Ever since I boosted my ghostwriting rates to an average of $15,000 – $30,000 per book, I’ve taken on numerous rewriting gigs. Why? Well, they have a smaller scope and require less creative input on the ghost’s part. So, they are more budget-friendly. However, rewriting a book, or even just a portion of a book, is a nuanced art-form in itself. So, I think it’s time for another installment in my Q&A series.
As usual, let’s get some definitions out of the way. The rewriting I’m talking about is a form of ghostwriting. You get no credit, and in exchange for handing over all rights to the material, you receive a higher rate upfront. In rewriting, your client has already written the manuscript, but he/she wants a professional to go through to fix any problems and make sure the book’s content reaches its full potential.
Okay, now let’s get into the questions that may arise for those looking into book rewriting.
Q: Who Needs These Services?
A: First-time Authors, Entrepreneurs/Field Experts
You’ll find rewriting work in both fiction and nonfiction.
In fiction, you’ll come across first-time authors who feel they need more than just an edit. As with any book ghostwriting project, you’ll find that some people who reach out to you don’t fully understand ghostwriting and think they can get this service for cheap or even free. However, your ideal client here is an author who cares a great deal about their novel, believes they can make a profit from it (thereby viewing it as an investment as well as a labor of love), and understands that something is missing from the novel. This client loves this story and these characters, and he/she wants readers to feel the same. However, he/she has never written a full book before, and after looking over the manuscript realizes it isn’t yet up to publishing par. But, as this is his/her first novel, the client is unsure how to make the necessary improvements. That’s where you come in.
In nonfiction, you’ll find first-time authors, too. However, you’ll also come across the entrepreneur or expert who either simply doesn’t have time to polish the piece or views hiring a professional for a final once-over as a necessary investment before publishing. This person has hashed out all the details of their message and provided all the corroborating facts for their book’s stance, but they need you to go in an breathe some life into the piece and make sure everything flows well and remains engaging from cover to cover.
Q: What Exactly Does This Work Entail?
A: There Are Two Levels: Line-by-Line Rewrite and Book Restructuring
Please note that those two levels are not official industry titles; they are just my personal names for the two basic kinds of rewriting I’ve come across.
This sort of rewrite is where the book is solid in structure but needs a tonal boost.
In fiction, this client’s plot is solid and their characters have clear personalities and arcs, but the language itself is lacking. Maybe dialogue reads stunted. Maybe transitions are not working or non-existent. Maybe the words aren’t jumping off the page or holding readers’ attention because the writing is repetitive or overly simple. It’s your job to go through line-by-line and fix those issues whenever you spot them.
In nonfiction, this client’s book makes its point and supports it with solid facts, logic, and even a few anecdotes, but lacks either personality or the tone initially desired by the client. For instance, I recently did a line-by-line rewrite of a children’s self-help book. This client was an excellent writer. Her structure was solid and consistent, she had anecdotal examples to support the tips and exercises she was presenting to her young readers. She even had two tween narrators interacting with readers throughout the book. However, the tone was off, and she could feel it. I looked over her samples and told her I believed the issue was that her book read like a teacher talking to a tween, rather than a tween talking to a tween. She agreed, and so I went line-by-line to make sure her tween narrators actually sounded their age without losing the meat or intelligence of the manuscript.
In this sort of rewrite, you may still go line-by-line to enhance language, but you’re also adding all-new sections to the manuscript.
In fiction, this client probably has some plot holes that need cleaned up and/or the character development is lacking. Or, this could be a client who recently had a developmental edit done by another freelancer and wants you to implement the changes suggested by the editor.
In nonfiction, this client may have written the portions of the book he/she is more familiar with/has the most expertise in, and he/she wants you to write the “filler” while also making sure the parts he/she wrote are clean and engaging. This client could also just want you to revamp certain portions of the manuscript. For instance, I had a memoir client who wanted me to rewrite his prologue and conclusion. He’d lived the body of the book, so he was confident in how that had turned out, but his prologue and conclusion were not successfully conveying the message he wanted to convey through his story. I used what was already there to completely restructure both sections, keeping some of his paragraphs (though I gave them a boost) and then adding new ones in his voice based on the vision he had conveyed to me.
Q: How Do You Price Rewriting?
