A Lucrative Niche for Writers: How to Become a Ghostwriter

A Lucrative Niche for Writers: How to Become a Ghostwriter

Thomas Jefferson might as well have been describing how to break into ghostwriting when he wrote, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

In the summer of 2014, I quit my job to pursue full-time self-employment as an author and editor. Knowing that a majority of my income would likely not come from my books, I focused on seeking editing work. In less than a year, I shifted my focus to ghostwriting, a professional avenue I thought would be forever closed to me because I simply didn’t have the connections. I knew no celebrities, political figures or rich business types, but I did have three key assets: experience, patience and luck.

This isn’t just my story either. In taking an informal poll of online connections who also ghostwrite books, common threads of experience, patience and luck wove through every story of how they first got paid to help other people tell their stories.

Before I cover the practical aspects of how to become a ghostwriter, let’s consider why you should add “Ghostwriter” to your writing services:

  • You’ll get paid upfront. No more waiting on royalties like you would for writing your own books!
  • It’s lucrative. With the right clients, you can earn substantially more than other writing services you provide.
  • No need for marketing. Because your name isn’t on the book, you don’t have to do any marketing, which means you can proceed to the next project ASAP. Authors who don’t enjoy marketing often see this as even more beneficial than how much they earn from ghostwriting projects. (Unfortunately, you will still have to market yourself to get clients, but that’s content for another post.)
  • You can keep emotional distance. Because the book is not your own child, you’ll be able to see its strengths and weaknesses clearly, bringing a helpful perspective to the client.
  • The subject matter is fascinating. When you choose the right clients, you learn as you write: about other people’s lives, their professions and industries you otherwise might not come across.
  • It will make you a better writer. Ghostwriting consistently challenges your writing skills. If you’ve ever had trouble meeting your daily word count goals, try ghostwriting a book for a client who has already paid you!

With those considerations in mind, it’s little wonder that writers want to know how to break into ghostwriting, but the process isn’t easy or fast. Becoming a ghostwriter is equal parts patience, determination, experience, confidence, marketing, and, well, luck.

It’s that last part that most aspiring ghostwriters don’t want to hear, but it’s true — and we’ll get to why luck is a necessary ingredient in a moment.

ghostwriter

Here’s how to get started in this lucrative profession:

1. Gain experience

Journal. Blog. Guest post. Write for publications like The Write Life. Send letters to the editor. Make insightful comments on websites. Self-publish a book (properly edited, of course). Create a family email newsletter. In whatever ways you can, write, write, and write some more.

And don’t forget to read. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” Stephen King wrote. “Simple as that.” Read high-brow, low-brow, classics, and today’s popular books. Alternate between fiction and nonfiction — nonfiction authors must know how to tell a compelling story. Read books about the craft of writing and storytelling, like King’s On Writing and McKee’s Story.

Put in your 10,000 hours of reading and writing. Earn the right to write for others.

2. Be patient

Ten thousand hours is 1.14 years, but that means you’d have to be doing that one single thing every hour of every day. Let’s say that five days a week you read for an hour per day and write for two hours per day, a generous assumption for most writers with full-time responsibilities outside of writing. At that rate, it will take you 12.8 years to become an expert writer.

My story witnesses to this Gladwellian opinion. I began to take my writing seriously as a freshman in college at the age of 18. Every one of my post-college jobs was related to reading or writing, but I also suffered serious doubts about my abilities and so let the blinking cursor blink for long stretches at a time. Sixteen years later, I was offered my first ghostwriting gig.

By no means do I believe myself an expert. Hemingway, who one could argue was an expert, said it well: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

Patience doesn’t mean biding your time until the right person contacts you. Patience means constant practice until you’re ready for the right person to contact you.

