The Beginner’s Guide to Ghostwriting: Prep work, Interview Questions and More

Ghostwriting (writing a piece of content on behalf of the author) is an age-old practice. A century ago, Harry Houdini hired a ghostwriter to pen a series of fictionalized short stories for him. Today, celebrities continue to use ghostwriters for everything from songs to memoirs, while politicians use (or at the very least, consult with) them to write impactful speeches. Whether you realize it or not, ghostwriting is happening everywhere.

The author is someone who has brilliant ideas but may not have the time or expertise to convey their vision. Meanwhile, the writer possesses a unique and coveted skill: to seamlessly step into the person’s voice and style to write high-quality, amazing content that appeals to their target audience and positively positions them. With nearly a decade of ghostwriting experience, I can say this is a craft that must be honed and continually refined.

I have ghostwritten for countless people across enterprises that solicit my services, from lower-level employees to C-level executives. Not just anyone can do it, but it’s 100% worth it if you can find someone who’s the real deal. Blogging drives organic traffic to your site, helps search engines index your pages for relevant industry keywords, builds trust with visitors and ideally converts them into customers, and educates visitors about your industry/business/products/services. Companies with effective ghostwriting can pump out more high-quality, credible content to see a tenfold increase in these results.

Having said that, you might first want to try your hand at having someone internally ghostwrite for your organization. You may not be able to justify the costs of a top-tier ghostwriter, or perhaps you don’t trust an outsider with intimately writing for your key decision-makers. Whatever the case, you’re going to need some help getting started. Here’s a beginner’s guide to the end-to-end process of ghostwriting blogs…

Prep work

There are many things that should be done before having that first call or in-person meeting, but a few specific things need to be done. It’s impossible to condense a decade of ghostwriting experience into one blog, so here are the quick and dirty tips to know:

  • Read previously published pieces of content from the author (actually written by them, not ghostwritten) if available. As a contractor, my clients usually aggregate this information and send to me ahead of the call. If you’re a full-time employee, I imagine you might be expected to do this research on your own. Comb through these articles to identify the tone and style of the author’s writing (here are 155 words to describe an author’s tone). See if you can also pick out any “isms” that the author has. For example, if they like to say a certain phrase or if they tend to open their blogs with a question. Write down your observations, you’ll use them in your questions later on.

  • Research the author to learn as much as you can about his or her personal interests, hobbies, passions and work experience. For example, check out their LinkedIn bio and read the last 3-5 posts they shared. What was the topic of the last article they re-shared, and did they write any personal thoughts on the subject?

  • Research the topic of the blog as thoroughly as needed to confidently go into the interview. Again, my clients usually share a few links with me prior to the discussion (company blogs, research reports, articles they like from popular publications). If you’re expected to find your own sources, try asking the author (or their assistant, colleague or whoever is your direct contact for the project) if they can recommend a couple websites they regularly go to or are inspired by for content (i.e. Forbes, CIO). Study these sites to get a sense of the writing style/structure.

The interview

Below are 16 questions designed specifically for the first interview with the author. This number of questions will naturally lessen as time goes on and you get to know each other better. For executives I have been ghostwriting for for years, I’m able to hop on a 15-minute call, ask 3-4 questions and be done.

  1. Tell me a bit about yourself: where are you from? What are your personal interests, hobbies, passions? Work experience? If you found anything in your prep work, mention it. For example, “I saw in your LinkedIn bio that you enjoy mountain biking.” This will help loosen them up and break the ice.

  2. Describe yourself in 5 words.

  3. Who are some people you are a fan of? Who inspires you? Why?

  4. Tell me about your history and involvement with [COMPANY]. What led you to the company?

  5. In your own words, what is [COMPANY]’s mission and core values?

  6. Before we dive in, tell me: how do you want this article to stand out from the many others on the topic?

  7. Pretend I know nothing about [BLOG TOPIC]. How would you describe it in a nutshell? What’s the issue, what’s causing it, and what are the implications?

  8. Is there a personal story or analogy you can share to demonstrate this? This is helpful for getting readers personally/emotionally invested (going beyond just stating facts or regurgitating what they may already know). It also helps showcase brand personality. Or, conversely, would you prefer to stay away from these kinds of things and get straight into the meat of it? Some people consider these kinds of personal tidbits “fluff.” Don’t assume you know which approach they’d prefer.

  9. So, we’ve discussed the issue and the implications. What’s the solution, and what are the roadblocks/challenges? This would be a good place to organically weave in key talking points on the company’s value/offerings without being overtly promotional.

  10. Can you provide a specific example that illustrates one of these roadblocks/challenges?

  11. What is the key takeaway you want readers to have from this article? If they could walk away remembering or knowing one thing, what would it be?

  12. What’s one thing readers can practically do after finishing this article to start improving/adjusting?

  13. Who is the intended audience for this article, and what is the action you want them to take after reading this related to [COMPANY]? For example: visit your website, continue the conversation with a team member?

  14. I read a couple blogs you previously wrote. Based on these, I’d describe your writing style as XXXX. Would you say this is an accurate description? You may not be able to ask if you don’t have any previous writing examples. Instead, just ask outright what they’d like their tone/style to be.

  15. Is there anything you’d like to see in your writing that currently isn’t there? For example, more wit or humor?

  16. Is there anything specific about the way you talk or write that I should be aware of? I call these “isms.” These can be difficult to identify or be aware of, so no worries if you can’t think of any off the top of your head. Feel free to point them out when you read the first draft as it will help me moving forward.

Final tips

You’ve done the prep work and you’ve conducted the interview. Now comes the hard part. Here are my parting tips as you start putting words to paper:

  • Don’t be afraid to embellish. The author isn’t going to say everything perfectly in the interview. In most cases, they know what they’re trying to say, and they won’t be offended if you fill in the gaps. For example, if the author says a good quote but it could be made great by just tweaking a couple things or adding a few words, do it.

  • Prioritize details, and don’t be afraid to leave room for missing info. For example, if the author recalls an event but can’t remember the year or the exact number of people who attended, write something along the lines of: “The Houston-based event, which took place in XXX, attracted XX attendees from across the world.” Then, write a comment for that sentence asking the author to please fill in when they have the information. You don’t have to have everything figured out right away.

  • Do NOT copy and paste information said by the author word for word into the blog. The goal of ghostwriting is to take what the author gives you and form it into a cohesive, readable, personalized, and engaging narrative. Having said this, the author might present information in a timeline that’s out of order, or you might not have gotten to the premise of the blog--the major point you’re trying to make--until the end of your conversation. It’s your job to identify these things and flesh them out in the final product. This is where the magic happens; something that can only be understood with loads of time and experience. This is where you harness your writing superpowers, use your creative liberties, and produce something that’s truly extraordinary. This, I simply can’t teach.

Best of luck with your ghostwriting strategy! If you want to learn more or are on the hunt for an outside ghostwriter, feel free to reach out.