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The Invisible Writer: The Art of Becoming a Ghost
by Moira Allen

Return to Successful Freelancing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

The world is filled with people who have brilliant ideas, valuable information, or fascinating experiences to share -- but who lack the writing or communication skills to share them. Enter the ghostwriter -- the "invisible" writers among us who labor, not to make their own voices heard, but to enable others to make their voices heard.

Ghostwriters make it possible for experts in fields of science, technology and medicine to share their findings and recommendations with the world. They enable business gurus to share their expertise with the next generation of entrepreneurs. They provide a means for stars and celebrities to "tell all." And, of course, without ghostwriters, politicians might never be able to share their wisdom and experiences. (Well, I suppose there's a downside to everything...)

What does it take to become a ghostwriter? Most articles on this topic point out the obvious need for good writing skills. After all, if you can't write better than your client, what's the point? However, the ghostwriters I interviewed for this article pointed out that there is something just as important as good writing skills: good people skills!

"A ghostwriter needs a special knack for crawling inside people's heads and understanding what they really want to say," says Bobbi Linkemer. She also notes that a ghostwriter needs empathy and compassion, patience, a sense of humor, the ability to read nonverbal cues, and excellent listening skills. A ghostwriter needs to know how to "translate feelings into words."

Marcia Layton Turner considers good interviewing skills to be at the core of a ghostwriter's toolkit. "You need to be able to ask interesting questions that get at more than surface information, and in such a way that your source is comfortable answering them." She also feels that "you need to be interested in people in general. The more inquisitive you are… the more comprehensive and insightful your finished product." A ghostwriter needs to be able to relate to the client and establish a comfort level, she points out; the lack of social skills can disqualify even an excellent writer.

"Everyone has a story inside them," says Sean Platt. "A good ghostwriter knows how to listen well enough to draw that story from the 'author.' But a great ghostwriter is able to extract the story the 'author' would never have found within them."

Wayne Pollard points out the importance of being pleasant to work with, suggesting that a ghostwriter needs to be more "Casper" than "poltergeist." Don't create disturbances, such as arguing with your client. "Sure, you are there to provide guidance, but you must not argue with your client because few people want to be around a person who argues with them. People will only continue to work with you if they like you and trust you."

One aspect of building a relationship with your client is being able to understand, interpret and convey your client's "voice." While most books and classes on writing emphasize the importance of "finding your voice," for a ghostwriter, the key is finding a way to express your client's voice -- generally at the expense of your own. "As a ghostwriter, there is absolutely no place for your own writing style," says Pollard. "You must be a chameleon; you must be able to assume your client's voice. You must put your ego aside because it is not your byline." He suggests having a client help determine what style she prefers by giving examples of books she likes.

"I think ghostwriting can be a little bit like acting," says Mary Anne Hahn. "When you're writing for someone else, you almost try to become that person, see what they saw, feel what they felt, and know what they learned."

Amanda Evans points out that ghostwriting involves more than adapting to a client's style or tone. "You need to be familiar with the language style of your client and the area they come from. Research the area they lived and try to listen to recordings or how they speak. Little things are important, such as commonly used terms or phrases." For example, there are many differences between US English and UK English: "trash in America is rubbish in England and so forth. Recording interviews with your client is a great way to learn more about the way in which they speak… so that you are capturing their voice."

Communication and "people skills" are an important aspect of the business side of ghostwriting as well. For make no mistake: Ghostwriting is a business, and must be conducted as such. Part of that business involves making sure that you, and your client, share a detailed understanding of what the project is about, the scope of the project, the time-frame in which it is to be completed, and the terms of payment.

Evans makes sure that all of these issues are spelled out in her contract with a client. "A lot of ghostwriters who are just starting out have problems with payment or understanding exactly what they are expected to do. I clearly outline what it is I am being contracted to do, along with what is expected of the client. If interviews are required, it is vital that the client has Skype and that interview times and schedules are created. The payment schedule is probably the most important, as is laying out exactly what it is you will be doing for the client."

Linkemer includes a section in her contract that allows either party to terminate the relationship if things aren't going well. This can happen, she notes, "when the client micromanages every aspect of the project, doesn't honor the contract in terms of actions, is not able to provide the information I need, or is rude." Linkemer attempts to negotiate problems first, but relies on a well written contract as her backup.

Another common problem, according to Pollard, is "having a client who thinks he knows more about writing than you do. He will ask you to make edits that you feel will ruin the piece. When this happens, it's your job to explain to the client exactly why you feel the edits should not be made, but in the end, you must do what the client wants. Why? It is not your byline; it is his byline. And he must be happy with the piece. To cover yourself, you should put everything in writing. Send an email to your client stating your concerns but let him know that you will do whatever he wants you to do. If the edits actually do ruin the book, you want to have your evidence in case he wants to blame it on you."

This raises a critical issue for the ghostwriter: The realization that in this, unlike most forms of "creative" writing, the writer is not the boss. Though you may have been hired because you have a skill the client lacks -- the ability to write effectively -- the client still has the final word in how the material is presented.

