If you become a ghostwriter, you can expect to get lots of questions any time you tell someone what your profession is.
I’ve spent the last three decades explaining to people what a ghostwriter is, what exactly a ghostwriter does, and why anyone would want to be a ghostwriter. Even people who already know what a ghostwriter does are curious about how the process actually works… how do I take someone else’s ideas and turn them into a piece of writing ready to be published in a form that can range in length from a blog post or an op/ed to an entire book.
And one question almost everyone asks is why people hire ghostwriters.
In this post, I will try to answer these questions and others to help you decide if being a ghostwriter would be a good career choice for you.
What Does a Ghostwriter Do?
A ghostwriter is a professional writer who is hired to take the ideas of a client and put them into a written form that the client then takes credit for by being listed as the author.
A ghostwriter and the client work together in a collaborative process to craft the message the client wants to bring to the world. Many articles, books, newsletters, blog posts, op/eds and other forms of written communication that all of us are exposed to daily were actually written by a ghostwriter and not by the person whose name is on the work.
Similarly, many speeches are not written by the person delivering them but by one or more writers working behind the scenes to craft the speaker’s message.
Sometimes on book projects, a ghostwriter is listed as a co-author, with his/her name placed below that of the lead author (the client) and in smaller type. In other cases, the ghostwriter is only mentioned in the author’s acknowledgments in books.
But in many more cases, a book’s ghostwriter remains completely anonymous and is even required to sign a nondisclosure agreement stating he/she will not tell anyone about work done for the client. And in projects that aren’t book length, the ghostwriter receives no public recognition for their work.
My own experience with ghostwriting has been entirely with nonfiction. However, some fiction authors who have collaborated with ghostwriters.
If a fiction author becomes highly popular, the publisher might want to increase his/her output by bringing a ghostwriter onto the team. And some publishers have hired a ghostwriter to continue a popular series after the retirement or even the death of the original author.
For example, several ghostwriters have written books that appeared under the name of thriller author Tom Clancy.
Two career paths are open to ghostwriters:
- working in a public relations, marketing or communications agency or
- freelancing. Yes, you can also do ghostwriting when working for a corporation, but this will mean you’re writing for the same people about the same topics over and over.
If you want variety in your career, choose either option 1 or 2; in both these scenarios you will work with a wide variety of clients and write about a wide variety of topics, making the work much more diverse and interesting than if you’re a corporate ghostwriter.
Why Do People Hire a Ghostwriter?
Ghostwriters work for all sorts of people, from solopreneurs who want to promote their consulting practices to politicians and celebrities wishing to become ever more famous and corporate executives who want to enhance the visibility of their company and themselves. Even professionals like doctors and lawyers use ghostwriters.
People hire ghostwriters for two reasons:
1) They don’t have time to do the actual writing themselves. Most people who hire ghostwriters are busy professionals whose schedules allow little time for writing projects, especially for long projects like books. However, they do have ideas they want to get out into the world to raise their profile and position themselves as leaders in their field. So they hire a ghostwriter to do the actual writing.
2) They either don’t enjoy writing or recognize that writing is not one of their strengths.
For the book projects I’ve done, nearly all my clients hired me because of the first reason above. I was fortunate in that all but one of my book clients was a good writer who could have written the book we worked on together but just lacked the time to do so.
This was not the case with many of the shorter projects I’ve worked on; for those, I’d estimate that maybe 50 percent of my clients hired me because they lacked the time to write and 50 percent just didn’t like writing or knew they weren’t good at it.
The most frustrating type of client for a ghostwriter to work with is someone who is convinced he/she is a good writer without having the actual skills to support this belief.
If you have a client like this, you will need to allow for much more editing time than usual in your project price because such clients invariably require you to produce more drafts than is normally needed when you are working with someone who is a good writer.
The collaborative process with a client who is a poor writer but doesn’t know it can also end up being contentious as you battle over syntax, word choice, and other writing issues. This back and forth can become exhausting if the project is a lengthy one, such as a book, or it’s an ongoing assignment, such as writing weekly blog posts over the course of a year.
How Does the Ghostwriting Process Work?
The process of creating ghostwritten work requires true collaboration. The ghostwriter is responsible for showcasing the client’s ideas and making them easily understandable and persuasive to readers.
The ghostwriter’s chief job is to make the client look intelligent, believable, and accomplished to readers.
The ghostwriter is also responsible for creating a realistic project timeline and for managing the writing/editing process so that deadlines are met. The client is responsible for sharing as much information as possible and for setting aside adequate time for interviews and for providing useful feedback on drafts.
For short projects, the ghostwriter conducts interviews with the client, reviews any reference materials the client might provide and perhaps does some online research on the subject.
For example, I’ve had clients share one of their PowerPoint presentations with me that they now want to turn into a bylined article for a trade or business publication. The ghostwriter then produces a draft, gets feedback from the client and then produces another draft that takes this feedback into account.
This back and forth continues until the client is satisfied with the product. In the case of short works, usually no more than two or three drafts are required before the product is marked final.
The process for writing book-length projects is different. First, the ghostwriter and client agree on a chapter outline that delineates how the book will flow and what topics will be discussed in each chapter. From there, the process can go in several directions. Generally, the client and ghostwriter just work through each chapter, going through interviews, background reading, writing a draft and then editing each chapter as it comes. But this is not the only way the work can flow.
