I’ve been writing for decades.
This sounds like a long time, but it’s true. Since the mid-1990s, I’ve written for daily newspapers, weekly business journals, newsletters, nonprofits, trade magazines, digital news entities, blogs, and communications organizations.
In recent years, I’ve lent my writing ability to those who can’t write (or it doesn’t come naturally to them).
If you’ve also fallen into this genre, you know ghost writing is a unique beast. It requires one party to admit their shortfall and hire a professional.
What is ghost writing, and why do I want to try that?
A ghostwriter is one who’s “hired to author literary or journalistic works, speeches or other texts that are officially credited to another person,” according to Wikipedia.
Like any type of freelance writing, ghost writing comes with its challenges. Example: When you’re on deadline, there’s no time for writer’s block.
But much like freelancing, prep and ironing out logistics are the same.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the years, when someone’s needed to borrow my words.
1. The job might find you – we like it when that happens.
You’re a professional writer, and the opportunity to ghost write may fall into your lap. It’s completely doable; it just requires an adjustment in voice. When I’m tapped to write something for someone else, it helps to interview them and take notes on how they speak. You can figure out pretty quickly why they’re not a strong writer. Say they’re wordy. Shave out some of the extras and edit them into something tighter.
2. Get to know the person you’re writing for — for real.
The whole point of this game is to use their voice (and fool everyone else). This requires you to sit down — at least a couple of times — and get to know your client. Become familiar with how they speak and study their quirks. This becomes especially important if your client has high visibility, namely they’re on TV or speaking on radio. You’ll need to make sure their speaking voice translates to paper seamlessly.
3. Be prepared to use words you never would actually use yourself.
‘Fraid so. It’s part of the reality of this writing. Once you take on a client’s project, your style might be your own, but your words may change. An example of this: I blogged for years for a client. Once, he used the term “candy coat” to describe something, and I knew in this context, he meant “sugarcoat.” But he definitely didn’t use that term, so candy coat won.
4. Do your research around the topic.
Like any writing project, do your research about what’s been written, how it was conveyed, and when it last was brought up. It doesn’t serve your client well if the piece they would like produced isn’t timely or doesn’t break new ground, in terms of voice or contribution to a discussion.
5. Set realistic expectations from start to finish.
It’s important to stay mindful of the client’s expectations and what you can deliver. If a project doesn’t meet your standard of writing or isn’t doable on a realistic time table, it’s OK to walk. I had to do this once, and it was a tough decision. But after doing some research about my client’s subject matter, I knew there was no way I could take on ghost writing her book. It was too big for my words.
6. Know your worth.
Your time and words are valuable. Speak frankly with your client about compensation. Maybe you work out a total project fee or an hourly wage. Go with whatever makes you comfortable. Then, keep an accurate log of work performed, whether it’s research, interviewing, or writing.
7. You’ll never give up the ghost, and you need to be OK with that.
As a ghost writer, you won’t get credit. It’s the nature of the business. You’re invisible.
Challenge accepted. How do I get started?
You’ve built your portfolio, and you’ve got clips and work to support your writing ability. Now, put yourself out there.
Promote yourself, and network. Join writing communities that might open up exposure to ghost writing. Talk with others who do it, and learn how they manage this craft.
No one knows you’re a ghost writer until you tell them.
And much like freelancing, once that first gig presents itself, others will follow, especially if you’ve got a knack for this.
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Christine Cube is a senior audience relations manager with PR Newswire and freelance writer. Follow her at @cpcube.