I’ve been writing for other people for over a decade – but most of my portfolio is un-shareable. I’m a ghostwriter. I make money from letting other people take the credit for my work, and I’m OK with that.
Right now, I have a full-time job in content marketing – so I’m lucky enough to write all day, every day, and have a steady wage for it. I also freelance on the side, and have freelanced full-time for long stretches on and off over the years – so rest assured, I’ve been there, done it.
Ghostwriting is a good way to start off your career as a freelance writer – whether you’re a non-fiction or a fiction writer. Seriously, if you think ghostwriting is only for journalists who can’t catch a break or are anti-limelight, give it another thought.
Ghostwriting can help you develop your creative side. It’ll make you step into character: you’ve got to pretend to be the person whose name will go on the title of the book or the article. Become that person like a method actor lives the life of their latest role. Ghostwriting is also a great way to research more about different industries, people, and world views that you can incorporate into your novels and short stories at a later date.
Many writers start out as ghostwriters and move on to finding their own niche, their confidence, and a need for recognition. That’s totally OK! It’s also fine to want to make a living purely from ghostwriting – and it’s entirely possible.
So, how do you become a successful ghostwriter?
Define your knowledge
Work out what you know, and who you know. Discover if people in your network – friends, family, colleagues, mentors – feel the urge to write a book. Many people wish they could write down the ideas in their heads, but either don’t have the time or the confidence to do so. That’s where you come in!
It’s best to start off in areas that you already have some background knowledge for, to give you a running start. As a new ghostwriter, your quotes need to be competitive – which is why it’s usually best to start off with areas that you already have some knowledge in. However, if you find opportunities that are in completely new subjects, go for it! It’ll just take you longer to research the piece, so remember to account for that in your billing.
Decide your form
What do you want to ghostwrite? If you’re a dab hand at blogs and writing for the web, there are tons of websites out there to get started – just avoid content mills if you ever want to earn a good wage from your writing.
You might want to go into long-form writing, and offer your creative writing services to those who have amazing ideas for a novel but simply can’t seem to craft it into a book. Non-fiction books are also a fantastic way for ghostwriters to earn cash – especially if your contract includes royalties.
Whatever your form, stick to it. At least, keep to it to start with. You’ll be able to build on your experience and branch out from there, rather than trying to specialise across a broad spectrum. You need different skills for writing a blog compared to a book, for example, so spend time becoming a master of one first.
Spread the word
You might be a ghostwriter but that doesn’t mean you need to BE a ghost. Have a writing CV ready to send any potential clients – and if you don’t have a portfolio yet, create one. Write a few samples in your desired niche or form, to show that you understand the unique requirements of writing for a book or a blog. A writer’s CV doesn’t need the usual bumpf of a standard CV – but if you have any relevant employment, background knowledge, volunteering work, or writing accolades, this all needs to be brought together in a one-page document to send in your pitches.
Social media is a great place to start: get on Twitter and Facebook, and start to connect with companies who clearly hire other writers. Then connect with companies who aren’t clearly using other writers, and study the work they put out. If you’re seeing a bunch of errors, or have ideas on how they could improve, that’s the time to message them.
Keep a pitch short and sweet, and be helpful without being critical. “Your website is littered with errors,” goes down far worse than “Hey, I have an idea that might help push your conversions up”.
Emails also work well. Funnily enough, I used to insist that phone calls were the only way to get through the gatekeeper to the decision maker when it came to freelance writing – but as times have changed, I’ve found that emails are the strongest lead generator for cold pitches these days. Keep them short, to the point, and directly address three things:
- What it is EXACTLY that you’re offering (to partner up to write a non-fiction book, to ghostwrite all blog content, or to help someone expand their short story to a full-blown novel);
- The timeframe you can both offer to them, and in which you expect a response (this is a strong way to ensure some kind of response, which opens a dialogue – the most important way to sell your writing services);
- How your previous experience ties in with their company in a very specific manner (blanket emails will. Not. Do.).
Be prepared for rejection.
Every writer gets rejected.
Repeat: every. Writer. Gets. Rejected.
Be realistic about your time
I’m incredibly guilty of two things: underestimating research time and ignoring procrastination time. For me, procrastination is essential to productivity. It allows ideas to fester in the back of the mind before they become a reality, so it’s an important part of the writing process.
However, if you’re ghostwriting alongside a day job, it’s vital that you include these hours into your working time. You can’t charge people for procrastinating, of course – but you can be realistic about the actual working hours you have each week to spend on their project.
Work out your research time, your procrastination time, and your actual working time. Then add four or five more hours to this estimate. That’s how long it’s going to take you to create your piece – so don’t be so enthusiastic that you promise unattainable deadlines. Missing deadlines is death to a ghostwriter.
Check your contract
I’m lucky enough to have built a good relationship with many of my clients over the years. They’ve been happy to provide testimonials, and let me include links to my work on their websites for my portfolio.
However, for every one client that allows it, there are around six who don’t.
Companies don’t want other people to know that they aren’t the ones writing these amazing works. For whatever reason, they want to think the information they send out is from them, directly. It’s understandable, but frustrating.
Make sure your contract is clear on whether you can, or cannot, include your work for them in any portfolio. This includes mentioning that you write for them in job interviews, adding their logo to your website as a ‘partner’ – anything. If you let slip on a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), you could land yourself in very hot water.
Quote for your time and your experience. Quote for the research you’re going to undertake. Quote for the interviews and the time it takes to type up transcripts. Quote for the coffee you’re going to imbibe while creating a book outline. Quote on the assumption you’ll need to make at least one round of edits.
Don’t quote for the time it takes you to get from your bedroom to your office. Don’t quote for the time it takes to procrastinate while ideas percolate. Don’t quote for the time it took to secure the client with your pitch.
Your time is valuable, but you need to balance your need to eat and pay bills with a competitive market. There are many, many ghostwriters out there and you don’t want to price yourself out of the market.
Take time to research the average hourly rate of a freelance writer in your niche, in the form you want to write, and add 25%. That’s your premium for being a ghost.
Never, ever, undersell yourself.
Even ghostwriters can get extras here and there. Seeing as you’re not getting credit for your work, find out what else you can get instead.
Always, always, charge more for ghostwritten work than you would for writing that you can put your name to. Always. They’re making money off the back of your creation, so make sure they pay you fairly for it.
In addition, if the company is particularly interesting or useful, ask what else you can get from them. For example, I used to write for an accounting software company and managed to get a free copy of their (very expensive) software for my own books. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Even if your contract says you can’t tell anyone that you’re a ghostwriter for a certain company, make sure to ask your client to provide word-of-mouth recommendations or introductions to their partners. Referrals are the strongest lead generation tool for any writer – be it a fiction writer (hence the power of the Amazon and Goodreads reviews), or corporate copywriter.
You’ll find that companies are more willing to provide personal recommendations even if you’re under an NDA, as their close partners are likely to be in a similar position of wanting a discreet writer who can keep their pride out of the agreement.
Don’t always ghost
Ghostwriters can make a hearty full-time living. However, for your own personal satisfaction, it’s important to be able to put your name to something.
For me, that’s my own blog, and my fiction writing. For you, it might be guest blogs, your own stories, or a magazine that you run.
Just make sure your identity isn’t lost as a ghost. You’re still a person, and a public portfolio can only strengthen your opportunities as a ghostwriter.