How to Become a Ghostwriter and Start Landing Jobs
Somewhere out there is an individual with a brilliant idea that they just can’t put into words (or simply don’t have the time to do so). In cases like these, who they gonna call? That’s right, ghostwriters.
Ghostwriting is the practice of writing a work in the voice and name of someone else. While the concept doesn't completely bypass skepticism from the masses, it does provide a solution for many people who don’t have the ability to prose on their own. Not to mention, it’s a well-respected and valued line of work as far as professional writing jobs go.
If you’re someone who excels at writing and loves the challenge of manifesting big concepts into words, this profession will speak to you. In this article, we’ll go over what ghostwriting is, answer burning questions surrounding this career and take you through the steps on how to become a successful ghostwriter yourself, with the potential aim of you channeling it into starting your own business.
What is a ghostwriter?
In essence, a ghostwriter is a professional writer who gets paid for their work, but gives full credit to someone else. Hence, their ghost-like inconspicuousness.
Each ghostwriting process is seen as a collaborative effort where the ghostwriter works together with their client at every stage, until completion of the piece of content. The extent of the client’s involvement, however, will differ with each project.
It’s important to distinguish between ghostwriting and co-authoring here: a ghostwriter completes their job without receiving credit or royalties beyond payment for their work, while a co-author receives equal recognition and will split royalties with their fellow writer.
Types of ghostwriting
Ghostwriting doesn’t come in just one form. Types of ghostwriting run the gamut from political speeches to non-fiction books and various genres in between. Here are the most common types of ghostwriting practiced today:
Ghostwriters are often employed by publishing houses to produce books under the name of an author whose demand in the market outweighs their productivity, or when they want to publish a series of books under a pseudonym.
A famous example is the Nancy Drew series, which was published under one author name but was actually written by a series of ghostwriters.
If you’ve seen Veep, then you know ghostwriters are the real heroes behind good political speeches. Can you imagine Vice President Selina Meyer finding the time to write her own? It’s not uncommon for speeches (political or not) to be devised by a ghostwriter who can accurately summarize a public figure’s sentiments with words.
When public figures want to publish an autobiography or memoir, they’ll often turn to a ghostwriter to complete the task, since they don’t usually have the writing ability themselves.
Other examples of non-fiction material that might be ghostwritten include cookbooks, business books or “how-to” guides aimed at establishing a professional’s credibility. Whether it means writing the entire book from start to finish or filling in the gaps, ghostwriters are highly valued in this area of service.
Whether it comes from a lack of experience or motivation (writer's block, we’ve all been there), many popular musicians cannot quite write their own lyrics. Talented ghostwriters usually get the job done.
This doesn’t apply solely to the lyrics. Using an anonymous composer to arrange a music score for a performance or soundtrack is pretty common in the film industry today. Fun fact: this practice goes as far back to Mozart, who was a famous “ghost-composer” himself.
Not all business owners and entrepreneurs have the time to write their own content. Yet an active blog is a valuable asset for building an authoritative presence, growing customer engagement and brand awareness. That’s why experts from all fields will hire ghostwriters to create compelling, regular content for visitors to their blog.
How to become a ghostwriter
The pursuit of this profession depends on three things: good writing and researching skills, discreet marketing, and excellent collaboration. Once you’ve contemplated what types of ghostwriting you’re best suited for, there are strategic steps you can take to prepare yourself:
01. Build your writing skills
These will improve with practice, but it's important to establish a routine from the start. Regardless of the subject, writing consistently is the one way you can significantly build your skills. Exercise your writing muscles with personal projects like publishing on your own blog or committing yourself to write a short story every day.
If you want a more structured way of learning how to write better, taking an online course can always be beneficial at the start of your career. It’s always good to learn about different methods of writing from masters in the field.
Reading more will enhance your writing, too. The more you read, the more you become exposed to new styles, genres and levels of writing that you can learn from. In the words of Stephen King “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or skills) to write.” Of course, perusing through some of the best books on writing will give you practical advice on how to boost your skills.
On top of your general writing skills, depending on what type of ghostwriting interests you most, you may need to familiarize yourself with specific jargons. For example, ghostwriters specialized in “how-to” books for dieting experts should use an authoritative voice and become acquainted with nutritional vernacular.
