Friday Fun – Escaping The Ghostwriting Trap

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We recently asked you what questions you’d like answered in our Friday Fun post. Today, we’re answering the following reader question:


JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: 

Dear, Sydney

Thanks for the great question. It’s difficult to provide a super specific answer without knowing a bit more (the type of writing you’d like to do, particular topics you’re interested in, audiences you’d like to reach, etc.), but I do think we can provide some general guidance.

The first step I’d recommend is getting clear about your writing goals. We addressed a similar challenge in our Friday Fun response to a new blogger who wasn’t sure how to evolve her blog into something that “makes a little money.” Knowing where you want to go makes figuring out the steps to getting there a LOT easier. Your plan to become a published novelist would be very different from your plan to become a syndicated columnist, a self-help author, a screenwriter, or a journalist.

Once you know where you want to go, the second step is brainstorming about how to get there. This is obviously a topic that’s way bigger than a quick Friday Fun post, but at a really high level you want to start by studying your target market:

  • The Publishers – Print and digital distributors and other outlets that pertain to the kind of writing you want to do – what they are publishing, who their audience is, what they are looking for, etc.
  • The Target Audience – “End readers” as well as any gatekeepers like editors, their interests, where they hang out online, who/what else they read, etc.
  • The Competition – Other writers who are succeeding in the space where you want to play
  • The Influencers – The trend makers and “experts” like high-profile bloggers, review sites, etc.

The point of this research is NOT to retrofit your writing to suit any real or imagined audience. It’s to help you better understand the lay of the land so that you can uncover and recognize opportunities. When you know (and are engaged with!) your market, you can more easily spot and take advantage of openings that are a perfect fit for you.

I hope this is helpful. Good luck and do let us know if you have follow-up questions!

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I know what you mean about wanting credit for your writing. I started writing for local papers so I could see my byline and even though the articles weren’t anything that changed the world, as it were, seeing my name in print was a thrill that still makes me smile. Most of my work now is ghost writing, in that my name is seldom on any final product.

However, not having your name on something doesn’t mean you can’t have it in your portfolio to share with other prospective clients, unless that’s part of your agreement when you refer to ‘commissioned.’

To morph into your own writing, as you mention, what is it that interests you? What do you want to be writing? What types of markets are you interested in? A great resource is LinkedIn – you can find groups of people you want to write for, writers who are doing what you want to be doing, and so on. Search on keywords and you’ll be on your way!

Also, you may find this Freelance Writing Jobs website helpful. The daily e-mails are full of jobs and great articles.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: Jamie and Lisa have great advice; I just have twos cautionary tales about ghost-writing: In both these instances, the clients were confident they could write their own stories if they just had the time. One was a novel, another a biography.

In the first instance, the client sent me about four pages, all about the name brand clothes, cars and gadgets the main characters used. This was preliminary to writing a contract. I gave my best spin about what was good, what could be better, and what I could do, wrote out a contract and an estimate, and sent him a bill for the two hours I spent – as we’d agreed on the phone. It took a while to get paid, but I did. No further material was ever forthcoming. I was relieved.

The second instance was from a very successful businessman who wanted me to write an inspirational book about his life and his work. He had a great idea. We spoke on the phone; I did some research about him (checked his bonafides, business and background ) and traveled to meet with him. We had a great meeting in which I outlined what I could do (research and write) and what I couldn’t (design the physical book), but I did give him the name of someone who is a book designer.  He said he’d get back to me when he returned from three weeks of travel.

My friend the book designer contacted me the next day, saying he’d contacted her and tried to interest her in the job, offering her significantly less than I proposed. She told me I was still charging too little, and in her experience, this was the kind of client to avoid. Not a problem, since he didn’t contact me in three weeks.

He contacted me six months later, asking when I could start.

I replied that I had two projects on my desk that would take me the next six months.

Could I resend my proposal?

No. (He’d never paid me for my preliminary work.)

Did I know anyone else who’d be interested?

I was sorry I couldn’t think of anyone off-hand. (I like my colleagues and contacts.)

I think ghostwriting is a great gig with the right client. And if a by-line is important to you, it can be negotiated into the contract, often offset by a lower fee. The business man cited above made it clear he didn’t want to share the by-line; he also didn’t want to pay me for shaping his ideas into a well-crafted narrative.

On the other hand, I do a great deal of non-by-lined writing for major medical centers, and I’m fine with that. We have a contract for each assignment. I write it and get paid. Some of the writing is by-lined, but a recent job turned into something unexpectedly bigger than the 400-word piece initially contracted. By the time the editor finished (using my original interviews and research) she’d spent another three months to finish what turned out to be an 800-word story. She would have given me the by-line to the piece that was finally published, but I turned it down, as it was no longer my work.

Hope this gives you some idea of the twists and turns of working as a pen-for-hire.