3. Get lucky

Of the six online ghostwriters who responded to my question about how they broke into ghostwriting, every single one said they’d been working on smaller writing projects before “getting lucky” and breaking into ghostwriting:

  • Mike Loomis started in multimedia curriculum development and book and product marketing before realizing he could help authors through offering ghostwriting services.
  • Pat Springle wrote for two organizations who loved what he produced and helped others finish their manuscripts before launching into a successful 20-year career as a ghostwriter.
  • Emily Chase Smith was an attorney, financial coach for business owners, and an author before witnessing how her combined passions would lead to success as a business book ghostwriter.
  • Alice Sullivan wrote web and magazine copy for Country Music Television (CMT) during an internship before being asked by a major publisher to ghostwrite two books.
  • Joy Wickholm Bennett had been doing short-form ghostwriting for clients when she was approached to ghostwrite a full book.

In my case, I proofread bills and laws for the Texas Senate, directed communications for a large church, wrote copy for a law firm, edited a content marketing website, and became a self-employed editor before breaking into ghostwriting through a fortuitous referral. At the time, I thought I was lucky to have earned the opportunity to write for someone else and be paid for it.

That job has led to two more direct referrals, which makes me feel even luckier to have been granted that first step into the world of ghostwriting. But before getting lucky, I gained experience and practiced patience. The luck would never have been achieved without them.

If you’re a ghostwriter, how did you break into the business? If you want to be a ghostwriter, what questions do you have about finding ghostwriting opportunities?

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118 comments

  • Mike Loomis says:

    Excellent post, Blake!

    • Are there levels of being involved with a person who wants something written, instead of doing the entire book. I am very creative. I am wondering if there is such a position that some can write the story line and provide an outline and follow up, coaxing/advising services? What do you call that type of work description?

    • I really appreciate your tips and the Jane Friedman link. I’m a former broadcast and print journalist-turned-content/copywriter. I don’t just write and edit (and ghostwrite) blog posts, articles, press releases, and kits. I can write non-fiction video scripts, documentaries, screenplays and radio and television features (I was an NPR, North Carolina Public Television, Pacifica, Christian Science Monitor, and National Native News contributor). I’ve also written spot copy. I studied screenwriting in film school where I discovered I have good fiction-writing chops as well. (I’m taking a hiatus from my MFA in Film & Video to raise the capital to finish.) In short, I write proficiently and comfortably in multiple mediums (including web content, of course).

      I figure after 35+ years of professional writing, my skills should be strong enough to break into ghostwriting. Yet, alas, I have not ventured into the book publishing world. However, book writing is the natural next step. In fact, I’m working on my first non-fiction book. So I have several questions:

      1. How can I leverage my skills and experience and segue into the publishing world?
      2. Given the range of my skills and experience, what ways can I snag ghostwriting gigs? Who might be my target? I’d like to sink my teeth into a fun project for someone. I’ve also got top-notch research skills.
      3. I’d also love to write a good video script for someone who needs one. Any ideas as to how I might go about it?

      Note: I’m a new freelancer. I currently write for an Atlanta-based entrepreneur and a Miami-based art curator. The work’s fun but doesn’t pay enough. Btw … I’m restructuring and rebuilding my brand and website.

      • Stephanie says:

        I’m in a similar position. Though I don’t have so many stunning credentials, I do have credentials, and they are good. I’m heading into my 10th year in the writing/journalism arena, and would really like to hear the OP’s reply to this question. How do you recommend someone transition from the journalistic life into the book publishing and ghostwriting one?

        • Blake Atwood says:

          Ten years in journalism sound like pretty good credentials to me!

          My three suggestions:

          1. Define your target market. What kind of people do you want to write for? Where do your particular talents and interests meet the needs of would-be clients in search of a ghostwriter?

          2. Tell the world you’re seeking ghostwriting work for those specific kinds of clients.

          3. If possible, reach out to connections you’ve made in your former job(s). Ask if they need writing help, or if they know of anyone who does.

          My first ghostwriting gig happened because a friend of mine knew I was looking for those kinds of jobs. The subsequent gigs happened by word-of-mouth.

          You can also be proactive and try cold-calling or cold-emailing the kinds of clients you’d want to work with. I’ve done that. The percentages of landing such a client aren’t as in your favor, but it does work.

