How to become a ghostwriter

Wanna break into ghostwriting? Here are our tips for surviving the afterlife.
By Melanie Stiles | Published: October 25, 2017


How to become a ghostwriter

 

I believe in ghosts.

Oh, not in the eerie, see-a-form-pass-through-walls-and-get-your-socks-scared-off sense, or in those apparitions who leave green, gelatinous goo all over your person after they rush through you in the hallway.

No, I believe in a different sort of ghost, mainly because I am one. I am a ghost who writes material for someone else, while remaining completely invisible. Living inside my phantom presence for nearly 15 years has taught me a few things. If you happen to believe in the same ghosts that I do, and are, perhaps, considering a transformation into one such specter, I’d like to share a few tips with you about our kind of supernatural existence.

 

Tips for writers who want to become a ghostwriter 

 

1. As a ghostwriter, our first challenge is almost always our own ego.

Many writers secretly harbor an urge to grab a megaphone and yell, “Hey! Look at what I can do!” There is no need to be ashamed about these compulsions. Writers are passion-driven individuals. But there is another distinct side to our mission. Perhaps the author Enid Bagnold best describes a writer’s motives:

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything…It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

This apt description lends credence to the reasons we might entertain the idea of ghosting. Yet we must come to terms with the fact that we can never, ever drag out the megaphone as a ghost. We will have to check our ego from the start and say farewell to those daydreams about sitting across from Oprah

 

2. A ghostwriter must recognize what he can and cannot do for a client.

A certain kind of magic happens when a ghost is able to take a few recordings or a mangled mess of notes and turn them into legible copy. As our clients begin to recognize we have turned carbon into a diamond, we may take on supernatural qualities in their eyes. In a flash, we become the experts on all things writing and publishing.

This is when it’s time to be a truth-bearing ghost. Most ghostwriters are not connected in any magnificent way to the publishing world. We simply love words and we write. We may have published a few books, garnered a few contacts of our own, and have a general understanding of the business, but we will never own the title of Knows-Everything, Understands-All King or Queen of the Publishing World. The industry changes daily. It’s important, in these instances, to clarify our comments as either knowledge or opinion. It’s equally beneficial to embrace the concept that most clients are not allergic to hearing the unpopular, but relevant, words, “I don’t know, but I’ll try to help you find out.”

 

3. A ghostwriter must be accomplished in simple linguistics.

Finding your client’s voice is not only the key to getting paid but also a way to appropriately represent him or her as an authority. The average adult, native English speaker has an active vocabulary of around 20,000 words. Sounds like a lot, but further studies show we use only 25 words 33 percent of the time. So the rough material we receive from a client is likely going to contain a limited vocabulary. Yet one of the first rules of writing any copy is to avoid excessive repetition of words or phrases unless there is a decided reason to do so. That leaves a ghost fishing for words right off the bat. The key to finding a client’s true, natural vocabulary lies in getting to know him well enough to decide how to interchange word choices so that they resonant within his personality, environment, and viewpoint. It is helpful to share a meal, engage in face-to-face conversations (at least in half-hour increments), and regularly converse by telephone with the client.

Think of the process as similar to learning to swim: It’s fine to start by dipping a proverbial toe into the water, but the only way to do laps is to fully immerse oneself in the pool. When you can “hear” your client’s voice in your head, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be able to write successfully in his own voice.

 

4. Ghostwriters cannot use uniform standardized pricing for all projects.

People come in all shapes and sizes, and the same will be true about their submissions to you. If you only wish to work with a highly organized set of source materials, your projects could be few and far between. But take heart: There are simple ways to navigate such less-organized waters. If I happen to receive a cardboard box filled with 1,000 sticky notes as material for a book, I am quick to tell a client there will be an hourly charge for sorting and dissecting the information provided. This is not the same hourly rate I charge for writing. It’s a clerical rate.

In this way, ghosting takes on a variety of pricing opportunities. There are assessment fees, sorting fees, telephone billing time, transcription billing time, etc. It’s up to a ghost to decide how to break down her workload and charge accordingly. It is still important to remain consistent within her schedule of specific pricings overall. Professionalism demands we charge one client at the same hourly rate we bill another for the same task.

The primary reason for this is a well-known (and, in ghostwriting, a much-coveted) aspect of marketing called referrals. While you can advertise as a ghostwriter through bios on blogs or articles or by placing ads or running a website, you’re still essentially an invisible commodity. Rare is the client who will agree to let the world know you literally put the words in his mouth, blog, or book. That means you have no means of public recommendation or accolade. But therein lies an interesting dynamic among clients who hire ghosts: They often know others who are looking for a ghost.

