21 Ghostwriting Tips from Bestselling Ghostwriters
Ghostwriting is a booming industry with many opportunities for development for the savvy writer; you may not get to put your name on your work, but you do get to help authors realize their publishing dreams, while often making a pretty penny.
Whether you’re already an active ghost writing content for others, or you’re looking to start on your ghostwriting journey, this article contains advice on how to improve your skills from some of Reedsy’s top ghosts.
Guiding your clients
Some authors who want to hire you as a ghostwriter may not know what type of services they’re looking for or what you can do for them. Acting as a guide to publishing and ghostwriting is an important part of the job. Here are a few things you can do to point your clients in the right direction:
1. Find out what services your clients actually need
It’s great if your client already knows what they want, but you’ll also get a fair share of requests from authors who understandably know very little about the process. It’s in both your own and your client’s interest that you spend some time guiding them about what the process will look like and what services they might need, so have a conversation before you agree to take on their project to assess their needs and make sure you’re a good fit.
There are, for instance, many types or ‘levels’ of ghostwriting with many different names, so make sure the terminology is clear.
|Book doctoring/mentoring||A slightly antiquated term that falls somewhere between editing and rewriting manuscripts that are in need of some resuscitation, or guiding authors as they write largely on their own.|
|Full ghost||Going “full ghost” refers to being part of the whole process, from developing their idea and deciding on a structure, to writing and editing.|
|Deep ghost||“Deep ghosting” is when it’s an absolute top secret that the author didn’t write the book themselves. This often involves NDA’s and a hefty dose of discretion.|
Some clients want you to write every single word for them, either because they feel like they don’t have the necessary skills to translate their ideas into writing, or because they don’t have the time (or inclination). Some clients have a rough manuscript and just want you to bridge the gaps. Determining this before you start saves you a lot of potential trouble in the long run.
2. Set realistic expectations
Another part of guiding clients is making sure that they have realistic expectations for what a ghost can do for them.
For Seth Kaufman, a ghostwriter who is well-versed in writing bestsellers, setting expectations is key to a happy collaboration, but he also notes that this can be a tricky topic: “As a ghost, you want work and you want your client to succeed. But you also want clients to have a sense of reality.” Sometimes, the publishing market can be fickle, and even a well-written book by the best ghostwriter in the world is not always a straight ticket to success.
In short, don’t make any promises you can’t keep about bestsellers or literary prizes. The most you can guarantee is a well-polished manuscript, and from there, it’s in the author’s hands. Pointing them towards resources on how to market a book and getting the word out can be one good way to set expectations and remind your authors that writing is only half the battle.
3. Refer the author to other professionals when needed
Sometimes you discover that you’ve been approached by an author who is actually looking for something other than ghostwriting, or that they need additional services after your part of the collaboration is finished.
This has happened to award-winning ghost Nicola Cassidy on several occasions:
Often I'm approached by somebody who asks for a ghostwriter, but when we delve deeper, we find that what they need is a mentor or writing consultant, or even a developmental editor.
Referring them to other professionals instead of hawking your own services (and risk doing a poor job) is a good way to build a reputation for excellence and professionalism. The author will appreciate your honesty and integrity, and you get to focus on projects where you can shine. This can also help you build a network with other professionals, who are more likely to recommend your services whenever they find themselves in similar situations.
Don't have a network of fellow publishing pros yet? Luckily, Reedsy has done the hard work for you. Our marketplace selection criteria means we only accept 5% of the publishing professionals who apply, and you can feel comfortable recommending any book editor or marketer on our platform to authors.
Finding projects that are a good fit
As a ghostwriter, you’re always looking for the next big project to take on — ideally, something that you’ll both enjoy working on, and that will be a good addition to your portfolio. But how do you assess whether a project will be a good fit for you? Our ghosts advise you to:
4. Look for authors who are flexible
When a project lands in your inbox, you might want to look beyond the author’s vision for the manuscript, and try to get a sense of whether you’ll actually enjoy working together. Ghostwriting projects tend to be extensive so this initial time investment can help you avoid being stressed and miserable throughout the project because of poor chemistry.
New York Times bestselling ghost Toni Robino urges other ghosts to “consider whether the author is someone you want to spend a significant amount of time with for the next nine to twelve months, because it’s a really intimate process.”