  • Nikki Carter says:

    Would love to hear your recommendations for resources to find these types of gigs! I have been writing in various forms since I was young but only got serious about it as a career path about 5 years ago. I’ve written for local blogs, started my own site, and am currently trying to expand a copy editing client base. I would love to quit my job as a full-time healthcare analyst to move into supporting myself solely from editing/writing work.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment Nikki.

      I found Kelly James-Enger’s “Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks” to be helpful in regard to the world of ghostwriting: http://www.amazon.com/Goodbye-Byline-Hello-Big-Bucks/dp/0988818507

      In regard to finding clients, I’m currently reading “Book Yourself Solid.” I haven’t finished it, but it’s been motivating and insightful: http://www.amazon.com/Book-Yourself-Solid-Reliable-Marketing/dp/0470643471

      As for establishing clientele, it involves a lot of selling yourself and letting people know what you do.

      My first ghostwriting gig came as a referral. A friend couldn’t take the job, so she referred me to the client because she knew I could write and that I was looking for those kinds of opportunities.

      So, let everyone you know know that you’re looking for more writing work.

      Once I finished that first client’s book, that client referred me to two of his clients, who I’m now working for. As these clients are all in the same professional field, I’m considering marketing my ghostwriting specifically to that field.

      So, do good work and more work should come.

      Considering targeting a niche that interests you or that you’re knowledgeable about. If that targeted client isn’t looking for a full book, ask if they need a ghost blogger (then when they see what you can do, casually pitch a book idea to them). If you have the time, offer to write an article for free.

      So, cast a wide net in a small pond.

      Like most jobs, it’s about finding and establishing relationships—but the great thing about ghostwriting is that you can choose your clients.

  • Thanks for the great post. Encouraging and insightful. Until January of 2014, I always worked a 40/wk job to live and wrote on the side. But when the business closed, I made the giant leap to figure out how to feed my family writing. Just as you wrote about, luck played a big part of my first GW gig. But I had written for fifteen years for myself and some notable television personalities. Never able to sustain a life as a writer until the rug was pulled out. The other excellent point you made is to cast a wide net. Let everyone know, because you never know who knows someone looking to tell their story and needs a writer to guide them.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thanks for commenting Andrew, and good on you for (involuntarily) jumping into full-time writing. There’s nothing quite like sheer professional terror as a motivator.

      And thanks for being a prime case study of what the article talks about: writing to gain experience until the time was right for you to pursue full-time writing work.

  • zahir says:

    I don’t know why I am posting a comment on this, but I believe in “first thought is best thought” thing. I really like your post and now when I think about writing something, I feel like I don’t have any of those abilities…. No experience, I have some patience but certainly no luck. So how I supposed to be a better writer.I Like to write poetry and these days I am feeling like I’ve used all the words. I am stuck and frustrated. Really need some expert advise.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Consider reading one (or all) of these books: http://www.blakeatwood.com/the-7-best-books-on-writing.

      Then make it a point to write every day, even if it’s just a few hundred words, and even if those words aren’t the best.

      I’ve always liked to consider my crappy words as fertilizer for the better ones to come.

      • Bj Wood says:

        Blake, I love this quote!

        “I’ve always liked to consider my crappy words as fertilizer for the better ones to come.”

        Thank you,
        Bj

      • I saw you had listed Bob Bly’s The Copywriters Handbook as one of the best books to start your career. A great choice and I have read it and his other books. I receive his newsletter and he always answers my emails. (He even asked me to send him one of my books.) I have learned much from him. I love writing and write something everyday. This is a great website, thanks for sharing the information.

  • Jessie Kwak says:

    Blake, thanks for this great post. I’ve gotten a couple of ghostwriting gigs for articles (no book projects yet), and I’ve found it’s really fun.

    Like you said, it came to me rather than me looking for it – but definitely as a result of hard work. I’m a B2B business writer, and writing regular articles for a freelance editor/content manager. He was taking on a new client for a set of ghostwritten articles, and asked if I would take on a few of the articles.

    Since then I’ve had other clients ask if I do ghostwriting when the company’s CEO is interested in placing articles in industry magazines.

