Guest Post: Do You Need a Ghostwriter or Developmental Editor?

By Brooke Turbyfill

So you want to write a book. And you actually told someone? That’s a terrific decision. But what now?

A pivotal next step is to determine why you want to write a book.

“Wait! You don’t want me to share my ideas list with you?”

Nope.

“But what if I have nothing good to say?”

Why Are You Writing?

If you understand the why behind your book, you will have something incredible to say. Too many authors just dive in without really understanding — or even exploring — why they’re bothering to write a book.

To be fair, it’s easy to do. Authors receive so much critique, it’s easy to lose their cool when it comes to the audacious goal of writing a full-length book. Still, recognizing the deeper reasons behind your book are crucial to

  • Finding your reader
  • Recognizing what your reader wants
  • Deciding on fiction vs. nonfiction
  • Tackling your ideas list to narrow it down
  • Enjoying the process, regardless of the outcome

You might want to write a book because you set a goal as a child or as a teen. That’s awesome, but why is that appealing? Many writers find solid incomes or satisfaction from writing shorter pieces. Look at Substack to find them. Authors such as Leslie Stephens and Eddie Yoon have found incredible success because they started out writing articles and later progressed to books.

So my biggest piece of advice is first to figure out why you’re writing. That’s going to shape all the questions that a developmental editor would ask.

However, just because you understand your “why” and you have chosen which idea you’d like to pursue for your book, you are not yet ready for a developmental editor.

What’s a Developmental Editor?

The primary differentiator between a developmental editor and a ghostwriter is a finished manuscript.

Would you be able to find a developmental editor to help you with an unfinished manuscript? Possibly. But by and large, most developmental editors won’t even discuss a project that isn’t complete. This is not because the editor expects to do very little work. It’s also not because he or she will just give your manuscript a copy edit and call it a day.

No, a good developmental editor will give you a big-picture view of your finished manuscript. He or she will either do a simple assessment or write you a longer evaluative letter. The options just depend on who you hire.

A simple assessment may be two to three pages. It will highlight areas where your writing needs to be strengthened overall, but it will not serve as a copy edit and show you how to strengthen them. (That’s usually reserved for the longer evaluative letter, but even then, it’s at the structural level — not the line-by-line level that a copy editor will evaluate.) An assessment will also state the case for why your book needs a sharper focus, a more marketable premise, or a structure that works.

An evaluative letter, on the other hand, will occupy more space. The developmental editor will give you specifics about where your writing is weak, how your plot could be more effective, and if your story arc is missing a crucial element. Yet no developmental editor wants to see a writer tuck his or her tail and run. Whether your editor gives you an assessment or a letter, he or she only wants one thing: to bring this particular project into a narrower focus so that you can see where you’re headed and what work lies ahead.

Many people think of developmental editors as editors who coach a writer through his or her book-writing process. That’s actually not true. If you want someone to guide you as you write your manuscript, you should opt for a coach. Coaching and editing are two different skills, and they’re definitely two different time constraints.

Whether you are ready for a developmental editor or your next step is hiring a book coach, make sure to do your homework and find out what his or her credentials are. But don’t stop there.

Finding a “Just Right” Developmental Editor

It is important to think through what your developmental editor’s background is in, specifically as it relates to genre. If the editor has tons of credibility but has never worked in the children’s market and you have written a children’s book, no amount of accolades and reviews will change the fact that he or she has no experience in the market where you’re hoping to get published.

Another thing to take into account is the editor’s reading interests. It seems like an odd thing to track what someone else reads for fun. If you want to hire a developmental editor who has only worked in adult nonfiction but he or she happens to enjoy reading middle grade fiction, I would not discount the editor right away. Your middle grade novel may be in excellent hands simply because the editor is widely read in your genre.

All developmental editors have different kinds of experience, but not all developmental editors need to have worked for an in-house publisher in order to be good at what they do.

There are tons of freelancers out there who are amazing editors. Check out the Editorial Freelancers Association to find one, or ask other friends who are authors. Referrals are generally how editors build their client list. Authors want to work with someone who has a great reputation.

Why You Might Need a Ghostwriter

What would steer you away from a developmental editor toward a ghostwriter?

First and foremost, if you do not have a manuscript ready, you are not ready for a developmental editor. Second, though, is time.

