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How to Become a Successful Ghostwriter: The 6 Crucial Skills Needed

By: Compose.ly — November 10, 2020

Ghostwriting is a big business. Professional ghostwriters can make tens of thousands of dollars writing for a wide variety of clients, including some pretty major celebrities. One experienced freelance ghostwriter told NPR back in 2014 that Leslie Nielsen, Terry Bradshaw, Serena Williams, and Denzel Washington, among others, have worked with ghostwriters to publish their bestsellers. And the list has only gotten longer.

It’s not just books, either, by the way. Ghostwriters produce blog posts, magazine articles, white papers, and video scripts. There are fiction ghostwriters, non-fiction ghostwriters, and versatile wordsmiths that can switch from one to the other at will.

Some ghostwriters specialize in a particular topic, industry, or genre. Others prefer to be generalists and take on projects in a broad range of subject areas. As a ghostwriter, you get to decide what gigs to accept and what clients to work with—assuming you can prove your value and get the job.

You don’t need to be a best-selling author to get started. Some professional writing experience can be helpful, but it’s more important to develop the skills that will let you turn in great work. If you’re thinking about how to become a ghostwriter, here’s what you need to know.

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Why get into ghostwriting?

Ghostwriting is a lucrative option for skilled writers. PayScale puts the average hourly pay for ghostwriters at $48.94, the high end being closer to $72 an hour.

(Image credit: PayScale)

CareerTrend estimated that an experienced ghostwriter could make an average of $20,000 per project and beginners could pull in $5,000.

Of course, it all depends on the project, the client, and the freelancer. In general, though, ghostwriting work tends to pay more than comparable bylined work. (Having a byline means that you’re named as the author.) Think of it as compensation for not being able to add the piece to your portfolio. You write it, submit it, and from then on, it belongs to the client.

Writers who are used to bylines can struggle with this aspect at first, but career ghostwriters find it freeing. It’s satisfying to create a piece from scratch and see it through to publication, and then move on to the next project on your plate. Ghostwriters don’t have to deal with marketing, interviews, book tours, or any of the trappings of publication. It’s all about the writing.

Ghostwriting is a great way to make a living… if you have the right skills. Below are six skills that are essential to becoming a successful ghostwriter.

1. Versatility

When you ghostwrite, someone else’s name goes on your work. Your job is to write as that person, which means taking on their style as well as their areas of expertise. You must write in their style and voice, and you must do it well enough that someone who reads the other person’s writing wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

This can be a challenge if you’ve only ever written under your own name, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time developing a unique voice and style. To ghostwrite, you need to learn and mimic how your client would express themselves, both in general and in this particular format.

If you’ve never ghostwritten before, practice adopting other writers’ styles. Choose your favorite nonfiction author and write a few paragraphs in their voice and on a topic you think they might cover. Create a ghostwritten post for your favorite blog. In time, you’ll become a veritable literary chameleon.

2. Creativity

Even though you write on demand as a ghostwriter, producing the work that someone else asks for, you still need to be creative and inventive. Many clients seek out ghostwriting because they have the spark of an idea for a book or article, but they lack the skills to flesh it out into something that people would want to read.

That leaves you, the freelance ghostwriter, with the responsibility of coming up with interpretations, arguments, chapter ideas, and all the rest. If you’re ghostwriting fiction, you may get character, plot, and setting ideas from the client, but you might also just get a premise.

Be ready to generate a lot of ideas. And don’t get too attached to them, either, because your client may decide that they want something completely different. At that point, you’re back to the drawing board.

3. Flexibility

When you’re a professional ghostwriter, you work for the client. As obvious as that might sound, it’s a difficult mindset to adopt for many bylined writers, especially those who tend to enjoy a lot of artistic freedom.

Ghostwriters are vessels for the client’s ideas. Yes, you must come up with a lot of ideas and generate work on your own, but your client has the ultimate say on what gets published. If they want you to change the flow, the order of chapters, or the whole angle of argument, it’s your job to make it happen.

You’ll need to be flexible with your time as well. Sometimes you’ll need to touch base or ask for a resource, and the client won’t be available. You’ll have to wait for them to send you material, on their timeline. You can’t get so stuck in a workflow that your progress halts completely while you wait. You have to be able to move on, work on other chapters, or maybe even shift to another client’s projects in the meantime.

4. Organization

Some clients come to you with a fully mapped-out project plan, complete with ideas for each chapter and resources to begin your research. Most won’t. You’ll have many clients that approach you with a broad idea for a book or article and perhaps a target word count, and then leave you to your own devices.

To succeed, you need to be able to develop an approach, create a structure, and write the content all on your own. Your client may be able to offer ideas or feedback, but many prefer to be fully hands-off. It’s up to you to make the finished project happen.

The organization step is naturally more complex for a full-length book than it is for blogs, articles, and other short-form content. Any time you accept a longer assignment, remember to:

  • Create a folder for it.
  • Then set up sub-folders for each section or chapter.
  • Fill those folders with research and notes that will turn into your first draft.

5. Research

Ghostwriters usually get at least some of their background material from the client, but there’s almost always background research to be done. Clients will often ask you to include statistics or references to current research on the topic, and it will be up to you to find those facts.

Know where to find authoritative and up-to-date information on the topics that people will hire you to write about. Google Scholar is a good place to start for academic research, and Statista is a solid go-to if you want pure stats.

Be able to dive deeply into the material and figure out where it comes from. If you find a statistic you want to use, be ready to track it to its original source. Statistics have a funny way of appearing out of nowhere.

The old joke is that 80% of statistics are made-up. (That statistic is also made up, but you’ll see it cited in many articles online. Case in point.) Your success as a ghostwriter depends on your reputation with your clients, and you don’t want to compromise that reputation by letting an unverified fact slip through the cracks.

6. Confidence

A freelance ghostwriter also has to do a fair amount of hustling, at least at first, to develop a reputation. You need enough faith in your skills to offer your services, often to people who are highly successful in their fields. And because many of your clients won’t want you to share their names, you’ll have to get people to trust your word.

Would you be able to shake Warren Buffett’s hand, introduce yourself as a ghostwriter, and offer to pen his next book? If so, you have the chutzpah you need to become a ghostwriter.

TL;DR: How to Be a Ghostwriter

Ghostwriting isn’t a profession for the faint of heart. You have to be okay pouring weeks, even months, of your life into a project you’ll never get credit for. But in exchange, you get solid pay and the satisfaction of working with some pretty exciting people.

To make it happen, you need to be versatile and creative enough to write on a wide variety of topics, even if you’re not an expert in your own right. You need to be organized, disciplined, and a self-starter, while also staying flexible and adaptable to the needs of your client.

It’s a competitive landscape, but there’s plenty of work out there. In 2014, one estimate suggested that 60% of non-fiction bestsellers were ghostwritten, and the possibilities have only expanded since then.

Ready to get started? If you’re already a freelancer, ask a client if they know anyone who needs a ghostwriter. If you’re still building experience writing, contact your favorite blogger and offer to ghostwrite something for their blog. Or, if you have your sights set on book ghostwriting, consider writing an ebook and self-publish.

Ghostwriters have to be self-starters. Once you’ve broken in, you’ve won half the battle.

This article was written by Compose.ly writer Laura DeCesare.

Big Tip
Less interested in becoming a ghostwriter and more interested in hiring one? Look no further. Compose.ly’s ghostwriting services have got you covered.

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