Ghostwriting is one of the more mysterious avenues of professional writing work. Who are these people who write words for someone else – often without credit – and then move on to the next job, switching voices and styles like an actor taking on new parts?
Although few writers may dream of effacing themselves from the authorial role, ghostwriting can be lucrative for people with the right skills. It also can be done while pursuing one's projects.
Writing short-form content can be a stressful business. Jumping from topic to topic takes energy; some people would rather hunker down with one big project for a long time. Ghostwriting, which often involves long-form projects, can be the perfect gig for someone who fits this bill.
What Is Ghostwriting?
Many people need to produce writing for which they either lack the time or ability to create themselves. In these situations, a ghostwriter can shepherd a project from idea to completion, helping to orient the voice and structure before taking on the writing.
Ghostwriting exists across most forms of written content, whether it's articles, nonfiction books, novels, or various kinds of scriptwriting for videos. Sometimes these writers are even hired by public figures such as celebrities or politicians who want to share their stories but need assistance getting them into written form.
How Does Credit Work in Ghostwriting?
There are many possible credit arrangements in ghostwriting. What's important is that the details are straightened out clearly in the beginning and then finalized in a contract.
When someone takes on the task of a ghostwriter, generally, it is acknowledged that they will forgo credit for the writing. Sometimes, there may be a reference to the ghostwriter as the person to whom the story is told – or even full recognition as a co-writer – but writers should not go into this field expecting their name front and center on the work.
How Do Ghostwriters Learn Their Craft?
The critical skill for anyone getting into ghostwriting is writing well with versatility, which it's necessary to read widely to achieve. It also helps to have literary or screenwriting ambitions, as those with some background in these areas understand voice and style on the page, which will be helpful when ventriloquizing.
If someone needs more writing experience, it's best to practice elsewhere before pitching to ghostwriting clients, as they will want to see demonstrated competence in a portfolio. Maintaining a blog, freelancing articles online, publishing short stories, or putting out a book are all ways to develop the skills and credentials to succeed as a ghostwriter.
How Do Ghostwriters Find Clients?
A lot of the trick is looking for opportunities on sites like Fiverr and Upwork, where ghostwriting jobs may appear. Then there are social media sites like Twitter, where many writers attract clients by developing a presence.
Delia Pena-Gay, a writer who has ghostwritten for blogs, says she found her first gig in the field through the job-search function on LinkedIn. When applying, she had to pass a writing test first.
She also recommends looking for clients at events. “Networking/collaborating is the name of the game,” she says. “If there are online networking events, go to them. People want to collaborate. I love Polywork and Alignable to meet new clients. They are very engaging platforms.”
Brian Rouff, a novelist who helps others get their books together, first had to get his work onto the shelves:
“In my case, I got lucky. I had written my first Vegas-based novel, and a local retired casino owner read it and contacted me to help him write his own book. We wound up collaborating on two more. Then he started recommending me to friends. Since then, I've ghostwritten more than fifteen other books, mainly memoirs and business how-tos, mostly on the strength of referrals.”
How Do Ghostwriters Help Clients Organize Their Ideas?
People hire ghostwriters not only to write the book but also to figure out what the book is supposed to be. Many people understand their life experience is interesting to others and need to figure out which parts to emphasize. This is where the job of the ghostwriter begins.
“I've found it to be an organic process that flows naturally from the interview sessions,” explains Rouff. “As the client tells his/her story, the angle typically emerges, and we arrive at it together before any writing takes place. Often, it's not what the client initially thinks it will be.”
“I tend to take a novelistic approach,” he continues, “which means rarely does the book unfold chronologically. Often, we'll open the narrative in the middle of a crucial scene that anchors the plot, whether fiction or nonfiction.”
Ghostwriter Ashley King outlines books for her nonfiction and memoir clients before seeking their agreement. “This helps me to ensure the author is pleased with the general flow of the book,” she says.
She adds that some writers may prefer to do more of the process digitally: “There is software out there that ghostwriters can use; a very popular one is called Scrivener. You can create your outline, research, and make notes in one place. While it's popular, it does have a learning curve,” she warns.
What Are The Tricky Collaborative Aspects of Ghostwriting?
Midwifing stories for people is intimate work, and there are bound to be awkward moments. Picking the right clients to ensure a high degree of compatibility is necessary.
Ashley King says: “Memoirs are very personal as they involve an aspect of someone's life. I've experienced an author becoming triggered when we got to a certain point in their story that we had to put the project on hold while they sought professional counseling.”
Other concerns are more commonplace. According to David Leonhardt, who runs the boutique ghostwriting agency THGM Writers, scheduling is the hardest part.
“Most people who seek ghostwriting help are busy people,” Leonhardt points out. “Getting them to review and comment on a chapter is often a very slow process, during which the writer loses momentum. And sometimes – more often than one could believe possible – a client goes AWOL for a few weeks. Or for a few months.”
Sometimes it requires more than a simple contract to keep the project on track. Having an intricate working process – so long as it's not suffocating – can benefit both parties.
“I try to set expectations early and return to them often,” says Rouffe. “It helps to document everything, from a signed agreement at the beginning to session recordings to follow-up emails recapping goals, timelines, and deliverables.”
“Scope creep is often a problem,” he continues, “where the client keeps pushing the boundaries – like a willful child – until I put my foot down. This can be resolved by scaling back the project to its original intent or agreeing on additional pricing.”
While setting boundaries is good, remember that the ghostwriter is there to give the client what they want.
“The customer is always right,” explains Leonhardt. “Yes, we make recommendations. And sometimes, there are back-and-forths. But in the end, it's the client's vision and the client's name on the cover. None of this shouting at a prince business for us.”