If you’ve ever read any advice on how to become a ghostwriter, you know that being flexible is a central part of the job description — ghosts need to be able to adapt to the author’s voice and vision. But it’s also important to remember that your client needs to be receptive to your input, and ghosts should also look for a degree of flexibility in potential clients.
Be careful when dealing with authors who think they have the greatest story ever and you must do it their way. I like to find out how flexible they are to changes in their story. If they're not, best to let someone else deal with them … I recently quit a project and returned the money because the author was so emotionally tied to the story that he was unwilling to accept any variations on the theme.
— Rob MacGregor
As ghostwriters, MacGregor continues, you have to balance making the most of your own knowledge and skills with the client’s concern that they’ll lose control of their story. You need to be able to tell clients why something isn’t working and — importantly — why, while also trying to stick close to (and respect) their vision.
5. Do a trial chapter
One way to get a sense of how the collaboration will go and what a client is like to work with is to offer a (paid) trial chapter. Eileen Rendahl, an expert in ghostwriting genre fiction, reminisces that:
The one contract I’ve had blow up in my face was one where the client didn’t think we needed to do a trial chapter. It would have saved us both a lot of time, money, and heartache if we’d done one. It gives [clients] a chance to see what you would do with their material. It gives you a chance to see what they’re like to work with and what kind of material you’ll be working with.
Another option is, as MacGregor suggests, to start with an outline as a separate project. If it turns out it’s not a good fit, both author and ghostwriter have the option to go separate ways after the outline is completed. The author will have an outline to work from, and the ghost will be paid for the time it took to develop it — win win.
6. Make sure they’re actually ready to roll.
Once you’ve taken the time to properly assess the project and you feel confident about taking it on, confirm whether the author is actually ready to start working on it right away, so you can plan your workload accordingly.
Rendahl is adamant on this point:
Stuff happens. People get busy. It’s totally understandable, but when you’ve said no to other projects because you’ve blocked time for that one just to find out that you can’t start work on it, it can throw your work schedule and your bank account off in unpleasant ways.
Some authors may think that they’re ready to go, but may not actually have all the material that you need for the project. Be clear when you’re communicating with them about what sort of information they need to provide before you block out time to work on it. If they don’t have it, that’s OK, but tell them to get back in touch when they do.
7. Be open-minded, but avoid projects that clash with your beliefs too much
In addition to being flexible, ghostwriters need to be open-minded and non-judgemental. Part of the job description is to communicate the author’s opinions and make sure their arguments are made as clearly as possible — not to insert your own thoughts into the work. Being able to work with people who think differently than you is a great strength and might even teach you something along the way.
I think you have to be pretty much an empath if you're going to ghostwrite people's books. You have to have an understanding of people's psychology — and, of course, you absolutely cannot be judgmental.
With that said, it’s not a good idea to take on a project that goes against your beliefs to the extent that you don’t feel comfortable working on it. In those cases, Rob MacGregor advises you to decline and let someone else take on the project. If the ideas and opinions are contrary to your own and your heart’s not in it, you’re unlikely to produce quality work or enjoy the process.
8. Sometimes it’s OK to withdraw from a project
Call it Murphy’s Law or what have you, but even the most meticulous research and preparations can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to avoid dud projects. Sometimes it takes working on it for a while before you realize that it’s not a good fit, and sometimes life simply gets in the way. Whatever the reason, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and your client is to amicably part ways.
If that happens, clear contracts are key.
Writing contracts and setting rates
Educating your clients and making sure the project is a good fit for you are good first steps towards successful collaborations. But before you actually start working, it’s essential that you put the scope of the project officially into writing as well. This will protect both you and the author in case either of you need to walk away from the project, or if issues arise.
9. Determine the scope of the project, and stick to it
Between the different types of ghostwriting out there — doctoring, full ghost, deep ghost, etc. — and setting clear expectations, most of the ghostwriters we speak to emphasize the importance of making the scope of the project clear in order to avoid confusion, or worse, disappointment.
But it’s not always the author who may need to be reminded of what the scope is and sticking to it, according to Rendahl’s own experiences:
If [the author has] already written something and just want you to flesh it out or smooth it out, rein yourself in. It’s tempting to fix everything, but sometimes they like their story the way it is even if you might think it’s flawed. In the end, it’s their story. That’s been a tough one for me to get past, to be honest. I had a romance client who had the hero do something that I felt made him irredeemable. I must have suggested at least three different ways to change it, but the client wanted it the way she wanted it.
