Tips on Becoming a Effective Ghostwriter

become-a-ghostwriterThis is a follow-up to The Invisible Writer – The Art of Becoming a Ghost.

1) Can ghostwriting be handled remotely, or do you need to meet your client?

Respondents agreed that it generally wasn’t necessary to be able to meet one-on-one with your client. “I prefer to talk to people over the phone and to, with their permission, record the conversation,” says Wayne Pollard. “You can then do edits through e-mail and phone calls.” Several writers recommended using Skype to conduct calls with clients directly through the computer; Amanda Evans requires this as part of her contract. “I also allow clients to record what they want their story to contain and then forward Mp3 files to me. This allows me to listen to them over and over, and if I have any questions I can take notes and e-mail the client for answers. This also allows me to assess their speaking tone and plan how I will write using their voice.” Mary Anne Hahn feels, however, that “When ghostwriting something like memoirs, I would think face to face would be by far the most effective way to truly capture the client’s voice and story.”

2) How do you gather information from a client?

Sometimes, a client may have difficulty articulating their ideas or providing enough material to complete the project. Ghostwriters offered several tips on how to deal with this problem:

“If I have a client who finds it difficult to articulate their material, I usually start by sending them a brief questionnaire to fill out,” says Amanda Evans. “From their answers I can usually determine what type of action I need to take. It could be that I need to sit and talk with them via Skype or get them to write some notes on what they want their story to be about. There are other occasions where I get clients to record what they want to say. I find that breaking the interviews and questionnaires into chapters really helps, as the client only has to focus on one piece of the story at a time and this makes it easier for them.”

Marcia Layton Turner asks for background material on the project: “articles, books, speeches, etc. If you suspect the client is having difficulty due to nerves, you could suggest having them dictate into a digital recorder. Or if they find it easier to write notes, you could try sending a list of written questions for them to respond to. You can then schedule phone conversations to go into more depth or for clarification.”

Sean Platt notes, “I send them bullet points or simple questions to answer. Everyone can articulate themselves well given the right prompts, and a good writer doesn’t need much to go on. If we have a thread of good we should be able to pull it all the way to great.”

3) Will you need to conduct research for your client, or verify facts?

Conducting research, or verifying that what the client is telling you is accurate, can be “part of the territory,” according to Mary Anne Hahn. After all, your goal is to create a good book or article. However, as Wayne Pollard notes, “If you are qualified to conduct research or fact check for your client, you should add this to your agreement and charge extra for it.” Marcia Layton Turner feels that “If the client gives you a quote attributed to a particular individual, it’s your responsibility to verify it. Or if they cite a statistic or study, you can check it out or ask for the original research from the client.” But she, too, believes that a writer should be paid extra for research, and that it should be specified from the beginning (and in the contract) as to whether the writer is responsible for gathering data or fact-checking. She also points out that “if there is information that the client insists is important but cannot validate or corroborate, you need to make it clear that you will not be responsible if that information is proven incorrect. I’d get that in writing, too, if the client insists on using it.”

4) What sorts of terms (and protections) should be included in your contract?

Not surprisingly, respondents had a great deal to say about areas in which ghostwriters need to protect themselves with carefully worded contracts!

Amanda Evans: “A payment schedule with well planned out milestones is important. You need to list everything in your contract and describe very clearly what you will be completing for your client. You should always ensure that your payment schedule includes an upfront payment of at least 25%, which you should receive before you begin any work or conduct any interviews.”

Bobbi Linkemer: “Be sure you understand what the client wants and that the client understands what you will do. Spell out what you and the client have agreed to in terms of tasks and payment of fees. Include an indemnification paragraph in the contract. Have your attorney read the contract, and incorporate his or her suggestions. Send a draft of the agreement, and let the client know it can be edited before it is signed.”

Bobbi Linkemer: “How will the ghostwriter be credited or acknowledged? Acknowledgement in print is often considered part of the fee. The ghostwriter’s name appears on the cover preceded by one of these three words or phrases:

  • with – indicates that the ghostwriter has assisted on the project
  • and – means both parties have contributed to the material in the book
  • as told to – the ghostwriter has transcribed and edited the client’s story or material

If there is no credit line, the client may express appreciation somewhere in the acknowledgements.” Marcia Layton Turner: “What happens when the client cancels the project mid-stream — how much will you be paid? What happens when the ghostwriter wants to walk away — how much will you be paid for your work to-date? How much notice do you need to give? What happens when the project stalls due to the client’s inattention — can you bill for that time, since you set it aside for the client?”

Mary Anne Hahn: “The biggest [problem] I see is people looking to ‘hire’ a ghostwriter for a percentage of future earnings [e.g., royalties]. You really can’t afford to agree to situations like this if you want to make a living as a ghostwriter. You need to establish your pricing and insist on a percentage up front, especially for longer projects like books. You also need to have a contract that clearly states the client’s expectations for the project, deadlines, and future payment terms.”

Wayne Pollard: “Everything needs to be spelled out: deadlines, word length, number of revisions, per hour fee for additional revisions, etc.”

5) Do you have any responsibility in ensuring that your client’s work is “publishable” (or published)?

“As a ghostwriter, I do not help a client get published. There may be some ghostwriters who do but as a general rule I do not,” says Amanda Evans. “You can ask a ghostwriter’s opinion on your work, but as they are not publishers or agents, they are not qualified to give you this information.”

Marcia Layton Turner agrees. “It’s generally not the ghostwriter’s responsibility to assist in connecting you with a publisher. Some have contacts with agents and editors and may offer to make introductions, but they can’t promise to get you published. You may want to chat with agents and editors before you engage a ghostwriter, to gauge the level of interest in your topic.”

At the same time, Sean Platt points out that it’s your job as a ghostwriter to create a “publishable” work if at all possible. I.e., if the material is worth publishing, your writing should make it publishable. “Unless the project isn’t publishable to begin with, a quality ghostwriter should always leave you with publishable work.” He also warns, however, to beware of any ghostwriter who promises that the client will be published.

6) What’s the best part of being a ghostwriter? What’s the worst?

“The best part is having the client read what your wrote and say, ‘This is exactly what I wanted to say!'” says Wayne Pollard. “I like handing the magazine with my client’s article in it to my client and then watching him smile when he sees his byline. It’s even better when they frame the article and hang it in their office. For the clients whose books I’ve ghostwritten, it’s great when they thank you in the beginning of their books.” Bobbi Linkemer says, “The best part is knowing I played a part in making an author’s book come to life.”

The worst part, not surprisingly, is “putting in all the hard work and then seeing someone else’s name going on the front cover and them getting the recognition,” according to Amanda Evans. Sean Platt agrees: “While it’s nice to occasionally fade into the background and simply write, the worst part of being a ghostwriter, no doubt, is writing something remarkable and then slapping someone else’s name on it.”

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, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.

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.