How to break into freelance ghostwriting
Ghostwriting is much more prevalent than many people think, and it can be a very lucrative career path. From novels to political speeches, there are no shortage of ghostwriting opportunities if you know where to look and what to offer. But breaking into the space to become a successful ghostwriter can be a difficult challenge.
In this guide, we’re covering everything you need to know about becoming a ghostwriter.
What is ghostwriting
Ghostwriting is when you produce content that will be published under your client’s name. As a ghostwriter, you sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) and sign away any intellectual property (IP) rights you have to the content you produce. In return, you are usually paid more than you’d be paid if your name was on the content, for example in the mainstream media.
In general, ghostwriters operate completely in the background and the client represents the work as their own. There are also some rare cases where a ghostwriter is named as a collaborator, but this is rare and usually only done when the ghostwriter is prominent in other ways, so naming them as a collaborator could help sell the content (for example, a ghostwritten book).
Why do people hire ghostwriters?
People hire ghostwriters for a variety of reasons, but usually it’s one of three things:
Time: If someone is busy and has a lot on their plate, paying someone else to write their ideas down into a blog post, article, book, song, or something else can be a valuable use of money. Since most people can talk through an idea faster than they could structure a piece of writing, working with a ghostwriter is a great way to save time.
Skills: Sometimes a well-known person is simply not a good writer. They might be great at speaking, negotiation, singing, managing, or something else, but not writing. In this case, hiring a ghostwriter is a fairly simple choice: if they want content produced, they need to work with someone who is capable of writing.
Scalability: Sometimes a person is a good writer, but they have multiple projects on the go or need to produce a lot of content in a tight timeline. Working with a ghostwriter in this capacity is about scaling out how much you can do. For example: an author on a speaking tour might hire a ghostwriter to produce op-ed articles that appear in the local news for each stop on the tour, giving the author free time to meet fans and do live interviews.
Who hires ghostwriters?
In general, the people who hire ghostwriters have some form of public persona that they need to prop up with content. That includes:
- Public figures
- PR agencies hiring for a client
- Literary agencies hiring for a client
Common types of ghostwriting
Ghostwriters produce all kinds of content, depending on their client needs:
- Speeches: For politicians or celebrities.
- Books and ebooks: For authors or someone who wants to be seen as an author.
- Blogs and op-eds: If someone is a blogger but wants additional writing support.
- Articles: Both fiction and nonfiction ghostwriting.
- Community management posts: To drive word of mouth marketing for a brand or celebrity.
- Announcements: For things from business books to parties.
- Interviews: For sharing someone else's story.
- Songs: Music publishers might pay ghost writers to write songs for famous singers.
This isn’t to say that all ghostwriters produce all kinds of content, though. For instance, a book ghostwriter might write some articles, but probably won’t write songs. Similarly, a script writer may also write songs, but probably doesn’t write blogs or op-eds.
The difference between freelance writing and ghostwriting
Ghostwriting is a form of freelance writing. The best way to think about it is that freelance writing is an umbrella term that encompasses ghost writing and multiple other forms of content writing such as books, songs, blog posts, website copy, or case studies.
Key benefits of ghostwriting
There are a lot of benefits to ghostwriting, both from a career and personal perspective:
Ghostwriters earn great money because they are producing content and often managing the process. It’s not uncommon for a ghostwriter to earn well over $100 per hour when you calculate out project costs. This means you can earn a six-figure salary working less than 20 hours per week.
You get to learn about a huge variety of topics as a ghostwriter. You’ll interview executives and other smart people on whatever’s on their mind, which could mean you learn about AI, healthcare, tech innovation, early childhood education—anything, really. The sky's the limit when it comes to the experience you get as a ghostwriter.
Perhaps one of the coolest elements of ghostwriting is the people you meet. Because of the nature of who hires ghostwriters, you’re regularly interacting with people that have huge demands on their time. You’re casually getting to sit down with CEOs or politicians that hundreds of people would kill to speak with for two minutes. And what’s even better is you’re being paid to make these connections, many of which will last far beyond the project is done.
