If you can only write in one style, tone, or voice, ghostwriting is not for you. You can only be successful if you can adapt to your client’s preferences, stylistic choices, and voice. You don’t have to do it flawlessly on the first try—that’s what rewrites are for—but if you turn in a rough draft that doesn’t even remotely capture your client’s vision or sound anything like them, they’re probably going to pass and find someone else.
Most writers aren’t a one trick pony, and they can write in multiple styles, but every writer with experience has their own voice. It is something that develops naturally based on the way you speak, the way you perceive other people’s voices, the things you read, and your preferred writing style. It’s a hard thing to set aside because it is so ingrained and unconscious. You have to first retrain yourself to be conscious of voice (that really just comes with time) and then you must consciously choose to discover and implement your client’s voice.
Yet again, it takes time. I’m not an absolute pro at it, and I’ve got two years of experience. But I am aware of it. I put in the effort to improve. Everyone starts somewhere. I don’t want to discourage you, only to make you understand that it’s a process and that you must start paying attention to it right now if you want to master it.
Here are some tricks you can use to get started.
P.S. These tricks mostly apply to nonfiction projects. In fiction, your client’s actual speaking habits don’t really need to translate into the narration to craft a great story. You need to consult with them about where they want the plot to go, how they imagine their characters, etc., but voice will be dictated by what the story needs, not the client’s vocalizations. In nonfiction, especially when working with an expert who is using the book to build their brand, voice is essential. If they do book tours or if they try to sell the books to colleagues and their book sounds nothing like them, it will raise eyebrows.
1. Study Your Client During the Initial Consultation
Any serious client willing to pay fair rates isn’t just going to hire a total stranger without first seeing some samples and talking with the ghost over the phone. Entrusting your story to someone, especially for the big bucks quality ghostwriting requires (even at beginner rates, the client’s going to be shelling out a couple thousand), is a big deal, and the client needs to be comfortable. They need to feel you’re the right person for the job.
You need to know that you can mesh well with this client’s personality and voice. You need to know the specs of the project before giving a quote. Set up an interview and pay attention to more than just the dollar amounts and page count. Take notes on how your client speaks. Are they formal, casual, somewhere in between? Are they bubbly, stoic, anxious, highly professional, enthusiastic, driven? Do they have a certain phrase they use frequently? If something they say catches your ear, write it down.
Once you’ve landed the project, you’ll still need to talk to the client in numerous meetings to hash out the direction, goals, and target audience of the book. Again, take notes on the client, not just the project. Just the act of consciously studying these things and taking the notes can help you commit these qualities to your subconscious, making the writing process a bit easier.
2. Ask for Client-Written Outlines
Now, not every client is going to have the time or even the desire for this, but if you can, try to get the client to give a brief written outline of each chapter. It is not only important to know how the client talks, but also see how they write. For my largest nonfiction project to date, I worked with an addiction recovery consultant and intervention specialist to create a guidebook for parents of addicted teens. He was my main source of info, and as a result, he would write out all the important points and facts that he wanted every chapter to touch on. I would get those outlines in front of me and expand them out into a full-sized chapter, taking direct phrases from his outlines whenever I could.
It was thanks to these outlines that I came, by the end of the project, to naturally capture his voice well enough to mimic it without even really consciously trying. When we went back to do rewrites, there were a LOT of changes made in the first five chapters or so, but we hardly had to touch the last five chapters. The client himself marveled over it. “This is awesome. Sounds just like me. You fucking killed it, man.” (The cursing is a real key to this client’s voice, believe it or not.) Practice makes perfect, and written outlines from the client are invaluable if you can get them.
