Getting your foot in the door as a writer can be difficult. As full-time employment in journalism and marketing gives way to more temporary and contract work, more writers are dipping their toes into self-employment and exploring opportunities in the new economy. One increasingly reliable and relatively unspoken way for young writers to get paid is to ghostwrite.
We normally associate ghostwriting with the anonymous figures who help celebrities produce big, bestselling memoirs—people like writer Tony Schwartz, who in 1987 wrote Donald Trump’s the Art of the Deal, the book that made Trump into a nationally-recognized figure. “I feel a deep sense of remorse,” Schwartz told the New Yorker magazine recently of the experience, claiming he felt personally implicated in Trump’s rise to fame.
Stories about ghostwriting usually circle around these kinds of questions: Whether it is morally okay to ghostwrite, the effect ghostwriting has on public discourse, the disenfranchisement of “legitimate” writers etc. What is ignored is just how widespread the practice of ghostwriting is, how much of our content ecosystem depends on it and how – if you’re going to do it – to do it wisely.
There have never been more opportunities to get famous (and even not-so-famous) people to pay you to write for them.
The reality is that wherever there is writing under a byline—journalism, opinion writing, academic writing, blog posts, memoirs, movie scripts, etc.—there has always been ghostwriting. And as celebrities, politicians and business leaders increasingly bypass traditional publishing platforms and engage with their audiences directly through social media, opportunities to secretly write under the byline of an influential person for money have exploded.
Today there are entire companies devoted to producing and placing content for “influencers” and “thought leaders” across various platforms—LinkedIn articles, traditional media, tweets, etc. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Hollywood’s highest paid actor, reportedly travels with a writer who helps him craft speeches, announcements, and social media collateral.
Indeed, there have never been more opportunities to get famous (and even not-so-famous) people to pay you to write for them. When a CEO puts out a press release for a new product or a CTO writes a Medium post about some new innovation at their company, more often than not, there’s an entire PR team, agency or ghostwriter (or some combination thereof) managing and crafting the message from behind the scenes.
Knowing that your name will be attached to a piece of writing is often a huge part of why many writers want to write in the first place.
These days, however, authors, journalists and writers often spend just as much time promoting their work as they do creating it. Getting a publishing deal today often means developing a brand and proving your ability to reach a larger audience—a task which can be daunting to writers who would prefer to stick to pure wordsmithing.
If this describes you, then ghostwriting might be a great fit. And although writing for a business or celebrity influencer’s blog might not be the most prestigious writing gig in the world, for many ghostwriters, adopting the voice of another individual can become an interesting creative challenge. The work that the best professional ghostwriters do isn’t so different from method acting.
On the other hand, relinquishing credit for your work and using your talents to make someone else sound smarter and more compelling can be exhausting, even demoralizing, especially if they don’t appreciate the process.
If your byline is important to your work, and ownership of your words and voice are important to you, then ghostwriting is not for you. But if you’re up for the challenge of adopting someone else’s voice, and willing to shun the limelight, then it might be the right work for you.
What often makes ghostwriting more palatable to writers is the opportunity of collaboration with the credited author.
“Collaboration” here can range from a quick interview to a year-long editorial relationship, with constant back and forth, where the ghostwriter becomes more of a stenographer and a research assistant than a pure ghostwriter. Writers who like collaboration can sometimes thrive under these circumstances. Conversely, writers who don’t like collaboration can struggle.
The work that the best professional ghostwriters do isn’t so different from method acting.
That goes double for ghostwriting for celebrities and “influencers” who hire ghostwriters to adopt their voice, and to write copy that is to their satisfaction, no matter what that means. (It is not uncommon for these kinds of clients to reject first drafts for being ‘too well written.’)
If you’re unable to assume someone else’s voice and put your writing to their service, then ghostwriting is probably not for you. Remember, ghostwriting isn’t about expressing your subjects ideas in your own words, it’s about you capturing their ideas and voice, even if it’s less developed than your own writerly voice.
The bottom line here is that ghostwriting is not for everybody. It certainly comes with its own unique set of stresses and challenges that writers should make sure they are compensated for.
The classic ghostwriting nightmare scenario—one in which you’re working for a client whose views or goals are repugnant to you—can be avoided by carefully evaluating each ghostwriting opportunity on a case-by-case basis. Research your clients and make sure you know what you’re getting into beforehand.
On the flip side, writing for a client that you do share values and goals with, and knowing that your writing will be spread under a much more powerful byline can be tremendously motivating and rewarding.
Once you’ve made sure that the ghostwriting assignment you’re taking on doesn’t pose any glaring moral problems, the next step is to make sure that you understand exactly what is expected of you.
If your client has a specific voice in mind, ask them to give you examples of what they mean. In addition to writing time, make sure to budget in time for research, interviews and multiple rounds of revisions.
Budget your time and effort more generously than you would for a regular freelance writing assignment. Keep in mind that you are being paid not just to write, but also to collaborate with someone and to act out a specific voice – and also to surrender your byline and maintain confidentiality.
It is not unheard of for writers to charge double, quadruple, even ten times their normal per word rate for ghostwriting (if I hired an experienced writer to ghostwrite this article for me, I might have to pay them as much as 3000 CAD).
If a client has a limited budget and can’t pay you for all of these things, consider walking away, or be clear up front about what can be accomplished with the limited resources they have.
It is not unheard of for writers to charge double, quadruple, even ten times their normal per word rate for ghostwriting.
For larger projects, especially books, consider talking to someone who has ghostwritten a similarly-sized project before signing a contract. The Writers’ Union of Canada has established a minimum ghostwriting fee of $40,000 for a 200-300 page book, not including research fees.
Many people who hire ghostwriters are doing so for the first time, and aren’t sure exactly what they want. The more ambiguity you can get rid of up front, the better.
At the end of the day, ghostwriting is like any other kind of freelancing gig: Know your worth, be clear about expectations ahead of time and charge accordingly.