As a ghostwriter, you don’t just network with people. You dive into their brains and souls, learning deeply about what they think, believe, and understand. If you’re someone who is naturally curious about other people, ghostwriting is one of the best opportunities in the world. Your whole job is to intellectually prod and poke some of the smartest and most successful people in the world, just for the sake of understanding what’s going on in their head.
Reasons to avoid becoming a ghostwriter
Like any freelancing job, ghostwriting has its negatives. Here are a few of the downsides to the job that might make you think twice before becoming a ghostwriter:
On one hand, it’s really cool that you get to work with CEOs, influencers, celebrities, or politicians. On the other, you have to deal with the ego and demands that can often come alongside the cool factor. It’s highly possible as a ghostwriter that you will have clients who expect the world from you, but won’t give you the time of day. This is especially painful when running on tight deadlines, but your client doesn’t give you the information you need to get the job done.
You might also have to work with their team—assistants, publicists, managers, and more—which can ramp up the demands (and egos) even more.
Constant context switching
It’s one of the best problems to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless: when you have a couple great clients and you’re working on a few great projects. It’s awesome because you’re making money and building a successful freelance ghostwriting business, but the downside is that you have to constantly switch contexts to manage your clients and projects properly.
Take this example: you are working with one CEO in the energy industry, one CEO in tech, and one CEO in healthcare. You write speeches and op-eds for all of them. That sounds great—you’re writing the same type of content for each—until you realize that each industry uses different buzzwords, each CEO will have a different personality and style, and each company might operate slightly differently from a project management perspective. That switching can have a large impact on your mental health and energy.
No control over topics
As a ghostwriter, your job is to produce what your clients tell you to. While you might be asked for an opinion or perspective occasionally, it’s not up to you to decide the topic. And once a topic is decided, you have to deliver.
This can impact you in a few key ways:
- Your client might want you to write something that goes against your beliefs or morals.
- You might be tasked with writing about a topic you don’t understand.
- Your client may switch up topics without much notice, requiring you to turn on a dime.
You can address most of these issues well in advance, making sure you understand the scope of a project before signing a contract. But it can still happen after you start work, which is something you have little control over. If it’s too much, you can drop the client, but then you lose that revenue and they might potentially speak ill of you, which could harm your reputation.
You have to make sacrifices
When you ghostwrite for someone else, you have to get into their mind and produce content as if you were them. That alone is a huge sacrifice: you have to somewhat leave your own identity at the door to emulate your client.
Then there’s the physical sacrifices: depending on what type of client you have and the kind of work you do as a ghostwriter, you might need to be on call at all hours, travel with your client, or dedicate your whole life to the client for a period of time. Sure, you are usually compensated very well for working with this kind of client, but it’s still a downfall for people who enjoy the freedom aspect of freelancing.
The good news is that you can pre-empt and avoid this problem fairly easily by pre-screening all potential clients. If someone tells you they travel a lot and would expect you to join, you can simply turn down the work opportunity if you don’t want to do that. You can also focus on shorter term projects, like blog posts or single speeches, which can often get done quickly and without too many client touch points.
Common myths about ghostwriting
While ghostwriting is very commonplace, not everyone knows about it. That has unfortunately given way to many rumors and myths about the profession. Here are some of the most common myths and what the truth really is.
1. Ghostwriting is deceptive
The myth: That people who hire ghostwriters want to deceive the world into thinking they are brilliant writers.
The truth: Ghostwriters help people tell their stories in written format, but that’s not to deceive anyone. Further, clients invest a lot of time in the ghostwriting process as well, spending time explaining their perspectives or sharing insights they want written down.
2. Ghostwriters are sleazy people who can’t get a real job
The myth: Ghostwriters are failed journalists, failed authors, or failed at freelance writing, so they resort to ghostwriting because they can’t book a real job.
