If you talk to most people who want to be writers, one of their main dreams is to have their byline become familiar to others. But thousands of writers are flying under the radar as ghostwriters. Let’s explore ghostwriting a little more in depth so you can decide whether it’s right for you.
What is a ghostwriter?
A ghostwriter is someone who writes for a client, who then publishes the writing as their own work. In lots of cases, the ideas in the writing are actually the client’s. The writer simply puts them on paper, ideally capturing the client’s own voice in the content. Sometimes ghostwriters also fix or expand existing manuscripts to make them flow and read better. Most people who hire ghostwriters do so because they don’t feel like they are good writers themselves, or because they are too busy to focus on a manuscript by themselves. A good ghostwriter can help a client gain some additional exposure and reputation.
Lots of practice
One benefit of being a ghostwriter is that you get tons of practice not just generally writing, but also in being more aware of differences in formats, dialects and tone. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about a lot of subjects and industries, and to meet plenty of interesting people with incredible information and stories. This has the capacity to shift your thinking and way of looking at problems and the world.
Ghostwriting can be lucrative, especially if you find a larger project or a few clients who want to work with you for the long haul. But most ghostwriting projects are one and done, such as a single article for an online publication. They also often do not provide any sort of royalties. So you can’t necessarily guarantee a steady income, and you will need to continue to look for clients.
On the other hand, just as with bylined work, you need to protect yourself against scams. Bad clients are out there who consistently aim to grab content without compensating authors, so make sure you have your agreement in writing, try to get references/referrals, and get a downpayment and establish payment milestones. Be aware that if you get shorted, taking legal action isn’t always an option, even if you have a clear contract-based case, as the cost of the project can be much less than the cost and time involved in a lawsuit.
When you are trying to get editors to publish your work, most of them will want to see pieces you’ve published that you can prove you authored. The trouble is, with ghostwriting, part of the deal is that you’ll stay mum about the fact your client didn’t write “their” work. So while you can say you’ve done work as a ghostwriter, it’s tricky to let editors know which specific publications or people you’ve worked with without violating this confidentiality. Subsequently, it’s incredibly difficult to build a real resume, post your work on social media, or put clips on your website.
For this reason, ghostwriting can work better for people who already have some standing as authors. If you already have a few published clips, then you can use those to earn new ghostwriting jobs. You can start out ghostwriting just for the income, too, of course, but without the bylines, you’ll likely have a difficult time landing more permanent work, such as staff writing or a column. Many writers combine ghostwriting with bylined work to get the best of both worlds.
One thing to think about related to the above is that ghostwriting clients are often considered experts in their fields. That expertise has pull when editors are considering publication. So what sometimes happens is, your client will submit your work and get accepted based in part on who they are. If you were to submit similar work independently, the editor very well might reject your content. This double standard can be ridiculously infuriating, since you know the editorial decision isn’t always based in the quality of your work by itself. No matter how well you write, no matter how well you source the text, reputation bias can work against you. So if your clients get accepted and you can’t on your own, don’t automatically assume there’s anything wrong with what you’ve put on the page.
So how do you work around this? If the venue is one you know you’d be personally interested in, then once your client has a good relationship with an editor because of your work, see if the client would be willing to recommend you to the editor. This way, the editor is going through someone they already trust.
As a last note here, be aware that some publications do have strict non-ghostwriter policies. You never want to put yourself in a position where you and your client would have to admit you violated this policy. So know what venues expect before you sign contracts, and ideally, have the client agree to be upfront in their queries/submissions that they have or plan to work with a ghostwriter. That way, they can be honest with the editor about how they know you. If the client has been published with a venue with their own writing, then just have the client tell the editor that you’ve done ghostwriting for them for other purposes. Even with a recommendation, be ready to provide some samples.
The final word
Ghostwriting can provide an income and let you learn an incredible amount as you network. But it does not give you an easy way to promote yourself and your writing experience. You might even find that editors accept your work when they think it is from someone else, and that they reject it when you offer it under your own name. Combining bylined and ghostwritten work can be a happy medium, but you can choose one path or the other depending on your goals and needs.