22 thoughts on “Friday Fun – Escaping The Ghostwriting Trap

  1. If I ever write again, it will be about something even more unmarketable. I like Umberto Eco’s comment that he was not interested in writing to meet the needs of an audience; what’s important is to change them. However, there does not seem to be huge room for this in today’s ‘market’.

  2. I understand you, but I am going to keep this very simple, YOU are unique, YOU are YOU, and nobody can be YOU, the same way YOU have followers here is the same way, people will follow YOUR book, so what are YOU waiting for, just find a little time, and follow YOUR dream ,……. YOU will be great.

  3. Pingback: Friday Fun – Escaping The Ghostwriting Trap – Bad Ambience

  4. As you say, you love to write. That’s a huge start! As to “who am I?” Well, haven’t you answered that? You are someone who wants to write and be acknowledged as the author. So there’s a goal. As far as “why would anyone care what I have to say?” You must lose that self-defeating attitude. Let it go. Quite frankly, it’s the risk we all take. Part of the writing task, I believe, is to “make them care.” Write the story that is begging to be written, and the audience will be there. (The ol’ ‘build it and they will come.’ syndrome.) As Lisa, Jamie, and Deborah have already wisely advised, decide on a genre-one that attracts you-and start writing, NOW.

  5. …this post and the responses is exactly what I needed today. I’ve just decided to take the proverbial plunge, and I struggle with…where will my audience come from, will people like my writing, how can I do this and get to make money doing it plus get recognized? It can be scary but we have to forge ahead… Much love and may we all live our dream prosperously! 🙂

      • We have to support each other…it’s good to know there are places in this cyber world where we can connect through our unique experiences and similar desires.

    • Exactly – so important to stay focused on that forward momentum. It doesn’t have to come in big steps, but it needs to keep moving. 🙂

  6. Because most of my professional writing is not bylined, but I don’t consider that ghostwriting, per se. I always include wording in my contracts with clients giving me permission to link to any web story, web page, online mag article, etc. that I have written for them, byline or no. I also ghostwrite blog posts for a company leader, which of course I can’t claim as my writing. BUT it pays well, and I enjoy working with the client. If you do similar ghostwriting and have a good relationship with your client, here’s an idea…depending on what kind of client it is, perhaps you could write something else for the client, say a web story, news release, back ad copy for his book, etc. and get permission to use that as a writing sample.

    • Hi, Amanda! 🙂
      Thanks so much for chiming in. You make a great point about including contract wording that grants you permission to link to content you’ve authored. That line of thinking makes me wonder about whether it’s also wise to have a clause about using work as samples.

      Again – thanks for sharing your perspective!

  7. Thank you for your useful suggestions and advice. Critical to writing is understanding why you want to write and knowing your potential audience. Never really consider ghostwriting as an income option. Definitely a different perspective. I would like to ask a somewhat simple question: how do you transition to a different type of writing/genre/audience?

    • Great question. Maybe we’ll queue that one up for a future Friday Fun. There are, I believe, several ways to do it; but I’d love to get the perspective of my fellow bloggers here because some of them may be closer to the question.


  8. Hello! Ghostwriter here, coming out of the shadows. I found it incredibly hard to get started with books under my own name. I’d ghostwritten some very successful novels and had agents and a Big Six (at the time) publisher falling over themselves to do something with me. But only if I wrote thrillers, which was what I’d been successful at. When I presented them with a more thoughtful piece of contemporary fiction, I was asked if I could make it more like x successful book. The message was clear: they didn’t want me as me. And we had an impasse, because I hadn’t learned all this craft to only be a mouthpiece for others.
    Ghostwriting can be like typecasting. It’s tricky to break out and to get people to recognise you as a fully fledged, rounded writer. That can seem unjust, as we’re often very professional and versatile to boot. What did I do? Slogged on with my own novels, my own way. Refused to compromise when I knew I was being pushed into a hole I didn’t fit into. Got an agent under my own efforts for my real work. Didn’t get a sale, unfortunately. Then I gave immense thanks that the self-publishing tools matured and I had a way to get my books out as me.
    You might not have to self-publish, depending on what you write. You’ll have loads of contacts by now. Could you pitch some ideas to them? Have a coffee with a few editors and ask them what they’re looking for and then go back with some concepts? I know all this takes time, and you’re trying to bring the £££s in, but a pitch for yourself is not like writing a pitch for someone else, when you can’t reuse the work. To be honest, you’re not likely to get an advance like you would with a ghostwritten book, so you’ll have to fund the writing anyway. But if you were tailoring it to a publisher’s needs it might not be such a big risk.
    Very best of luck. You’ll find a way to be you.

    • Hi, Roz! 🙂
      So glad you came out of the shadows to share your experience here. Your story is pretty fascinating, and I imagine something many ghostwriters can relate to. As I read your comment, I had an almost physical reaction to reading about the publisher turning you down – not wanting “you as you.” That must have been such a blow, but it’s so great to hear how you turned the tables on that situation. I’m intrigued to learn more.

      Thanks again & see you around the web!

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