by Laura Sherman
Having been a ghostwriter for twenty years, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with many writers. Most have a strong desire to earn a living through their craft. Some choose to write their own books and sell them, while others prefer to become freelance writers who sell their wordsmithing services to others while still receiving credit for their work. If you enjoy helping others share their ideas with the world through the written word, perhaps you might wish to become a ghostwriter.
A ghostwriter is someone who writes for another and receives no author credit. If you’re a professional writer who wishes to become a ghostwriter, you should know that although there are some similarities between authoring and ghosting, a ghostwriter flexes different muscles.
Over the last two decades, hundreds of experienced writers have emailed me, asking what it takes to venture into this world. I’m ever eager to encourage others to explore this unique writing opportunity. At the same time, I always caution that this move isn’t right for everyone.
A few disadvantages
There’s nothing more rewarding than helping an author write a book. However, there are some aspects of the trade you might not like. It’s good to be aware of these before entering the field.
You will work for someone else
As an author, you’re the boss. You decide what to write, how to communicate your ideas, and ultimately how the book will turn out. When you’re ghostwriting, you give up all control. For example, if you’re building a world in a sci-fi story and want to develop the main character into a strong independent woman, but your client wants her to be a man, that’s how it will be.
I always tell my clients, “I’ll tell you what I honestly think, but in the end you’re the boss and I’ll follow your wishes. After all, it’s your book.” And I mean it. My job is to educate my client on the process and guide him to the best-possible book. It’s not my job to push a particular agenda. You need to be okay with the idea of following the course set by another if you want to become a ghostwriter.
You can’t share what you’ve written
Everything you write as a ghostwriter is protected by a confidentiality agreement. Although some clients are extremely generous and allow me to share portions of their books as writing samples, it was not always so. In the beginning, people had to hire me on faith or simply based on my blog or short stories. I can tell you from experience, it’s not always easy to encourage someone to take this kind of leap of faith. Lack of writing samples makes getting a new client difficult for new writers in the industry. Even now, after having written over two dozen books, I still can’t share the titles with others.
In addition, if your friends ask you about the projects you’re working on, you won’t be able to discuss the details of the book. So, when I’m delving into the history of a new cryptocurrency or uncovering the secret remedy for a devastating disease, I can’t share much with my friends and family. Honestly, they know not to ask. Unfortunately, this can make for awkward silences when people are talking about their day around the dinner table.
Bottom line, you must be willing to keep mum about your work and find ways to promote your writing skill without samples if you want to become a ghostwriter.
Your name won’t be on the cover of the book you wrote
I think this is the toughest pill to swallow for most writers. Being a ghostwriter is a bit like being a surrogate parent. Once you finish the manuscript, your baby is out of your hands. The completed book rightly belongs to the author who hired you. This can be emotionally rough. For many this is a deal breaker.
After spending a year creating a masterpiece, you must be willing to hand over the project and disavow having played any part in its creation. You must be willing to silently step back and allow someone else to claim full credit. I honestly don’t mind this, but many do.
Having laid out all the drawbacks, I must say there are many perks for ghostwriters. Aside from the financial rewards, it’s an emotionally rich and satisfying career. We get to walk in the footsteps of many different people, learn their crafts, feel their emotions, and then share their experiences with the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!
Skills required to become a ghostwriter
If you’re a writer who wishes to become a ghostwriter, you might need to develop a few extra skills. These will set you apart from a solo writer.
You must learn to listen
A ghostwriter is a great listener.
She not only listens to the words her clients speak or write, but she also listens to their messages, themes, and writing goals. A ghostwriter breathes with her client, gets in sync with him and does her best to fulfill all of his intentions and purposes for the book.
For instance, when I interview a client and discover she wishes to write a memoir chronicling how she became a successful entrepreneur, I’m jazzed, because that’s a great message. Not only can I help her share her life story, but I can help her help others follow in her footsteps. Now, if her goal for the book is also to gain new clients, that’s important to know, as I’ll need to write her book with that in mind. Since her readership will include her future client base, these people will be interested in how specific aspects of her business might benefit them.
If you wish to become a ghostwriter, but are concerned that listening is a weak point for you, don’t worry. It’s a skill anyone can learn. It just takes some practice.
A little exercise
Listening is a skill that can be learned. Start with your friends.
Listen to them.
Then, after they leave, write down their words.
Can you recount what they said in the way they said it? Keep in mind, you’re not only listening to the content of what they’re communicating, but you’re observing the nuances of their language. Everyone has a different way of speaking. You need to hear how they put words together.
Now, if you find yourself drifting off as your friends speak, I’ll be honest, that’s not good. You need to quit that bad habit. It’s like biting your nails. How would you handle that? Yes, you can just quit doing it.
Rein yourself in and really listen to what your friends are saying. Work on improving the accuracy of your perception of the conversation until you capture the full content and tone of it.
You also need to become adept at hearing what people don’t say. If you’re writing a memoir, you are hired by your client to get at the truth. When he says something that begs a question, bring out your inner journalist and ask for details. Or if you sense that he is hiding a pertinent fact, pry a little. Of course, he has a right to his secrets, but his memoir will fail if he doesn’t open up to his public. They will be able to tell if he’s not being genuine.
