The Invisible Writer: The Art of Becoming a Ghost

ghostwritingThe world is filled with people who have brilliant ideas, valuable information, or fascinating experiences to share — but who lack the writing or communication skills to share them. Enter the ghostwriter — the “invisible” writers among us who labor, not to make their own voices heard, but to enable others to make their voices heard.

Ghostwriters make it possible for experts in fields of science, technology and medicine to share their findings and recommendations with the world. They enable business gurus to share their expertise with the next generation of entrepreneurs. They provide a means for stars and celebrities to “tell all.” And, of course, without ghostwriters, politicians might never be able to share their wisdom and experiences. (Well, I suppose there’s a downside to everything…)

What does it take to become a ghostwriter? Most articles on this topic point out the obvious need for good writing skills. After all, if you can’t write better than your client, what’s the point? However, the ghostwriters I interviewed for this article pointed out that there is something just as important as good writing skills: good people skills!

“A ghostwriter needs a special knack for crawling inside people’s heads and understanding what they really want to say,” says Bobbi Linkemer. She also notes that a ghostwriter needs empathy and compassion, patience, a sense of humor, the ability to read nonverbal cues, and excellent listening skills. A ghostwriter needs to know how to “translate feelings into words.”

Marcia Layton Turner considers good interviewing skills to be at the core of a ghostwriter’s toolkit. “You need to be able to ask interesting questions that get at more than surface information, and in such a way that your source is comfortable answering them.” She also feels that “you need to be interested in people in general. The more inquisitive you are… the more comprehensive and insightful your finished product.” A ghostwriter needs to be able to relate to the client and establish a comfort level, she points out; the lack of social skills can disqualify even an excellent writer.

“Everyone has a story inside them,” says Sean Platt. “A good ghostwriter knows how to listen well enough to draw that story from the ‘author.’ But a great ghostwriter is able to extract the story the ‘author’ would never have found within them.”

Wayne Pollard points out the importance of being pleasant to work with, suggesting that a ghostwriter needs to be more “Casper” than “poltergeist.” Don’t create disturbances, such as arguing with your client. “Sure, you are there to provide guidance, but you must not argue with your client because few people want to be around a person who argues with them. People will only continue to work with you if they like you and trust you.”

One aspect of building a relationship with your client is being able to understand, interpret and convey your client’s “voice.” While most books and classes on writing emphasize the importance of “finding your voice,” for a ghostwriter, the key is finding a way to express your client’s voice — generally at the expense of your own. “As a ghostwriter, there is absolutely no place for your own writing style,” says Pollard. “You must be a chameleon; you must be able to assume your client’s voice. You must put your ego aside because it is not your byline.” He suggests having a client help determine what style she prefers by giving examples of books she likes.

“I think ghostwriting can be a little bit like acting,” says Mary Anne Hahn. “When you’re writing for someone else, you almost try to become that person, see what they saw, feel what they felt, and know what they learned.”

Amanda Evans points out that ghostwriting involves more than adapting to a client’s style or tone. “You need to be familiar with the language style of your client and the area they come from. Research the area they lived and try to listen to recordings or how they speak. Little things are important, such as commonly used terms or phrases.” For example, there are many differences between US English and UK English: “trash in America is rubbish in England and so forth. Recording interviews with your client is a great way to learn more about the way in which they speak… so that you are capturing their voice.”

Communication and “people skills” are an important aspect of the business side of ghostwriting as well. For make no mistake: Ghostwriting is a business, and must be conducted as such. Part of that business involves making sure that you, and your client, share a detailed understanding of what the project is about, the scope of the project, the time-frame in which it is to be completed, and the terms of payment.

Evans makes sure that all of these issues are spelled out in her contract with a client. “A lot of ghostwriters who are just starting out have problems with payment or understanding exactly what they are expected to do. I clearly outline what it is I am being contracted to do, along with what is expected of the client. If interviews are required, it is vital that the client has Skype and that interview times and schedules are created. The payment schedule is probably the most important, as is laying out exactly what it is you will be doing for the client.”

Linkemer includes a section in her contract that allows either party to terminate the relationship if things aren’t going well. This can happen, she notes, “when the client micromanages every aspect of the project, doesn’t honor the contract in terms of actions, is not able to provide the information I need, or is rude.” Linkemer attempts to negotiate problems first, but relies on a well written contract as her backup.

Another common problem, according to Pollard, is “having a client who thinks he knows more about writing than you do. He will ask you to make edits that you feel will ruin the piece. When this happens, it’s your job to explain to the client exactly why you feel the edits should not be made, but in the end, you must do what the client wants. Why? It is not your byline; it is his byline. And he must be happy with the piece. To cover yourself, you should put everything in writing. Send an email to your client stating your concerns but let him know that you will do whatever he wants you to do. If the edits actually do ruin the book, you want to have your evidence in case he wants to blame it on you.”

This raises a critical issue for the ghostwriter: The realization that in this, unlike most forms of “creative” writing, the writer is not the boss. Though you may have been hired because you have a skill the client lacks — the ability to write effectively — the client still has the final word in how the material is presented.

“I think the most common conflict is when the client wants something included in the book, or stated a certain way, or organized a specific way, and you, the writer, disagree,” says Turner. “Or perhaps the client wants a certain source quoted heavily, or a particular anecdote emphasized. Conflict occurs when you state the reasons for your disagreement. I generally… try to understand why that piece of information or that source is so important to the client. In many cases, there are other ways to achieve your client’s goal and your goal of producing a well written book once you know the background. I also think it’s your professional responsibility to explain why you don’t think that decision is the best for the book. It’s very possible the author hadn’t thought about it in that way and may agree with you once you state your case. Ultimately, it’s the client’s book, however, and you need to decide if you are willing to work on the project and approach it the way the client requests. It’s their name on the cover, after all.”

But what if you feel that a client’s decisions are so bad that they render a book unpublishable? All the ghostwriters interviewed agreed that the “publishability” of a book is not the writer’s responsibility.

“As a ghostwriter it really isn’t my job to say whether or not a client’s project is publishable or not, and this is clearly stated in my contract,” says Evans. “I am in no way responsible for publishing, contacting publishing or having anything to do with publishing. If I do not feel personally that the client’s project is suitable for publishing or that they don’t have a good story to tell then I will usually reject the work upfront. This saves any conflicts further down the line.”

Linkemer addresses this problem by asking the client the sorts of questions that would be included in a book proposal. “If I determine that the book has little chance of being published by a conventional publisher, I say so. However, if the client wants to self-publish, I spell out what is involved in doing so correctly.” Respondents were quick to point out that no ghostwriter should accept an agreement that links payment to the publication of the work.

Ghostwriting can be a effective way to make a living doing what you do best: Writing. As Sean Platt puts it, “The best part of being a ghostwriter is getting paid well to articulate what others can’t. I’m natural with language and love to write, so it’s a big swinging bag of awesome to make good money doing what I love.” Awesome… and spooky!

Moira Allen is the editor of and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.