"Truth or Consequences: The Perils of Ghost Writing" by Jackie Houchin

Jackie is a retired photo-journalist, a book reviewer and blogger. She loves to travel and read, and has a favorite, very intelligent cat named Story (what else?). She is involved in her church ministries for children and the elderly and admits to being a “sinner saved by God’s grace.”
  
 Awhile back I was approached by a friend who asked me if I’d be interested in doing some writing for him. He and a couple friends were building a non-profit website that would feature true stories by everyday people who volunteered to share how they came to faith. The website would be called Real Christian Testimonies (http://realct.org/rct/).
Rick explained that while many people had amazing stories, most were not writers. He needed me to interview and “ghost write” their stories, using their own words as much as possible. (He and his friend were interviewing men; he needed me to write women’s testimonies.)
His request excited me. I had been a journalist for several small local newspapers over the previous years and I enjoyed meeting new people, discovering their unique stories and writing about them. (See my earlier ‘Writers in Residence’ blog post on interview techniques at: http://bit.ly/1LKyVvf ). Although this was not quite what I had done before, I thought I could be good at it and agreed to try.
Rick sent me a packet listing their mission statement, what each story should include, and a release form for the interviewee to sign after reading the final draft of her testimony. This was something I’d never had to do as a reporter, but it made sense. The privately owned website was concerned with accurately telling the person’s personal truth; something you can’t always say about newspapers.
After I wrote a testimony and got it approved, I would submit it with the signed release form and a headshot photo of the person (or an image of something pertaining to the story, if they did not want to be photographed). The website owners would give final approval.
 I was eager to get started.
I had a woman I admired in mind, so I approached her with the idea. She agreed and we set an interview time and a place. She was a college professor now and I knew she’d be a stickler for accuracy, so I took my tape recorder. Then I forgot to turn it on! Boy was I rusty! I’d jotted down only the main points of her story, so when it came to writing it, I had to email her with many questions. Talk about embarrassment! But I learned my lesson. Which each following interview I took meticulous notes.
I wrote up her story, edited a few things at her request, got her approval, and then submitted it. I was eager to see “my story” (although I had no byline) on the website. Rick, however, sent it back by return email for further editing. Huh?
I learned that I could not mention well-know people by name or the specific places connected to them, even though they were an integral part of the testimony, I’d shown them in a positive light, and I hadn’t quoted them. Why? Because I would have had to get permission if their names were included. Wow. That never happened in newspaper stories. Public people were just that… public. Rick also said that the website wanted to stay as “main stream” as possible, without promoting one denomination over another.

I rewrote the sections he mentioned, ran the edits by my professor again, had her sign an additional release form and resubmitted. This time it was approved.

The next two testimonies I wrote ran the same gamut with slight differences. I had minor areas to edit for the interviewees, but the stories got jammed up with the editors again. I had mentioned people in the stories that had made an impact, this time in a negative way. They were non-celebs, however, and I had used only first names, or sometimes simply a relationship (ex-husband, boyfriend, father, etc.), but that didn’t matter.
Rick explained. If any of the people I’d written tangentially about read the story, they (or a relative in the case of one who’d died), might be offended and come after the website. Okaaay. These were a little more difficult to write around and still use the original “voice” of the women, but I finally did it to their and Rick’s satisfaction.

The testimony I’m working on now is a powerful story. The life of this young woman has changed dramatically, but she went through “the valley of the shadow of death,” literally. Several times, my tears joined hers as I listened to her hesitantly tell about it. How was I ever going to adequately write this, I wondered.

It took me a very long time, and then it came in at a thousand words over the website limit.