02. Get professional work experience
Being a ghostwriter is not an entry level job, so start with freelance writing gigs that will improve your ability to deliver for someone else, like content writing for a business or articles for an online publication. Editing jobs are also to be seriously considered. They will help you familiarize yourself with different levels of writing, and learn how to give and receive feedback.
In addition to writing, building the following skills will come in handy when starting your ghostwriting career:
Interviewing: Collaboration is an important aspect of ghostwriting. Conducting interviews throughout each project will be critical for fully understanding your client’s voice.
Researching: A ghostwriter should become an expert in any given field, in a matter of months—if not weeks. Sharpen your researching skills so that, when the time comes, you’ll be able to find the information you need in a quick manner.
Organization: Ghostwriting will be a back-and-forth process. You’ll end up making countless edits and working with new variations of the same text—be sure to keep a meticulous track of your progress.
03. Create a writing portfolio
You have the talent, the grit and the experience—but who else knows about it? Every professional writer needs a way to showcase their skills. An online writing portfolio will act as a virtual resume, helping you get noticed and stand out as a writer.
Writing portfolios usually include a professional bio (or CV) on top of carefully selected writing samples: articles, books, personal writing, etc. The point is to exhibit your talent, versatility and professionalism. Don’t forget to add a contact page to show you’re willing to initiate a conversation about new gigs.
Not sure you have the time or skills to create web pages on your own? Most CMS today offer neatly designed templates, with all the features you’ll need to run your business online. Take a look at these templates for writers, and tell us what you think.
Now, the million dollar question: do you include ghostwritten work in your portfolio? This is tricky, since technically you cannot take credit for these projects. However, there are still ways to expose your skills.
First, simply ask permission from your clients—you might be surprised by their answer. You can do this at the start of your project, inserting a clause in your contract from the get-go. Another option is to include a testimonials page in your writing portfolio. Your clients will be happy to leave positive references without revealing the specific projects you worked on.
04. Market yourself
Now, how do you land a job? Market yourself, of course. Doing this off-the-radar is more complicated than if you were a regular content writer, since you have to stay sensitive to your previous clients’ anonymity. Here are some smart methods for tackling the task:
Agencies and freelance websites: These platforms work to match new clients with relevant writers. Registering with one of these sites is a great way to open doors and get hired. Examples are Fiverr.com or GothamGhostwriters.com.
Writing about ghostwriting: Writing about the topic of ghostwriting is an excellent way to prove your authority in the field and get your name out there. Use your expertise on the subject to participate in online forums, seeking questions on the topic and providing answers. Also consider publishing how-to guides for fellow ghostwriters on your online blog.
Self-promotion: Now’s not the time to be humble. Self-promotion goes a long way, especially in this social-media-concentrated generation. You can successfully promote your services on platforms like Facebook or Instagram. Just remember to stay tactful to your past clients and don’t expose their identity without permission.
Word-of-mouth: 74% of consumers identify word-of-mouth as the key influencer in their purchasing decisions. A similar tendency applies when it comes to finding employers. Most people feel comfortable working with someone who was recommended by a colleague or friend whom they trust. When you’ve established a list of clients, remind them to recommend you to others. If they’ve had a positive experience, chances are they’ll be happy to.
Best ghostwriting practices
Before you embark on a professional career in ghostwriting, keep in some rules of thumb that will successfully guide you:
01. Set clear goals
Just like any employer, your client should set their goals and expectations from the beginning. It’s important to agree upon reasonable deadlines and to clarify how much involvement they will have in the writing process. This will enable you to manage your time efficiently and ensure both parties are satisfied in the end.
02. Get to know your client’s voice
One of the exciting aspects of ghostwriting is that each time, you hide behind someone else’s persona. When doing this, you need to understand their voice. Writing a mystery novel requires a different stylistic approach than a memoir, and an autobiography for a former politician will require a different style than one of a celebrity.
Conduct a preliminary interview with your client at the start of your project. Listen to them speak about their work and take note of the way they explain things. Ask them guiding questions that will help define their voice, such as: If your brand could be represented by one celebrity, who would that be? What are three adjectives you would use to describe your writing?
Pro tip: Prepare an onboarding deck that proposes these questions in a fun, interactive and professional way. It will impress your clients and keep them engaged.
03. Be flexible
Ghostwriting is a working relationship between two parties: you and your client. Every so often, you might find that each of you approach a subject from different angles. Perhaps there will be times when you don’t agree on a certain writing method, or you’ll find it difficult to adapt their voice.
