A few weeks ago, I got a book through the post. Nothing unusual about that. But once I realised which book this was, I pulled the packaging apart with more than my usual gusto. Which, given that it was a sturdy business book with lots of graphs, boxed information panels, Venn diagrams, a wide range of different fonts and a plethora of bullet points, was out of character. So what made it of such particular interest to me?
You’ve guessed it: I helped to write it. Or rather, I helped the author to write it. Apart from doing a book from scratch, which is what people normally expect ghostwriters to do, we also assist people who have already – or would like to have – written their own book but feel the need of a bit of professional support and advice to see it through to completion. This is loosely called ‘editing’, but there are varying degrees of involvement from ‘invisible mending’ – light tidy-up of a manuscript before it is sent off to the publisher – to what I think of as a ‘heavy edit’. This can extend to a total restructuring of the book and often requires as much work as writing the whole thing from the start. It’s a bit like taking on a building project which hasn’t quite gone to plan.
My prospective client, as she was then, rang just as I’d taken a mouthful of my late breakfast. In my own defence, she was a little late making the call, but it could have been a bad start. However as we both ended up laughing, it was a good start. Her project had already reached the manuscript stage, and there was a publisher waiting for the finished text with a view to publication in a matter of months. The text contained a wealth of knowledge and experience in the client’s particular field, but something told her it wasn’t ‘there’ yet.
I said I’d have to look at it before I could assess what was needed, and she sent it over – nearly three hundred pages of it. And she was right; it wasn’t right. But was I the right person to put it right? This wasn’t my field at all. But sometimes not knowing things can be helpful.
I could see at a glance that the book could be more reader-friendly, and after a final discussion we agreed to go ahead, with me throwing out ideas as to how it could be a more successful reading experience.
We agreed to restructure it. The opening chapter just didn’t seem the right entry point. It’s one of my mantras: every author starts with the huge privilege of the reader’s attention. But lose that and you never get it back. So every book, whatever the genre, whatever the target audience, has to start by engaging the reader, setting out its stall, making us want to read on and keep reading.
A book also has to feel relevant. There are a lot of business books out there. This one had to stand out. One thing was apparent: we had to set the wisdom, experience and guidance on offer in the context of the pandemic, rather than assuming Covid would soon be under control and destined to become a distant memory. As we can see clearly now, that is not going to happen, and living with Covid is going to impact all aspects of life, particularly business. This book would be the first in its field to be published post-pandemic, so we had to view that as a potential advantage, not a handicap: a new guide to a new world.
But there was something else I felt the book needed. There were references to the client’s personal experiences with her customers over the years. Some of these were clearly highly stressful, not to say dramatic. I thought it would be helpful if they could be expanded and fleshed out a bit. This meant more writing for someone who had already written an awful lot of words already, but she agreed to give it a go.
I waited for the outcome, not knowing what to expect. But when the first example of what we ended up calling her ‘homework’ came through, I was delighted. It was lively, interesting – gripping even – and certainly illustrative of points made in the text. The client was pleased and surprised as well, and ended up writing over half a dozen really engaging inserts built on personal experience.
Of course, these pieces then had to be fitted into the body of the book, so that made extra work for both of us. But as we hurtled towards the deadline, working longer and longer hours, sending revised and re-revised chapters to and fro, there was a strong feeling of common purpose. When it came to the last weekend before scheduled submission on the Monday, we both worked very long shifts but got it over the finishing line.
There was a lot more to be done, of course. The publishers took over, re-edited, designed it – the usual process. Which is why I was so keen to see what they had made of it. And it looked fabulous. The design was great, as were the illustrations that were new to me. The personal stories also looked fine, set slightly apart and highlighted with a light grey background. I turned the pages with a gentle glow of satisfaction – which is the perfect reward for doing your job.