Ghostwriting 101

So what is “ghostwriting” anyway…?

ghostwritingGhostwriting — even though it contains the word “ghost” — has nothing to do with the paranormal.

So here we go. First let’s go over some quick terminology:

  • Ghostwriter = A person who ghostwrites. Often referred to simply as a “ghost.” I’m technically a ghostblogger, but I’ll get into that more in a moment.
  • Ghostwriting = Any form of writing — books, articles, blog posts, reports, essays, web copy, speeches, song lyrics — that has been written by one person but attributed to another. In other words… You write something, but then someone else gets the credit for it. And that “someone else” can be a single person, or a company. (Ex: I ghostwrote blog posts for Miami Paper Exporters, Inc. as Miami Paper Exporters, Inc. In that case, I was ghostwriting under a company name).

Say Joe has something he wants to write an article about, but he kinda “sucks” at writing… He then hires Susie, a freelance ghostwriter, to write the article for him.

Joe pays Susie, Susie writes the article, Joe slaps his name on it and gets all the credit. That’s ghostwriting in a nutshell!

In this case, Susie would likely have to keep it a secret that she wrote for Joe. Much of what ghostwriters do is inherently secret in nature. Since someone else is taking credit for our work, we have to keep a zipped lip about what we’ve written for them (or it’ll blow the whole project wide open!).

If you’ve ever seen the movie Singing in the Rain, ghostwriters are basically the written equivalent of what Kathy does for Lina’s voice/singing career. And, if you haven’t seen that movie: Go watch it. It’s a classic!

Of course, if you’re working for a larger company — rather than an individual — you sometimes have a bit more leeway. Like the example I gave earlier about my work with Miami Paper Exporters, Inc. They really don’t mind my sharing my work for them! They’re actually quite proud that I was the “voice” of their company. (Love them. Seriously!). So even though my name isn’t written on the posts, I’m free to say that I’m the one who wrote them.

The varying levels of secrecy is something I’ll go over later on in this post as it will have an effect on your ability to get/use testimonials. For now, let’s look at some of the great things about ghostwriting:

ghostThe 7 Great Things About Ghostwriting

1. It’s not always books.

No, really. That’s just a myth/misconception. As a ghostwriter, you could end up writing articles, newsletters, website content, commercials, or any number of other things!

Don’t feel daunted thinking that overwhelmingly huge projects (i.e. books) are the only tasks ghostwriters take on. For example, I’ve been a ghost on several Twitter accounts (140 characters 5 times a day isn’t so bad, right?).

Of course, you can write books if you like. That’s definitely an option.

2. Finding clients is slightly easier for ghostwriters.

Not everyone will want to give you a by-line (credited work is very competitive), but think of all the people you’ve met in your lifetime who’ve said, “Gee, I wish I could write a book/newsletter/script/advertisement…” Now they can: Through you!

3. Sometimes you do get to show off.

Yes, sometimes you’ll be under strict contract not to tell a soul what you’ve written (see the “Cons” section below!), but there will be plenty of projects that you do get to show off. And those pieces make great portfolio samples.

4. Great at interviews? You’ll be great at ghostwriting.

Love to conduct interviews? Love to listen to other people’s stories? You’ll be great at ghostwriting.

Half of the battle is writing in your client’s “own” voice. Which you can pick up by talking with them (interviewing/listening). Speaking of which…

5. You get great practice with “tones.”

You get to write in a variety of different voices! How fun is that?

6. No ego needed.

According to professional ghostwriter Eva Shaw:

“If you can put your ego aside and think of ghostwriting as a business, you will succeed.”

Which brings me to my personal favorite:

7. It pays more.

Yes, yes, getting your own by-line is thrilling… But few things are sweeter than cash. And ghostwriting pays well. Very well.

To compensate for a lack of a by-line, you can command a slightly higher price. In the 2014 Writer’s Market price rate chart, ghostwriters who get an “as told to” credit pull in about $100 per page while ghostwriters who get no credit pull in about $500 per page.

There’s no guarantee you’ll pull in those prices (they’re from the higher end of average), but still: Not bad, eh??

The 5 Disadvantages to Ghostwriting

1. Deadlines. Deadlines. Deadlines.

Since you’re working not just for someone else, but as someone else, there are often more deadlines than a “normal” writing project. If you do take on a book-writing gig, you may have to turn it in chapter-by-chapter with a separate deadline for each section – and you’ll have to meet each of those deadlines with excellence. Because you’re a professional.

2.It’s not just you.

It’s you and the client…and whoever else they drag into the project. An illustrator? An editor? An extra researcher? All possibilities – and all people you’ll have to “check in” with every time you start your next move.