To drive that point home … I just started a workbook for this exact client, and this one is aimed at the actual teen addicts, not the parents. I’ve written the intro and the first chapter so far, but I didn’t have those outlines; the client has been super busy promoting the first book. He gave me a brief outline for the entire book, but not chapter by chapter breakdowns. I requested those right from the beginning because I was afraid I was going to have trouble transitioning from how he speaks to parents to how he speaks to teen addicts. I told him this, but he didn’t have time right then, and he was confident I would nail it. I greatly appreciate the faith, but I also know myself pretty well, and it turns out I was right on this one. He has made note that, though I nailed the structure and mastered the info in the two chapters I’ve delivered, there are a large number of places where he will need to go back with me and fix the voice. He’s also agreed to write out something for the next chapter so I can get a better grasp on the nuanced shift in tone and approach that goes along with speaking to a young person in the thick of addiction rather than a parent struggling to understand addiction.
3. Slow Down
I often have to slow down and catch myself in the thick of a writing session. Usually what snaps me out of the feverish key smashing that goes along with a sudden train of thought that forces your fingers to run to keep up is a sentence that makes my brain instantly go, “Gee, that’s a Hannah sentence if I ever saw one.” Don’t know what a Hannah sentence is? Read that last one again (Normally, I would have edited it for clarity, but I’m trying to make a point here, people). I definitely don’t lean toward the Hemingway style. My sentences are often long (sometimes to the point of becoming convoluted), and I often string together thoughts with “ing” words. (Ex. She bent over the keyboard, lashing the keys as though she wished to punish them, wiping sweat from her brow between sentences.) My many years of fiction writing have trained me to recognize my go-to tropes and habits; mainly so that I can force myself to mix things up a bit. If my “Hannah sentence” senses start tingling, I have to take my hands off the keys and slow down. I ask, “How would ____ say that?” Then I completely rehash the sentence that triggered the pause.
If you haven’t taught your brain to recognize your own voice yet, train yourself to slow down and analyze what you’ve written after every third paragraph or so. Get in the habit, and you will not only save yourself some rewriting time but also begin to recognize your personal style.
4. Add a Step to Your Proofreading Process
Proofread your chapters before you submit to clients. That should be a given. You’re not going to catch every little error in that initial proofread because you just wrote it and your brain will fill things in, but you’ll still find plenty. I tend to do this really fast so that I can send it off, send that invoice, and cross it off my list, but I’m slowly training myself to chill out. Why?
That proofread is another great opportunity to analyze the voice of the chapter. As you read, “Who does this sound like?” should always be at the back of your mind. I’ll often catch and rearrange a Hannah sentence lurking in there, but I’m trying to get in the habit of attempting to find a “[client’s name] sentence” frequently in the chapter. Not every sentence needs to sound exactly like the client. Does everything you write sound exactly like how you speak? I didn’t think so. The tone of the chapter should always meet your client’s goals all the way through, but there also need to be a handful of sentences that absolutely scream your client’s name.
5. Make the Most of Rewrites
Don’t be afraid of rewrites. Just because the client requests a rewrite doesn’t mean you’ve failed. One of my favorite freelancing authors, Kelly James-Enger, is an extremely seasoned and successful ghostwriter, and she always plans for 2-3 rewrites for everything she turns in (she factors that time into her prices, though). You are not your client. Even if you did a great job of capturing the client’s voice, he or she may want you to change that sentence for X, Y, Z reasons.
I always remind my client to please make note of anywhere he/she wants the language changed every time I turn in the first draft of a chapter. If you confidently acknowledge the need for rewrites and language tweaking, your client isn’t going to see it as a mistake on your part, but as an opportunity for them to make this book exactly how they want it. Rewrites are just another opportunity to nail the project and earn your client’s continued business and referral. If you do rewrites after every chapter instead of just on the book as a whole, they become another great way to master your client’s voice.
You are not all-powerful. You’re not going to be able to nail every style and every voice. That’s why you have specialties and client consultations. Don’t be afraid to pass on a project if you know in your gut your writing is never going to mesh with that person’s voice. You don’t want to get yourself into that mess. No one will be happy. A better project will come along.
However, with careful, intentional practice, you can develop your shapeshifter skills with each project, establish yourself as an expert, and delight your clients every time.