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Five Essential Tips for Ghostwriters

Read Time: 3 min

If you want to increase the number of ghostwriting projects you take on, there are five essential guidelines that I believe you must follow. If you don’t, you will probably see your business fail. Does that sound harsh? Good, it should. Because you owe it to yourself and your clients to do this thing right so that you can keep invisibly typing far into the future.

First, Let’s Define Ghostwriter

Before I give you the five essential tips, it’s important for me to define what I mean by ghostwriter because these tips are not applicable to every kind of uncredited writing you may do.

For the purpose of this post (and likely all the others in the series) I’m not talking about writing an uncredited blog post. Instead, I’m talking about work that you create explicitly for another person to take credit for.

When you write a blog post for a website and don’t get a byline, it could be assumed that the owner of the site wrote the post. Like, if Jenn credited this post to Administrator instead of me, you would likely assume that she wrote it even if that's not her intention. That kind of uncredited writing doesn’t always carry the same responsibilities and burdens as writing a book, post, paper or article that someone else is definitely and clearly going to take credit for.

5 Tips

  1. Understand, from the very start, that the work is not yours. I don’t care what anyone says, writing is a form of art. Even a simple blog post can have a beautiful turn of phrase or startling insight that comes from hours (even years) of stewing in a writer’s head. In fiction, these are called our “darlings.” When you’re writing for someone else and you deliver amazing work that includes beautiful phrasing, impressive insight, or expert-level knowledge, you must be able to give these things away like tiny little gifts. You must kill them if the client doesn't like them and be able to feel pride when the client is complimented for them.
  2. Ghostwriting is sorta like Fight Club. Before I changed my focus to ghostwriting, one of the ways I got new clients on Twitter was by talking about specific projects I was working on. For example, if I was writing articles about alternative investments—I’d say so. Now, I say nothing about specific projects unless they are personal or have a byline. There’s no hinting about what you’re doing, no nudge-nudge, wink-wink bragging, just silence.
  3. Ghostwriters gotta get paid. You would not believe the number of books I’ve started writing for clients and never finished. Not because I wasn’t ready, willing and able—but because the client’s business changed or they didn’t understand how much time it would take and had to put the project “on hold.” Maybe all (or some) of these clients will get back to me. Maybe they won’t. While I hate leaving anything unfinished, I’m not out anything because of the way I structure my payments. Large projects, such as books, require a deposit to secure (and pay for) my time. The deposit represents a certain percentage of project completion (such as the outline and first two chapters). When that part is completed, the work is turned in and another payment is due before I will continue.
  4. Have a deep, detailed contract. The relationship between a client and a ghostwriter is often a long one. Most clients aren't done with the ghostwriter once the first book is finished and they usually want to use the same writer for all future projects. Having a contract that spells out your confidentiality agreement, the payment and due date terms, the specs for each project, and so on is vital to building the foundation of trust that this intimate, long-term relationship needs.
  5. Stay away from your clients on social media. When you write for a byline or even as an uncredited blogger, connecting with a client on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter makes sense—especially since you can get a recommendation from them on LinkedIn. But when you’re ghostwriting it’s best to act as if your clients don’t exist. If they decide to friend you, that’s fine—but don’t approach them. I would also suggest that you not share links to a client’s books or projects unless the client has asked you to. It’s doubtful that anyone would know you were the secret writer of the work, and even less likely that they would care, but why take chances?

Obviously, this is a blog post not a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about ghostwriting. But of all the tips I can give you, these five are what I see as the most important to creating and maintaining a thriving ghostwriting career.

Yolander Prinzel is the profit monster behind the Profitable Freelancer website. She has written for a number of publications and websites such as American Express, Covestor.com, Advisor Today, Money Smart Radio and the International Travel Insurance Journal (ITIJ). Her book, Specialty Ghostwriting: A New Way to Look at an Old Career, is currently available on Amazon.

21 thoughts on “Five Essential Tips for Ghostwriters”

  1. Thanks for the great post, Yo. I have a question for you – and it’s one that I’m not ever able to get a straight answer on from anyone else. I’d love to transition my business into ghostwriting. I’ve done a little here and there, and they’ve typically paid better than some of my other projects. I’m wondering how you create a portfolio for this type of work if we’re dealing with Tyler Durden-level secrecy. Any tips?

    Reply
  2. It’s so much easier than you think. When I first started focusing on ghosting, I totally overthought the whole issue of clips and then I remembered that I had spent years writing without confidentiality–why the heck couldn’t I use the same clips for ghostwriting as I’d used for non-ghostwriting? Generally speaking, even if these are article, newsletter or whitepaper samples rather than book samples, this will be enough for clients to decide whether your style/approach works for them. Fiction can be a little trickier, because writing a story is much different than a nf book, but you can easily write some short stories for the purpose of having samples available.

    For clients who want to see something longer, you can create your own materials for the sole purpose of acting as a sample. I had a non-fiction book that I wrote back in 2009 that I pulled from sale but still use as a sample. One note on creating works (like short stories) for samples: make sure you get these edited and proofed just as you would any piece you were planning on selling.

    Lastly, you could put a blog on your site to help establish your authority. We writers think clients want to see clips solely in order to judge our ability, but often it’s more about building trust. If you only have a couple of writing samples to share, then focus on other ways of showing your authority and experience. BTW–I do have a blog post planned for this very topic, but these are the salient points.

    Reply
  3. Point #1, “Understand, from the very start, that the work is not yours. I don’t care what anyone says, writing is a form of art,” is tricky for some ghostwriters.

