How to Become a Ghostwriter: 8 Tips From Long-Time Ghosts
Becoming a ghostwriter is a lot like becoming an author — but without the constant stress of monitoring our sales figures. You're getting paid, but in exchange, you don't get the glory. Of course, shying away from that spotlight is not the only thing that separates ghosts from authors.
Award-winning ghostwriter Jon Reiner says that a successful ghostwriter is “first a good listener, and then a good writer.” So before you start putting pen to paper, listen up, aspiring ghosts! We have 8 tips on how to become a ghostwriter from professionals who have logged years telling other people’s stories.
1. Write your own books
You don’t hear of many musical prodigies writing beautiful songs before ever picking up an instrument. Or at least, freelance ghostwriter with over 25 years in the publishing industry, Mike Towle hasn’t.
“Seriously, how can you write a book for someone else, in their voice, when you’ve never written one yourself? Better yet, write two or three. Shoot for at least 50,000 words each so that you get a feeling for writing something that long: dealing with the nuances of voice, narrative, flow, etc.”
Not sure whether your niche is fiction, non-fiction or memoir (or all of the above)? Dip your toes into all the ponds at first and see which you have a knack for.
2. Get your ducks in a row
Picture this: you’re at a social gathering and someone asks what you do for a living.
“I’m a ghostwriter,” you tell them.
“Brilliant! I’m the CEO of a huge company and I’m looking for someone to write my memoir,” he or she replies. “Where can I see your work?”
And you have nothing to say — you weren’t prepared for this question. Awkward! One simple way to avoid this nightmare is by following the advice of ghostwriter Stacy Ennis.
“Create a website and professional email address. Order business cards. Start professional social media accounts. Update your LinkedIn profile with the title ghostwriter. Begin calling yourself a ghostwriter when you meet people. Basically, treat it like a business and be prepared when it comes time to offer your services.”
3. Build your credentials
Ghostwriting is a competitive industry and you need to get your foot in the door before you worry about the rest of your body. A great way to do this is by contributing to well-known publications or literary magazines.
Guest posts: Reach out to companies and offer to ghostwrite articles for them — whether for their own blog, or for outside publications you will pitch to on their behalf. Huffington Post and Forbes are both credible options that accept guest submissions.
Literary magazines: Both fiction and non-fiction ghostwriters should have a knack for impeccable storytelling. Getting your work published in literary magazines is a great addition to any resume. You can view a list of literary magazines that accept direct submissions here.
It’s important to keep writing — but it’s also crucial to write regularly about the field you’re interested in, according to Stacy Ennis.
“One of the best ways to be seen as an authority in an industry is to be the most consistent person talking about it.”
So while you’re writing guest posts or submitting to literary outlets, also write articles about ghostwriting. Or, if you really want to ghostwrite books about pilots, for example, write articles about aviation. Publish them on your own blog or on other sites as a way to underscore your authority in your chosen field.
4. Take it step-by-step
When it comes to building out your credentials, award-winning ghostwriter Sally Collings reminds you that sometimes you “have to start small.”
Here are a few of Sally’s recommendations for further steps you can take to build out your ghostwriting portfolio:
- “Reach out to people you know — friends, family, or colleagues — and ask if they’d be willing to sit down with you and let you refine your ghostwriting skills by practicing with their stories.”
- “Find individuals or organizations who need help writing the “About” section for their websites. Most people just don’t know how to make their own story shine, and it can be very helpful for them to draw on your storytelling skills. At the same time, writing in their first-person voice will strengthen your ghosting capabilities.”
- “There is nothing scarier than a blank page. Find someone who has written their manuscript but needs help clarifying its structure or honing its voice. This will give you real-world experience collaborating with clients and shaping a manuscript — without tackling the heavy-lifting of concept development.”
Don’t forget to regularly ask for feedback along the way. As freelance ghostwriter Nick Brown points out, starting out small can be a great way to pick up some bona fides as a writer.
“Establish a strong record with your own work first. If you can point to good reviews, you will appeal to potential clients.”
5. Treat your first two books as on-the-job training
Unpaid internships are commonplace today, and anyone who has done one will agree that working for little to no money is less than ideal. That being said, making a career out of ghostwriting is all about your previous experience. To lay this foundation of experience, freelance ghostwriter Toni Robino suggests viewing the early phase of your career as a “breaking in” period.
“Even if you’ve been a writer your entire life, there are lots of things you’ll need to learn about how to conceptualize, structure, and ghostwrite a full-length book. For that reason, you’ll have a much better chance of getting hired if the fee you set is lower than the fees set by experienced ghostwriters with established track records.”
6. Work on different voices and styles
When we say “practice different voices,” we don’t mean honing your best Daffy Duck or Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions.
“The hallmark of a great ghost is the ability to make the final product sound like your client, to capture their energy and their vision,” says freelance ghostwriter Hannah Sandoval. "If you’re doing rewriting work, you have to be able to seamlessly mesh your changes and additions with the client’s original content.
“The only way to get good at this is to force yourself to write outside of your usual voice and your genre comfort zone. Try mimicking the styles of some of your favorite authors in short exercises in your spare time.”
When you’re writing someone’s book, there's a great chance that the readers will already know what they sound like. This is where, British ghostwriter Johnny Acton warns, the danger often lies.
“If you have the football player Wayne Rooney saying something like 'I was the most precocious of my numerous siblings,’ then something has obviously gone wrong.”
7. Develop your customer support skills
A freelance ghostwriter is a one-person show. You need to own all sides of your business, and that includes customer service and support.
“Be prepared to educate your clients,” advises freelance ghostwriter Doug Wagner. “One of the most common, early 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.”
8. Always have an ear out for a good story
Or, as New York Times bestselling ghostwriter Susy Flory puts it: “Everyone has a potential book in them, so have your antennae out for a great one.”
If you do come across a story you sense could be something big, don’t hesitate to approach people with an offer.
“Your first couple of collaborative projects will likely come from your gut feeling that a particular book needs to be born and that you are the one to help make it happen.”
9. Be a sponge
In any new career endeavor, the greatest thing you can do is learn as much as possible. When it comes to ghostwriting, Alice Sullivan, ghostwriter of 11 New York Times bestsellers, says there are two main areas where you should absorb all the information you can: business and creative.
“On the business side, it’s in your best interest to research everything you can about ghostwriting, from pricing, contracts, and administrative tasks, to helping clients develop outlines and flesh out chapters.
“On the creative side, the more books and movies you consume (especially in your particular genres of interest), the better you become at writing in another person’s voice. When I’m writing an opening scene in a client’s memoir, I want to be able to visualize it as though I’m watching a movie, and then transfer what I see in my mind onto the paper. That means I need to pay attention to not only the words I choose to use, but to make sure I create the correct setting — including the physical surroundings and location, the clothing, the emotions, body language, tone of voice, and internal thoughts the subject character has at that time.”
Becoming a ghostwriter requires patience, determination, and persistence. With those qualities and these tips in mind, you’ll be off on the right foot along the path to ghostwriting success.