You’re a fantastic writer and the best collaborator ever. In college, you were the mastermind behind every group project. You’ve also got an actor’s talent for capturing others’ voices—on paper. You’re searching for a big-paying job, but you don’t really care about all that glory and fame stuff.
Any of this check off your boxes? If so, you may want to consider one of the least transparent jobs out there: ghostwriting. Read up to find out what ghosts actually do and how to become a successful one.
What exactly does a ghostwriter do?
In a nutshell, ghostwriters are paid to write for someone else. Depending on the job, they’ll write either under their client’s name or be credited as a collaborator. Ghosts write blog posts, books, nonfiction books, memoirs—it’s all fair game. The customers of ghosts are usually busy people—think CEOs or entrepreneurs—who want to write a book or column but lack the time or ability to do so. So they hire someone else to do it for them.
To excel, ghostwriters do more than write. “You are, in some ways, a writer, a researcher, an agent and a publisher all in one,” says Jeremy Blachman, a writer who’s ghostwritten books and articles for The Financial Times, and worked in television with NBC and Sony.
Ghostwriters are responsible for talking to potential and current clients on a day-to-day basis, so interviewing comes with the job. “You need to draw the right stories and material from your clients, and that often means an ability to form a personal connection and make the client comfortable opening up to you,” says Blachman.
Ghostwriters also need to be able to research the heck out of a subject. Whenever clients don’t have the information, it’s up to the ghost to help them fill in the gaps.
What skills are required?
At a baseline, you need to be a fast, flexible, and compelling writer, says Blachman. “It doesn’t matter what else I’m bringing to the table if I can’t execute on my client’s vision for their book and deliver compelling content, quickly,” he adds.
The ability to collaborate is important. Unlike the novelist who works alone, the ghostwriter can expect to communicate with the client on a regular basis.
You must also possess an uncanny knack of capturing your client’s voice. “A good ghostwriter can connect with the stories they’re writing and the clients they’re working with,” says Alex Foster, who’s ghosted bestselling memoirs and novels. “Empathy allows ghosts to live vicariously through the lives of others, seeing as they see and feeling as they feel.”
Who is a ghostwriter’s boss?
It depends on the scope of the work, but in most situations you’ll answer to your client.
What do you need to get ahead in this position?
A firm understanding of the publishing industry is important. “That includes the markets, the genres, the styles of writing,” says Foster. “You should be establishing connections, such as agents, editors, authors, publishers, ghostwriting firms and more.”
How can you get your foot in the door?
Getting a degree in English or journalism could be useful, but your real card up your sleeve will be your work portfolio. “It’s okay if you don’t have this experience yet, but you must go about acquiring it,” says Foster.
Don’t forget to network, network, network. “Know that you’ll pitch a lot more projects than you’ll get,” says Blachman. “Sometimes you need to start small—say, ghostwriting someone’s blog post or op-ed—to prove your value.” And of course, the tried-and-true ‘word of mouth’ method will always be your friend.