There are thousands of business and self-help books that coach the reader on how to communicate. A less obvious but also important attribute is the ability to listen. It is a discipline one has to learn as a ghostwriter, and one of the most important. You’re telling someone else’s life, not your own.
You have to wait and listen to the evidence, and never make assumptions. One discussion I had recently with a client who has faced serious discrimination concerned the tendency among humans generally, of all backgrounds, to make assumptions about groups of people in society, and deploy mental short cuts, often unthinkingly and sometimes wildly inaccurate. This tendency extends beyond the more obvious forms of discrimination, and includes assumptions about all manner of different social groups. A tell-tale phrase is ‘I bet you ….’ followed by an often stereotyped notion about a group of people of which the individual is supposedly a representative figure. For example: ‘You’re a working mum, I bet you’re always feeling guilty.’ Or: ‘You’re a young footballer, I bet you’ve never read a book.’
As well as being socially clumsy, at best, and discriminatory, at worst, such a tendency is self-defeating for anyone who genuinely wants to understand, to know more about life and the world around us and the people we meet. If in doubt about someone’s opinion, or life experience, a better policy is to inquire – and listen.
People often come to a ghostwriter because they haven’t been heard. Or if they have, it’s been at a superficial level, and they feel that they haven’t been believed, or taken seriously, or treated with respect. Some feel piqued that, having made a major contribution in a certain field, they have been written out of the scripts, or their role has been distorted or downplayed. They want their story told.
Only the client has lived the client’s life, and each life is unique. So as ghostwriters we listen, and we listen, and we listen. We take notes. The initial meetings can be long, and we ask for as much detail as the client has to hand, or can recall. We are unapologetically pedantic at times: we typically want an accurate chronology of events and as much colour and detail as possible.
Social media has encouraged the voicing of opinions to the widest possible audience, and it seems that many active participants are, as I once memorably heard it phrased, “always in Transmit mode, never Receive”. The late broadcaster Terry Wogan observed the tendency of many folk gathered around a table in a pub as not so much holding a conversation, as waiting their turn to give a speech.
This won’t do as a ghostwriter. The reward for patiently listening to someone over the course of many interviews is that we may hear some of the most remarkable stories, before putting them to print.
- Philip Whiteley is an author and ghostwriter, who pens fiction under the byline PJ Whiteley. There is more information at www.pjwhiteley.com