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How to Build a Strong Writing Portfolio When You’re a Ghostwriter

by | May 2, 2017

I’ve been a successful ghostwriter for two decades, and even with a nice professional wind at my back, I struggled to build a portfolio representative of my skills.

To be fair, I spent much of my career as a salaried employee, so I didn’t have to function with a freelancer’s mindset. But after leaving corporate life, I faced the thorny issues common to all contract ghostwriters.

Namely, how can I prove I wrote what I say I wrote?

It’s a layered problem. For starters, ghostwriters don’t put their names on their work. We get lots of writing experience, but we don’t get bylines.

Then, too, there is the very real fact that many clients fear being “outed” for hiring a ghostwriter. As one of mine once said, “My name is all over the internet. I can’t exactly admit I didn’t write any of that stuff.”

I was years into my freelance career, and I found myself with a hard drive full of well-written content, zero author cred and a client base who preferred I stay in the shadows. Before long, my work felt more like a theoretical exercise than a future. But, thanks to economic necessity and a handful of forced errors, I eventually freed myself from the ghostwriting hamster wheel.

1. Include a portfolio permissions clause in every contract

While this type of clause is standard for most types of freelancing, ghostwriting clients have anonymity concerns. Many feel embarrassed they’re not writing the content on which they put their name. I respect that. But it does not have to be a roadblock to business development.

Ghostwriters should include a permissions clause in every contract.

Mine is typically very simple. It states that I reserve the right to include the contracted work in part or in full within my professional portfolio.

That is sufficient for most clients, though some stipulate additional parameters. For example, some clients allow me to use their pieces in my portfolio but request I remove their name. Others specify word count limits.

2. Excerpt fee-based content

The rise of ebooks and other fee-based content presents a new challenge.

Long-form ghostwriters, for example, are currently in high demand to write self-help books, memoirs, and romance novels — all of which are revenue-generating products. Obviously, it’s bad form (if not outright theft) to freely distribute an ebook, for example, that otherwise sells for $10. And yet, contract writers still need to showcase the work.

The solution is to provide excerpts.

Product excerpts allow a ghostwriter to show relevant work samples without robbing a client of potential sales.

When you’re writing a contract for a fee-based product, include a clause that grants you permission to use excerpts of that product in your portfolio. As stated previously, some clients may wish to stipulate additional parameters such as word count or other limits. In my experience, these requests are typically reasonable and easy to accommodate.

If you find you didn’t secure usage permissions in your original contract, follow-up with the client.

Include the excerpted text in your request and a brief statement about how you plan to use it.

3. Maintain a client testimonial catalog

On rare occasion, I’ve had clients withhold permission for the use of individual pieces, but instead, offer a testimonial on my behalf. I always take them up on it.

In fact, I recommend all ghostwriters not only maintain a catalog of client referrals, but that they also include these statements in their portfolio.

Even a handful of compliments can help a ghostwriter stand out from the competition. They also go a long way in justifying fees.

The most compelling testimonials address the fact that ghostwriters offer more value than just the production of an article or ebook, etc. The best ghostwriters help clients clarify ideas and strategize arguments.

They reduce customers’ workloads and relieve their content development headaches.

Hiring a ghostwriter needn’t be anyone’s shameful little secret, and I’ve found that a few good conversations can go a long way in assuaging this fear for my clients.

We ghostwriters provide a valuable service to our clients, but it is up to us to advocate for our own careers. Building a strong portfolio not only helps us land more work, it allows us to increase our rates, expand our expertise, and establish our professional standing. We can’t let something as singular as a byline stand in the way of earning what we’re worth.