Tips for Developing Your Client’s Voice

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on December 13, 2013 in Ghostwriting / Books
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I’ve never been the kind of writer who makes it a point to learn a certain number of obscure words each day. There once was a time when I thought that my refusal to actively study the dictionary (as if I was going to absorb it like an underground book memorizer in Fahrenheit 451) would be a drawback in my chosen profession—but I’ve found that my focus on language in terms of communication rather than obsolete term mastery has been nothing but beneficial.

See, most people don’t talk the way you may want to write them. They aren’t grammatically correct, they pause and start three sentences at once—none of them actually going anywhere. They stutter and repeat, and they generally use regular old, boring words that you don’t have to memorize a dictionary in order to understand.

When you ghostwrite for clients, you have to capture the essence of the way your client talks. Sure you need to make it more grammatically correct and organized, but the work you create has to be recognizable as that person. Here are three basic observations that will help you better represent your client’s voice on the paper.

1. Discover their verbal tics.

Everyone has certain words that they use over and over which distinguish them from others. Some use rhetorical questions, others ask questions and answer them (think Donald Rumsfeld), and some digress often. These tendencies can arise from many things: their personality, political beliefs, educational level, background, and so on. Judiciously including these tics in your writing will make it seem more like the client wrote them. You can pick up on these tics through email, conversations and by reading anything they’ve already written.

2. Figure out where they fit on the formal to informal spectrum.

There are some clients who speak with few contractions. Others who will make up new contractions just to save time. There are some clients who answer the question of how they’re doing with a well and others who answer with a good (which is not actually wrong, by the way). There are some clients who are hip to the current slang and funny memes, and others who wouldn’t know a meme if it Impact fonted them in the face. All of these things, and more, can show you where your client falls in the spectrum of formality and that can drive many of the style decisions you make when writing for them.

3. Find your client’s goal.

You know how, in fiction, characters have to each have a goal? Because that’s what makes people want to read—to find out whether the character gets to his/her goal despite all the obstacles. In ghostwriting, you want to give your client's non-fiction work the same kind of compelling draw, so you need to understand their goal. What’s driving them to write this book, create this blog, or complete this project? And don’t stop looking for the driving force once you see the surface objective. If you have a client with a memoir, the most obvious goal is that they want to tell their story—but why do they want that? Do they want to help other people avoid making the same mistakes they did? Do they want to inspire people? Do they want to make people laugh or feel better? That overriding, deeply buried intention is going to be very important to setting the right tone to your project and communicating with a similar narrative to the one your client would use if he or she were telling the story in person.

Two added points:

  1. When you discover your client’s voice, be sure to consistently apply it across all content you write for them. Should their personal voice start to evolve with exposure and experience, allow the written voice to do the same.
  2. Everything in moderation. Your goal as a ghostwriter is to be your client’s ideal voice, not their actual voice. You are the expert in terms of what works in the content you create and what doesn’t. What will appeal to the target reader and what won’t. So give the content texture and overtones of your client, but make him or her sound even better than normal.

What are some of the ways you get into character to write like your clients?

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Yo Prinzel
Yolander Prinzel is the profit monster behind the Profitable Freelancer website. She has written for a number of publications and websites such as American Express, Covestor.com, Advisor Today, Money Smart Radio and the International Travel Insurance Journal (ITIJ). Her book, Specialty Ghostwriting: A New Way to Look at an Old Career, is currently available on Amazon.

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8 Comments

  1. Cathy Miller December 13, 2013 Reply

    Love these tips, Yo. It’s one of my favorite things about ghostwriting. I feel like I’m studying for an acting role. ;-)

    With some clients, I find it easier to walk into their voice. I have one client who I always say is a walking soundbite. He comes up with the best lines. I love working with him.

    One thing I found helpful when I have a new client is to ask if they have any recorded interviews (in this age of videos & podcasts, that’s more likely). It helps me listen & study their voice or verbal tics, as you call them.
    Cathy Miller recently posted…The SlideShare ExperimentMy Profile

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel December 13, 2013 Reply

      That is the best–it makes it so fun when a client has great quips and phrases to work with. I have a client who’s so good at coming up with titles, I’m almost jealous :) And yes–podcasts, videos, radio/TV interviews, anything that they’ve done that allows you to soak up their tics. Great points!
      Yo Prinzel recently posted…Happy Thanksgiving!My Profile

  2. Laura Spencer December 18, 2013 Reply

    Hi,

    This is great practical advice Yo.

    I especially liked, “…most people don’t talk the way you may want to write them. It’s so true and it also affects direct quotes from interviews.

    I also liked the part about determining how formal the client is. Some industries are naturally more formal.

  3. Lori December 19, 2013 Reply

    Great post, Yo.

    I use a tape recorder. When the client is particularly difficult to please or the assignment is a bit more complex, I tape the conversation. I transcribe verbatim, then go back over it and make it all fit together. In the few cases where I’ve had to do this, I’ve hit a home run.

    You’re so right about the goal — you can’t know how to present the information if you don’t know to whom they’ll be talking and what they want out of the conversation.
    Lori recently posted…Finding Your Writing VoiceMy Profile

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel January 6, 2014 Reply

      You are so right, taping and transcribing are often vital. If you use Google Voice, you can have the person call you and record it. Also, Skype does recording–I did that years ago and have since forgotten how so…this is the least helpful comment ever ;-)
      Yo Prinzel recently posted…Advisors and Agents: Write and Publish Your Book in 2014My Profile

  4. Jessie Haynes December 20, 2013 Reply

    These are some great tips – finding a ghostwriting client’s voice can be really difficult. Nonfiction projects at least. Since the majority of my work is fiction ghostwriting now, I definitely find this a lot easier. While imitating another fiction writer’s style is equally difficult, the clients are often willing to have you write the entire series. I do try and have a different voice for each client, which makes it easier to slip into this project, and then another, so it can get complicated, but I always focus on emotions and motivations. As in, what emotion should the reader get from this scene, and what motivation does the character have in this scene, and it keeps things balanced for me.
    Jessie Haynes recently posted…Kindle Publishing: Check Rank, or You’re Wasting Your TimeMy Profile

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