Seasoned ghostwriters know a secret: Writing is the easy part.
It’s everything else—from researching to revising—which consumes most of our time.
The one thing that would dramatically reduce our labor is the one thing we’re often reluctant to do. Lest we be perceived as overly inquisitive or insufficiently independent, we hesitate to ask a critical question upfront: “How many people will need to approve this text?”
These nine simple words matter, because the more people you have to please, the more your writing will become a game of Whac-a-Mole.
Some common problems you might face include:
- Two principals give you contradictory edits. How will you be expected to reconcile them?
- What if late-stage reviewer makes a request that leads you astray from the original agreed-upon vision?
- What if you can’t proceed without hearing back from Elaine, who doesn’t respond to emails?
Without knowing the universe of approvers, you won’t be able to distinguish between notes that are merely advisory and notes that are gospel.
Let’s say your client tells you he wants his COO, CFO, and CMO to weigh in. Your next question should be, “If I get conflicting guidance, would you like me to make an executive decision? If not, who should I ask to arbitrate?”
Here, your question serves a different purpose: It shows that you’ve thought deeply about your work as a collaborative process. Just by raising the issue, you’re educating your client about details he likely hasn’t considered. That’s why we consultants are hired: To make clients smarter.
Another question you might want to broach is who is responsible for collecting feedback. It’s often more effective and acceptable for a coworker to nudge a tardy colleague, remind him to use track changes, and point out that he’s working off an old version, than it is for you, an outsider, to wade into those minefields.
Still, it is important to be prepared. Sometimes, the answer will be, “Um, isn’t that why we hired you?” Sometimes actions won’t follow promises. Maybe the CMO prefers Google Docs to Microsoft Word. Maybe the COO prefers to provide feedback via the phone. Maybe the CFO prefers to send you her feedback directly.
Ghostwriting for a committee can be fraught, so the more conditions you can clarify at the outset, the less red tape will trip you up farther down the road.
One last word of advice: If, during your initial conversations you get the sense that you’ll encounter too many approvers, protect yourself with a powerful tactic: Limit the number of rounds of revisions. In your contract, stipulate that you’ll provide a set number of drafts. If your client wants more, negotiate a higher price.
That doesn’t make you a jerk. It makes you a good businessperson.
The longer you delay to ask big questions, the more you undermine your client’s confidence in your competence. You can be flexible later, but you can’t start imposing terms after the fact.