Many people want to write a book, but the reality is that writing a book takes time and commitment. Most authors generate a minimum of three drafts, often numbering drafts in the teens before seeing their first book published.

So if you have an authentic story that you know needs to be told, but you don’t have time to write it, that is where you may want a ghostwriter to step in and guide you.

What’s a Ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter’s primary job is to ask you many of the questions that an agent or a developmental editor would want to know:

  • Who are you writing this for, and in what ways do you envision this book serving your reader?
  • Do you want to publish traditionally or self-publish?
  • If you had to refine your book’s purpose or message into one sentence, could you? What would it say?

These are just the beginning. A ghostwriter will not only help you identify your audience and tailor your message to the reader, but he or she will also get to know you, learn about your speech and mannerisms, and discover, for example, your affinity for old-world books vs. modern spins on classics.

Working with a ghostwriter can be a much lengthier process than working with a developmental editor (not always, but often). The decision to hire a ghostwriter is sort of like a busy chef who climbs the ladder because of his delicious, innovative cuisine.

However, once the chef hits “the big time,” he is offered a franchise deal for his restaurant and then partners with another chef to concept a whole new restaurant. Soon, he realizes that he no longer has time to be the actual chef behind the line each night.

So he hires an executive chef to oversee his recipes, and his time is freed up for other pursuits. Does he still get back in the kitchen and cook when his schedule allows? Sure, but by and large, his restaurant’s executive chef is taking his philosophy of food and designing a menu that fits underneath it.

A ghostwriter is like that executive chef. She knows what you like, whether you pronounce syrup with a “u” or an “i,” and she understands where your restaurant —er, book— is headed.

Hiring a ghostwriter is expensive. You’re hiring someone to research, to interview you multiple times, and to structure and write your book. It’s a ton of work!

But if you are a busy professional, you are in higher education, or you run a nonprofit, the reality is that you don’t have time to wear any additional hats. Your ghostwriter will very often become a friend by the end of working with her because she has had so many Zoom calls with you, she knows what time you eat dinner, and whether it’s okay to call you after 10 p.m. or not. Working with a ghostwriter can be a fun, collaborative process if you don’t mind the back and forth that it requires. You can’t expect to simply hand off your notes to a ghostwriter, wish her well, and then go about your day-to-day tasks.

A ghostwriter-author relationship is a partnership that needs nurturing and requires vulnerability and availability. So while you may not have time to write the actual book itself, you should have some spare time to offer your ghostwriter on a regular basis. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a very flat, underdeveloped manuscript.

Finding a “Just Right” Ghostwriter

What should you look for when hiring a ghostwriter?

First, look for a ghostwriter who has written in the same genre as your book idea. If you hire someone who has only worked with nonprofit leaders, and you need to hire a ghostwriter for a fiction adult thriller, it may not be the best fit.

Second, ask the ghostwriter what his or her process is.  Every ghostwriter has a different way of working, and you’ll want to make sure that your idea of collaboration lines up with his or her idea of it.

Third, get into the details. What kind of schedule does the ghostwriter keep? Does he or she work on more than one project at a time? Or will you be the only project during that season? Will your ghostwriter be calling you multiple times a week, or does he or she schedule calls a few weeks in advance and give you a written rundown of assignments to complete before each call?

If you are a highly organized person, working with a ghostwriter who likes to work on a more flexible schedule will be difficult.

So find the ghostwriter who works like you do.

Finally, the ghostwriter’s personality means something. If you are an all-business personality who likes to envision a task and get the job done, you may not want to go with someone who is motivated by fun and who takes a more relational approach to everything.

Conversely, if you want a ghostwriter who will go with you on a zany journey through a busy lifestyle with humor and wit, make sure your ghostwriter actually has a similar sense of humor. You’ll be spending a lot of time with him or her, so you may as well enjoy each other’s company.

Brooke Turbyfill is a copy editor with 20-plus years of experience and a nonfiction ghostwriter who enjoys working with authors, CEOs and nonprofit leaders. You can read her Substack newsletter for authors — On Stories — and find her online at www.brooketurbyfill.com. Follow her on instagram @brooke_turbyfill or at https://twitter.com/TurbyfillBrooke.

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