    The trick I’ve found so far is that you have to have your own body of writing to show as clips – since ghostwriting is built on a code of secrecy (no one wants to reveal they didn’t write a piece!), you normally can’t share those pieces with prospective clients.

    But prospective clients normally understand that, too. I find if I just say, “Sorry, I’ve signed NDAs with my other ghostwriting clients, but I can tell you my work has appeared in HubSpot and CMI,” they’re cool.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Great points Jessie, and thanks for sharing part of your story here. I know it’s helpful to others looking to break in to ghostwriting of any kind. I struggled with marketing myself as a ghostwriter early on. How could I show that I can capture someone else’s voice when I can’t reveal I’m the actual writer? That’s why, just like you write, it’s so important to build up your own work.

      • Terri Fowler says:

        Hi Blake, Jesse! Ghostwriting is a venue that has also fallen into my lap. I just finished a book and someone has inquired about me ghostwriting their story. I am so honored with the opportunity, however do not have any resources on how to jumpstart GW as a career path.

        Any help is appreciated.

  • HI
    I traditionally authored,’Yo God! Jay’s Story’ and just presented it at a book signing event at the prestigious Huntington Book Revue last month. Since this event I was approached to ghost write a book for an author who wrote a book that has a translation problem. She is an immigrant and her grammar etc. needs reworking )Even with this, she does well at speaking engagements . (They pay her to speak on the subject) She wants me to ghost write her book and is offering me half her speaking income. I don’t know how much that is or how much to charge for her 150 page self pubbed book. Can you cast any light on this for me?

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Pricing is often challenging. If she approached you, ask upfront what half of her speaking income is. If the price sounds good to you and provides what you’d like to make per hour you’ll spend on the project, take it. If not, counter.

      Never take on a project without a clear understanding of what will be required of you and how you’ll be compensated for it.

      You will have to weigh the benefits of what ghostwriting this first book could do for you. Do you want to charge less so you can gain the experience? That’s what I did for my first ghostwriting book (plus, I didn’t know average rates.)

      I often refer to the Editorial Freelancers Rates page for help: http://the-efa.org/res/rates.php.

      Kelly James-Enger’s book on ghostwriting also lists what she typically charges, but you have to take her many years of experience into account too: http://www.amazon.com/Goodbye-Byline-Hello-Big-Bucks/dp/0988818507

      Whatever you choose to charge, know why you’re charging that amount and be confident in what you can offer your client.

  • Kevin Johns says:

    I broke into ghostwriting by offering to ghostwrite a book for someone for free. It was a huge investment of time and energy, Butit also got me the experience and the testimonial I needed to launch my ghost writing business.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      I’d never suggest that someone do substantial ghostwriting for free for the two reasons you mentioned: time and money. But, it’s good to hear that it ultimately proved beneficial for you.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Mary says:

    Hi Blake, great post! I am curious what “lucrative” really means in this context, though – especially because the range of salary that writers and editors bring in can be pretty huge. Also, is it possible to break into ghostwriting more intentionally than a stroke of luck with a big-name connection? How about marketing yourself as a ghostwriter when you can’t share your ghostwriting portfolio easily?
    Thanks!
    Mary

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Based on other ghostwriters I’ve spoken with, lucrative can mean $15,000 to $25,000 per 50,000-word (or more) books, and that’s not even for “known name” clients. Ghostwriters for celebrities and well-known figures can earn much more.

      The rates are maddeningly variable though, as you said. It depends on the ghostwriter’s experience, the client’s budget, and what the ghostwriter may be willing to settle for (i.e. a lower price for a co-write credit, or a lower price to get the experience, or a higher price because travel is involved, etc.)

      As for breaking into ghostwriting without “luck,” I don’t know. As the post shows, every ghostwriter connection of mine eventually “lucked” into it after years of gathering experience—which leads to your next question.

      I still wrestle with how best to market myself as a ghostwriter for the precise reason you said—you can’t show what you’ve done for other people—which is why it’s all the more important for you to write your own articles, blog posts, or books, so that a potential client can see what they’re getting.

