This blog was featured on 02/20/2020
Writing In a Voice Other Than Your Own
Written by
Kristin Hackler
February 2020
Written by
Kristin Hackler
February 2020

* This post was originally published in July 2019.


“Thick as train smoke.”

That was how the wildly successful businessman from west Texas described his relationship with his business partner.

We were on the phone so I couldn’t see him wink as he said it, but he almost certainly did. I quickly made a note of the phrase as he continued the story in his light Texas drawl. It turned out that, as thick as he and his partner were, it was only a few short years after their company was founded that they had a falling out. Deeply in debt, the Texan single-handedly managed to keep the business going for another crucial year and a half before landing his first big deal. 

Loyalty, loss, heartbreak, small wins, and near-catastrophic failures - in one hour, the Texan talked through enough triumphs and tragedies to fill a lifetime...and this was just the first chapter of his book.

As I ghostwrote his first draft, it felt like the words just flowed. Organized, with all the inevitable country road asides either worked in or saved for later, I let the Texan’s sweet southern drawl sing in my head. Colloquialisms abounded and when I was done, I was so proud of how beautifully his voice shone on the page that I sent it to him that very night.

The next morning, his terse reply chucked every last bit of that joy onto the ol' cowboy campfire.

”I sound like a goddamned redneck.”

Writing What Was Meant, Not What Was Said

That was one of my first hard lessons in ghostwriting. What is said is not necessarily what is meant, or even close to it. It sounds a little illogical at first, but think about it. When you're having a conversation with someone, you describe an idea or opinion from the context of your own understanding. And it makes all the sense in the world to you because you've stated it within your own context: you know why you're saying it, you have strong memories of the facts that back it up, and you hear yourself make this statement with all the clarity and power of a ten-time TEDTalk speaker.

Your listener, however, does not hear it within your context. They hear it in theirs. So when the Texan said his relationship with his business partner was "thicker than train smoke," he believed he was getting across how powerful that connection was. They weren't just partners, they were tighter than brothers, thicker than blood. I, on the other hand, heard an adorable colloqualism and worked it into his story the same way O. Henry might mention working "raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existance." His meaning was lost in my context.

He gave me another chance, thank god, and this time I didn't just ask him to tell me a story. I didn't just go through the recordings and transcripts of our conversation looking for his "voice." This time I listened, questioned, and looked for context.

I mentioned earlier that his story was full of heartbreak and loss, but I realized I'd minimized those emotions in trying to capture his actual words. Now that I understood the deeper meaning this story had for him, I was able to rewrite the piece to reflect his context. And this time, I was able to tell his story.

Yes, some of the colloquialisms were still there - we couldn't erase his speaking voice entirely - but we gave it to the reader with the story he wouldn't normally speak. We captured his voice but, more importantly, we captured his intention.

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