What the Heck Is Ghostwriting? (And Why You Might Want to Do It)
You want to make money as a writer, right?
You’ve told everyone on Facebook (including your weird aunt) that you’re available to write. You’ve been writing guest post after guest post to showcase your talent and get your name out there. Maybe you’ve even landed a few jobs already. (Good for you!)
But then a potential client emails you with the question, “Do you offer ghostwriting services?”
And you’re stumped. Maybe you’ve heard of ghostwriting. Maybe you have some idea what it is. Or maybe you wonder if it involves ouija boards in some way.
You don’t want to look like an idiot by emailing back to say, “Err … what do you mean?”
That sounds like a good way to send your potential client running for the hills.
Well, look no further, because I’m about to tell you everything you need to know about ghostwriting, starting with …
What Exactly IS Ghostwriting?
You might already have some hazy ideas about ghostwriting, like I did … when I first heard of ghostwriting, I thought it was just used for celebrity memoirs.
It turns out such memoirs are just the tip of the iceberg. Ghostwriting is everywhere.
So what is it?
When you ghostwrite, you let someone else put their name on your work. That is, you don’t get any credit — at all.
Typically, the person who commissions the work will own the copyright, which also means they can modify or republish the work in any way they see fit.
So why would someone hire a ghostwriter? Are they too lazy to write their own stuff?
Not necessarily. People hire ghostwriters for many different reasons, but the most common ones are:
- Their business has grown so much that they no longer have time to write (all) their own material.
- They have a wealth of expertise or an exciting story to tell, but they don’t enjoy writing or they’re not that good at it.
It’s nothing new, either: ghostwriting has been around, in one form or another, for centuries.
To give you more idea of what it may involve, my own ghostwriting has included:
- Taking a rough draft, editing it heavily, and expanding on it where necessary.
- Taking a blogger’s rough notes and transcribing them.
- Putting together short, functional blog posts (e.g., announcing a new podcast).
- Taking an assigned topic and very brief outline, then writing a post.
- Writing a post based on a title and nothing more.
- Coming up with ideas, getting them approved, then ghostwriting the posts (though this is rare!).
As you can see, ghostwriting has a spectrum from something akin to an editing relationship to writing a piece from scratch.
Of course, I’ve only ghostwritten for blogs.
Authors like Roz Morris write whole books as ghostwriters, which is a far more involved process that includes extensive interviews with the client.
But Why Would You Let Someone Else Take Credit for YOUR Writing?
Assuming you also want to build up your own brand as a writer, why might you want to ghostwrite?
After all, you won’t get any of the credit. Your name won’t appear anywhere on the piece … and you probably can’t tell anyone you wrote it.
But you have plenty of good reasons to ghostwrite. Many writers do it, and many writers love it.
Here are two main benefits:
Benefit #1: Ghostwriting Pays Exceptionally Well
One huge reason to ghostwrite is for the money. It tends to pay better than regular freelancing.
After all, having your name attached to your words is valuable for you as a writer. When you have a byline, you can use that piece of work to showcase your talent, build your reputation, and potentially attract new clients. So it’s appropriate (and standard practice) to increase your fee to compensate for the loss of these advantages.
There’s no exact rule of thumb for how much extra you should charge for ghostwriting over regular freelancing. Personally, I tend to increase my fee by about 15%–20%.
On top of that, once you’ve established a ghostwriting relationship with someone, it often results in ongoing work for you. Most people want their writing to be consistent, so it makes sense to stick to the same writer.
In other words, you have consistent work at a higher rate than usual. That’s quite a plus, isn’t it?
Benefit #2: Develop Closer Relationships with Big Names in Your Field
As a ghostwriter, you’ll normally work quite closely with your client. You may be privy to their rough notes or mind maps, or you might interview them on the phone or in person.
Chances are, you’re also focusing your ghostwriting on a particular area of expertise (especially if you’re writing for a blog).
This means that you’ve got a brilliant opportunity to get to know someone well-established in your field.
You’ll find that you get valuable insights into the “behind the scenes” of a top blog, or you get a clearer idea of how a big-name author works and thinks.
This may be eye-opening! It could give you some ideas for how best to move forward with your own business.
And as you build up closer relationships, or even friendships, with your client, they may well share your other work on social media, bringing you a lot of extra traffic. (Several of the people I ghostwrite for have supported me in that way.)
If you ever need a favor or need some advice, there’s a good chance they’ll be very happy to help.
So much of blogging success depends on getting a helping hand from other bloggers … particularly those with a large audience and a great reputation in their field. Ghostwriting brings you into close contact with exactly those people.
