I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many eyebrows rise in such a synchronized fashion. I was sat at the head of the table; my aunts, my uncles, and my cousins stared at me wide-eyed. My parents gave each other a quick eye roll as if to say “we knew this would happen” whilst my brother and sister checked the room for clues as to what could possibly be so surprising.
It was me. Everyone was shocked by my description of the work I do. None of them seemed to really grasp the concept of freelance writing. But the real dagger to the heart came at the point they learned I wrote content on behalf of other people.
“So, you write it, and they sign it as though they did?”
“That’s so illegal.”
“So wrong, on so many levels.”
“Are you not ashamed?”
Ashamed?!… I’m proud to be asked to write on behalf of other people. It means they trust me to not only translate their thoughts into words, but to do so in their voice. That’s not an easy thing to do. Which is why, in turn, it’s a highly valued service that I’m able to charge a higher rate for.
So, no. I’m not even close to feeling ashamed.
In fact, when I’m ghostwriting, I feel like I’m totally in my element — or, as they say here in Spain, “estoy en mi salsa.”
For me, the best part of ghostwriting is that it often involves an additional layer of client interaction, since the more you get to know, or at least speak to the client, the better you’ll be able to reflect their voice in your writing. I’ve had the opportunity to work for a number of super interesting entrepreneurs and business leaders (who, for obvious reasons, shall remain unnamed) and learn first-hand about the struggles they’ve faced and the lessons they’ve learned whilst running their business.
So, again, no. I’m not ashamed. I encourage anyone who is keen to ghostwrite, to go for it. And, in an attempt to smooth your experience in doing so, I leave you with 5 pieces of advice that will help improve your ghostwriting skills.
1. Listen more than you speak
I think this is good advice in general. You’re not learning when you’re talking. You might not learn something of value every time you listen, but it’s certainly more likely.
When you’re writing on behalf of someone else, you need to learn to express yourself as that someone else would. Some clients might not be great writers or even particularly articulate speakers. Obviously, it’s not your job to write poorly or use basic language to reflect this. You’ve been hired to write well, but to express their personality in some way. Depending on the project, this might entail conveying their sense of humor somehow, recounting a personal story, or articulating their point of view. And, in order to do so, you need to understand what it is.
Although most clients will send me their brief in writing, I always ask to schedule a one-hour call before I start writing. If I need clarity on the brief, this is an opportunity to ask questions. And, even if the brief is clear, I’ll start a conversation so I can get to know them. How personal and friendly you get is something you’ll have to get a feel for yourself.
If you’re writing an informal article for them, listen out to see whether they make any jokes; how frequently? What about? Get a feel for their sense of humor. If you’re working on a more formal, business-related article, ask them for their opinion; listen out for how they structure their arguments; what points do they seem to prioritize? How did they come to that conclusion?
Don’t try to second guess what the answers might be. Ask the question, and actively listen.
2. Be tolerant — remember, it’s their point of view, not yours
Remember you’re not writing a blog post. It’s not your opinion you need to express, it’s your client’s. So, however much you might dislike it, you need to be ready to ‘agree to disagree.’
But don’t think being in disagreement with a client is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. The chances are at least one reader will also disagree, and you understand why. You know where the rebuttals could come from. So, share these with your client; see what they have to say. How can you strengthen your client’s argument in response to the opposition?
The same applies where you might not find a particular story relatable. Can you perhaps find an analogy or a metaphor that can help a wider group of readers understand? Can you rephrase a joke to make it more tasteful and less controversial?
Use your disagreement to your advantage; it’ll only help you strengthen your writing.
3. Prepare to be adaptable
Unless you only plan to do it once, being a ghostwriter means you’re going to need to write on behalf of a number of different clients. Each will have their own personality, their own experience, their own point of view, and their own way of expressing themselves. So, as a good ghostwriter, you need to be flexible and adapt your writing to reflect these changes.
I find two things particularly helpful for this. The first is to consume content that is diverse. This means reading non-fiction books about organizational behavior that are written by white American men, as well as novels set in India, written by Indian women, for example. Or watching a documentary about extreme sports, as well as a reality-TV cooking show. The more variety of content you consume, the more variety of content you’ll be able to produce.
The second thing is admittedly strange. But, it works for me. I appreciate my clients hire me to make their lives easier, not the opposite. So I obviously don’t want to spam them on a regular basis to remind myself of their personality. Instead, during our first call, I think to myself: “who does this client remind me most of?” I find a resemblance between the client and a friend of mine, or a family member, or a TV character. So if I ever get stuck on how to express a particular point, I can just think: “What would Kate Hudson say?”
4. Stay Updated
This mostly applies to work for corporate clients. Ghostwriting projects can often be long; they can take several months. So, if you’re writing a sector-specific business article, you’ll need to be aware of the evolving trends in that sector and appreciate that these might affect your client, and hence your work.
Unless you’re an expert in that sector, or you have prior experience in that industry, your client is unlikely to expect you to know how a particular event or trend will affect them. But as a good ghostwriter, you should be prepared to find out and ask them. Because remember, you don’t just want to critically analyze the situation yourself — you want to express their analysis.
5. Organization & reliability go hand in hand
Surprise surprise — confidentiality is key when it comes to ghostwriting. The whole point is that your client will be the author of the work your produce. You can’t share who you’re working for, or details of what you’re working on, because that would defeat the entire point.
Now, whilst staying quiet about it might sound easy enough, I’ve heard from a couple of clients that previous ghostwriters had accidentally sent them work that was meant for different clients! Come on…
If different folders aren’t enough to keep you from making mistakes like this, here’s my tip. Use a different pen drive to save the work you’re currently working on for each client. Of course, once you finish a project won’t have the need to send anything to them, you can transfer your work onto your computer, or onto a shared drive. But anything you’re likely to keep iterating and sending back and forth between you and the client is best kept as far away from the work you’re doing for another as possible.
With these tips in mind, I encourage every avid writer to give ghostwriting a go. It’s challenging, it’s creative, it’s interactive, and it’s highly rewarding. Whether you’re helping a client who doesn’t have the time to write, or just isn’t a great writer themselves, you’re giving them the ability to share their insights with a wider audience that they would otherwise not be able to connect with. That’s something to be proud of.