Monday, December 15, 2014

Don't Marry Your Writing

This post was first published here on July 17, 2010.

Telling stories to a ghostwriter is like talking to a therapist or a bartender. When they get comfortable with me, my clients tell me all sorts of intimate stuff,often answering questions I never even asked. Then later they may have second thoughts, and wish they hadn’t.

Here’s a frustration with working with non-writers.  Writers know that writing exposes you and makes you vulnerable. The more real and truthful you are, the more vulnerable and exposed – and the more compelling to your readers.  But non-writers don’t know that. They get their manuscript back from the ghostwriter they hired to write their story, read their words and thoughts and feelings on paper, and get scared.  They want to hedge and soften, and turn specifics into generalities, so they will feel safer.

Of course, this will kill the writing.  Readers respond to gut-level stuff; that is what makes stories compelling and readable.  But it’s not just the readers who get shortchanged when the story is “softened.”  So does the storyteller.  By softening those rough patches, by hedging their truths and telling instead of showing their pains and joys, they have dramatically reduced one big benefit of writing – healing their emotional wounds.

From the ghostwriter’s perspective, this is so frustrating! It’s not my story; it’s theirs. If they don’t want to tell the truth, I can’t make them.  All I can do is offer my word tools, and hope they use them.

Many times I’ve been told “I didn’t say that” when I know they did – I have their recorded voices saying exactly that. I had one client who had a bit of a potty mouth, but she didn’t realize it. I didn’t include all of her swear words, but I inserted a few so it sounded like her. She was upset. “I would never use that f***ing word!” she said.

I once ghostwrote a memoir for a lovely man who had led a rich and varied life. He was a touring musician during Vaudeville in the late 1920s and early 30s. His circuit included places like Al Capone’s Chicago, and as you might guess, there were some juicy details in his stories. I loved listening to him, and could hardly wait to get those stories down on paper. But his wife was a very proper lady in her eighties, and she did not want any of those juicy details in his memoirs – they weren’t respectable and she didn’t want anyone knowing about them. They belonged to his youth, before he became a pillar of the community.

The musician himself didn’t actually care, since he was just doing the book at the request of his children. He shrugged and said, “Whatever my wife says.” So I had to take some of the best stories out of his memoir, and make it conform to what his wife deemed proper. It made the story much blander than it should have been. Boy, that was hard for me.

This happens to ghosts. I don’t always agree with everything my client wants to say, or doesn’t want to say. I may have to argue for artistic integrity. I’ll have to defend why I want to put those details in, or why I want to take them out. I’ll have to explain why the story about grandma and the plumber just doesn’t fit in a book about gardening. Even if it is funny.

But I must be aware that I might lose this argument. It is their book, not mine. This is one of the hardest challenges of ghostwriting – you must let go of your own ego. You can’t marry your writing. In fact you can’t even get engaged to it. At the most, you’re simply dating.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit


  1. Dating, and non-exclusive at that! Great post!

  2. Thank you, Kim. This is what I needed to read this morning as I'm struggling to edit my autobiographical novel/memoir. My editor's comments were missing the boat, I finally realized. The problem wasn't mechanical problems; the problem was I wasn't digging deep enough into the "characters"; I was pulling back from telling/showing those gut-wrenching details that as you say here are what readers respond to. (I know; I'm a reader, too!) I do have some very strong sections, but I need to go deeper. I was "hedging" the truth.

    I'm also trying to co-write (I guess you'd say I'm the "ghost" writer) a friend's story which is very powerful. I did a complete first draft, but it was bland because like your client's wife, my friend kept saying, no, I can't say that, because she was afraid of offending her children, her mother, who is actually dead, her sister etc etc. She got a critique from another person who was a published author who told her he could see the "clinical" side of her (she's a retired social worker) but he couldn't see her as a woman; couldn't see how she FELT about her harrowing experiences. Yes, I told her, "You made me cut out all the juicy parts." She laughed, and agreed. So now she says she's willing to dig deeper. Doing this isn't easy, so we'll see what happens. It IS her story, and like you say here, the "ghost" writer can only do so much. Thank you for this post. It articulates so well many of the things I'm struggling with.

  3. Great post, Kim. Sometimes, ghostwriters are almost like Mother Confessors. They hear deep dark secrets, yet the subject of the book hasn't really thought about those secrets being written down and other people reading them.

  4. This brings a perspective that I hadn't considered before. Ghostwriting definitely has a set of different challenges than fiction.


  5. Kim, I enjoyed this and it's highlighted the similarities between writing and my healing work. In both I'm vulnerable and the best healing is when the client can tell me the secrets. I see them anyway and this creates the story/healing. It's the most intimate relationship I've been in and it happens everyday. I think it's taken me ten years to get me in my writing. If you were my ghost writer we'd skip the wedding and jump straight into bed. I'd give you all the juicy bits. Happy ghosting.

  6. Thank you, Kim, for posting this. I have had this problem ghosting, too - the open husband/closed wife thing. Now having problem with someone who doesn't like the dialect she used. So sad to have to "blandacize" things.

  7. Thanks all for the comments; I love my job, but sometimes it feels good to complain just a little. The other day my Facebook status said, "Today I'm practicing compassion for chickens." I need to do this everyday.

    Helen, I love the term Mother Confessor - perhaps I need a new line on my business card. Ann, thanks for the thoughtful response -- I'm glad your co-writer is willing to try going deeper. Linda, oh boy do I recognize that fear of offending mothers, brothers, old boyfriends, bosses, the best friend who she hasn't seen in 20 years, etc. And Simon, I'd like to skip the wedding and revel in the juicy bits!

  8. Oh, this sounds incredibly frustrating! You have to be tough to be a ghostwriter.

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  9. Fascinating. I've also done a fair bit of ghostwriting - although fiction rather than biography. I also critique for developing writers and often have to encourage them to delve down to the very personal level instead of backing off. I'm tweeting this.

  10. Great post! And this is so my experience too.

  11. Kim, here's another side to the story ... I was helping a WWII vet compile a memoir of his historic military experiences and he kept putting in stories of his relationships with women that happened along the way. Now, I'm no prud, but these tales would've made a sailor blush. However, more importantly, they had absolutely nothing to with the military events that were the main focal point of the book. I had to work hard to, um, clean up these sidebars ... but I had to admit, the guy was quite the swordsman!

  12. Love the analogy of simply dating rather than engagement or marriage when you ghostwrite a story. I think the reason I stick to fiction writing is that I'm not encumbered by the wishes or fears of anyone but me. This significantly simplifies my job. You have my admiration, Kim, for taking on this challenge that would scare me to death. :-)


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