The Counterpoint: Why You Might NOT Want to Ghostwrite
There are a couple of big concerns that writers have about ghostwriting:
“But surely that’s not ethical?”
“But why should they benefit from my hard work?”
“But what about building my platform?”
These are real, valid concerns … and for you, they may be deal-breakers.
So let’s dig into them.
Objection #1: “You’re Helping Someone Fool Their Readers — That’s Unethical”
When you ghostwrite for someone, they pass your words off as their own.
Is that ethical?
The authors who hire ghostwriters certainly think it is! But not all writers or readers agree. Many feel that some types of ghostwriting are more ethical than others.
For instance, think about these two scenarios, which are on opposite ends of the ghostwriting spectrum:
- A big-name blogger hires a ghostwriter to write an ebook on their behalf. The blogger talks to the ghostwriter for an hour and provides a detailed outline. Once the ebook is complete, the big-name blogger reads it, edits it, and puts his name on it.
- A big-name blogger hires a ghostwriter to write an ebook on their behalf. They give the ghostwriter free rein to come up with the topic and outline, and they don’t supply any help. When it’s done, the blogger puts his name on it without giving it a second look.
Personally, as a reader, I’d feel comfortable with situation #1. The thoughts in the ebook belong to the blogger; the ghostwriter has helped shape those.
Situation #2, however, seems a lot thornier. As a reader, I’d feel cheated by that. I’m buying the ebook because I want the blogger’s expertise … not that of a ghostwriter I don’t know.
If you’re thinking of ghostwriting, you have to make up your own mind about what is — and isn’t — ethical. Where would you personally draw the line as a ghostwriter, if at all?
For more thoughts on the rights and wrongs of ghostwriting, check out Patty Podnar’s post Is Ghostwriting Ethical?
Amanda Montell’s Your Favorite Influencers Aren’t Writing Their Own Content—These Women Are is also quite eye-opening about some of the less ethical practices in the ghostwriting world.
Objection #2: “It’s Too Painful Watching Someone Else Get Praised for YOUR Work”
It may sound silly, but not getting recognition for your writing can be quite painful — unbearable to some.
I have to admit that, as a writer, it can sometimes sting a little to see a blogger receive lots of lovely praise for a post that I wrote every word of. And I’m not alone; many writers find themselves missing the attention and craving the recognition.
It’s no fun watching someone bask in glory that should be yours.
But think of it this way: All that praise is a sign you did a great job. You can be proud of that, and you can feel confident you’ll get hired again!
Also, as ghostwriter Roz Morris points out in an interview with whitefox, it’s not just ghostwriters who go unnoticed by readers:
There are many unsung heroes in the creative industries, and ghostwriters are only one of them. Editors can also make a huge difference to a book and are rarely credited.
So, if you can’t stand watching someone else take the praise, that’s okay. Many writers feel that way. But maybe we should also keep things in perspective.
Objection #3: “Ghostwriting Keeps You from Building Your Platform”
Even if you’re okay with someone else getting the praise, you may still oppose the idea of letting them take credit.
Some writers feel that, for long-term success, you need to take credit for every word you write and create an impressive body of work with your name on it. They believe that ghostwriting is essentially a waste of time.
After all, when you’ve got a bio (or at least your name) on every blog post you write, each of those posts helps raise your profile. You’ll be bringing in new readers and potentially new clients through your work … without any additional marketing.
This is essentially the argument that Demian Farnworth puts forward in The Brutally Honest Truth About Ghostwriting:
The first thing every writer should ask is this: What do you want to accomplish as a writer? Is building a personal and visible platform important to you? Will it help you in the long run? If you have to ghostwrite to make ends meet, fine. But beat a hasty path out of the business as soon as possible. It’s your turn to run the show.
I certainly think it’s worth putting some serious thought into how best to make ghostwriting work for you. It might be that you want to solely focus on your own platform (heck, you might even hire ghostwriters of your own, some day down the line!)
But there’s no shame in taking ghostwriting jobs to generate a steady income while you build your platform. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can do both at the same time.
Ghostwriting takes some focus away, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
Will You Give Ghostwriting a Try?
Ultimately, ghostwriting can be a little divisive.
Some writers feel — passionately — that readers deserve to know exactly who wrote the words they’re reading. Others feel building your platform is too important to let someone else take credit.
But ghostwriting is a good way to make money as a writer.
And it doesn’t mean your platform is off the table. You can ghostwrite and have a writing career under your own name. Many writers, including me, simply use ghostwriting as a way to supplement or support their writing passions.
Personally, I think it’s worth it.
Only you can decide whether it’s right for you.