MacGregor notes that some authors assume that you’ll also write their query letter and help them get a literary agent or publisher after you’ve ghostwritten their book. You can avoid a lot of confusion and disappointment by clearly communicating what services you’ll be providing for what fee. Because ghostwriting is so flexible and the role shifts slightly from project to project, Toni Robino highlights the importance of clear contracts:
You need to say exactly what you’re doing for the client, and what they’re agreeing to do as a partner in the process. Having all of that worked out ahead of time so that there's no gray area is super important.
Cain adds that the level of involvement that you will have as a ghostwriter should be clearly stated in the contract and that this might also impact how much or little official acknowledgement you receive (as well as the fee); John Smith with Sandra Cain reflects slightly less involvement than John Smith and Sandra Cain, for instance. So before you sign a contract with an author, make sure you have an open conversation about the level of involvement and the form of credit you will receive, and that your contract reflects this.
10. Remember that every project is unique
Having a contract template to work from is a good place to start, but each project will come with its own set of requirements and rules, according to Nicola Cassidy:
Every project is unique. No ghost project that I've worked on has been exactly like the one before … I tailor every contract for every client, working off a general outline and updating it based on our interview discussions. Reedsy is great for looking after that side of things, but sometimes clients want something more in writing and I'm always happy to facilitate that.
Authors can be particular about the language that you use in contracts and might want their own legal clauses added to suit the territory that they’re living in, to address issues of privacy, or to specify the project completion date, Nicola explains. If they want to add an NDA, that’s also part of the ghostwriting job description.
11. Don’t underestimate your value
Lastly, the contract should reflect your fees and what services will be included in that price. MacGregor is clear on the point that you shouldn’t write for nothing:
Don't underestimate your value. If you think you're only worth a thousand dollars, you'll attract authors willing to pay you a thousand dollars.
If you want to learn more about how to set your ghostwriting fees, check out our article on how much ghostwriters make. It answers questions like how much you should charge as a ghostwriter, how to write a quote, and whether you should agree to getting paid in royalties.
A huge part of the ghostwriting craft is capturing other people’s voices. Ghostwriting is really “a combination of taking what the author tells you, while also researching further to really understand the world the author’s living in,” Cain summarizes. Here are some practical things that you can do to help the process along:
12. Let it take time
Freelance ghostwriter Doug Wagner says that it’s important to set expectations with the author about how long it might take to nail their voice:
One of the most common problems I’ve encountered with clients is unrealistic expectations — especially with regards to voice. Clients need to understand that no writer nails someone else’s voice on the first try, and shouldn’t be expected to. That’s inevitably a product of a back-and-forth … Ensure you communicate this with clients before you begin so they’re as prepared for the process as possible.
Getting clients on-board with the process is vital, as a patient collaboration will bring about the best results. Cain, for instance, spends up to three or four hours a week interviewing some of her memoirists, listening closely to their story and the way they talk.
13. Practice deep listening
Doing research and interviewing the author you’re working with is an important part of ghostwriting. As you do, practicing deep listening will help you get an insight into how the author thinks and expresses themselves.
Award-winning ghostwriter Jon Reiner says that a successful ghostwriter is “first a good listener, and then a good writer.” Being a good listener is a skill that you can develop over time, and includes asking the right questions, paying attention to behaviors and habits, manner of speech, and making notes about the way the author perceives and describes the world.
14. Invite the author to “spot the difference”
It’s important that the author is also involved in this process and sometimes you may need to get a bit creative with how you draw their voice out.
Robino breaks her process down into some actionable steps:
Listen to the person speak, pay attention to their word choices, their intonation, how they generally express themselves. Then I like to ask the person to read something I wrote out loud and try to put their personal spin on it. Ask the author to note down things that wouldn’t normally come out of their mouth, and go back and change them until they feel right. Eventually, after a couple of chapters, you will hopefully have a better grasp of their voice.
Beyond yourself and the author, third parties can be an additional resource.
15. Enlist family members and friends to help
Sometimes authors don’t actually know the sound of their own voice as well as they think they do. Robino notes that consulting a family member or friend can help if an author can’t tell if they recognize their own voice in your writing — as someone who knows the author well, they are sometimes better placed to confirm whether you’ve managed to capture their essence or not.
