What’s it like to be a ghostwriter?

November 26, 2016   Tags: , 🕑 6 minutes read

Do you wonder what is a ghostwriter, and what it’s like to be one? In this post, we spill the beans.

I’ve seen this question from time to time in forums and social media groups, so I would like to provide a complete answer: What’s it like to be a ghostwriter?

The short answer is that being a ghostwriter is many things.

I’ll assume you already have some idea what it’s like to be a writer, and most likely you already write. So I won’t cover that off.  Rather, I’ll compare what it’s like to be a ghostwriter with what it’s like writing for yourself.
What it's like to be a ghostwriter

What is a ghostwriter?

But first, what is a ghostwriter. The concept is simple. Like a ghost, a ghostwriter is there, but never seen. The ghostwriter writers, but the readers doesn’t see her name or photo or bio.

The ghostwriter pens speeches, articles, books, screenplays and many other manuscripts for the client. And the client gets the credit.

It’s actually not that different than working for a company, as far as credit is concerned. Ralph Lauren doesn’t personally design every detail on every piece of clothing and accessory that bears his name. It’s a team effort. It’s a company effort.

Unlike a company employee, a ghostwriter typically gets to choose her clients and the projects she works on.

What is a ghostwriter? A cross between a silent employee and a free spirit. Ah, but what does it take to be that ghostwriter?

Ghostwriting is accommodating

A ghostwriter has to be flexible. Sure, you might have 30 ideas for amazing books floating around between the various cortex’s inside your skull, but the client doesn’t want you to write about them.

The client has his own idea.  The client has his own project.  That’s why they hire a ghostwriter. That’s what you’ll be writing about.

You have to be able to accommodate the client in so many ways:

  • Choosing a topic
  • Deciding on the right voice, tone and point of view
  • Picking a writing style
  • Plot, characters, quotes, ethics

This is the client’s project, not yours.  So you need to be flexible.

On many of these points, the client will rely on your advice. In most of my ghostwriting projects, the client has relied on me to pick the point of view, choose the tone and organize the content for best results. I’ve often suggested what to add or what to remove, and my advice is usually taken. Usually.

So never fear, you will usually be able to control at least those aspects that will ensure a coherent, quality manuscript.

Ghostwriting is exhilarating

Being a ghostwriter can be exhilarating.  Each new project is a fresh start, something new to explore. Of course, this is not for everybody.  Some people like the tried and true, the comfort of what is familiar.  But most writers love the craft of writing and the variety of topics.

Even if you specialize as a botanical ghostwriter or a cookbook ghostwriter, and enjoy the comfort of the familiar niche, each new project explores a different facet of the niche.

It’s not just the topic that is fresh.  A new client brings a new relationship and a new perspective. Again, this is a huge bonus for writers who, typically, love to explore new angles on topics.

However, not every writer is an extrovert.  Not every writer likes working with new people on each project. If you prefer stability and predictability, ghostwriting might not be your best career path. You might like it if you can establish a roster of standing clients, such as CEOs or politicians who often need speeches ghostwritten for them.

Ghostwriting is terrifying

After the initial excitement of a new ghostwriting project, I get terrified.  Yes, it’s a full-fledged internal panic.

Most clients have spent years gathering up information, data and documentation.  Their stories are internalized.  They can turn them over in their minds while they sleep. In most cases (except for fiction) these are stories they have lived:

  • Their life story
  • Their business story
  • A trying experience they survived
  • A spiritual revelation
  • How-to or self-help information based on their own experience

To the ghostwriter, he information overload is overwhelming. There is no way to absorb so much information and organize all the interconnecting webs and spokes in just a few days. And nobody will hire a ghostwriter to relive their life. Nobody will pay you for months of gaining their experience.

And so, the terror sets in.  If you are allergic to panic, ghostwriting might not be for you.

Hire a ghostwriter

Ghostwriting is structured

A ghostwriter must be organized.  Before you can write a book, you need a structure for it.

Well, that’s the theory.  In my experience, it usually works, although the structure often shifts while writing.

Of the past four books I have ghostwritten, two have roughly followed the original outline.  Yes, some chapters proved to be too long or two short. Accordingly, they were divided or combined. But, by and large, the original structure for the manuscript was followed.

Another book began with a partial structure.  I divided the book in two parts, one part being a flashback on how we got to the action scene that began the book. I started with a detailed outline of the first part, although a couple chapters did have to be divided.

The second part, moving forward from the starting point, was largely a mystery to me until I got there. The client gathered the information for the second part almost as I was writing.

The other book had just too many lines of thought and side stories to get organized in advance.  The amount of material to read, then organize, then try to find again when it came time to writing…it was just too much.  I would have been duplicating my work, and probably would have been unable to re-find some of the material I would need.

Instead, I made a rough structural outline.  I grouped some of the elements to form chapter groups, understanding that the true story would unfold into chapters in a way that makes sense as I get to each. This allowed me to look at each element, along with the extensive web of information around it, without being overwhelmed by the full weight of information I needed to gather for the manuscript.

Ghostwriting is consuming

This is the dirty little secret ghostwriters don’t tell their clients. Ghostwriting can consume a writer as much as if it was their own book they are writing.

At the dinner table, a ghostwriter’s mind wanders off to a scene or to a way of expressing an idea.

In bed, a ghostwriter loses an hour’s sleep while toying with a way of bridging two events.

While a ghostwriter drives, he misses his exit because of an internal dialogue he’s working over for the sixth time that morning.

The ghostwriter takes ownership of the story to a large degree, even while writing in somebody else’s style.

But this isn’t your story.  This isn’t your life, although it can consume you as if it was. You probably quoted your price based on the time and effort it should take to organize the information, write the manuscript and proofread your work.  Ghostwriters never include a fee for overtaking their life.

If you ghostwrite a speech or a blog post, this is not a problem.  Ghostwriters rarely fall that deep into small projects.  But for books and screenplays, a ghostwriter can completely lose herself.

Ghostwriting is non-possessive

After having surrendered your life to the client’s project, you have to give it back.  Yes, when the manuscript is complete, a ghostwriter has to remember that this is the client’s book.

For me, that’s not so hard to do.  Yes, I take pride in what I’ve done. Yes, I feel a sense of ownership. No, I don’t have to tell the world or see my name in lights.  I’m fine with being a ghost.

Most ghostwriters feel this way, too.

By the end of the project, a ghostwriter comes full circle. Having jumped in with excitement, become consumed by the project, then finally setting it free to its true owner, a ghostwriter is ready to take on a brand new challenge.  Something new to get excited about!

Hire a ghostwriter

About David Leonhardt

David Leonhardt is President of The Happy Guy Marketing, a published author, a "Distinguished Toastmaster", a former consumer advocate, a social media addict and experienced with media relations and government reports.

Read more about David Leonhardt

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  1. Renard Moreau says:
    at 6:35 pm

    [ Smiles ] I would never choose to be a ghostwriter, because I will remain anonymous.

    Although I would be paid handsomely, I do not think that it is right for someone else to take credit for my work.

  2. Richard Lowe says:
    at 2:03 am

    Ghostwriting is, as you say, exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. It’s high pressure but can pay very well. But if you misjudge how long it’s going to take, you could wind up losing money,. But I love it – writing is my passion.

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