      An alternative approach is to write a stellar proposal or first chapter of what a client’s book could be and give that to them for free.

      As I wrote in another comment, “Book Yourself Solid” may help you think through this. It’s not written directly for ghostwriters, but it can prove helpful in making you consider who to target and how to target them: http://www.amazon.com/Book-Yourself-Solid-Reliable-Marketing/dp/0470643471.

      • Mary says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough response, Blake. I will check out those books you listed.

      • JoAnne says:

        Hello Blake and thank you for this post!

        While I have always had a passion for writing and many have told me as far back as I can recall, to write, as I capture others hearts through my writting; I am, well, I guess intimidated. Intimidated because I don’t know where to start, how to create a blog or how to market my blog if one was to be created. I had previously gathered contact information on greeting card companies, however, with my own whirl pool of life changing experiences, it set me back on pursuing this avenue as a stepping stone.

        I’ve also maintained my own collection of journals through the years and would like to publish my own book or books on various life matters. Here’s where the intimidation presents itself. Everyone has a story! Everyone has written a book! Everyone has similar or same occurrences that took place! So, how would one make their story, thoughts or outlook on life at various levels shine above others? Is it in the content itself, the words used to express, the title, what? What makes one story better then the other? I find writing in many ways to be like the common Italian restaurant; there’s one every mile or so, BUT to make your restaurant, (though in this case a book) better then all others, you must exceed what others have in quality, flavor and offer what others may not!

        What suggestions can you provide, that will give me a better insight on how to become a successful writer?

        Your time and suggestion(s) are most appreciated in advance.

        Sincerely,
        JoAnne

        • Blake Atwood says:

          I wish there were an easy answer to your question JoAnne. The hard truth is that very rarely do successful writers “just happen,” and neither do they really know if their book will be a hit. John Steinbeck wasn’t sure that East of Eden would be well-received, and in my opinion and many others’, it’s his magnum opus. About 50,000 copies of that book are still sold every year. But Steinbeck didn’t know that would happen.

          What he did know was that, even for a chance at becoming “successful,” he had to put in thousands of hours. He had to become a disciple of the craft of writing. Even then, there was no assurance of success.

          So whatever you do and whatever you write, just keep writing. Keep seeking feedback. Listen to what people say, but listen to what your heart says more.

          The way to make your book stand out is to make it *your* book. Find your unique voice, or keep writing until you do. Then tell your story the way only you can tell it. You’re the only you in the world, and that’s what makes even the same stories different. Make sense?

          • JoAnne says:

            Thank you kindly for your feedback it’s well received and yes, it makes sense!

          • Vincent says:

            I see the fact that you was intimidated by other and everyone has a story which could be simular or relate but everyone not writting from the same propectiveful point of view also writting is another way of expression only difference is its documented and another thing dont look for competitors neither competition just write your story put your perspective on it as i just did with this comment i also recommend when writting give the readers somthing they can gain from your story rather its advise knowledge a lesson or whatever because reading is pointless if you cant learn somthing from it but thats just my opinion but right now im looking into getting into ghost writting and writting books have no experience just started on my first book today thats gone take alot of time and patience but when im done it a be well worth the wait for me as well as other i would really like to share and give a overview of this project just dont know the person to link up with but if anyone interested in what i have to offer to the book industry feel free to respond back

  • I was writing my own books for years, even had an agent once, but couldn’t get anything published, and when I did self publish my first book, I couldn’t sell many copies. So I put an ad in a local paper to ghostwrite and copyedit, realizing I could make more money writing for others than myself. Very quickly I got my first ghostwriting job and the book won an award, so I was encouraged. Unfortunately, over the past 15 years I’ve been in business, that first ghostwriting job was my best and most lucrative, and now I get way more editing jobs than ghostwriting. I’m always interested in reading about how others are finding work ghostwriting books, as my smaller jobs (blogs, articles, website copy) have been taken over by bid sites with foreign, CHEAP workers! I’d love to have a few well-paid ghostwriting gigs to supplement the editing and teaching I do.
    Andrea

    • Blake Atwood says:

      I’ve read many times over that the better-paying writing gigs tend to be those you don’t find online, which means you have to market yourself or have other people effectively marketing for you through referrals.

