Revision Hell: A case study for disaster

Richard Lowe, Jr. is a bestselling author who has published 63 books, ghostwritten 12 books, and produced several hundred articles for blogs and publications. He is the owner and senior writer of The Writing King, which provides services such as ghostwriting, book coaching, WordPress implementation, blogging and copywriting. Richard is also a senior LinkedIn branding specialist and has written over 150 LinkedIn profiles.

Revision Hell: A case study for disaster

By Richard Lowe

Do you ever look back on something you’ve done, a project perhaps, that went totally wrong? Did you ever find yourself in the middle of a disaster and feel like everything was spinning out of control?

Well, the first time I wrote a book as a ghostwriter, I found myself in one of those situations, where it seemed that everything that could go wrong went wrong.

In ghostwriting, I have found the point at which things tend to blow up is when the book is completed and comes back for revisions.

If you’re a ghostwriter, I’m sure you’ve been there. You’ve been working hard on a book, interviewing the client, researching like crazy, writing page after page, and even checking back with them to make sure everything is acceptable as you go.

Unless they’re carefully managed, clients can be very deceiving during a ghostwriting project. Of course, that’s not intentional. They’re not actually trying to do anything wrong, they just don’t understand the importance of reviewing the chapters of the book as they are written.

Let me tell you, briefly, about my first ghostwriting project. I accepted the project as a contractor to a small ghostwriting company in the local area. I think I was paid about a thousand bucks to write a book consisting of 10 chapters, or about 200 pages. Yeah, I know, petty cash. But I was just getting into the field, I felt I needed the experience, and I didn’t know any better.

After writing five chapters – about half the book – I felt pretty good about what I’d written. The client was an Afghani politician, and I worked hard to capture his voice and point of view. I researched heavily and captured the cultural and religious significance surrounding the events that he went through.

This was an exceptionally tough project, especially considering that it was my very first one. There was a language barrier – even though the client spoke relatively good English, his accent was extremely thick and it was difficult to understand what he was talking about, especially on recordings. The project had been started by a previous ghostwriter who walked out after a few chapters, leaving incomprehensible notes and no recordings of the interviews. Finally, the availability of the client was low, because he was traveling constantly.

Nonetheless, our client accepted the first half of the book, or at least so it appeared. Quite some time went by, and I kept trying to schedule interviews so I could get the second half of the book completed but for some reason we could never hook up.

About a month after delivering the first five chapters, the phase of the project that I call “revision Hell” began.

I started receiving random emails about things in the book that needed to be changed. Normally, I would’ve expected to receive a chapter at a time, but that’s not the way it worked in this instance.

The first email found a problem with the third chapter. The client didn’t like the way his friend was presented on an airplane. A few days later, another email pointed out several dozen faults in the first chapter, and a few days after that there were further changes to the third chapter along with a list of errors throughout the first, second and fourth chapters.

This continued for over a month. As you can imagine, I was getting pretty tired of the situation. I was, after all, only getting paid $1,000 to write an entire book.

I discussed this with my boss, the owner of the ghostwriting company, and asked him what the contract said about revisions. As it turned out, the only thing that the contract specified was how payment was supposed to work and limits to liability. There were no other terms and conditions at all.

After two months the project settled down, and I finally began to believe that we were nearing the end.

That is, until the final email came, in which the client stated that he wanted all five chapters completely rewritten because his cousin didn’t like anything he’d read.

At that point, I decided that enough was enough, and left the project.

This is an extreme case, but every ghostwriting project goes through some variation of the revision process.

How do you keep it under control?

The most important step is to define the revision terms in your contract or statement of work. All my contracts specify that chapters will be sent to the client one at a time and they are allowed two revisions to those chapters as they are sent.

Additionally, the contract allows for a full pass through the entire document for revisions after the book is complete.

Any revisions above and beyond that are outside the scope of work, and are done at an hourly rate, which is also specified in the contract.

My contracts also contain clauses that require between 25% and 50% upfront, and state that that amount is nonrefundable for any reason. Additionally, a clause states that either party may leave the project at any time.

Before the contract is signed, I make a point to have a discussion with the client about all the terms. We go over each item one by one to make sure that were both in agreement. That discussion is recorded with the permission of the client.

At this point, in theory, we have an agreement about how revisions (and the rest of the project) are supposed to work.

Of course, that agreement lasts until the client wants to make some changes that are not covered under the contract. In one case, three chapters in of a 12-chapter book, the client decided he wanted to change it from third person to first person point of view.

This leads to the most difficult decision for most contractors of all types, including ghostwriters. The change requested by the client is obviously out of scope. Now you must make a decision: who pays for that change?

Strictly speaking, the client should always pay for changes, but that rarely, if ever, works out. If you try to nickel and dime them for every single deviation then you’ll soon find yourself out of a job.

The key here is to communicate with your client. If you’re going to give them a change without charge, you must let them know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and that it’s an exception. Just as important, you must document that in a change log.

This is vital, because otherwise you will find yourself losing money on the project due to scope creep. That’s a term from the computer industry that means the scope of the project changed slowly over time until it’s well beyond what was contracted.

What it boils down to is a question of give-and-take. Sometimes you give a little to the client, and sometimes you don’t. It’s best to give them a few small things, and clamp down on the larger changes. That way you don’t come off as Mr. Scrooge or as being unreasonable.

In conclusion, a ghostwriting project is like any other project. Your client accepts your bid, which is probably less than you want, and you’ve calculated it so that you believe you’ll make a profit on that amount.

It’s vital for your own survival as a freelancer to keep change under control or you’ll find yourself losing money or being stuck in a project that never seems to end. In those cases, neither you nor the client is going to be happy with the result.

Keeping change under control will result in satisfied clients, for the most part, who are happy to give you references, testimonials, and will refer you to others.



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Marcia Layton Turner


  1. Carolyn on February 1, 2020 at 3:12 am

    Can you give a sample of the verbiage you use to define the revisions?

    • Marcia Layton Turner on February 1, 2020 at 3:51 am

      Carolyn, feel free to reach out to Richard Lowe directly at his website to get his recommendation.

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