Do you have this impulse: a nagging, won’t-let-you-go desire to write your autobiography?
Perhaps you’ve lived the kind of life that’s inspired people to tell you time and time again that you should write a book and the idea of connecting with others through your story is incredibly appealing to you. Or maybe you’d love for your family and future generations to be able to read about your life in your own words. Or perhaps you want to put your truth, your experiences, and your reflections onto paper for no audience other than yourself.
Whatever your motivation, you are not alone.
In an increasingly fleeting online world, more and more people are drawn to creating a physical, tangible legacy in the form of a memoir or an autobiography. But all too often, would-be life writers find the process daunting and difficult, so they hire a life story ghostwriter: a professional, published freelancer who will work with them to write, and sometimes publish, their autobiography. As you might expect, the ghostwriter’s name does not appear anywhere on the finished manuscript: they write the book in first person, as you, and it’s your name on the cover.
But just how do life story tellers work with life story ghostwriters? And if you take the step of hiring a writer, what can you expect from the process?
A little note on terminology: The words memoir and autobiography have slightly different meanings. Memoirs tend to focus on a particular time or aspect of a person’s life, whereas autobiographies cover the whole of a person’s life. I use them here to mean the same thing: a life story. How you choose to tell that story is your call.
There are three main ways a life story specialist (sometimes called a personal historian) can work with you to make your book a reality: as a ghostwriter, as a guide, or as an editor. It’s a good idea to identify which approach would be best for you before you start your search for a writer.
The question you need to ask yourself is: Is it important that I write the book myself?
If you absolutely want to be the one penning the words of your story, then a ghostwriter isn’t quite what you need. Although a good ghostwriter will keep you — and your voice — at the center of the project, they will, by the very nature of their role, write your book for you.
A life story guide, on the other hand, is a person who acts as a consultant while you remain firmly in charge of the pen. They’ll work with you on a one-to-one basis, helping you to overcome any roadblocks in your writing process and your reflecting process. They’ll be happy to read drafts of your work and suggest practical ways of moving forward. This support can be one-off, but works best when it’s ongoing, and is particularly effective when it includes phone or video calling.
While a life story guide works with you to help you get the words on the page, a life story editor’s role begins once you’ve completed a draft of your book. The two roles do flow into each other, so if you’re looking to hire a consultant, you might also want to ask if they offer an editing service.
Once you have a completed draft (whether you get there alone or with the help of a guide), you may want to hire a life story editor, especially if you’re hoping to publish. The editor’s role is to ensure your story is as strong as it can be. They can either take a big-picture approach to your manuscript by looking at the structure and the flow of your story and so on, or they can look at the nuts and bolts of your writing to ensure you’re telling your story with clarity and style, or both.
But if the physical act of writing your book yourself isn’t at all important or appealing to you — in fact, not wanting to do so may be what’s stopped you from progressing with your memoir in the past — then hiring a life story ghostwriter might be the option for you.
There are two instances in which I’d definitely recommend working with a ghostwriter rather than hiring an editor or a guide. The first is if you’d love to write your life story — if only you had more time. A ghostwriter takes care of pretty much everything: all of the writing, editing, and structuring needed to tell your story; and if you choose to privately publish (and if they offer this as a service), they’ll organize and scan your photos, typeset the manuscript, design the front and back covers, and send the book to print.
Handing over the reins in this way is a really effective and swift way of moving your project forward. All you need to fit into your schedule are the interviews, and at certain stages of the project you’ll need to review and approve the work in progress.
The second instance in which working with a ghostwriter is especially useful is if you’re the kind of person who tells great stories and entertaining anecdotes, but you struggle to make the stories work when you write them down. Speech and writing are such different modes of communication. Let a ghostwriter use their skills and expertise to take your spoken reminiscences and make them come alive on the page.
Like a fiction writer, a life story ghostwriter will have a strong sense of story and an understanding of narrative. But additionally they’ll have a great ear for voice — your voice — and will ensure your story reads as if you have written every word. They’ll leave their ego at the door — this book isn’t about them, or how they can spin a beautiful sentence, it’s about you, your life, and your story.
Let’s take a closer look at how the process of working with a life story ghostwriter works.
At the center of any ghostwritten life story book is a series of recorded interviews between yourself and the ghostwriter. This is how your writer gets to know you and the life you have lived, and they use the audio they capture to write your story. The process involves much more than straightforward transcription: conversational, spoken English has to be rewritten and adapted into fluid, logical, and well-written prose.
Interviews can be carried out in person if your writer lives locally (or if travel expenses have been built into their fee), but they can be just as effective via phone or video calling. For a full life story of 40,000 words (approximately 200 pages), expect 10 to 15 hours of interview time, usually in bursts of 60 to 90 minutes, with a week or two in between each interview, or longer if your writer has sent you the work in progress to review.
It’s usual for your first interview to act as a set-up — a chance for you to tell your writer about the main chapters of your life and any turning points you’ve experienced. They’ll establish an outline of your life and use it to structure further interviews, though this plan is a flexible one that will no doubt shift as the project evolves.
Don’t worry about remembering every detail of an event or telling your story in chronological order. Though it’s likely that the interviews will move through your life from the beginning onward, the writer knows it’s impossible for you to tell your story from A to B to C. They’ll allow you to move backward and forward along your timeline as you need to, and they’ll have a huge resource of questions to call on to draw out the details of your life and memories. For example, they might ask you to describe a key scene from your childhood, who the most important person is in your life, what you’re proudest of, or how you’d like to be remembered.