Resolving these differences is critical, and may require flexibility on your part. While your expert input is generally welcomed, you’ll have to compromise in order to implement the feedback of your client. Remember, at the end of the day, their satisfaction takes precedence over your own.
04. Communicate with your client
Good communication is always an impressive professional quality to uphold. Check in with your clients regularly, taking the time to go through edits together and asking questions when you are unsure about something. These conversations will clarify certain elements as the work unfolds, and often lead to the best creative brainstorming sessions. Not to mention, your client will be touched by your attention to detail and dedication.
05. Leave your ego at the door
You know the saying, “always the bridesmaid, never the bride?” In this case, you may find yourself thinking, “always the writer, never the author.” Investing so much time into a project without receiving credit for it can cause some serious damage to the ego. So, although it’s not easy for every writer to do—be prepared to leave yours at the door.
Professional ghostwriting depends on putting your clients' needs first and letting them walk away with the byline. This will be easier to do when you remember the immense self-gratification that comes along with helping someone else put their thoughts into words.
Burning questions about ghostwriting
Now that we’ve covered what ghostwriters do and practical tips for how to become one, here are some things to consider about the profession:
How much do ghostwriters charge?
Ghostwriting fees will vary greatly based on the experience of the writer and the service they provide. While beginners might receive a few thousands dollars for ghostwriting a book (albeit depending on the number of pages or words), top celebrity ghostwriters are known to earn as much as $500k on a single mission.
Individual contracts should be written and signed before the start of each project. When determining your fee, consider the project’s timeline, how much research needs to be done beforehand, the project’s length, and how many rounds of editing will be needed. Many ghostwriters will receive their entire fee upfront, or get paid at a specific marker (for example, the completion of every chapter), and it’s up to you whether you want to charge by project, page, word, or hours.
Won’t I really get no credit for my work?
By now this aspect of ghostwriting is understood. We’d be wrong to say it isn’t a challenge. Giving credit to someone else for your words is something that, for many writers, feels unnatural. And many professionals don’t feel justified by the financial compensation.
However, for many this can also be one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. The ability to write and envelop the voice of someone else is a feat that requires great skill, and it’s something many a ghostwriter is proud of.
Is it totally legal?
Plagiarism is something no writer wants to brush shoulders with, and it makes sense that you’d be concerned with the possibility of implicating someone else for stealing your content. In this sense, you can breathe easily.
Ghostwriting is 100% legal. There are no grey areas here—as long as you (the employee) agree to write for your client (the employer) in return compensation, it is considered a traditional service and business transaction.
But is it ethical?
Like most ethical questions, determining the moral nature of this occupation will change depending on the context and who you ask. An interesting way of looking at ghostwriting's ethical underpinnings is by considering the three parties involved in the process—the writer, the author and the audience:
As far as the writer is concerned, the transaction is pretty straightforward. You’re doing work in order to perform a service, and foregoing credit to your client is part of the bargain. Plus, you can feel good about helping another person put their ideas and/or research into eloquent, compelling words.
From an author’s standpoint, agreeing to compensate a writer for their services can be likened to hiring a graphic designer to create your logo. Ideally, the author and writer will form a symbiotic relationship, where the formulation of ideas and their manifestation could not exist without either individual.
Things enter into the nebulous ethical zone when we consider the audience. There are some fields where ghostwriting is expected—in the case of political speeches or celebrity autobiographies, for example. Ghostwriting in the blogging world is increasingly ubiquitous, too. However, many audiences feel surprised and even deceived when they find out their favorite nonfiction book was written by a ghostwriter, or their go-to cookbook didn’t include a single authentic recipe from the chef who signed it.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when deciding the ethical implications of ghostwriting is the level of transparency that is established for the reader.
Why would I take this route?
Hello writing practice! Being a ghostwriter will no doubt test your writing capabilities. By engaging in new styles and working with new people, you’ll practice and improve your writing for the future. On top of that, you’ll have the chance to improve your research skills and collaborative dexterity.
One of the great benefits of ghostwriting is that you'll be paid to do what you love. Among the professional writing careers out there, ghostwriting is definitely at the top.
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By Jenna Romano, Wix Blogger
Writer, avid museum goer, long distance runner, and meme enthusiast.