Of course, this step may be a bit more difficult to pull off if you’re deep ghosting, where only you and the other can know what your role is.
16. Try method acting
If you really want to push the boundaries with your ghostwriting but can’t let anyone else know who you’re writing for, you can also give method acting a try — according to Cain, play-acting as the other person whose voice you’re trying to capture (in the comfort and privacy of your own home) can help you get inside their mind without enlisting other people to help. It’s as close to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes as you can get.
17. Use fiction to practice writing different voices
Lastly, you also need to put pen to paper since being able to capture a voice in writing ultimately takes a lot of practice. Robino recommends writing fiction as a great way to hone your skills, since you’ll get to develop characters and practice writing all their different voices. She says that “fiction writing has ultimately helped strengthen my nonfiction as well.”
Building a ghostwriting career
If you want to make a career out of ghostwriting or you’re looking for ways to expand your business, here are some good practices that can help you get your name in front of more people:
18. Produce your own creative work to showcase your skills
In addition to being a great way to practice voice, continuing to produce creative work of your own outside of your ghostwriting is an excellent way to get around the conundrum of anonymity when it comes to building a portfolio.
I continue to produce my own creative work in both fiction and screenplays. I've found these to be most helpful for sample work, or proving the level you work to. This helps me get around the tricky area of writing anonymously but also showing new clients a portfolio.
— Nicola Cassidy
When you can’t showcase samples of your work that you’ve written for other authors, this will allow you to show potential clients what quality they can expect from your writing.
19. Look for ‘White Whales’
Ghostwriting is a competitive field and it can be a long and arduous process building a portfolio that will make clients come to you. Alex Cody Foster, a ghostwriter who has written several Amazon bestsellers, advises both new and veteran ghosts to look out for ‘White Whales’:
One of the best ways to skip ahead of that lengthy process [of becoming a ghostwriter] is to find a white whale—i.e. someone who has a remarkable story that has not yet been published. You might see a great story about this person on Netflix as you browse documentaries; you might read about them in the New York Times or even in your local paper … The key is to discover someone with a big story and therefore a large platform, and pitch them on ghostwriting their book … While working on regular gigs, I always have a white whale client or two I'm working with at the same time.
Reaching out to ‘whales’ will often result in one of three things: One — they say no. Two —they say yes. Three — they say yes, but they don't want to pay you. In the case of the latter, you can try to negotiate a deal with a lower fee in exchange for having your name on the cover.
An author with a big platform will ensure that your work reaches a big audience and help build your reputation in the ghostwriting ‘biz. But be wary of taking on any project that sparkles without first knowing if it will play to your strengths.
20. Know where your strengths lie
As with any profession, it’s important to always strive to hone your skills and add more tools to your belt, but it’s also important to know where your strengths lie and where you’ll be able to deliver good results.
I am always honest and never take on a project I don't think my skills are suitable for. In this way, I turn down a lot of work, but equally, I end up working on very interesting jobs and find that I can communicate well with the client … Often I'm approached by writers who have some material written but say they need a ghostwriter as they don't have the confidence to go further. Sometimes the voice is so unique that I tell them they must - that I don't think I could capture it in the way they would like.
— Nicola Cassidy
Eileen Rendahl similarly has a clear vision of the projects she’s looking for:
I’m good at dialogue, setting, and internal motivations [and] gravitate toward projects where the client already knows the overall arc of the story, but doesn’t know how to flesh it out. It makes for a really nice collaborative project.
Knowing your own abilities is not to say that you shouldn’t venture out of your comfort zone — the best projects are ones where you can apply your skills and flex your writing muscles to their fullest extent.
21. Respond immediately when you get a request
Lastly, we’ll end on a tip that seems obvious, but definitely bears repeating — being quick on the ball can give you first dibs on the best projects. To MacGregor, “being first to respond is key.” From there on, you can ask for a sample, explain the process, and gain their attention by showing why you’d be the best ghost for the job.
And there you have it — 21 ghostwriting tips that will hopefully help you become a better ghost. For more ghostwriting insights, check out our guide to how to find ghostwriting jobs or Barry Napier’s story on how he unexpectedly became a ghost.