In terms of timescale, 10 interviews typically take about four months to carry out. Your writer will most likely be composing your book in stages and writing up each interview before they carry out the next. Some writers will begin by transcribing the interviews and later transform them into prose, while others will write in prose from the start. This is a key part of the process for the writer and this is where their expertise as a life story ghostwriter comes into play.
Speech is informal, chatty, and has its own set of rules and conventions. During a conversation, you’ll skip around, change direction, add emphasis to something, halt one anecdote while you tell another, and the listener won’t bat an eyelid. Your writer must adapt these utterances into clear, logical, well-written sentences, while keeping an eye on the structure and flow of your story, and knowing where to place a particular memory on your timeline.
Additionally, they need to do all of this while sounding like you! A good ghostwriter will have a great ear for dialogue and expression, and they’ll listen carefully to your audios to key in on how you express yourself and any quirks in your speech. They’ll also draw on the rapport you’ll build over the time you work together and their experience of being in your company to capture your voice and character as naturally as possible.
Once the interview stage is complete, expect another month or two for the rewrites and edits, and a further month or so for the manuscript to be approved by you and privately published. So you can say that a 40,000-word book told over 10 interviews takes six to eight months to complete, but this will vary if either you or your writer has a busy schedule.
Even though you’ve hired a writer, the writing of your book is a collaborative process. It’s typical for you to view the work in progress at various stages, but when exactly these occur should be discussed before you start working together. If you’ve scheduled 10 interviews, I’d suggest that you view the manuscript after interview two has been written up and again after interviews five and eight.
Reviewing the work in progress is your chance to check that your story is being told accurately and in a style that suits you. It’s also useful for you to see what you’ve covered and in how much detail. You can return to certain moments in your life if you’d like to, or cut sections that feel less relevant when you see them on the page.
Your writer will incorporate your amendments into the manuscript, though they may query a change if they think it impairs your story in some way. Ultimately, your writer wants you to be happy with the way your story is told, and as such you have full editorial control.
Most ghostwriters who specialize in life story writing will privately publish your book as part of their service so you can share it with family and friends, both as a physical book and an e-book. But if you feel you have a story for a wider audience, you could look for a ghostwriter with experience in the publishing world and discuss this with them before you start working together. Alternatively, you can research and find an agent yourself, taking care to look for one who welcomes memoir manuscripts.
It’s the norm for a ghostwriter to hand all rights to the book over to you if you’re sharing it privately, but if they agree that you have a potential bestseller, they may want to negotiate a contract that includes royalties if the book is a success.
Unless you personally know a writer with whom you could work, an internet search will be your starting point. Begin by looking for the websites of life story writers in your area, but remember that distance doesn’t need to be a barrier, as long as you have a phone line and a good internet connection.
Draw up a shortlist of writers you’re interested in, keeping an eye out for previous experience with life story work, as well as other writing credentials. Look for those with a journalistic background or those who have won prizes for their fiction.
After you’ve narrowed down the list, read samples of the writer’s work if available online, or request some by email if not. They may not be able to share extracts of life story projects due to confidentiality, but they should be able to provide other samples. Do you like their style? If they’ve supplied more than one sample, see how they differ — do you think they’ve captured a range of voices? Do they have testimonials on their website or in their marketing materials?
If you’d really like to know if a writer can capture your voice, you could ask if they’d be happy to write a small sample specifically for you. Propose that they ask you a question or two over the phone, record your answer, and write it up. They’d be doing this free of charge, so whether they agree will depend on how full their schedule is.
Another way to find a ghostwriter is to use a freelance noticeboard such as Upwork. You can either search for ghostwriters advertising their services, or you can place an ad yourself, which involves writing a project brief, setting your budget, and waiting for the applications to come in.
It’s also important to consider your budget, but know that hiring a ghostwriter doesn’t come cheap. For every hour you spend with your ghostwriter, they’ll spend at least 10 more on the writing, editing, and creation of your book.
In terms of rates, it’s more usual for a ghostwriter to create an overall price package for your project rather than charge you by the hour, and even then there are huge differences from writer to writer. For example, Modern Memoirs (featured in the New York Times) charges a minimum of $35,000 for a ghostwritten life story. Smaller companies or individual writers will charge less (usually between $2,000 and $8,000), depending on the amount of interviews you’d like and the length your book will be.
If the price a writer quotes for a full life story seems out of reach for you, consider a shorter, more succinct memoir or look into alternative ways of recording your story: an audio book, for example. Be honest when you contact a life story writer. Say, “I have this amount to spend — would you be able to work with me, and how?”
Most writers will offer a free initial consultation — take advantage of this. As impressive as their writing may be, and as welcoming as their website might appear, you’ll be collaborating and placing trust in this person for however long it takes to write your life story, so you need to feel comfortable in their company.
Whether it’s for yourself, your family, or a wider audience, writing your life story is an incredibly empowering and fulfilling act. Taking the time to find the right writer for you will allow you to relax and enjoy the process. Before long, you’ll have your book in your hand — launch party, anyone?
After a few years working as a ghostwriter for two of the UK’s leading life story companies, Teresa founded her own life writing and editing service, Your Life Story, in 2016. She’s also a prize-winning fiction writer with work published and placed in several prestigious short story prizes, including The Bridport Prize and The Guardian Summer Reads. Teresa lives in the North of England where she enjoys stalking the neighbourhood cats, looking in people’s windows and eavesdropping. It’s all research.