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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

The Essential Guide to Freelance Ghostwriting


You've probably heard of the ghostwriting process, known people who have actually worked as ghostwriters, and read the work of a ghostwriter without even realizing it. Most aspects of this profession occur behind the scenes. So, what exactly is ghostwriting, and what does this process entail?

What exactly is a ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter is someone who is hired to write works of journalism or other literature, speeches, social media content, or other text that will be officially credited to someone else. Political leaders, celebrities, executives, and even some news representatives hire ghostwriters to create or rewrite memoirs, blogs, or newspaper and magazine articles. Ghostwriters also work in the music industry, creating musical works or lyrics, and in the movie industry, writing or improving scripts for screenplay authors. Even Mozart is known to have paid a ghostwriter to write music for wealthy patrons.

Credit for ghostwritten works is not attributed to the ghostwriter. Usually, the credited author and the ghostwriter both sign a contract including a confidentiality clause that requires the ghostwriter to be anonymous. The ghostwriter might be acknowledged as a "researcher" or a "research assistant," but most of the time, the ghostwriter does not receive any public credit for his or her work.

Timeline and fees

Ghostwriters complete their work over a period of time that ranges from months to a year, depending on the nature of the project, as they research, write, and edit both fiction and nonfiction works. Ghostwriting fees can be paid according to an agreed-upon rate per word, per page, or per project. A portion of the royalties from sales is also given to the ghostwriter after the work is published. Like any other freelance venture, Ghostwriters must keep detailed and accurate books if they expect to manage their businesses successfully.

Roles and responsibilities

The degree and range of work a ghostwriter performs can vary. Sometimes a ghostwriter edits or rewrites sections of a rough draft or an unfinished piece of literature. In other cases, such as with an autobiography for a public figure, the ghostwriter performs a significant amount of research before creating the text from scratch. A popular fiction author may hire a ghostwriter to write books in the author's particular writing style in order to produce more books.

The process

When a ghostwriter is hired to write an autobiography, the credited author, his or her colleagues, and family members meet with the ghostwriter to discuss the potential content. The ghostwriter also finds interviews, articles, and video footage about the credited author or his or her work. In the case of nonfiction books or articles, a ghostwriter interviews the credited author and reviews past speeches, interviews, and other published articles about the credited author to accurately reflect his or her perspective and opinion within the text. Most of this work can be done via email, postal mail, phone call, and other modes of communication between the two parties.

Types of ghostwriting

Since the industries in which ghostwriters can work and the types of work they produce can vary widely, it's pretty clear that ghostwriting can incorporate significantly different tasks. The following are the four main types of ghostwriting:

  • Marketing letters from a company CEO These letters are sent from a company to business entities as a request to sell their product. If the letter is sent from the CEO, it's probably a case of ghostwriting. Other sales correspondence with no apparent sender is usually not ghostwritten.
  • Authors' ideas in their own words In this case, authors pay a ghostwriter to flesh out their ideas and then turn them into a book or an article. The prep involves communication between the ghostwriter and the credited author, during which the former takes notes on the latter's spoken word or sketched-out written notes and develops them into a book. The author might even send the ghostwriter a draft that's been mostly written already, and that just needs to be cleaned up through substantial editing or rewriting.
  • Authors' ideas in the ghostwriter's words Authors might hire a ghostwriter to take a general outline they've created, perform the research on the ideas, and then write a draft based on those ideas. In the end, the authors review the ghostwritten work and approve it for their use or make major changes to the draft according to their preferences.
  • Ghostwriter's ideas and words In this scenario, the ghostwriter must produce his/her own ideas, create an outline, perform the research, and write the content. The author's involvement here is only to approve the final work. An example of this type of service is a ghostwriter who has been hired to post to a celebrity's Twitter account.

