The Art of Ghostwriting

The Art of Ghostwriting 1024 576 Reader Views

by Michael J. Coffino, Award-Winning Author, Ghostwriter, Freelance Editor

Ghostwriting is—or should be—a collaborative process, even when the ghostwriter is responsible for generating most of the original content. While doubtless each experienced ghostwriter has their own style and methodology, I have found that four related attributes are essential for an effective ghostwriter-author relationship and producing the best piece of work.


Quality information is of course essential to expressing what the client has to say. It isn’t, however, always forthcoming, especially when probing emotionally explosive places. How comfortable and open the client is in those sensitive situations often depends on the author-writer dynamic, which in turn implicates trust. Does the client fear embarrassment or that the writer may judge them if certain things are disclosed?

Take for example a client who once abandoned her children for a period to address certain life challenges, which many might find selfish, at least on the surface. On a personal level, a ghostwriter might negatively react to what the client recounts, which if unfiltered could skew what questions are asked, how they are asked, want information is obtained, and what is written. The challenge is focusing on why the client acted the way she did and what she felt at the time, to understand, not judge, and demonstrate empathy, so the subject matter can be properly and fairly addressed from her perspective.

I routinely tell clients that putting information on the table doesn’t mean it will find its way into the final manuscript version. That decision can wait further development of the writing. For process purposes, transparency is the goal, a touchstone that produces a deeper understanding of the client, reveals meaningful detail, and arms the writer with tools to perform effectively. Trust between writer and client is essential for that to happen.


Fundamental to all human discourse, listening skills in the ghostwriting realm are critical for obtaining what is needed for a stellar writing job and building a thriving interpersonal connection. Ghostwriters typically come into these projects with a game plan for how author and writer should work together each step of the way, including how to generate content. The risk is being wedded to game plan and style, thus inhibiting the organic quality of the collaborative process. The key there is how well the writer listens to the client and flexible the writer is in adapting to what the client needs.

An acute ear distinguishes among basic information, feelings, and hidden messages. Writing clients don’t always say what they mean or what they feel. The process can intimidate them or at a minimum, it is unfamiliar turf. Tone and delivery and body language can tell you more than the accompanying words. Some call it reading between the lines. I say it’s paying close attention.

Listening well means not only creating an environment in which the client is affirmed and feels safe, but also using what you hear to navigate the process as it naturally evolves. It can be what makes the difference in a successful project.

Writing Voice

Probably the greatest ghostwriting challenge is capturing the voice of the client in the written work. Ideally, each project of a ghostwriter should display a different voice, unique to the specific client. How is that voice found? It is helpful when written materials already exist, e.g., blogs, interviews, notes, or chapter drafts. And how the client speaks also provides insight. But nailing client voice is not simply a matter of vocabulary or natural expressions. Fundamentally, it entails personal sensibilities and attitude. Do you get your client? Do you know who they are?

It is a learning process for the writer, involving trial and error over the long haul. I’d venture that every ghostwriter has at one time heard the equivalent of “but that doesn’t sound like me.”

In a true crime memoir that I co-authored as ghostwriter, telling the client’s story as it deserved to be told depended on how well I understood her and what made her tick and could relate to her personal pain and frustration with the criminal justice system. Her soul had to shape the narrative in an unmistakable way. I had to try to see the world from her heart, mindful I naturally would face limits in how well aligned we could become, but that it was an underlying constant.

Clients hire ghostwriters to tell their stories in ways they cannot, which provides the writer a fair amount of leeway, so long as the voice of the client is what readers get in the end.

Parking the Ego

When it comes to writing and publishing, experienced ghostwriters pretty much know the lay of the land. They understand what makes compelling content and the vagaries of the literary market. Their input on narrative content and its potential market reception can be invaluable. After all, we are hired for our expertise, and it is second nature to take control of the process in a manner we believe serves the client best.

Clients, however, might have a different take and push back on certain approaches. When that occurs, it is critical to keep in mind that at the end of the day the ghostwriter is there to serve. The decisions are the clients to make. Ghostwriters will naturally provide points of view, even passionately, but it is up to the client whether to embrace them or not. True, it can be frustrating when you think the client is making a mistake. But that is their prerogative. Ghostwriters have done their job when they provide the best of their advice and work product. The rest is up to the client. It is their book, not ours.

During my career as a business litigation and trial attorney, I had a motto I strived to honor each day: “Every client is the only client.” Whether it was a Fortune 100 client or a pro bono client at the other end of economic spectrum, I wanted to adhere to the same exacting standards of service and allegiance. While not always easy, it became a barometer for how to perform as a professional. The same mindset applies to ghostwriting. No matter how ghostwriters approach their craft, the unwavering and governing principle should be to serve the client, regardless of how knowledgeable or situated they are, doing what you can to help them meet the goals they set for themselves.

About the Author

Michael J. Coffino

Before becoming a full-time author, ghostwriter, and editor, Michael had two parallel careers: one in the courtroom and the other in the gymnasium. He was a business litigation and trial attorney and legal writing instructor for four decades and concurrently devoted twenty-five years as a basketball coach, primarily at the high school level. Since 2016, he has authored or co-authored eight published works, including Truth Is in the House, his debut novel. He is working on his next work of fiction.

As a young boy in the late 1950s, Jimmy O’Farrell emigrates with his family from Ireland to Manhattan to bask in the dawn of a new life. Thousands of miles away, the family of Jaylen Jackson seeks to build a life amid Jim Crow culture in Mississippi. As teenagers, both boys struggle to come of age in a racially divisive world, suffering horrific tragedies that shape their characters and life missions. Jimmy seeks to define what it means to stand for someone when the chips are down, while Jaylen embarks on a journey to gain respect beyond the color of his skin.

Fleeing the past, both families land in neighboring Bronx communities in the 1960s, where Jimmy and Jaylen’s lives first intersect, on the basketball courts and then in the Vietnam jungle. Repeatedly tested as men of different races, their friendship faces its toughest challenge outside a Bronx bar-with fatal consequences. Truth Is in the House is an epic and provocative tale that plumbs historical and modern racial themes and explores redemption, forgiveness, and the power of connecting through the human spirit.

  • Tracy Crump

    Great article, Micheal. I’m glad you made the point that ghostwriters are there to serve the clients and preserve their voices. The closest I came to ghostwriting was working closely with a client to edit her true crime book, and it wasn’t easy. Very intense. I highly respect good ghostwriters.

    • Michael J. Coffino

      Thanks Tracy. It is easy to lose sight of the service role. It is instinctual for a ghostwriter to take control over the process and, in many respects, that is fine. But it is essential to stay mindful that in the end we are advancing the client’s interests.

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