"I think the most common conflict is when the client wants something included in the book, or stated a certain way, or organized a specific way, and you, the writer, disagree," says Turner. "Or perhaps the client wants a certain source quoted heavily, or a particular anecdote emphasized. Conflict occurs when you state the reasons for your disagreement. I generally… try to understand why that piece of information or that source is so important to the client. In many cases, there are other ways to achieve your client's goal and your goal of producing a well written book once you know the background. I also think it's your professional responsibility to explain why you don't think that decision is the best for the book. It's very possible the author hadn't thought about it in that way and may agree with you once you state your case. Ultimately, it's the client's book, however, and you need to decide if you are willing to work on the project and approach it the way the client requests. It's their name on the cover, after all."

But what if you feel that a client's decisions are so bad that they render a book unpublishable? All the ghostwriters interviewed agreed that the "publishability" of a book is not the writer's responsibility.

"As a ghostwriter it really isn't my job to say whether or not a client's project is publishable or not, and this is clearly stated in my contract," says Evans. "I am in no way responsible for publishing, contacting publishing or having anything to do with publishing. If I do not feel personally that the client's project is suitable for publishing or that they don't have a good story to tell then I will usually reject the work upfront. This saves any conflicts further down the line."

Linkemer addresses this problem by asking the client the sorts of questions that would be included in a book proposal. "If I determine that the book has little chance of being published by a conventional publisher, I say so. However, if the client wants to self-publish, I spell out what is involved in doing so correctly." Respondents were quick to point out that no ghostwriter should accept an agreement that links payment to the publication of the work.

Ghostwriting can be a effective way to make a living doing what you do best: Writing. As Sean Platt puts it, "The best part of being a ghostwriter is getting paid well to articulate what others can't. I'm natural with language and love to write, so it's a big swinging bag of awesome to make good money doing what I love." Awesome... and spooky!

Sidebar: More Great Stuff that Didn't Fit Into the Original Article!

1) Can ghostwriting be handled remotely, or do you need to meet your client?

Respondents agreed that it generally wasn't necessary to be able to meet one-on-one with your client. "I prefer to talk to people over the phone and to, with their permission, record the conversation," says Wayne Pollard. "You can then do edits through e-mail and phone calls." Several writers recommended using Skype to conduct calls with clients directly through the computer; Amanda Evans requires this as part of her contract. "I also allow clients to record what they want their story to contain and then forward Mp3 files to me. This allows me to listen to them over and over, and if I have any questions I can take notes and e-mail the client for answers. This also allows me to assess their speaking tone and plan how I will write using their voice." Mary Anne Hahn feels, however, that "When ghostwriting something like memoirs, I would think face to face would be by far the most effective way to truly capture the client's voice and story."

2) How do you gather information from a client?

Sometimes, a client may have difficulty articulating their ideas or providing enough material to complete the project. Ghostwriters offered several tips on how to deal with this problem:

"If I have a client who finds it difficult to articulate their material, I usually start by sending them a brief questionnaire to fill out," says Amanda Evans. "From their answers I can usually determine what type of action I need to take. It could be that I need to sit and talk with them via Skype or get them to write some notes on what they want their story to be about. There are other occasions where I get clients to record what they want to say. I find that breaking the interviews and questionnaires into chapters really helps, as the client only has to focus on one piece of the story at a time and this makes it easier for them."

Marcia Layton Turner asks for background material on the project: "articles, books, speeches, etc. If you suspect the client is having difficulty due to nerves, you could suggest having them dictate into a digital recorder. Or if they find it easier to write notes, you could try sending a list of written questions for them to respond to. You can then schedule phone conversations to go into more depth or for clarification."

Sean Platt notes, "I send them bullet points or simple questions to answer. Everyone can articulate themselves well given the right prompts, and a good writer doesn't need much to go on. If we have a thread of good we should be able to pull it all the way to great."

3) Will you need to conduct research for your client, or verify facts?

Conducting research, or verifying that what the client is telling you is accurate, can be "part of the territory," according to Mary Anne Hahn. After all, your goal is to create a good book or article. However, as Wayne Pollard notes, "If you are qualified to conduct research or fact check for your client, you should add this to your agreement and charge extra for it." Marcia Layton Turner feels that "If the client gives you a quote attributed to a particular individual, it's your responsibility to verify it. Or if they cite a statistic or study, you can check it out or ask for the original research from the client." But she, too, believes that a writer should be paid extra for research, and that it should be specified from the beginning (and in the contract) as to whether the writer is responsible for gathering data or fact-checking. She also points out that "if there is information that the client insists is important but cannot validate or corroborate, you need to make it clear that you will not be responsible if that information is proven incorrect. I'd get that in writing, too, if the client insists on using it."

4) What sorts of terms (and protections) should be included in your contract?

Not surprisingly, respondents had a great deal to say about areas in which ghostwriters need to protect themselves with carefully worded contracts!

Amanda Evans: "A payment schedule with well planned out milestones is important. You need to list everything in your contract and describe very clearly what you will be completing for your client. You should always ensure that your payment schedule includes an upfront payment of at least 25%, which you should receive before you begin any work or conduct any interviews."

