Our second Unsung Heroes of Publishing Q&A is with Zoë McDonald. Zoë worked as a journalist and Features Editor at Hearst Magazines for ten years before going freelance, writing features for a range of magazines and newspapers. She has co-written and ghostwritten books on fitness, nutrition, wellbeing, business, neuroscience and self-help for publishers including Penguin, Collins & Brown and Hay House, as well as ghostwriting a number of self-published non-fiction books. She works as a copywriter and content creator, ghost-blogging for a diverse range of clients, from education to finance.
Tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I started out in magazines, at Hearst, first as an editorial assistant and junior writer, and then as a features editor. I had my first child in 2008, then went freelance after ten years as a staff journalist, working for a range of magazines and newspapers, writing mainly about mental health and wellbeing. Since then I’ve built up copywriting and commercial ghostwriting work, including lots of ghost-blogging. I started ghostwriting books about eight years ago. Six of my book projects have been published since then, with two more due for publication in early 2020.
How has your approach to writing changed as your career has progressed?
I’m less anxious about it now. I trust that I’ll find the words I need if I focus, and I’m a lot less precious. Also, although writing can be solitary, whether I’m writing copy, a magazine feature, or ghostwriting a book, I rely on mining my sources to get the material I need. If inspiration isn’t forthcoming, I schedule an interview or read something to inspire me. Being a parent has made me more productive too, because I have to be.
Tell us a little about the life of a ghost. How does ghostwriting differ from your copywriting and journalistic work?
I love the collaborative nature of ghostwriting, and the way it enables me to work with inspiring and interesting people over a period of time. Usually, when I interview somebody as a journalist, I get forty minutes on the phone with them, or an hour in person, and that’s it. With ghostwriting, when it goes well, there’s a satisfying to-and-fro of ideas and content. I love watching a project come together chapter by chapter.
What has been your favourite writing project to date?
I really loved working on The Source with the author, neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart (published this February by Penguin). She is inspiring and creative, and the whole process was really collaborative. I also loved working with Michael Acton Smith for his book Calm (published in 2016).
How have you seen the publishing industry change over the course of your career?
When I started out in magazines, there was only one computer on a floor serving three magazines that had the internet. You had to book it for a half-hour slot to do your research! There were cuttings libraries that would fax you newspaper archives for a celebrity before an interview. Research was far more laborious! The content explosion in the last decade has changed journalism, there’s more competition to get heard, and it’s harder to make a living as a freelance journalist. Most people have a side hustle. As far as book publishing goes… Smaller budgets? I was a books editor for one of the magazines I worked for in the early noughties, and there were a lot more parties then!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Blog. It’s so great that young writers can get on with saying what they want to without being constrained all the time by editors.
Ask yourself honestly whether your use of social media is genuinely helpful for your career, or a massive distraction. I deleted myself from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and I wouldn’t go back.
Be open to random opportunities and lateral moves. Don’t think too rigidly about your experience. Writing can open all sorts of strange doors.
What are you reading at the moment and what’s on your reading list?
I’m training to be a psychodynamic counsellor, so this spring, quite a lot of Jung! Other than that I have a few things on the go. I just finished Philippa Perry’s book The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did). It’s so good! I’m also listening to Siri Hustvedt’s 2015 novel, The Blazing World, on Audible while I walk the dog, and every night before bed, I read a snippet of the poet Kathleen Jamie’s essays on the natural world, Findings, which is beautiful. A friend bought me The Making of You (Wellcome Collection), and I’m enjoying reading it with my son Fred. On my to-read list is Machines Like Me because I have never not enjoyed an Ian McEwan novel, and I want to finish Feel Free by Zadie Smith too. I hide in the loo with it.
Find out more about Zoë by visiting her Linkedin.