A: Exact Will Vary, but Always Less Than a Full Ghostwrite
Pro Tip #1: When negotiating a rewrite project, always, always, ALWAYS get a sample of the existing material first. Your client may be confident that he/she just needs a light polishing, but in reality, the book needs a major overhaul. You always want to get a taste of what you’re working with before quoting a price. Ask for the first chapter, explaining you need it in order to work up an accurate quote. If they hesitate, reassure them by offering to sign a confidentiality agreement. I usually just write a short and sweet one up myself that simply says I won’t share the chapter with any third parties.
Pro Tip #2: Leave room for adjustment. One chapter is a nice starting point, but it can’t give you the full picture. However, reading someone’s full book without a contract in place is a whole lot of free labor on your end. So, what do you do? Well, the answer is really two-fold. First, make sure you’re pricing yourself high enough that you don’t have to quibble over exact word count or minor changes to the project’s scope. I use a per word rate as my base, but I make adjustments to it (adding or dropping fees) based on the level of work I foresee in the project. I deliver that calculation to the client as a fixed fee. However, I always make it clear that in the event that I come across something in the manuscript that would require a major shift in project scope to fix, I will need to adjust the price if the client wants me to make those changes. For instance, if someone hired me for a line-by-line language boost in a novel, but I came across a major plot hole that would require some major reworking to fix, and the client wanted me to take the reigns on that fix, I’ve made it clear in our contract agreement that I can up my price for doing so.
As a basic rule of thumb, I half my ghostwriting rate if I’m doing basic line-by-line rewriting, but only drop it by about 15% if I’m doing a restructuring.
Q: What Are Some of the Difficulties of Rewriting?
A: Unpredictable Prep Work and An Already Integrated Writing Style
The reason I always make sure the client knows a rewriting gig’s price and scope can be subject to change is that going in, you don’t have a full picture of the manuscript. Sure, you don’t have a full picture going into a full ghostwrite either, but in that case, you are crafting the picture yourself.
If you are doing a restructuring rewrite, you will have to do a read-through of the book first to familiarize yourself with all aspects of the book and uncover the places that need work. Now, you can add an extra fee for this or you can just make sure your base per word rate is high enough to compensate for this upfront legwork. I’ve done it both ways depending on the size of the book.
Once you’ve done the read-through, you’ll need to have a whole lot of back and forth interaction with the client in which you provide solutions and suggestions and get the author’s approval. You’ll also probably have some questions for the client on his/her original vision or about plot points or confusing facts. You need to create a master plan for how you’re going to tackle this restructuring before you get started. Not far off from the outlining prep work you do for a from-scratch ghostwriting gig, but here you are navigating around the client’s own writing work. This requires a lot of problem solving skill as well as tact. You can’t just come up with a brand-spanking-new idea; you have to work within the material your client has already worked up. Your client spent a good deal of time on this. Constructive criticism is probably going to be necessary, but you need to make sure you convey it in the most professional and courteous way possible.
The second challenge is that with the full book already written, a clear writing style is already in place. Now, as a ghost, you’re always seeking to adapt to the client’s voice. However, in rewriting work, you’re adapting to the client’s writing voice and style, and that can be a bit more difficult. This is not just adapting your client’s speaking voice, personality, and vision into writing that sounds like and speaks to them (note that these things are more important in nonfiction work than fiction). This is taking all of that into account plus examining how your client structures sentences or writes dialogue or sets up anecdotes. Sure, some of those style choices will need to be tweaked throughout because this may be a first-time author you’re dealing with, but you still want to keep that same rhythm in the manuscript. Otherwise, readers will probably notice a serious change in writing style between the pieces of the manuscript you touched and those you didn’t. If your client uses short, punchy sentences that use adjectives sparingly, you should, too. If your client uses flowery language that paints pictures of everything, you should, too. A preliminary read-through can really help give you an ear for your client’s writing voice, and you may find that after you’ve gotten deeper into the writing that you begin to adapt it unconsciously.
Rewriting is less intimidating for many clients when it comes to budget. It’s also a smaller scope project for you because pretty much all the material is already there at your fingertips. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easier. Will it take less time? Yes. Does it require less skill or attention to detail? Not at all. Is it a whole lot of fun? I think so. To me, it’s a wonderful halfway point where my two passions, writing and editing, meet. It certainly comes with its own set of challenges, but it is a wonderful middle-ground where your rates and typical client budgets can meet up a little easier. Plus, it can help you flex your writing muscles in brand new ways, and only good can come from that.