How to Break Into Freelance GhostwritingBy Rudri Patel July 7th, 2022
When I was first approached to ghostwrite an article for a corporate executive, I didn’t immediately say yes. Several questions ran through my head: What if I couldn’t nail the voice? What if the subject wasn’t in my wheelhouse? Would I be fine with not having the byline under my name?
I worked past my initial apprehensions and now believe ghostwriting is a key to freelance longevity—whether you embrace it as a full-time gig or offer it as one service among many.
Claudia Suzanne, a ghostwriter since 1989, summed up the nature of the niche: “Ghostwriting is the simplest, most complex endeavor a writer can undertake,” she said. “You need to have the flexibility to change your mindset and your work habits—and, of course, you need to love reading and helping make other people’s dreams come true.”
Many freelancers also endorse ghostwriting as a way to make a lucrative living. I chatted with several who specialize in this type of work to get their thoughts on the skills required, the benefits for freelancers, and how to break in.
Getting into ghostwriting
Personally, most of my ghostwriting opportunities have come from Contently’s platform or via word-of-mouth referrals. But every freelancer has a different “in.”
For Kelly K. James, a freelancer and author of several books on writing, her journey began when she co-authored a book a few years into her career. “I learned I could make much more per hour collaborating with experts on their books than by writing my own,” she said. “I also liked the fact that I didn’t have to market the book after it was published, which is the most time-intensive aspect.”
“Ghostwriting is the simplest, most complex endeavor a writer can undertake.”
Michelle Rafter has been ghostwriting books and articles for the last 10 years, but her path to the profession wasn’t linear. “My initial ghostwriting work was for a financial services client, and it grew out of other work I had been doing for them,” she explained. In another case, Rafter was approached by the head of content at an organization who asked her to ghostwrite reports.
When Marcia Layton Turner began to ghostwrite around 15 years ago, she entered the process as a novice. “I didn’t know much about ghostwriting when my then-agent asked if I wanted to take over the writing of a business book for a guru who was seven months behind in delivering his manuscript,” she recalled. Today, Turner credits ghostwriting with her career longevity. “As magazine and newspaper freelance opportunities dried up, I’ve found that ghostwriting work is increasing and expanding.”
Learning the skills
In terms of the skills required of an effective ghostwriter, the sources I spoke with had a few pointers to keep in mind. The first is to keep your ego out of it. “You need to recognize that your job is to write the client’s book—and that it is your client’s book, not your own,” James said.
Secondly, you’ll need to be a skilled interviewer. Turner suggested taking a class on interviewing if this isn’t a skill with which you’re comfortable. In a similar vein, you’ll need to demonstrate you can write in another person’s voice—which begins with strong listening skills. “A ghostwriter has to be a good listener to hear what the author is saying and the words they use to express themselves so they can capture that [tone of voice],” Rafter said.
“A ghostwriter has to be a good listener to hear what the author is saying.”
And it’s not just listening comprehension—strong general communication skills are crucial. Rafter said this is necessary since you’ll likely need to explain why you’ve written or rewritten things a certain way to the author. Being able to tactfully articulate the reasoning behind your choices—even if it’s as simple as correcting a grammatical error—can help you build stronger relationships with your ghostwriting clients.
Finally, Suzanne noted that the niche is its own artform, and that being a skilled writer doesn’t necessarily translate to being a competent ghostwriter. “It’s more than just maintaining the author’s voice—it’s also maintaining their intent, their perspective, and their purpose,” she said.
Landing your first ghostwriting gig
As with other forms of freelancing, networking is a key component of getting work as a ghostwriter. For Rafter, most of her ghostwriting work has come from editors she’s worked with previously. The book she ghostwrote last year, for example, was assigned by someone she worked with years ago at a trade magazine—they approached her about taking on a book project because they were too busy. “The moral of the story is to keep in touch with people,” Rafter said.
James also suggested budding ghostwriters specialize in a beat or two—for her, a background in health/wellness and nutrition has led to book projects in that same sector. She also noted that writers who want to ghostwrite books need to be familiar with the medium. “You really need to be a published book author—agents/editors/clients want someone who understands what it takes to write a book,” she said.
“You need to love reading and helping make other people’s dreams come true.”
That said, you don’t need to be a published novelist or memoirist to break into ghostwriting. Plenty of individuals and organizations need ghostwritten articles or shorter-form content, too.
Regardless of what type of ghostwriting you decide to focus on, Turner recommended building up a body of work that you can show off to prospective clients. “Decide what type of ghostwriting you want to do, and then try to land some projects that will help you develop a portfolio,” she recommended.
But keep in mind that showcasing ghostwriting work can be trickier than with other types of writing. For freelancers who want to publicize their ghostwriting portfolio or use certain pieces as samples, it’s always a good idea to check with the client before sharing. Many clients require that bylines remain confidential for legal reasons.
Resources to get started with freelance ghostwriting
Rafter suggested the following resources for freelancers looking to break into ghostwriting:
- The Gotham Ghostwriters blog. All the posts with the tag Writing Advice are relevant for freelance ghostwriters. Gotham Ghostwriter Director of Client Services Will Wolfslau also recommends the GG guest post series, The Flush Freelancer Five by Tim Vandehey.
- Rafter’s WordCount blog. The publication covers many aspects of freelancing, including writing basics and running a writing business. Rafter has a relevant post for ghostwriters titled, “All writers are rewriters—here’s how to get better at it.”
- The Association of Ghostwriters’ website. This group caters to people who ghostwrite books, articles, speeches, blogs, and social media content. The $69 annual membership includes access to teleseminars, a job bank, listing in a member directory, and networking opportunities.
- Josh Bernoff’s blog, Without Bullshit. Bernoff ghostwrote and co-authored multiple books on business and tech while on staff at Forrester Research before branching out on his own. He’s an in-demand writer who’s not afraid to tell it like it is, which he does on a regular basis on the blog. Here are all his posts on the subject of ghostwriting.
- Jane Friedman’s online resources and newsletters. Friedman is a well-known publishing industry authority, and her website covers many aspects of writing and publishing, including ghostwriting. A couple of relevant posts include “How to become a ghostwriter” and “Become a ghostwriter.”
- The Cal State Long Beach Ghostwriting Professional Designation Program. This 13-month program is offered through the university’s College of Professional and International Education.