Want to become a ghostwriter? Then prepare yourself to answer these three questions.
Ghostwriting has traditionally been a shadowy business. Your clients rarely, if ever, acknowledge you. It’s tricky to promote your services. And no child, come Career Day, has ever declared, “I want to have someone else claim credit for my work!”
How times have changed.
Today, ghostwriting is big business. Prince Harry’s ghostwriter just penned a long essay reflecting on his craft for the New Yorker. Perhaps he was inspired by the tell-all that appeared a few months ago in Texas Monthly by the ghostwriter for Chrishell Stause and Vanessa Lachey. Or the recap, from a year earlier, in Publishers Weekly, “Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows.” Indeed, ghostwriters are now publicly acknowledged for everything from Instagram captions to dating apps.
Yet despite the buzz, the profession in which I’ve built a career remains mysterious. Casual acquaintances ask, “You’re a ghost what?” Journalists ask, “How do I break into this field?” Colleagues ask, “How do I find clients?” And clients ask, “Where can I see your work?”
Here’s the good news: Starved of the spotlight, we ghostwriters are often quite chatty (especially if the subject is ourselves). We’re eager to swap war stories and show our scars. In that spirit, let me offer an intro to our industry for aspiring ghosts.
Question #1: How Do I Break Into the Ghostwriting Field?
Good news: You’re already a ghostwriter! If you’ve ever written a news release, bam — you’re a ghostwriter! (Every P.R. pro knows that the quotes in a release are made up.) If you’ve ever worked as a staff assistant in Congress, you’re a ghostwriter! (Everyone on Capitol Hill knows that those constituent letters aren’t actually written by the boss.)
Second, a related point: When I tell people that I’m a ghostwriter, they almost always assume that I ghostwrite books. I don’t. In fact, I basically ghostwrite everything except books — op-eds, blog posts, LinkedIn articles, slide decks, speeches.
I also do uncredited work — Wikipedia pages, website copy, newsletters, social-media content. (Yep, I write tweets.) Finally, I deliver work for others under my own name — workshops, on all manner of communication topics.
Collectively, I call this niche “short-form thought leadership,” and I’ve been able to build a career on its basis.
Third, many ghostwriters (including me) have experience as a journalist. That training is helpful, but at a certain point, you need to alter your mindset — dramatically. You’re no longer reporting; you’re now opining. You no longer have readers; you now have clients. You’re in the service business, and your goal is to serve your clients — to present their version of the story, rather than the most objectively identifiable one.
Here’s an obvious example: As a reporter, you would never give someone you’re profiling preapproval of your copy. As a ghostwriter, that’s exactly what you do.
Finally, one more point: As a ghostwriter, you’re also a businessperson. That’s right, you’re running a company. So you need to prepare yourself for everything that this entails: Proposals, negotiating, invoicing, scope creep, referral networks, client care and feeding, self-promotion, juggling multiple deadlines, health insurance. The list goes on and on.
Sure, you can hire an assistant. You can even hire subcontractors. (More paperwork!) But be aware, upfront, that writing is the easy part; building a business is the hard part.
Question #2: How Do I Find Ghostwriting Clients?
First, exploit your existing network. Send an email to your friends, family members, old bosses, colleagues, associates. Share on LinkedIn that you’re taking on new clients. Above all, create a website that explains your offerings.
Your first site need not be fancy; this is something you can create yourself. But, in my opinion, it does need one thing: Individual pages. That is, don’t list everything you do on one long page. Instead, create separate pages for each service, industry, or goal you cover. That way, if a prospect is looking for something specific, you can send him directly to your pertinent credentials.
(Put another way: If a client-to-be is looking for help with a drip-marketing campaign, it’s great that you also write news releases, but he needs help with his newsletter.)
Second, develop new networks. LinkedIn groups, Google groups, Facebook groups, even exercise groups — there’s no shortage of masterminds you can tap into. (Don’t know where to start? Ask your fellow ghosts; I guarantee they each know of at least one river of referrals.)
Third, don’t be shy about telling people what you do; always be networking. One of my neighbors became a client because in one of our early conversations, I said I do Wikipedia work. Another client, the C.E.O. of a restaurant chain, recently became a client because when I met her P.R. rep at a party, I mentioned that I help folks overhaul their LinkedIn profiles.
Fourth, promote yourself. Over and over. Don’t be shy. I write LinkedIn posts. Other ghostwriters write blog posts. Others volunteer for industry groups, or at least go to their happy hours. The more people who know what you do, the more people who can say “I know a guy” when someone says he needs a ghostwriter.
Question #3: How Do I Show My Ghostwritten Work?
First, you can and should describe your work. Plenty of P.R. agencies and management consultancies are experts at elevating themselves without revealing anything: “We helped a leading chemical company digitally transform its supply chain.” “We enabled a global manufacturer of semiconductors to boost revenue by 20%.”
You can do the same: “I wrote a speech for a celebrity upon the death of her best friend.” “I wrote a series of state-based op-eds for a major manufacturer of mammogram machines that persuaded health insurers to cover 3-D mammograms.”
Second, at the very least, you need samples of your own. Here’s the way I think of this issue: Just as you should be skeptical of the professor who doesn’t also publish, so you should be skeptical of the ghostwriter who doesn’t also write for himself.
For example, my colleague Matthew Rees publishes a newsletter, contributes book reviews for the Wall Street Journal, and reports for the website SwimSwam. This is all done under his own byline, and it’s all public.
The bottom line: If you don’t have clips you can share, you’ll need to be a mighty good salesman, because few people will hire you without any proof that you can do what you say you can.
Jonathan Rick is a freelance ghostwriter in Washington, D.C. If you have questions about ghosting — either the profession or the gutless act whereby someone stops replying to your emails— please do get in touch.
A version of the above article appeared on the blog of Gotham Ghostwriters on June 13, 2023.