3. It can be a lot of research.

If research isn’t your thing then you probably shouldn’t attempt ghostwriting. The variety is fantastic, but it also means you’ll be in unknown territory a lot of the time–and you’ll have to research your way out of it.

Tip: Get all the details before agreeing to work on anything. And never work without a contract! Figure your research time into the price you quote your client and be sure to add a limit/cap to any free revisions you offer in your contract. $10,000 may sound like a great big hunk of money for “one lil project,” but once you factor in all the time it takes to research your project and then actually write the darn thing, you could find yourself working for less than minimum wage. Believe me: I’ve done it. NEVER AGAIN. Learn from my mistakes.

4. Overly demanding clients.

No clients, at least in my experience, are more demanding than ghostwriting clients. Because, let’s face it, whatever you’re writing is their baby: You’re just the surrogate.

5. Sometimes you write something AMAZING…and you can’t tell anyone.

I wrote a small e-book a couple years ago that I still think about sometimes. I was really on point with it! But I cannot tell you what it was or who I wrote it for UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH! Well…under penalty of being sued for contract violation. Same thing. And sometimes that really sucks.

Speaking of having to keep your projects a secret:

T - TestimonialHow to Get Testimonials When Most of Your Projects are a Secret

Believe it or not, many of your clients will provide a Testimonial automatically.  Even your ghostwriting clients!

However, if you feel you’ve done an exceptional job for your client and they haven’t written up a Testimonial for you, there’s something really simple you can do to help the process along: Ask them for one.

As the saying goes, “One good turn deserves another.”

If you did as good a job as you think you did, your client will probably jump at the chance to say good things about you.  Just remember that they’re people too.  If they get busy and forget, just give them a gentle nudge.

Pro Tip: Ask them EARLY.

If you wait to ask for a testimonial, you risk losing the “specific” factor. (Which I’ll get into below).

The client will remember that you’re great, but they won’t remember exactly why. So make sure you get to them while they’re still basking in the glow of your job well done. (Upon delivery of the completed project, I usually say something like “If you like what I’ve done here, I’d really appreciate a testimonial.”).

However, with ghostwriting clients, there are generally three types of testimonial outcomes:

  • They give you a testimonial — just like a regular client. You can use it however you like and you can talk about the project you worked on with no repercussions. This is generally more common with large companies than it is for individuals.
  • They give you a testimonial — but you still have to stay hush-hush. Generally, when this happens, you’ll be allowed to say you worked as the person’s ghostwriter and describe the type of work you did for them, but you’ll have to keep the exact articles/books/whatever a secret. But that’s really not so bad! It’s one of those things that you get used to over time. Just make sure you check your contract so you know exactly what needs to be kept secret and what you’re allowed to blab freely about.
  • They refuse to give you a testimonial. Eh. *shrugs* It happens. That’s why you need to make sure the pay is worth it, even if you get nothing else out of the project!

Of course, some testimonials are better than others…

The 3 Elements of a Great Testimonial

1. They’re Specific.

The best testimonials are the ones that say something specific about you, whether it’s about your product (“sensational article writing!,” “writes terrific press releases!”) or about you as your character pertains to your business (“Lauren is fast!” “Lauren goes above and beyond!” “Lauren never skimps on the research when writing an article!”).

On my old website, I had this comment up in my Testimonials section:

“LOVE IT!!! Thank you very much… Highly recommended!”

Obviously that person was extremely happy with my work!  But what work did I do for him/her?  To be honest, I can’t even remember myself.  (And that Testimonial isn’t giving any hints!).  Because of this, I’ve removed it from my current Testimonials page.

I’m happy he/she was so happy, but there’s no reason to share it on my website.

2. They’re Real.

It’s a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge “no-no” to have fake Testimonials on your website.

And, like most lies, they’ll be exposed for what they are sooner or later! Like I said at the top of the page: If you do good work, people will say good things about you.

Just be patient. If your work is up-to-par, you’ll be getting good, real Testimonials in no time!

3. They Say GOOD Things.

This is probably the most obvious tip of all, but I have seen strange “Testimonials” on websites before, so I thought I’d bring it up.

Thankfully, this hasn’t happened to me (Knock wood!), but if you get a comment along the lines of “Your work was okay but it could have been better. I guess I got what I paid for. Cheap rates…” then you should really reconsider using that comment as a Testimonial!  Sure, it praises your “cheap rates,” but the rest of it is actually, well, putting you down. Why would you want to advertise that?

Testimonials are like the grown-up equivalent of grades. Just remember: A’s get a spot on the fridge; C’s do not.