Ian Douglass is the coauthor of UFC legend Dan Severn’s autobiography “The Realest Guy in the Room,” and he is also the coauthor of the forthcoming autobiography of famous WWE wrestler Dylan “Swoggle” Postl.
After graduating from the University of Michigan and the Specs Howard School of Media Arts, Ian went on to earn a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Ian has held a variety of communications, marketing and writing positions for several companies, including a stint in California managing the staff of the world famous Movoto Blog, and contributing as a writer for the award-winning Experience Grand Rapids website.Ian Douglass
Helping someone else write their book sounded like a piece of cake. For starters, I wouldn’t have to generate any of the material; the life experience of the subject would provide the story. If anything, I simply viewed myself as a conduit through which the author’s story would find its way onto a printed page, and into a bookstore.
Little did I know how wrong I would be about the ease of the coauthoring job, the total amount of time I would need to allocate to the project, and the amount of control I would have over the finished product.
Many lessons were learned by me in the course of collaborating with authors to help them deliver their life stories in a literary form. Now, I am happy to share six of those lessons with you.
Don’t underestimate your importance
It is perfectly logical to ask a coauthor why they are involved in the process of helping someone with their autobiography. After all, the subjects of autobiographies certainly know everything that happened to them in their lives, so what on earth do they need a coauthor for?
Honestly, they need you far more than either of you might think.
Many celebrities have a great deal of difficulty approaching the daunting task of retelling their life stories, and that is why so few of them ever get around to it without the assistance of a seasoned writer. Writers have a knack for organizing material sensibly, setting the tone of each segment, and arranging story elements in a way that makes the material easily digestible and appealing to readers.
In other words, just because the story doesn’t originate with you, that doesn’t mean the autobiographer will be able to tell his or her story just as well without you. Chances are, they won’t.
Fact check everything
If your autobiography subject lists any piece of information that can be corroborated, do yourself a favor and look into it.
While it may seem like a minor detail if a sporting event lasted three hours instead of two, or if a concert took place on Saturday instead of Friday, these details can be critical to the book’s audience, which may remember the specifics of these events far more clearly than the autobiographer.
Remember, a musician may give 50 different performances in a year, and therefore may not remember the specifics of each show. However, the concertgoer who spent money to sit in the front row of the Milwaukee show remembers everything about that performance. So, when describing an event, you owe it to your audience to get the details as correct as they can be.
Be a fan
Was the person you’re writing an autobiography with your sports idol when you were a teenager? Outstanding. Don’t hide the fact that you were a rabid fan; use it to your advantage.
Rather than sitting there like a mute and dutifully scrawling every word your subject says, ask them every question you ever wanted to know about them since the time you started following their career.
Did your favorite NBA basketball player never dunk the basketball even though he clearly had opportunities? Ask him why he didn’t. If your favorite tennis player always wore a headband or a visor, ask her if there was a specific reason why she chose this specific head attire.
There is a good chance your idol didn’t even know their fans cared about these things, and these are the sorts of details that a thorough autobiography needs to have.
Remember, as a fan, this is your opportunity to get the answers to every question you ever wanted to ask, and you owe it to the other fans of your subject to squeeze as many important details into the open as you can.
Know when to say when
As one of my journalism professors used to say, “If it’s interesting to you, it will be interesting to your audience.”
The opposite of this is also true; if it’s boring to you, it will probably bore your audience as well.
If you are working on the autobiography of a world famous businesswoman with tremendous accomplishments in the financial sector, your audience will want the details on the key events that led her to become a success. However, no one needs to hear the details of every managerial accounting class that businesswoman ever took.
Arrange a framework for the book that touches on key life events, and then figure out a way to write your way in and out of those events. Obviously, there will be some room for humorous anecdotes within the flow of the story, but you must be able to recognize when the story your telling is going to bore your audience rather than entertain them.
Prepare to have your heart broken
No matter how well you may think you know your subject before you begin working with them, you will quickly discover you don’t know them half as well as you think you do.
In every person’s life, there are going to be some sad episodes that were substantial, and you may be the first person who ever hears the author tell some of these tales. Be prepared to get figuratively punched in the gut as you experience their heartbreak alongside them.
People experience all sorts of losses in their lives, and hearing about it firsthand from the autobiography subject can be far harder than reading it on a printed page.
Also, at the point in their lives when most famous people get around to writing their autobiographies, they are no longer in their primes or at their peaks. Almost certainly, they will not be quite as famous or revered as they once were at the time they are writing the book.
In keeping with this, the subject may exhibit some sadness as they relive past glories and recognize they will probably never experience those extreme joys in their lives ever again.
The point is, you should be prepared to get hammered with some heavy emotional material whenever you work with someone on their autobiography.
Use your creativity
The person you are working with has plenty of stories to tell in their autobiography, but that doesn’t mean you have to tell all of those stories in order.
The excerpt he tells you about how he squeezed all the toothpaste out of the tube in a single afternoon when he was five years old because his mother told him it would make his smile extra shiny is undoubtedly a cute story. However, it will pack more emotional weight in the book if he delivers that story right before he talks about the hockey game where he got checked into the boards, two of his teeth were knocked out, and his mom cried about how his smile was ruined forever.
Similarly, the tale your autobiography subject tells of breaking a leg while skateboarding through the parking lot of the University of Michigan football stadium as a teenager is probably great. On the other hand, it might be best told right before you deliver the story of your subject graduating from medical school and attending the ceremony in that same stadium.
Again, the story of the person you are writing for may be interesting in and of itself, but this is one of the simple strategies you should implement to make the finished product better, and to make yourself more valuable to the process.