    I’ve ready many a LinkedIn post in a various writing groups about writers who want credit for their ghostwriting.

    You can receive credit as a ghostwriter, if, and this is a “big” if, your client agrees to give you a byline such as “Written with (fill in the blank).” If your client is a celebrity, he/she may admit that a ghostwriter helped write the book.

    The bottom line is that if you can’t relinquish control and/or want credit for the work, especially when the book becomes a best-seller, do not become a ghost writer.

    Reply
    • You’re right, it’s very hard for some. I’ve also noticed many ghostwriters giving hints as to who their clients are. Hints that a 5-year-old could probably figure out. It seems like, most often, this comes from a need for validation which is something ghostwriters have to find elsewhere. The thing is, ghostwriting just isn’t a good fit for every writer.

      If you’re getting credit as a co-writer or co-author, you’re stepping out of the ghostwriter seat and I would suggest that anyone doing that reconsider their contract and terms before proceeding. You want to be very clear about copyright, promotional responsibilities and liabilities in that situation.

      Reply
  4. I also have a few ghostwriting clients who allow me to take credit on my website for writing their books… a couple have even said to use them as references… two acknowledged me in their books and one, when speaking, if I’m in the audience, brings me on stage and introduces me… but with most of my clients – it’s mum’s the word.

    Btw, this can be negotiated in the contract and it’s totally okay to ask… as long as you’re willing to be told no.

    Reply
    • It’s so funny you commented. I was going to mention you in one of my comments because I thought I’d remembered you getting co-writer credit on a high visibility book (Men Are From Mars, maybe?).

      Either way, as Anne and Amandah have both pointed out, you can definitely come up with countless personalized arrangements with your clients. Just make sure you consider the added impact of these decisions on other aspects of the partnership and adjust your contract accordingly. For this series, I’m focusing only on the invisible, never-credited ghosting that I prefer to do, so you guys should definitely chime in on the co-authoring/credited end!

      Reply
  5. Hi Yo!

    My business has undergone some big changes, and half of my income and workload (though little of my marketing time) is devoted to ghostwriting. Other journalists are always tickled when I tell them about this, especially since I write a lot of romance and erotica for hire.

    These are some helpful tips. Looking forward to the other ghostwriting posts in this series.

    Reply
  6. Great post. I’ve noticed that new writers seem to have the most trouble with relinquishing that need to be recognised or credited, in my experience anyway. So you’ve made some important and valuable points here that just reflect the reality of ghost writing.

    Reply
  7. Yo:

    Great tip on #5. This only happened to me once, but it left me gasping,Oh no!

    I was in a Group on LinkedIn (industry-specific) where someone shared one of my ghostwritten articles. One of my other clients meant well, but he asked me if it was one I written. He knew my relationship with the client because of my past corporate life.

    I took the wimpy way out and acted like I never saw the question. I did mention to him (privately) that I appreciated his support, but I do not disclose who I ghostwrite for without their permission.

    Awkward.

    Reply
    • My heart entered my throat as I read your comment. My personal rule of thumb is to always answer that I can’t discuss past projects or clients. In this day and age, most people are aware that ghostwriting happens and I don’t think it has the stigma that it once did–but it does still have a very pretty confidentiality agreement that we writers are loath to breach.

      Reply
  8. Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about how my experience differs from yours as of late. I tweet about ghostwriting regularly. I don’t follow my clients, I certainly don’t @reply them, but I talk about my ghostwriting work in general. I think a large part of this is because I don’t share any specifics, and because the specific clientele I work with just don’t want me claiming work as mine afterward, but there’s no stigma or expectation of anything else, really, within the industry. I work with internet marketers a lot of ghostwriting fiction. So they don’t want me to b*tch on Amazon that I wrote that novel, but they don’t care that I talk about ghostwriting in my tweets.

    Just wanted to add my $0.02.

    Reply
    • If you want to tweet about ghostwriting itself, you certainly can—I mean, I’m writing an entire web series about it so it’s not like you can’t talk about the act of ghostwriting. My point was more along the lines of avoiding talking about specific projects (saying, “Today I’m ghostwriting about bankers who wear cashmere!” for example), not ghostwriting in general. With that said, I’m not sure what benefit is to be gained from tweeting about the act of ghostwriting when you can give no specifics about what you’re doing, but if you find it helpful to your business, have at it!

      Reply
  9. I think Yo has answered my question in the comments — I’ve been trying to find out what to do about listing samples when ghostblogging and for jobs where I copywrite for what’s on offer/on sale. I didn’t list those sites on my resume.

    I guess like discussed in comments, I’ll pick better samples from public works.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  10. I had no idea what ghostwriters actually were! I really like what you said about the specifics behind how ghostwriters usually get paid. I’ve heard that ghostwriters are easier to hire to do online articles and work rather than physically published books or articles, but I’ll have to look more into it!

    Reply
  11. Ghost writing is not for the faint of heart.

    Number one nailed it!

    Challenges that I have faced:
    Ghost writing is especially tricky when the client isn’t a reader. He might not understand that in order for the book/article to be a success it has to be written with the intended audience in mind. When it’s not, it risks becoming like that person at the cocktail party who corners you with long-winded monotonous stories – the only difference being that you can put down a book. As a writer I want people to pick the book up!

    Also difficult to handle is when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. The client starts sharing what you’ve written with friends and family, who have never put pen to paper, but are suddenly experts. Those people get ‘inspired’ and before you know it you’re are being asked to make them writers too. Arrrrg!

    I believe you have to be able to fight for the integrity of the project, but in the end it is the client’s book. You can lead a horse to water….

    Reply

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