The truth: Ghostwriting is a real profession unto itself. Further, many well-known journalists also ghostwrite as a part of their overall business.
3. You never get any professional credit when you ghostwrite for others
The myth: Once you start ghostwriting, you’ll never get credit for your work again and you will have a hard time finding more ghostwriting jobs.
The truth: While you can’t always shout it from the rooftops, there are many instances where ghostwriters can get credit for their work. Further, some people who hire ghostwriters like naming their ghostwriter as a collaborator, particularly when the person has subject matter expertise or credibility in a given space.
Unfortunately, this one is based somewhat on luck, since there is some truth that ghostwriters often don't get credit for their work.
4. You can’t build a thriving career ghostwriting for others
The myth: Ghostwriters always fight to get the next gig, and it’s an inconsistent way to work that can’t turn into a thriving freelance career.
The truth: People often hire ghostwriters for ongoing projects on retainer, just like other forms of freelancers. Further, when someone has a good experience working with a ghostwriter they often share that privately with colleagues, which leads to referrals.
5. You can’t get credited freelance writer work if you’re a ghostwriter
The myth: Once you start ghostwriting, you can never take on a named media job.
The truth: Freelance ghostwriting is just one thing that a freelance writer can do in their career. Many well-known media personalities ghostwrite, and many ghostwriters take on named projects for themselves and clients. The key is to ensure you balance your conflicts of interest.
6. You have to act like a parrot
The myth: Your only job as a freelance ghostwriter is to repeat what your client says, which means you never get to do any creative work if you’re a ghostwriter.
The truth: Ghostwriters are hired for their voice and style, on top of their ability to write. Many clients expect that they will give general guidance and facts, but the writer themselves will make the words come to life, infusing some of their own style into it. The job of a ghostwriter is not to be a parrot, but to produce content that feels authentic to their client’s voice.
7. You need traditional media experience first
The myth: You can’t break into ghostwriting unless you get a traditional content marketing or media job first.
The truth: While having a traditional job might help you build a network and give you work samples, it’s not a requirement to break into ghostwriting. You can build your network in other ways and produce writing samples by writing for yourself, writing a guest post for another site, or volunteering to write content for charities or nonprofits.
8. You need subject matter expertise to start
The myth: That you must be a subject matter expert to become a ghostwriter or land a ghostwriting gig.
The truth: A ghostwriter needs to bring certain skills to the table, namely interviewing and writing skills (the full list below). However, you don’t have to know every single thing about a topic in order to ghost write successfully. In fact, not being an expert (but having some base knowledge) could actually be a benefit, since you’ll anchor on listening more to your client instead of relying on your own knowledge.
9. It’s only common for untalented executives
The myth: That only untalented people hire a ghostwriter, because if someone had talent they would do it themselves.
The truth: Some of the best writers and otherwise very talented people hire ghostwriters. Even President Obama, who has written multiple of his own articles, books, and speeches, worked with speechwriters to both help him improve and to write speeches when he didn’t have the time to do it himself.
10. Ghostwriting is only for books and speeches
The myth: That people only hire ghostwriting services for books, celebrity memoirs, and speeches.
The truth: Many professionals use writing services and hire ghost writers. Sometimes it's for book writing, but other times people hire writers for blog posts, website copy, or even to act as an editor.
What skills do I need to become a ghostwriter?
If you want to become a ghostwriter, you need a wide variety of skills in order to be successful, both in client delivery and business administration:
Client delivery skills
Research: You’ll need to do plenty of research, both on your client themselves and the topic(s) you’ll be writing about.
Interviewing: Almost all ghostwriting involves interviewing your client. This is when you glean most of your insights, so you need to know the right questions to ask.
Synthesis: Most people who hire ghostwriters have a lot of ideas they want to portray. Part of your job is synthesizing the most important elements of each point.
Patience: Many people and companies that need ghostwriters have a lot of projects going on at once, so you’ll need to be patient with busy schedules.