      Of my three major ghostwriting projects to date, all three were referrals and, as far as I know, never posted online. That’s not to denigrate writing jobs offered online, as those can be beneficial, but it is to say that marketing and forming in-person (or on the phone) professional relationships can help increase your effective rate.

      All the best in your continued hunt.

  • Shah Wharton says:

    Thanks for an interesting post. I’ve read the comments too, which are illuminating. I ghostwrite fiction and have done for around a year and a half. But the pay is no where near as lucrative as mentioned in your comment, as most clients won’t pay it anymore. I’m slowly increasing my fee and will, perhaps in another year or so, climb up to the average cost per word [which I read was around 25c-50c].

    Writing for other people is, however, already way more lucrative than royalties from work I’ve published. Mostly because I’m horrendous at marketing, but also because my output markedly increases for clients than for myself. Like you say, there’s less of an attachment, more clarity.

    I initially found clients on sites like Elance and Fiverr, where people expect 30k words for around $50! (I never was that cheap!) but have acquired much better paying regulars for that experience. Fact is, I’m always seeking to improve, whether it’s my craft or my clientele 🙂

    Shah.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thanks for sharing part of your story Shah. Are you working with self-publishing authors who have an idea for a story and want you to turn it into something worth reading? I haven’t written fiction, so I’m intrigued. I ask if they’re self-pubbed since I’d assume they wouldn’t be able to pay as much. (FWIW, I’m pro self-pub and pro cost-effectiveness!)

      Pricing is often a pain, and much of it depends on what your client has allotted to spend, what they think it should cost, and how well you sell yourself. I like to think of it as, “What can you do for them that they can’t do for themselves?”

      • Shah Wharton says:

        Yes, my clients are mostly self-publishers who need a quick turnaround and high output. Sometimes they provide a very basic outline, other times they provide just a genre, a word count, and I do the rest. This work teaches me about writing, specifically about planning ahead and outlining with story beats, and to write fast while avoiding redundancies and fluff. Also, I’m primarily a horror/spec-fic author, so the challenge of writing other genres like romance, young adult, comedy, and mystery has taught me to challenge myself, to exceed my limits.

        In many ways, this is a great area to begin ghostwriting. But of course, I do want to move on to better things. 🙂

  • Murigi Wainaina says:

    Thanks Blake for sharing this post with us. I am just starting out in the world of freelancing. I recently did a small ghost writing job for a client on Elance and at the end of it I had conflicting thoughts. For a while I felt like a surrogate mother who had carried a baby throughout the nine months gestation only to hand it over to another woman and earn no credit for her effort. What is your experience with search conflicts and what do others say?

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Nice metaphor, and true. That’s one of the tradeoffs of ghostwriting—and one of the issues that some writers have with it too. You’re being paid off so that someone else can receive credit. Is that bad? There’s a lot of debate about that.

      I tend to look at it as pure business. I stand to make more from ghostwriting than I do from royalties off my own books. Now, that may not always be the case, as you never know when a book may go big. You could ghostwrite a book that sells millions, but never make the money that goes with that or be able to say, “I’m a NYT bestselling author.”

      But if you’re writing those kinds of books, I’m going to guess that you’ll have steady ghostwriting work for a long time.

      Plus, for me, ghostwriting keeps me on my toes and keeps me writing consistently and with high standards. I don’t always work on my own books (or even have tons of ideas for books like other writers), but I find myself very engaged with the ideas my clients want to turn into books. I enjoy the process and consider myself fortunate to be in such a position. When their book does well (whether in sales or in helping others), I celebrate with them, albeit quietly and in the shadows.

  • Sherry says:

    Thanks for this article, Blake. Always great to hear how others are breaking into such fields. I, myself, have been freelancing editing for the past decade or so, probably much longer really, and have recently expanded my business to include writing content and communications materials. I have also been lucky to have been ghostwriting several blog posts for local marketing companies. Having had the pleasure of working alongside a few local business leaders as their developmental editor for their business books, I’d love to crack into the ghostwriting avenue more regularly.