This time I sent it to Rick first, asking for advice on where to cut it. He came back immediately with what I could NOT write about, regardless of how compelling or effective. Areas of illegal or even criminal activities on the part of anyone mentioned in the story were strictly out. It could hurt my interviewee in the long run, and the words and actions I’d revealed about people, might result in a lawsuit against the website if they were ever to read her testimony. Yikes!
I should have known that, but I’d harked back to my investigative newspaper journalism days, and had forgotten. I’d zeroed in on revealing the details of the story and had forgotten the purpose of the website. (Following a magazine or website’s guidelines is one of the first rules of article writers!)
So I cut and rewrote it – thinking I must be softening the story. Then following Rick’s further advice, I cut it more and rewrote it again.  And, what do you know! The story of how her belief in Jesus Christ dramatically changed her life emerged crystal clear. It was the jewel in the muck.

By considering “the consequences” and being wise about not telling sordid and unnecessary “truth,” I’d done a better job. The young woman’s story was told, God was honored, and I learned a valuable lesson. I will certainly always tell the truth when ghost writing a person’s testimony, but I will also decide and eliminate what is superfluous to that truth and which might bring needless and “nasty” consequences. Good advice for all non-fiction writing, I think, but especially in writing for ministry.

12 thoughts on “"Truth or Consequences: The Perils of Ghost Writing" by Jackie Houchin”

  1. That would be so hard! I know I would feel the story had lost it's impact if the reader didn't experience the nitty-gritty details, but from what you said above, it turned out just fine. I be we could apply this rule to fiction as well.

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  2. I really don't comprehend how you actually did what you did, Jackie, given the restraints. I've read their stories on the website, and I didn't feel like I was missing something. I think there's a real skill here that you've developed. Kudos.

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  3. Details are important, but for me in this type of writing, I needed to decide which ones to use. I was going for an uplifting – but absolutely true – story. I realized that the goal was to inspire hope in the readers, not gross them out. It took me a while (I'm a slow learner), but I was pleased with the outcome and hopefully have avoided any backlash.

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  4. Thanks, Madeline. But if you had read the original drafts, your take-away would have been the horrendous, not the hopeful true facts. Maybe in another type of writing – say, newspaper expose or tabloid – that would be desired, but not here. Back to that old basic – find out what your editor wants BEFORE you write. And also, some outlets have to be more sensitive about “consequences.

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  5. I read the testimonies, too, and didn't feel like I was short-changed. But through all your discussion on what you can and cannot write, I will stick to fiction. I do use some facts in my spy novels, but I don't go out of my way to libel anybody… except maybe Stalin, but he's dead and you can't libel those who have assumed room temperature. But your ordeal does make one think.

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  6. I never thought about these issues. When I wrote non-fiction–the Red Cross newsletter–there were no such constraints; all I had to do was get permission to run photos and (don't tell) I was even able to play somewhat fast and loose with quotes. But that was for a different purpose.

    You are such a good writer that I know the finished pieces were just as compelling as the original, and I admire you for learning from experience and persisting. Really interesting post, Jackie!

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  7. I wondered about some of the constraints placed on you, but I found the testimonials you ghost-wrote very compelling. Congratulations for making it work.

    Whether it's a writing contest, an article for a publication, or a manuscript sent to a publisher, we often have to submit to another's rules about what and how we write. It only works when we can please them as well as us.

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  8. Very true, Miko. And it is quite different from writing for a newspaper or even an organizational newsletter like Bonnie. CHECK THE GUIDELINES or mission/purpose statement, and follow them carefully.
    The stories for this website are very sensitive and personal and some innocent (as well as guilty) people could be injured and angry enough to bring a lawsuit against the women and/or the website. I wouldn't want that, and so…. I THINK I've learned to comply.
    This last story – JESSICCA – should be up by the end of the month and you can judge for yourself if the story is compelling.

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  9. Good idea, Gayle. Indeed fiction should be safer… unless your story is so patterned after a celeb that it can be easily identified (as in Rosemary's idea). And especially if you are publishing them yourself you have no one else to please (or suffer the consequences!) Haha.
    In the case of these women's testimonies, I have encouraged them to keep the original version in case they are ever asked to verbally tell about their lives for a group. The cuts & revisions I had to make just happened to be for this website.

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