Lessons From a Ghostwriter: How to Write in Someone Else’s Voice
‘Just be yourself’ is rubbish advice for writers. If you work for a brand, you should sound like that brand. So what’s the best way of adopting a tone of voice that’s not your own?
Ghostwriters know. They do it for a living. So we thought we’d go to them for some answers. We spoke to Becky Howard, a Sunday Times-bestselling ghostwriter and brand language expert, to learn the tricks of the trade.
First Person Trickery: It’s all About Making Connections
That’s why ghostwriters exist. When we’re reading someone’s personal story, we want to hear it in their voice, written in their words. When this is done well, it feels like they’re talking to us directly and we feel closer to them as a result.
Good ghostwriting builds human connections between the person and the reader. Brands who speak with a unique, consistent voice do the same. That feeling of ‘I know you, you’re just like me’.
Person or Brand, it’s your Language that People Connect with
Whatever your story, chances are that someone, somewhere has already said it or done it. So it’s not about needing to be completely original in what we say, it’s choosing how we say it and the words we use that sets us apart. As Becky said:
“Often, there’s a lot of cross-over when it comes to content in memoirs. Especially where there’s an element of self-help or inspirational advice, the message can be very similar. But actually, books can end up reading very differently, because the celebrities’ voices are completely different. The phrases they choose, their pace, their attitude – it all comes through in the language.”
It’s the same with brands – finding a unique voice that resonates with your customer is what people remember.
Find the Tone by Putting in the Hard Work (Then use Shortcuts)
If you’re trying to write for a person or a brand, you first need to find their tone. With people, Becky will record and transcribe interviews word for word. That way she starts to see patterns emerging: traits and ticks, sayings and phrases that makes that person’s voice recognisable.
“Once you’ve unlocked their tone, you need shortcuts to help you when you need it. For me, that would be a crib sheet I can keep at hand. Or an expression to describe the tone, like ‘frank and funny’.”
We do a similar thing with brand voices. Rather than a list of four spurious adjectives we suggest describing the voice with a single hook. So ‘human, expert and empathetic’ might become ‘the doctor you hope you’ll see today’.
Get Over Yourself. It’s Not all About you, you Know
“A big learning curve in ghostwriting was realising this isn’t all about me. The value I add is editorial - creating structure and shaping the narrative to make it readable. But the tone – that’s all their own,” explains Becky of the early challenge she faced when writing in someone else’s voice.
That’s why it’s always a good idea to ask someone to read over your work to check for tone. If they say ‘I can hear a bit of you in there’, you may need to take yourself out of the equation.
Zhuzh up your Overcoat and Let the Rules Set you Free
When it comes to brand writing, it’s helpful to think of tone of voice guidelines as a help, not a hindrance. They’re there to support and help you create those connections with your customers in a consistent way.
“Think of it like wearing an overcoat,” said Becky. “Everyone in your brand is wearing the same one, so it looks and feels the same. But you can customise it, wear your collars up or undo a few buttons.”
The rules, then, can give you permission to tweak the voice, depending on what kind of content you’re writing.
Think about the Yorkshire Tea tone of voice that allowed customer service agents to wittily and warmly post “Sue, you’re shouting at tea” when one woman took her political ire out on their Twitter feed. Or the complaints handler who blamed Darth Vader for an incomplete Star Wars LEGO set (but, of course, said sorry and sent Han Solo out with the missing pieces).
Those comments were on-brand and on-tone, but we all felt the human voices behind the brands.
When all’s Said and Done, it’s About Being a Real Person
Whether brand, business or celebrity, the aim is to get their point across in a way that authentically represents them.
And we can all do it - we just have to try the jacket on for size.