As a ghostwriter, I often get questions about the craft from other writers and editors who are considering venturing into this mysterious corner of the writing profession as they strike out on their own.

  • What is ghostwriting?
  • How is ghostwriting different from any other writing you do for clients?
  • What is the process like?

Before answering, I will usually ask them what they believe ghostwriting is and how it works, so I know what their misconceptions are, because everyone has them.

Probably the most common misconception is that potential clients who approach a ghostwriter are doing so because they can’t write. Actually, this is almost never the case. Most of my ghostwriting clients are excellent writers, and some, like me, even write for a living. What they lack mostly is the time to devote to an article, a book project or sometimes even an important letter. They are too busy doing what they love and what they do best, so they rely on me to do the same—what I love and do best.

Often, what they need most from me as a ghostwriter is to craft an article or book that meets the specific audience and publication requirements of an editor or publisher. That is an art, and if you have wide experience as an editor and editorial manager for magazines and journals, you might be particularly good at this aspect of the ghostwriting business.

True ghostwriters don’t write for people, they write as them.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Let’s say, for example, someone approaches me and says: “I want you to research and write an article for me about how to deal with conflict in the workplace. Have the draft to me in two weeks.” I would have to turn it down, even though as a longtime leader and manager, I know a lot about the subject. That is not ghostwriting. That is writing something for somebody for a fee. True ghostwriters don’t write for people, they write as them.

The goal is to make the writer’s “voice” come through in the writing. Capturing that “voice” is a process in which the ghostwriter spends time up front getting to know what the writer values, what their intentions and intended impacts are, how they speak to people when they are talking, what drives them, and what makes them satisfied, invigorated, happy and irritated. All of these things create the “voice” through which the ghostwriter writes as the writer.

And notice that I keep referring to the person as the writer, because that’s what the client is. They are writing through me and I am writing through them. At the end of the process they have no doubt that the finished piece was their work. These are their ideas and insights and experiences, and they are expressed in their voice.

Many people believe that hiring a ghostwriter is unethical, but the process I laid out above should explain why it is not. When pharmaceutical companies were caught paying “ghostwriters” to produce medical papers touting the merits of their therapies, that was unethical. In the scandals that followed, journalists often erroneously referred to this as ghostwriting. It was not ghostwriting. It was just a crime.

Some people try to hire real ghostwriters for unethical purposes, though. I have received numerous, sometimes very generous, offers to write master’s theses or doctoral dissertations from scratch, including doing all of the research, and with almost no participation from the client. I have declined every one of these. I will not play a part in sending an under-qualified person out into the workplace, especially one who will be working in health care.

Ghostwriting clients, for the most part, are not lazy, lousy writers. Many are successful executives, business owners, professionals and entrepreneurs who need to reach out and communicate. Others are rising stars in an industry or profession who need to be published in periodicals and online to become more relevant and significant. Some have valuable content that needs to be communicated more effectively to current and potential clients. Others may have decided it’s time to write that book they’ve been putting off for too long.

The thing I find they all have in common is that they are too busy pursuing their passions and doing what they do best to be able to dive all in on a book or other large, ongoing writing project. So, they turn to someone who is pursuing those passions.

Some advice: If you want to get into true ghostwriting, especially in writing books, be prepared to spend some significant time up front getting to know the person, and be prepared to explain the value of doing that for the client, because he or she will be paying you for that investment of time. It makes all the difference in the world when it comes to the writer’s satisfaction with the finished product.

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