Project management: Ghostwriters often manage the whole content production process, from booking interviews all the way to handling edits and revisions.
Upward management: You will be working with executives, influencers, or celebrities, many of whom are used to people doing exactly what they say. You need to know how to manage upward to ensure they are giving you the information you need to do your job.
Voice mirroring: When ghostwriting, you can’t fall into your own style. You have to mirror the tone, voice, and style of your client.
Business administration skills
Stakeholder management: You might end up working not only with your client, but also their team of managers, assistants, and possibly even another freelance writer. That requires significant collaboration and stakeholder management skills to ensure everything moves smoothly.
Flexibility: Busy people often need to reschedule meetings or meet at odd times. You need to be flexible to make the project work.
Time management: You have to manage your own time to ensure you’re delivering all client work by the agreed-upon deadlines.
What do you need to land ghostwriting work?
If you want to land writing projects and become a ghostwriter, you'll need a few key things in place first:
A portfolio with work samples: Demonstrate your range of work—all the kinds of writing you want to do for ghostwriting clients. If you don’t have any client work examples to show, you can show your own writing (from a blog or LinkedIn article), a guest post you’ve written, or any content you produced in a volunteer capacity for charities or nonprofits.
Testimonials: You should have testimonials from people—preferably other ghostwriting clients, but it can be anyone who has worked with you including former bosses or colleagues—speaking to your character. Ghostwriting involves a lot of trust and flexibility, so you want to demonstrate that you’re capable of working in that kind of environment.
References: While a testimonial is a sentence or two you can post on your website, a reference is someone a potential client can actually speak to. This reference should be willing to sing your praises and tell any potential client that you are an amazing person to work with. Ideally, this reference is a former client. But it can also be a former boss, manager, or coworker that has significant experience working directly with you.
General scope per deliverable: You need to know what’s included when a client asks you to “write a blog” or something similar. Think about things like: number of interviews, word count of the blog, and number of revisions the client gets. You should know a general base of what you offer (for instance: one 30 minute interview, an 800 word blog, and one revision round), but then be flexible to customize based on what a client needs.
A general rate range: Each project is likely to be custom scoped to some extent, but you should know in general what your rate is for the kinds of writing you want to do. It’s best to charge per deliverable (e.g. a 500-700 word blog post) versus charging per word or per hour, since that way you align incentives with your client. If you want to charge by the hour, you should have a general understanding of how long it takes you to complete certain tasks so you can give your client a proposal with total projected costs.
How to land your first ghostwriting client
Once you have everything in place, here’s a process you can follow to land your first ghostwriting client.
1. Identify your focus
In short, you need to know what you write and for whom.
To identify the types of content you like to write, look for anything at the intersection of:
- What you like to produce as a writer
- What you’re good at writing
- What the market needs
From there, think about who you want to work with. If you’re stuck, think about:
- Past industry experience
- Who you have access to (or can get access to) so you can actually land them as a client
- What types of people have budgets for a ghost writer
If you’re stuck, the general list at the top of this article (CEOs, influencers, and politicians) is a good place to start.
Once you know your focus, identify the value you bring to the table. What is it about you that makes you a great ghostwriter for that client? It could be your past experience, subject matter expertise, or any other factor that demonstrates your value.
2. Set up your brand
Before you apply to any potential gigs, set up your brand:
Website: Update your personal website and domain name (yourname.com) to clearly state you are a ghostwriter. Also make it easy for people to get in touch with you via a contact form or email address.
Social media: Update your profiles (on LinkedIn especially) to say you’re a ghostwriter. On LinkedIn, you can also use the “Open To” feature to let recruiters know you’re open to ghostwriting work.
Your network: Share that you are a ghostwriter with everyone you know. Just make sure to do this after updating your website and social media profiles, so everything’s there if someone were to look you up.
3. Source potential gigs
With a portfolio, brand, and focus sorted out, you’re ready to find freelance ghostwriting jobs.
