If I think about it, I’m not a ghostwriter, I’m a ghost rewriter. As someone who gets paid to put words in other people’s mouths, I spend a lot of time going back and forth about what exactly those words should be. It involves a lot of revisions as I help the authors I work with – primarily consultants and corporate executives – refine their ideas and then attach the clearest, most concise language to them.
Sometimes things come together quickly and we’re good to go after a first draft and a follow-up to make minor changes. More often than not, an article or longer report will go through multiple rounds of revisions before everyone’s happy. Add multiple authors to the mix, and the revisions can climb into double digits. My record is 14 versions over almost as many months.
Because so much of what I do is rewriting, I’ve come up with some ways to deal with it.
Sleep on it.
Even the worst rewrites don’t feel as daunting after a good night’s sleep. If a request for revisions arrives late in the day, I let it sit until next morning to tackle when I’m fresh. If you open a Word doc and see only red markups and you’re not on an immediate deadline, close it, and come back to it later. Works every time.
Use Track Changes
I can’t imagine doing what I do without Track Changes, or the Google Doc equivalent. I make liberal use of Track Changes comment boxes to share background info for fact checking – just like when I work as a reporter – and to explain my rationale for writing or rewriting something a certain way. I ask collaborators to use it too, so it’s easier to see what changes they’ve made in the text.
Go from easiest to hardest.
If I’m making a lot of changes, I start with the easiest, things I don’t have to think about for more than a second, like correcting the spelling or grammar of new text that authors have added. Next, I tackle the slightly harder changes, things I need to reword or find information about in order to change. I save the hardest stuff for last – things I need to rewrite entirely. The only time I don’t work in this order is if I need to do major restructuring, which I get out of the way first and then make other changes.
Make it a game.
If I have a particularly thorny rewrite or have to work on something really long, I write the total number of pages in the draft on a notepad, and then cross each one off as I finish the rewrites on it. Somehow, crossing off the pages as I go makes the work less onerous.
Marked up text is hard to read. To get a better sense of how the final version looks, switch the document view to hide the changes. On Word, do this from the main toolbar by going to Review > Track Changes > Simple Markup.
Work with a liaison.
On projects with multiple contributors, rewrites can go sideways if people give conflicting guidance about what needs to change. To minimize that, I try to work with a point person who’s the arbiter of which change requests to make and which to ignore. Other contributors can send feedback to that person to coordinate before forwarding it to me. I say “encourage” because it doesn’t always work that way. But it’s worth asking.
Explain your work.
Some collaborators are gems. Others want to debate every change. I’ve learned over time to give explanations for why I’ve rewritten something a certain way, so my intention is clear and if the authors don’t agree, they can propose a different approach. It takes time to articulate the reason for a change, and I sometimes need to look up grammar or usage rules or consult a client’s style guide to build my case. I’ve found that collaborators appreciating knowing the reason for a change isn’t just “Because I think it sounds better.”
Ask for a call.
Sometimes it’s better to talk through rewrites, especially if collaborators are busy with other work, or it’s the only way to get multiple people to agree on changes. I try to send the latest version to reviewers in advance so they can read it and think about what they want changed – the day before is good, but even 30 or 60 minutes prior to a call can help.
Set a deadline on reviews.
If a project’s not urgent or the reviewers are slammed, a deadline of a week is not unreasonable. If it is urgent, it could be by the end of the hour, day, or in 24 to 48 hours. When all else fails, I use the okay-by-default option – if requests for rewrites aren’t in by the deadline, I assume the content is okay as is. I don’t recommend issuing ultimatums without getting prior approval from the project’s point person, so I’ve got back up should someone ask for changes after the deadline.
Build rewrites into your fee.
Most of my ghostwriting is billed by the hour, which IMHO is the best way to account for the unforeseen circumstances that can arise in this type of work. But not all clients work that way. If you’re billing by the word or at a project rate, negotiate the number of rewrites that your fee covers as part of your contract, and what you’d charge for anything over and above it. Set a time limit for reviews. There’s nothing like thinking you’ve finished a project only to be contacted three months later with comments from a senior executive who’s just getting around to reviewing it and wants a redo. Been there, done that, won’t ever do it again – because my contracts now state that I’ll do two rounds of revisions and all feedback must be received within two weeks of receipt of the near-final draft.
Michelle V. Rafter is a Portland, Oregon, business ghostwriter, chair of the 2023 #ASJACon, and member of ASJA and the organization’s Pacific Northwest Chapter.