I have in the past written and spoken about what I believe are the keys to being an effective collaborative writer, aka a “ghostwriter.” They include crafting the client writing voice; building trust within the collaborative relationship; knowing how to ask, when to ask, and when not to ask a question; and, not the least, never wavering from the mindset that ghostwriters are in the service business.
Add to that list, active listening skills and habits. They are critical tools for obtaining the information needed to do a stellar writing job and build a thriving interpersonal connection.
It is not unusual for ghostwriters to have the urge to dictate how the writing process should play out, whether it is structuring or expressing content or selecting which anecdotes or segments to include and which should topple to the cutting room floor. We are the experts, and it is natural to want to take control. We got this.
But we must be careful in our eagerness, despite how much we champ at the bit to grab the reins and mold the project into our image. It is a professional tendency, that while well-intentioned, can overshadow the client and repress the process. It should yield to allowing the process to unfold organically. That way the writer is afforded a more in depth understanding of the client and narrative content. There is a time and a place.
Listening skills are of course fundamental to all human discourse. In the ghostwriting realm, it can take various forms.
At the threshold, don’t frontload questions. Allow the client to gain a ballast and feel safe. There will be plenty of time to ask everything you need or want to ask. Give the client the room and encouragement to reveal themselves early and often. No matter what form it takes, it will heighten the personal connection essential to beautiful collaborative writing and produce the best available information.
Strive with an acute ear to distinguish among content, feelings, and hidden messages. Writing clients don’t always say what they mean or what they feel. The process can challenge them, particularly when the subject matter penetrates close to the bone. Tone and delivery and body language can tell you more than the words that accompany them. Some call it reading between the lines. I’d say it’s paying close attention. Eye contact helps too.
Consider this hypothetical:
Writer: “How about I interview members of your immediate family for the book?”
Client: “No, I don’t want them involved.”
Writer # 1: “Well, I think you should consider the value they can provide for the story. You don’t have to use the information ultimately, but we’ll miss great opportunities if we don’t ask. It could be a mistake not to ask.”
Writer # 2: “Okay. I appreciate that, and we don’t have to go there if you don’t want. Curious, though, do you mind telling me why you feel that way?”
The first response tells the client the writer knows better and wants to control the process, potentially damaging the relationship. That writer wasn’t listening well. The second response affirms the client’s feelings and honors what the question brought up in the client, laying the groundwork for a symbiotic relationship and keeping alive the possibility that the now closed door might swing open down the line.
In other situations, an unanticipated word in an answer might hold the promise of a new line of inquiry. You assumed one thing, and the answer came out a little differently, while you are poised for the next question in line. Better to listen carefully and follow up on what you heard. Dig a little. Give life to the unknown and see where it leads. You can always revert to the prepared agenda.
Apropos of an earlier comment, sometimes content doesn’t matter. Sometimes it is best to lean back and let the client emote. Say nothing or little. Be all ears—and sometimes all heart. Vital in those moments is nurturing the comfort clients feel to let it all hang out in front of you. I have often collaborated with clients who needed a good cry, as they confronted painful parts of their story. One told me, after stammering mid-sentence, choking up, and then shedding tears, “I didn’t realize until now that this stuff still had a hold on me. I thought I was well past it. Apparently, I’m not.” We took a break and resumed ten minutes later. I never said a word other than, “I understand.”
And when you get valuable information, especially material you know implicitly the client values, stay with what you heard, repeat and reaffirm it, making sure you got it correctly and that the client knows you appreciate its rightful place in their journey. The client will convey in some manner, often through non-verbal signs, how much they value what they told you.
Listening well means, at bottom, creating an environment in which the client knows they are understood, appreciated, unjudged, and safe, where they trust they are in the capable and empathetic hands of a caring and loyal professional. It can be what makes the difference in a successful project.