Secret shoppers often find what they seek, but in doing so, they tend to be thorough in their research. Think about instances when you’ve really admired a piece of jewelry, automobile, or any other item that seriously claimed your attention. After a polite compliment, what were your first questions to its owner? “Where did you get that?” Or: “How much did you pay for it?” Even though it’s highly unlikely that any two clients would submit identical project materials, you’ll still need to be able justify why her work costs more or less than the client who sent her to you.

 

5. No matter how organized (or business-minded) a ghostwriter purports to be, there are going to be a few projects that will exceed any quoted fee.

And that’s OK. The relevant thought to nurture, during these navigations, is that our reputation is worth far more than any job acquired.

We’ve all heard the negative stories about plumbers and mechanics: “He quoted me $300 to replace my kitchen faucet, but the bill ended up $545! I’m never using him again.” It’s interesting how those NON-recommendation stories seem to reach the ears of everyone in the mistreated, offended person’s community. But there’s always a risk of the unforeseen calamity hidden inside our pipes and motors. We know that but may still feel the need to blame the craftsman.

The same is true in ghosting. It’s more than possible, in fact, even probable that we will miss the mark and underestimate time, labor, and perceived complications within a project once in a while. It is better to finish the job with integrity and avoid the risk of damaging your reputation as a ghost.

(As a side note, I’ve received many monetary “tips” when I have obviously underbid a particular project. The money might not have been what my extra time and effort was worth, but I’ve always considered the missing currency as a down payment on my reputation.)

6. Ghostwriters should never attempt to write material that goes against their core beliefs.

This shouldn’t be confused with writing the unfamiliar: It’s quite enjoyable to write about new topics. Ghosts are steeped in curiosity and more than willing to learn as they go. This singular facet of ghosting can keep the job, as a whole, interesting year in and year out. Since many ghosts are continually writing out of the same client pool, a new customer with new material can be like a breath of fresh air.

It’s quite a different story to attempt to write good material on a topic of which you inherently disapprove. The voice of your client will incessantly be arguing with your own voice every step of the way. There is also the added concern that, somehow, some way, the project’s true authorship will slip out into the public. No writer – ghost or not – should write anything he or she is not willing to own.

Every ghost has his own idea of what is permissible to flow from his pen and what is not. Heed your own standards. They have the right to be non-negotiable. There is no reason to be offensive if a project comes your way that is not to your liking. A simple, “I’m not able to work on your project at this time,” will usually suffice. It’s never a ghost’s job to judge what projects should or should not be let loose into the world, only to decide which ones we are willing to facilitate.

 

7. Finally, ghostwriters must embrace patience.

I know, I know, that’s what experts preach about all kinds of writing pursuits, but a ghost’s life is not traditional freelancing. Picture yourself, sitting at an elegant table, attending an after-wedding dinner. Your eyes take in the beautiful surroundings. But after you leave the venue, unless you are the bride or groom, how often are you going to think of that scenery again? Probably not at all – unless you decide you want to have an elegant party or get married. At that point, recalling the intricate floral table decorations you haven’t thought of in years, you might decide you have to chase down that particular florist.

Similarly, a client’s work may not inspire an additional client to seek you out for long periods of time. If you’re a beginning ghost, that could be disheartening. Practicing for free can help get you started. It’s fairly easy to find people who are looking for someone to write a family history. Legacy pieces often supply the practice we need until a paying project comes along. Patience, for some, is not a common ability, but it’s vital to a ghost. It takes time to build a client list that is both stable and steady. Every client is an advertising opportunity. That difficult client or job may just be the one that ends up supplying you with client after client down the road.

So, yes, I believe in ghosts. Those ghosts who not only write well but also capture voices and tell stories that the world would miss, if someone didn’t use his time and efforts to cause their release. The road to invisibility has its share of curves and bumps, but once there, it can be one of most fulfilling forms of writing on the planet.

So, now we’ve come to the crossroads and I need to hear your declaration. Do you believe in ghosts?

If so, I wish you all the best – even if I’ll never see you around.

 

Melanie Stiles writes freelance, edits manuscripts, and is a ghostwriter. Her “Let’s Write!” books have been well-received by the writing community. She would love to hear from you! Web: MelanieStiles.com.

 

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  • Richard Lowe

    I’m a ghostwriter, and there are lots of good common sense tips. I tend to charge the same rate regardless of the service – my time is valuable. Sometimes, for some services, I’ll outsource them (such as a book cover) with the clients permission.