Marketplaces and job boards: Many companies will post jobs on platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, LinkedIn, The Writer Finder, and more.
Your network: If you’ve let your network know that you’re ghostwriting, share that you’re happy to book an intro call with anyone they know who might be looking for a ghostwriter.
Your current clients: If you have clients already as a freelance writer, let them know that you’re open to ghostwriting. You might be able to help them with ghostwriting needs or they can refer you to other people in their network.
Agencies: There are many ghostwriting agencies you can join a roster for. To find ones in your area, google “Ghostwriting agencies [your state]” to see what pops up. Many also operate remotely, so you could potentially join a network that’s not in your state—or potentially not even in the US.
4. Prepare an amazing pitch
Once you find a potential opportunity, you’re either going to have a sales call or you will need to submit an application.
If having a sales call: Make sure you ask questions about the clients needs, goals, and challenges. Then, explain how you’re a ghostwriter and you can help them solve their challenges or reach their goals. You can then offer to share samples of your work to demonstrate that you’re able to write the kind of content they need.
If submitting an application: Make sure to follow the instructions precisely as they are laid out. But in general, you should always include: an introduction, a resume, relevant samples that show you’re able to do the work they need, and a way to contact you for more information.
5. Manage the admin of the deal
When a client is ready to move forward with you, make sure you have a contract that explains what you’re going to be doing, who you are supporting, and what the client needs to provide to you for you to do your job well. You should also get clear on sharing rights, and whether you are allowed to share your work as an example to other potential clients or if it’s completely confidential.
You should own the administration of the deal, making it easy for the client to work with you:
- Send a contract for e-signature with a platform like HelloSign or PandaDoc
- Book a kickoff call immediately so the client knows there’s a next step
- Set up invoices and business banking on your end so it’s easy to get paid
Ghostwriting pitfalls and red flags
If you’ve chosen to jump into ghostwriting, there’s a lot of opportunity. But there are also pitfalls and red flags to watch out for. Here are a few of the biggest ones—and what to do about them:
Working without a contract
Sometimes, a client will ask you to start work before a contract is signed. This is usually meant in good faith, but it is still a problem because you are not entitled to any compensation for work you do without a contract in place.
What to do: Politely say that you’re excited to work too, but you need a contract in place so that everyone’s on the same page.
When a client asks for free work
This is one of the most annoying things that can happen to a freelancer: the client asks you to do free work, such as write an article for free as a test to see how you work together.
What to do: Say that you’re happy to do any work they need, and you will send them a proposal with rates. If they want to do a trial, you can offer to do a paid trial with a limited scope.
When clients expect you to come up with everything
Clients get busy, and that’s fine. But it becomes a problem when the client gives you nothing and still expects you to produce.
What to do: Be upfront that you need some more guidance to ensure your work is done to specification. You can politely say that you want to produce great content that matches their specifications, instead of just doing something random or generic.
Not disclosing who the client is—even after signing a contract
It’s somewhat common, especially in the agency world, to not know exactly who your client is before signing confidentiality agreements. For example, if a famous actor wants to hire a ghostwriter to write their book, it’s possible that you’ll interact with their agency but not them directly at first. However, once you sign a contract, you need access to your client.
What to do: Be very clear in the negotiation process that you won’t be able to take the job if you don’t get direct access to your client. If they don’t agree (and put it in writing), don’t accept the job.
Ghostwriting can be a lucrative career path
You can use it as a supplement to other freelancing work you do or go full-time on ghostwriting and make it your whole career. Either way, it can be a fantastic career path. But remember: the highest paid and most successful ghostwriters are people who know what they are good at, know how to market themselves, and know when to say no. It sounds odd to say in an article about finding your first ghostwriting client, but having too many clients is just as much of a problem as not having any clients. You have to deal with significant administration, potential conflicts of interest, and run the risk of burnout. But if you manage it well, you make great money, work with cool people, and have a lot of freedom—and what’s better than that?