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Being Somebody Else: how to write as other people

Hannah Jacobson at Unsplash.com

I’ve taken on many guises since I started my freelance writing career. To name just a few, I’ve spent time as a 73 year-old businessman who’s been in prison on four separate occasions, an holistic life coach who wears flowy scarves, an up-and-coming online entrepreneur who travels the world, and an award-winning architect.

(Note: the real me is extremely bland by comparison).

Some people express surprise that I’m able to pass as all of these people, and more besides, in writing. But in reality, it’s not that hard. Instead it’s rather fun and very interesting, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

So if you like writing, and you quite fancy being other people too — but you don’t want to have to dress up or have expensive plastic surgery — here’s what you need to do.

1. Listen

Or listen without prejudice, as George Michael once advised. Because actually, it’s not enough to just listen. You also have to make the person you’re listening to feel safe and comfy.

They have to believe that you aren’t going to judge them, whatever they say. If they’re guarded, you won’t be able to be them, because they won’t tell you anything about what that’s really like.

Sometimes, this will mean listening to thoughts and opinions you don’t share, or that you actively oppose (think how Donald Trump’s ghostwriter must have felt!) Just remember that this is not your story; it’s theirs. Your only job is to tell it in the right way.

2. Shut your ego away

Andrew Crofts writes in the Freelance Writer’s Handbook that ghostwriting is all about “fulfilling a similar function as a barrister in court, pleading the client’s case”.

You’re telling someone else’s story, helping them share it with the world. This means you have to find the right story angles that will work for them and their audience, not you.

3. Find their voice

I always voice-record the conversations with people I’m writing books or longer articles for. That way, I’m better able to pick up the specific words and turns of phrase they use to describe events.

(Even if I’m not a fan of them myself. For example, I really don’t like the way people prefix everything they say with “super” at the moment. It’s super annoying. But if that’s the way my client speaks, then that’s the way I have to write).

4. Seek out the story hook

If there are no captivating or exhilarating moments in the story you’re writing, you’re wasting your time. But the good news is that most people’s lives and careers have plenty of those moments. Your job is to dig deep and ferret them out.

If you’re writing somebody’s autobiography, don’t just write it as a string of events. Find a running theme that links everything together in a compelling story.

(I’ve been working on a life story for the past year, and while I can’t say too much about it until it’s finished, the theme that links everything together is luck. Good and bad. It even features in the title of the book).

All you have to do is remember that everybody is different. To tell somebody else’s story well, you have to discover what really makes them or their subject unique, then explain it in language they would naturally use themselves.

It’s that simple!