Bobbi Linkemer: "Be sure you understand what the client wants and that the client understands what you will do. Spell out what you and the client have agreed to in terms of tasks and payment of fees. Include an indemnification paragraph in the contract. Have your attorney read the contract, and incorporate his or her suggestions. Send a draft of the agreement, and let the client know it can be edited before it is signed."

Bobbi Linkemer: "How will the ghostwriter be credited or acknowledged? Acknowledgement in print is often considered part of the fee. The ghostwriter's name appears on the cover preceded by one of these three words or phrases:

  • with - indicates that the ghostwriter has assisted on the project
  • and - means both parties have contributed to the material in the book
  • as told to - the ghostwriter has transcribed and edited the client's story or material
If there is no credit line, the client may express appreciation somewhere in the acknowledgements." Marcia Layton Turner: "What happens when the client cancels the project mid-stream -- how much will you be paid? What happens when the ghostwriter wants to walk away -- how much will you be paid for your work to-date? How much notice do you need to give? What happens when the project stalls due to the client's inattention -- can you bill for that time, since you set it aside for the client?"

Mary Anne Hahn: "The biggest [problem] I see is people looking to 'hire' a ghostwriter for a percentage of future earnings [e.g., royalties]. You really can't afford to agree to situations like this if you want to make a living as a ghostwriter. You need to establish your pricing and insist on a percentage up front, especially for longer projects like books. You also need to have a contract that clearly states the client's expectations for the project, deadlines, and future payment terms."

Wayne Pollard: "Everything needs to be spelled out: deadlines, word length, number of revisions, per hour fee for additional revisions, etc."

5) Do you have any responsibility in ensuring that your client's work is "publishable" (or published)?

"As a ghostwriter, I do not help a client get published. There may be some ghostwriters who do but as a general rule I do not," says Amanda Evans. "You can ask a ghostwriter's opinion on your work, but as they are not publishers or agents, they are not qualified to give you this information."

Marcia Layton Turner agrees. "It's generally not the ghostwriter's responsibility to assist in connecting you with a publisher. Some have contacts with agents and editors and may offer to make introductions, but they can't promise to get you published. You may want to chat with agents and editors before you engage a ghostwriter, to gauge the level of interest in your topic."

At the same time, Sean Platt points out that it's your job as a ghostwriter to create a "publishable" work if at all possible. I.e., if the material is worth publishing, your writing should make it publishable. "Unless the project isn't publishable to begin with, a quality ghostwriter should always leave you with publishable work." He also warns, however, to beware of any ghostwriter who promises that the client will be published.

6) What's the best part of being a ghostwriter? What's the worst?

"The best part is having the client read what your wrote and say, 'This is exactly what I wanted to say!'" says Wayne Pollard. "I like handing the magazine with my client's article in it to my client and then watching him smile when he sees his byline. It's even better when they frame the article and hang it in their office. For the clients whose books I've ghostwritten, it's great when they thank you in the beginning of their books." Bobbi Linkemer says, "The best part is knowing I played a part in making an author's book come to life."

The worst part, not surprisingly, is "putting in all the hard work and then seeing someone else's name going on the front cover and them getting the recognition," according to Amanda Evans. Sean Platt agrees: "While it's nice to occasionally fade into the background and simply write, the worst part of being a ghostwriter, no doubt, is writing something remarkable and then slapping someone else's name on it."

Helpful Sites:

Association of Ghostwriters

Meet the Ghosts!

  • Amanda J. Evans is a professional freelance writer, ghostwriter and self-published author. She has worked with clients worldwide and has created web content, e-books, SEO articles, press releases, sales copy, script edits and much more. Visit her at http://www.ghostwritinguncovered.com.

  • Mary Anne Hahn was founder and executive director of the International Association of Professional Ghost Writers (which no longer seems to exist). Her ghostwriting experience includes writing blog posts, articles and e-books primarily for business and success coaches and other online entrepreneurs.

  • Bobbi Linkemer is an editor, ghostwriter, teacher, writing coach, and author of 16 books including How to Write a Nonfiction Book: From Concept to Completion in 6 Months and The Invisible Author: Confessions of a Ghostwriter. Visit her online at http://www.writeanonfictionbook.com.

  • Sean Platt is a regular contributor to Copyblogger, the Internet's largest content marketing site. He has ghostwritten copy for many online marketers and developed content and social media strategies for businesses, ranging from blogs to massive syndicates. He is the author of Writing Online and How to Write a Sales Letter that Works (Without Wasting Your Time!).

  • Wayne E. Pollard has ghostwritten nonfiction books and numerous pieces that have been in publications ranging from American Banker to Wall Street & Technology. His writing cartoons are featured on http://boscafelife.wordpress.com/.

  • Marcia Layton Turner has written more than 14 business and consumer books, with several in the works. Her work has appeared in over 25 consumer, business and trade magazines, including BusinessWeek, Business 2.0, Woman's Day, Black Enterprise, Entrepreneur, ePregnancy and Pages. She has ghostwritten a variety of projects on business and entrepreneurship. Visit her at http://www.marcialaytonturner.com.

Copyright © 2011 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared in The Writer.

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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