    Cheers!

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Writing for content marketing is a huge (and lucrative) “ghostwriting” opportunity for writers too. Would you mind sharing how you landed those gigs for other people that might be reading these comments?

      Or, what are you doing to try to get more ghostwriting opportunities?

  • Stooko Davis says:

    What?! No “How to become a ghostwriter in 3 easy steps”? Great article, Blake!

  • Richard says:

    Getting serious about writing at age 66. Add 10,000 hours, will be ‘experienced’ by 78.5?
    Enjoyed this article.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Ha! Thanks Richard. Just sequester yourself for a year and write 24/7. On a more serious note, I’m willing to bet you probably have more writing experience than you’re giving yourself credit for.

  • Denise says:

    Your advice is “be patient” and “get lucky”? Seriously?

    • Blake Atwood says:

      The subheaders were tongue-in-cheek, a play off of the opening Jefferson quote, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

  • Lorraine says:

    I’m intrigued! Writing fiction for years and freelanced for local newspaper but never considered ghostwriting. Not sure if you’re covered the topic of writing fiction vs non-fiction…I’m thinking that some people may be better suited for one or the other and it’s something to consider before you commit to a job. Maybe good writing is good writing. And how much research is necessary for either genre? Is the ghostwriter ultimately responsible for factual content? With fiction, there is the problem of establishing the author’s voice and not your own voice. Interested in your thoughts.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      I’ve only ghostwritten nonfiction, so I can’t speak toward writing fiction. I do think you need particular talents and experience to write for each.

      For the nonfiction ghostwriting I’ve done, a majority of the research has already been done by the client, but from what I understand of other writers I’ve spoken to, this isn’t always the case, e.g. a ghostwritten biography will require extensive interviewing and research.

      As for “ultimately responsible for factual content,” I’d say yes, but the author (client) ought to have read the book before it’s published anyway so that any red flags can be raised before the book is released. The ghostwriter should always be his or her client’s sherpa.

      With fiction AND nonfiction, a ghostwriter has to establish the author’s voice … which is a topic I’m actually covering for another post here on The Write Life in due time.

      Thanks for reading and commenting Lorraine. Hope my answers helped spur your thoughts.

  • Kim Pearson says:

    Good post. I’ve been a full-time ghostwriter for over 16 years, and it has been the most fulfilling job I can imagine. Today I teach other writers how to be ghostwriters as well. I’d like to add one reason to your list of why to ghostwrite:

    Your mind and your heart will be stretched, and your tolerance and compassion will grow. In order to write as someone else, you must understand them on a deep level. You will learn how others think – even others radically different than you. Like actors, ghostwriters play many roles, just on the page instead of the stage. Unlike an actor, a ghostwriter is not constrained by their gender, age, race or culture. I am a middle-aged white American woman from the West Coast. But as a ghostwriter, I’ve been an African-American man from New York, a Japanese-American woman, an Iranian immigrant, a self-described redneck from Oklahoma, and oh yes, some middle-aged white American women. I’ve been any age from 20 to 90. I’ve been a doctor, an accountant, an entrepreneur, a cop, a scientist, a shaman, a gardener. And so on. And guess what I discovered? We’re all human, and we have more similarities than differences. When you have participated in someone’s dream, hatred is impossible.

  • Diana Khoury says:

    Great article. Could you share some insight, re: how best to provide an accurate quote for a project? By the word, or hour or ? I tend to bid on projects, I get them, and the work takes much longer than expected.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Quoting is always a challenge. You may want to figure out what you’d like to make per hour, estimate how long their project will take you, then charge a flat rate. Clients typically don’t care what your hourly rate is so long as the finished product they receive has the value you put into it.

      If you find yourself taking much, much longer on projects, consider these two suggestions:

      1. Use a tool like Toggl.com to track your time. Get specific about how you’re spending your time (i.e. writing vs. editing vs. research) and see where your bottlenecks are. As you accrue more work, you’ll start to see what’s eating your time. It will also help you be able to more effectively estimate how much time you’ll need to complete a project.