For example, in one instance, I met with a client for an entire day and he took me through numerous PowerPoint presentations he had put together on his topic, which was strategic partnerships. I then returned home with pages and pages of notes and wrote the entire first draft of the book before sending it off to him for review. This is not an ideal work method, but the client was traveling out of the country for several months and this was the best way we could get the book done by the publishing deadline. So sometimes you have to be flexible about how you organize the writing process.
If any of these project responsibilities mentioned above are not met – for example, if the client can’t meet deadlines for reviewing drafts and providing feedback – projects deadlines are apt to fall by the wayside. It is up to the ghostwriter to get things back on track, which can often mean working nights and weekends.
In a similar vein, if the ghostwriter bristles at client feedback and cannot deal with constructive criticism of his/her writing, the collaboration isn’t likely to work.
It is essential for a ghostwriter to be able to set his/her ego aside and realize that it is the voice of the client that needs to come through in the writing. On the other hand, it is the ghostwriter’s duty make sure issues like grammar and punctuation are corrected before the final product is made public so that the client is no embarrassed by a subpar piece of writing.
Another part of the process that I should mention is proofreading. While the ghostwriter can usually take responsibility for this for short projects, it is a good idea to hire a proofreader for longer projects such as books. This is because you generally go through so many drafts when writing a book that it is hard to come at proofreading with fresh eyes. This is true for both the client and the ghostwriter.
So having a third set of eyes to review the project in its final stages is always smart.
What Experience and Training Do You Need to Be a Ghostwriter?
A bachelor’s degree in Journalism, Public Relations or Communications is a basic requirement for a ghostwriter who is going to work in the nonfiction arena.
All of these majors should give you a solid grounding in the interviewing, researching and writing skills that are essential for a nonfiction ghostwriter. I have a master’s in Journalism and found this credential definitely gave me a leg up when competing for projects. If you hope to be a fiction ghostwriter, a degree that has immersed you in a study of literature would be helpful, as would having published some fiction of your own, such as short stories.
As for work experience, many ghostwriters have at least a decade or more experience in fields such as public relations, corporate communications, or journalism.
This is not a field you are likely to be able to enter into without this type of experience behind you. However, you can begin to gain experience in ghostwriting in entry-level positions at public relations agencies or in PR/communications departments at corporations.
The chief thing is to gain experience in handling a wide variety of topics and with working with different types of clients, all of which will come in handy if you eventually decide to become a freelance ghostwriter.
My first experience with ghostwriting came when I was working in the Corporate Communications Department of a large life insurance company; the CEO asked me to become his speechwriter. He had seen my writing in the employee newsletter and liked it.
Thus began my life of putting words in other people’s mouths. As I moved into working in public relations, both in corporations and in agencies, I was often writing articles for business and trade journals that bore the byline of a company executive of an agency client. Once I was self-employed, I moved onto larger projects, including books. I did this by convincing a client that we should co-author a book. Having my name on a book as a co-author gave me something I could show prospective clients to prove that I was capable of writing book-length projects. This is a typical path for a writer who eventually ends up ghostwriting books.
Another path some ghostwriters have followed to establish the credibility to work on book projects is to self-publish a book of their own. This then shows prospective clients who are seeking a ghostwriter for their books that you’re capable of writing a book-length work.
Obviously, it also is essential to have at least some knowledge of the field a client wants you to write about.
How deep this knowledge has to go usually depend on the nature of the project you’re undertaking. Anyone who is going to hire you to ghostwrite a book will want you to be reasonably well versed in the subject matter and probably to have already written about it in shorter formats such as published articles. However, they won’t expect your knowledge of the topic to be as in-depth as theirs. At the same time, they will not want to pay for the time it would take you to learn a new topic from scratch.
Thus, for example, if you don’t have some experience in writing about medical topics, a doctor is unlikely to hire you.
For short projects, like blog posts, for example, the level of knowledge you have to bring to the project can be much less. That’s why such short projects are good entry level work that you can use to begin to build your portfolio. It would be unrealistic to seek out book-length projects if you haven’t already done a considerable amount of ghostwriting of magazine articles, speeches, and other shorter works.
What Do Ghostwriters Earn?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, the 2017 median pay for writers and authors was $61,820 per year.1 (They do not have a category specifically for ghostwriters, so this is the closest category available that involves work comparable to that of a ghostwriter.)
It is possible to earn a six-figure salary as a ghostwriter. This, of course, will require having considerable experience behind you. But it can be done.
Experienced speechwriters also do quite well. According to salary.com, the average salary for a speechwriter in the U.S. is $130,126 as of January 31, 2019.3
Typical hourly rates in major metropolitan areas for a highly experienced ghostwriter range from $80 to $100 or even $120. This would be for projects such as blog posts, bylined articles, and websites.
Book-length projects usually involve contracts that specify a fixed budget. I have been paid from $10,000 to $40,000 to ghostwrite a book. If you’re lucky enough to get a celebrity or a high-level politician as a client, you could make much more than that top figure and might even be able to get them to agree to pay you part of any royalties the book might earn.
What Is the Outlook for Job Growth in This Field?
Again according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, the growth in jobs for writers and authors is expected to run at 8 percent through 20262. We live in a world where content is king, so more and more people need ghostwriters to help them spread their message.
If you’re a skilled writer who loves variety in terms of the topics you’re writing about and you enjoy working in collaboration with others, ghostwriting can be rewarding. You get to meet interesting, successful people, and the work is intellectually challenging. All in all, it adds up to a stimulating career choice.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Writers and Authors, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/writers-and-authors.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Writers and Authors, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/writers-and-authors.htm