Pros and Cons of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting offers some unique benefits and pitfalls. Here are a few benefits of working as a ghostwriter:

  • Simply put, it's easy money Freelance writers tend to turn to ghostwriting to ensure a relatively steady income after they've left corporate life.
  • Ghostwriting about a new field provides writers with an easy education Many people can become pseudo-experts in a certain field when they are mandated to research and write about it.
  • Writing that goes public is always open for scrutiny and (heaven forbid!) criticism When your name isn't involved, it won't get dragged through the mud.

But not all is roses and rainbows in the ghostwriting profession:

  • You might get taken advantage of An inexperienced freelance writer can settle for a fee that is way below fair market value.
  • Your clients might forget to refer you to colleagues Your name isn't attached to your work, so it can't help you to get new business. In ghostwriting, if you do good work, your client should ideally refer you to others. But your clients might not take this step, and there's nothing you can do about it, even if your work was awesome.
  • It's a short-term game There's a big market for ghostwriting. You can make good money now, but your anonymity will prevent you from building your brand name and expertise in another field or for another business.

Create and sign a contract

Despite the disadvantages of devoting your life to a career in ghostwriting, there are a few actions you can take to protect your interests. Before you do any ghostwriting, you should come to an agreement with your client about the working conditions of the project and then put them into writing. It's a good idea to hire a lawyer to look over the contract before anyone signs it. The contract should specifically outline and describe the work you'll be doing, your fee, when you'll be paid (e.g., monthly, upon completion), and the project deadline. The contract should also include elements such as the following:

Defined responsibilities

How will the labor be divided? Will your client give you an outline? Will he or she perform the research, or will you? When can you expect the necessary materials from the client? How does the client want to receive the completed text to review it—in pieces or in one finished product?

Liability terms.

An indemnification clause defines who carries the burden should any lawsuits arise. Ghostwriters should be protected by this clause in case the client sends any plagiarized text to work with at the beginning of the project.

Author credit

Does your service make you completely invisible and, therefore, uncredited (this is the most common scenario in ghostwriting)? Or will you be acknowledged as a co-author and featured on the cover of the book?

Terms for termination

Outline what will happen if the author or ghostwriter wants out before the project is finished.

Responsibility for expenses

If you need to purchase access to research materials or travel to communicate with your client in person, how will the bills be split?


Many clients will ask for a nondisclosure agreement. This clause will protect the client's materials and keep you liable if you decide to go rogue in your ghostwriting.

Getting the job done

When you've established your contract, it's time to get down to work. If you're working without an outline from your client, start there. Create your outline and get it approved. Then you're ready to start the research and writing process.


Some clients will go heavy on face time, while others will prefer to be contacted only when there's already some text to work with. The amount of communication you engage in depends also on the type of project you're doing and the personalities of the people involved. Some people never meet their clients in person, and communicate solely over the Internet. Several tools are available today to ease the process of having to be in two different places at once, such as Track Changes in Microsoft Word. By using this feature, a client can mark up any text he receives from his ghostwriter, enabling him to communicate his thoughts and feedback right next to the exact phrases and words of debate. Then, after transferring the file via email, all the feedback is delivered in one tidy package. This approach is best if your client is generally happy with your work and wants only minor changes. If your client is looking for more substantial edits, then a phone conference is probably best to go over the revisions he wants to have you incorporate.

Work together

Find a working style that both of you are comfortable with. If you are writing to reflect your client's voice and make it sound like she wrote it, you'll need to get a feel for her writing style. That means you will need to read and "hear" that voice.

Pay attention to the phrases your client uses often and the structure of her sentences. Does she use certain words more frequently than others? Does she use long, drawn-out sentences, or does she write in shorter, more abrupt phrases? Do her descriptions require a dictionary to understand, or are they relatively simple?

Finishing the job

When you've finished ghostwriting the chapters of the book or the sections of the article, your client should approve your work. Once he's given the all clear, you will create a final draft of all parts of your work. After you've sent your master file to your client and he's sent your check, that's it—you're done! He then goes on to play the role of the author, as per your agreement, and now you're ready to focus on your next ghostwriting project.

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