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I just finished the charming short memoir from actor Cary Elwes, As You Wish, about his experiences while filming The Princess Bride. The voice sounds very much like Elwes, but the cover clearly says "with Joe Leyden." Which says to me "ghostwriter."

It's reasonably common for someone who's not a writer to get a ghostwriter to help with a memoir, but Elwes is also a playwright, so it's not like he can't assemble a sentence.

So my general question is this: how much work does a ghostwriter typically do in a nonfiction piece, such as a memoir?

I realize that the answer can vary from "everything and the client waves at it" to "act as more of a heavy copyeditor," but I'm curious to know if there's an industry standard or expectation. I also noted What to include in agreement with a Ghost Writer. . . but that's more of a contract checklist question, not a "here's what typically occurs" question.

  • I think something like a memoir will be quite non-representative of the standard. Especially if it's done in the frequent way non-writers get memoirs done: have a writer or a journalist create a lengthy interview, and edit that interview into memoir form, stripping own questions and connecting the answers into a continuous form. That way the "official" author is really the actual author of great most of the text, the "ghostwriter's" role reduced to editor. – SF. Mar 6 '17 at 17:49
  • @SF. What other kinds of nonfiction usually use a ghostwriter? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 6 '17 at 17:56
  • Most often? Academic. Whatever's required to pass the semester or graduate :-] – SF. Mar 6 '17 at 18:12
  • Lauren, when I read that you "finished the charming short memoir from actor Cary Elwes", I understand that, in the context of this writer's site, to mean that you finished writing that book. Only later in the question do I understand that you read the book. Why wouldn't you want to make it clear from the beginning that you are asking this question from a reader perspective? – user5645 Mar 6 '17 at 19:50
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    @what Because I think the implication is pretty clear that if I say "the memoir from Cary Elwes with Joe Leyden," I mean that I read it, not that I wrote it. Otherwise I would have explicitly said "I just finished co-writing this book." If anyone else agrees with you that my omission of "read" is misleading, I'll restore your edit. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 6 '17 at 20:07
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+100

Your question is too broad. I'll narrow it down for my answer.

Procedure

In the case of coauthored biographies, the coauthor typically interviews the primary author (and other persons), assembles a text from these interviews, and works in feedback from the primary author. That is why such a biography "sounds" like the primary author: it contains what he said.

Typically the primary author in a coauthored biography has little or no writing experience (Cary Elwes, for example, never wrote anything that I could find), while the coauthor is usually a seasoned professional writer (in this case "award-winning journalist and bestselling author, Joe Layden has written more than thirty books").

Proportion of Work

From the typical procedure, the typical proportion of work the coauthor of a biography does follows implicitly: the primary author does all the talking, the coauthor does all the writing.

So when Elwes says in interviews that he 'wrote' the book, what he means is that Layden wrote it: "Elwes was interviewed by co-author Joe Layden in the writing process".

Other Kinds of Non-Fiction

are different.

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In wikipedia I read that Cary Elwes co-wrote a screenplay. I imagine that when you co-write a screenplay, the work might be just as collaborative, i.e. non-independent, as when you publish a book with your byline along with a "with" byline.

So it seems quite plausible that the ghost writer / co-writer of the Bride book played a substantial role. But I don't think heavy copy editors would be considered ghost writers. I think the ghost writer takes a more active role in structuring the work, deciding what's needed, eliciting what's needed, etc.

I'm basing this on having read ghostwritten / co-written books and having read these authors' descriptions of the process used. For example, Malcolm X and Alex Haley wrote about their process in writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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