A good ghostwriter will find a way to get her answer. Interviewing clients is another necessary skill to become a ghostwriter.
Become a good writer
It goes without saying that in order to be a ghostwriter, you must first be a writer: a competent, compelling, and confident writer. Writing comes from experience; you don’t need a college degree, nor must you be a published author. While both could help, neither is absolutely necessary.
Having said that, I believe it would be difficult to ghostwrite a book if you’ve never completed one yourself. There are lessons one learns simply by seeing a project through to completion. For instance, how do you overcome writer’s block? Are you able to edit out a cherished character that just doesn’t quite fit in? Every time you conquer an obstacle, you learn a lot. This helps you write a better book for your client.
I believe it will be helpful to you if you develop your own writing style and voice before you embark on the grand adventure of helping your client develop his.
Learn to capture another’s voice and style
One of the signature skills of a ghostwriter is to discover and bring out the voice and style of your clients. In order to do that, you’ll need to take a lot of notes and study all their current written work. Some clients will give you pages of a diary or blog articles they’ve written. You need to pick out the phrases they use, hone in on their style of communicating, and create a voice that will accurately portray them.
While you wouldn’t want to pass on the grammatical errors of your clients, you want their unique speech patterns and mannerisms to shine through. For instance, one client might use endearments for everyone around her, while another pauses dramatically between meaningful thoughts. You want to be sure to weave these into your book.
On the other hand, if your client has a lisp or stutter, you wouldn’t pass a speech impediment on to his character. Find the qualities that highlight who he is without amplifying the negative characteristics.
A little exercise
Capturing someone else’s style and voice is another skill you can practice. Jump on the internet and find a prolific writer who blogs. See if you can pick out her voice. What makes her uniquely her? Find those nuances.
Zero in on any cultural references. For instance, if the author is from the UK, he might use some colorful phrases unique to his region. “Blimey” or “dodgy” might be sprinkled into his dialogue.
As a ghostwriter, when you capture the author’s dialogue, you can even drop a few foreign words here and there, as long as their meaning is clear.
For instance: “Guten Tag, Herr Schmidt!” helps us know the character is of German origin.
Now, when the foreign word’s meaning isn’t completely clear, it's a good idea to define it within the text. For example: “She handed out the Stollen to her family. The buttery fruitcake was enjoyed by all.”
Ultimately, there are many ways a person communicates his thoughts and ideas. If you want to become a ghostwriter, know that it’s your job to spot these and create your client’s voice using their distinct style.
Capture your client’s viewpoints
People have a unique take on things; they see things from their particular point of view. Some will tell you outright how they feel and what they believe, while others won’t. For those who don’t, you’ll need to glean their viewpoints using interview questions. You must be able to identify these so you can help the reader see things from the author’s standpoint.
Recognizing the viewpoints of others is another skill that can be learned. You can start by observing others around you. Slip into their shoes and really see things from their perspective. Their point of view might not be yours. That’s OK. Simply understand how they feel and think about things.
In order to be a great writer, you must be able to adopt the various viewpoints of your characters. That’s one way they come to be three-dimensional (and beloved).
Another tip to differentiate characters in a book is to observe how different people react to the same situation. For instance, one friend might shriek when surprised, while another will do his best to suppress his reaction. Then there is the person who will laugh hysterically. These little details go a long way to creating believable characters.
The Business Side of Ghostwriting
One of the chief differences between being an author and being a ghostwriter is that when you’re a ghostwriter you’re running a business. That means that you’re in charge of everything—all aspects of the enterprise. You must:
It’s important to be highly organized, to keep track of all your deadlines and to answer emails and texts from clients as quickly as possible. I have a policy of answering all incoming emails within 24 hours, but usually do so within hours of receiving them.
As with any business venture, you must be professional in all aspects of the business. Of course, you should never deliver any piece late; in fact, I recommend being early. Exceed expectations.
And above all, respect the confidentiality agreement as if you were a secret agent. Your word is your bond.
Always work with a contract
Don’t try to go into business without a good professional ghostwriting contract. Trust me, if you work on a handshake basis, it can become a disaster. Part of running a successful business is making sure to provide the services you promised your clients. In order to do that, you need to be clear about what your services are.
I outline all the pertinent details for a good ghostwriting contract in another blog article, but here is a summary of what a good contract should contain:
While you can find decent contract templates on the internet, I highly recommend that you hire a lawyer who can draft one to fit your particular needs. An ambiguously worded agreement will cause you and your client trouble down the line in the event of a disagreement.
I find being a ghostwriter a very rewarding experience. Over the last twenty years I’ve worked on ten novels, eight nonfiction how-to books, and seventeen memoirs (along with a few children’s books and screenplays). I enjoy the diversity: getting to know all different kinds of people and stretching my writing muscles in a variety of genres. I have learned so much from each project and have found fulfillment in helping others meet their goal of creating a book. If you’re a writer who wants to become a ghostwriter, please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions. I’m here to help!
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