      2. Build in checkpoints in your contract, i.e. The client owes so much after three chapters have been written, etc. This could help prevent scope creep. (Also, consider looking up “preventing scope creep for freelancers” on Google.)

      Sometimes the extra time is your fault; sometimes it’s the clients. Either way, you should know that these speed bumps are more than likely going to happen—so build in time for that and be sure you get paid for that time.

  • Tamara says:

    Excellent article and equally excellent responses to those who commented. You don’t often see an author who is so responsive.

    I do some ghostwriting as a secondary function of my main writing job. I write for a non-profit — copy, position papers, board presentation, fundraising letters, etc. But the fun part is ghosting editorial pieces for legislators who wish to support the cause. Fun, because it’s challenging and I get to be someone else.

    First step — I collect any- and everything I can get my hands on that they’ve written and absorb it. If possible, I talk to the person for whom I’m writing (I’m usually working through an intermediary party). If I can’t do that, I talk with someone who knows the person well — try to find out what’s important to them, their personality. I look up voting records, newspaper articles, etc. — anything to get in their head.

    To me, the best part of ghostwriting is the chance to get completely out of yourself — forget about yourself and help someone else shine.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Great points, Tamara. I’ve been fortunate enough so far to work directly with those I ghostwrite for, but I know that might not always be the case. Conducting some journalistic work with those that know your author is a great tip, and I’m sure it can only help even when you do have access to your primary source.

  • Brian Boys says:

    Blake,
    This is a great post and I hope it inspires people to pursue this route.

    There’s a lot of ego tied up in writing, which is why a lot of people who want to make it their job, wouldn’t want to ghost write. Then you have to have enough skill to write in the voice of the person your ghosting for. And THEN you have to get out of your comfort zone and make those connections.

    But in my experience, this is a huge market for freelance writing.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      All salient points Brian. My next post for TWL will suggest a few ways to learn to write in another’s voice.

      But, I’d say it’s making the connections that can often prove more challenging. Strangely enough, ghosting requires both an ego (“Let me write your book!”) and just as much a lack of it (“It’s your name on the cover.”)

      Yet I also think that a lot of the writing life is spent in that purgatory between deep pride and utter self-loathing: “This is the most amazing thing that’s ever been written.” vs. “Who in the world is ever going to read this?”

      The fact that any of us can still publish something in light of that, and that people actually read and respond to—now that’s inspiring.

  • Just came across your blog and replying from my phone. So don’t mind the typos.

    I’m currently a full-time writer focusing mostly in ghostwriting. Like many others, I fell into it by accident. I lost my job, unemployment ran out and I needed to make money fast.

    I’ve been writing for many years, mostly on my blog and in an online writing contest (I made it to 3rd place out of 450 people my last season).

    I applied to a ghostwriting gig on Elance. Got it. The client has kept me on for over a year and from there, I’ve doubled my rate and found a bunch more clients. I love it. I primarily write fiction, but I’ve written nonfiction books and one memoir as well.

    It’s not glamorous. I don’t get paid millions (yet). But I get paid to write and honestly, I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing. I’m able to support myself and now that I’m doing well, I plan on publishing more of my own work too.

    • Blake Atwood says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Kristen. There are few success stories quite like being able to do what you love and being able to support yourself while doing it. Here’s to hoping you do, eventually, get paid millions for it too.

  • Pimion says:

    Great post, Blake! It was really thought-provoking to me. Thanks for that and for the useful tips.

  • Stanislaus Dedalus says:

    Great article, but unfortunately I’m still struggling with ghostwriting (it’d help if there are any helpful advice for me).
    So far I’ve written two books for two clients, and I’m not sure where to go next. I’d like to write for publishers, but how do I pitch to them? I’m not 100% sure about using referrals because I don’t really know too many people (the clients I’ve written are no help anymore to refer to new people), and I’d like some advice on trying to get the publisher’s attention for ghostwriting. I appreciate the help!

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