to complete the best possible manuscript.

Good communication. Gosh, that's trite, isn't it? But it's true. If a passage or chapter isn't working for the author, or if the ghost is having trouble getting the right information, the worst thing that either one can do is avoid talking about it. A ghostwriting relationship is like a short-term marriage. If you don't talk about the things that aren't working, it's impossible to correct them. Constructive critique and revision or polishing are part of the process.

A common voice. I'll probably never be the right person to ghost a book that requires an academic tone and a lot of jargon. I can mimic voices well in my writing, especially as the author and I move forward in the process and I've had a chance to speak extensively with him or her and read any writing he or she has done. However, my writing veers toward a more conversational style. I find that's more engaging for the types of business and money topics I typically tackle. My most successful engagements have been with clients who had a similar view of the book's voice.

Mutual respect. Good ghostwriters are not typists who take the author's dictation. We can help you refine your concepts into marketable ideas. Most of us have been working in publishing for years and can help you navigate this crazy business.

At the same time, no one knows your business or area of expertise like you do--and we get that. It's not our job to change your ideas or messages. We may challenge them here and there (just as a reader would) or offer suggestions about how to better present them, all in the name of creating the best book possible. But it's our job to take your ideas and present them in a way that people are dying to read.

Sure, there are other elements that make collaborations successful. But, in my experience, these are the most important. When these essentials are in place, anything else can be overcome.


  1. These are really helpful tips. People often ask me for advice about collaboration and I will send them to this site!

  2. Thanks so much, About. Look for much, much more to come!