Guest post: Ghostwriter Libby Harkness on being a ‘writer for hire’

Libby Harkness has worked as a journalist, editor and writer for over 35 years. For the last 15 years, she's also worked as a ghostwriter, writing the stories of some truly remarkable Australians. Her most recent books are The Widow: A memoir, which she wrote with Nola Duncan; and Everything to Live For, the story of Turia Pitt.

In The Widow, Libby tells the story of Nola, who discovered her husband's infidelity a year after his death. In Everything to Live For, she worked with Turia Pitt, to write the story of Pitt's final ultra-marathon race in 2011. Pitt suffered devastating burns to 65% of her body while she was competing in the race in northern Australia.

Libby now specialises in life stories and works closely with her subjects to write and publish their memoirs. In 2013, she was a guest at the first international ghostwriters conference in California. 



I am a professional full-time writer and I sell my skills as a writer to people prepared to pay for them. People hire writers for many different things e.g. brochures, speeches, company histories, business presentations, annual reports, company magazines, even to write their curriculum vitae. When I worked as a free-lance journalist I undertook a lot of this type of work.

Writer for hire
My first ghostwriting commission came by default about 15 years ago; a well-known writer pulled out of an autobiographical project because he found he could not work with the client. A mutual friend put me in touch with the client. The client was not easy but the book was written and published and I enjoyed the challenge of the process.

After this, I established my ‘writer for hire’ website adding ghostwriting as a skill. Over the years my ghostwriting work has superseded all other work and I am now considered a specialist in this area. I now have to decline several life-story writing jobs a week, unfortunately some of them I would love to have time to do.

Balancing act
As the published author of many of my own works, I’ve found writing someone else’s story very different; I have to ‘capture’ that person’s voice and expressions so that the reader will believe they are actually telling the story and at the same time create a professional manuscript. But while my own voice is sublimated, my writing style is not; it’s a balancing act.

The amount of time spent with a client when writing their story depends on several factors: a) the client; b) the length of the work and c) the complexity of the research (e.g. making sure dates, places, events are historically correct). I usually record 15 to 20 hours with the client and sometimes record other family members, friends or colleagues for colour and background. Recording is usually restricted to about two hours at a stretch as it can be very tiring, especially if the client is elderly; it is often emotional for the client as well.

The transcription is tedious but I don’t use a transcribing service as listening over and over helps get the voice right. The actual writing can take up to three months for first draft. I usually write for about five hours a day and I try to write every day, although that’s not always possible. I stay in touch with the client during the writing process but prefer to work unhindered during the first draft. Subsequent changes and additions to the manuscript may take another month and a professional edit may add more time. If the client is looking for a publisher, that is a separate process.

Who can be a ghostwriter?
I think people who are genuinely interested in other people’s lives make the best ghostwriters. For me, the most rewarding aspect of writing other people’s stories is pulling it all together and having a happy client at the end of it. I can then walk away – job well-done.
Ghostwriting is not for every writer. Sometimes you may get a cover credit on a published work but more often not, so you must be prepared to stay in the background and let someone else take the credit for what you’ve done. Two other necessary qualities a ghostwriter needs: being a good listener and empathy with the subject; it also helps not to be judgemental.

I love reading biographies and autobiographies. I have eclectic taste in fiction and enjoy women writers such as Helen Garner and Nikki Gemmell; my favourite crime writer is Michael Robotham, who lives in Sydney and once made his living as the pseudonymous (ghostwriter) author of many best-selling books on famous people.

If you're interested in writing life stories, check out our Creative Writing courses held in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Online.

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