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What is a Ghostwriter? Definition, Tips, and Best Practices

Shaun Connell
July 14, 2022

Ghostwriting has been around for centuries, in pretty much every style of writing, from political to nonfiction to fiction to music. But, just because it's common doesn't mean everyone knows just what it is or what it entails. So, let's dig in, and I'll elucidate you.

The Definition of a Ghostwriter

Solution A ghostwriter is a writer who writes something and who doesn't get credit for it.

If that sounds bad, don't worry; they do so willingly. Typically, they sell the rights to the work they produce. A person who ghostwrites a book gets paid for the labor of writing, while the person who commissioned the work gets the credit for it.

Why would anyone want to take this deal? Well, there are quite a few reasons from both sides of the equation.

A writer may work as a ghostwriter simply to make money. Writing is hard work, but it's even harder to get your foot in the door and earn publication, and a lot of writing is "on spec"; that is, speculating that someone will buy it. It means a writer, even a talented writer, can struggle in poverty for years. Ghostwriting is a contract, so it's a quick way to earn a guaranteed paycheck, even if it doesn't improve the writer's citations or ability to publish their own work.

Ghostwriting a Blog

A client may hire a ghostwriter for many different reasons.

  • Maybe they have ideas but don't have the talent to write them in a compelling way.
  • Maybe they're a business and need a blog but don't want to spend the time writing themselves.
  • Maybe they simply don't have the time to do the writing they want to.
  • Maybe they're politically blacklisted but still want their work published.
  • Maybe they're producing a continual work, and they want to keep it going.

One example of the latter are the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. Both are similar; they're young adult books about amateur detectives, written as relatively low-stakes thrillers. They've also been going for a long time and have a high degree of consistency across them. That's because they have "design documents" and templates created for them, and a variety of ghostwriters produce the works, all published under the pen names credited as the authors.

Suffice it to say, ghostwritten content is all around you, all the time. A huge number of blog posts written for the internet are ghostwritten, including everything from small-scale business blogs all the way up to high-profile think pieces on sites like Forbes and HuffPo. Every presidential speech and virtually every high-profile memoir or "auto"biography is ghostwritten.

Is Ghostwriting Illegal?

Isn't it illegal to portray another's writing as your own?

Solution Well, not really. Ghostwriters are backed up by contracts, and those contracts specify the transferal of copyright and publication rights to the content in exchange for money. There's nothing illegal about it, and in fact, such relationships happen in all kinds of media every day.

Ghostwriting isn't illegal, but it can, in rare cases, be a violation of the terms of use of a website or business. Some sites will say they don't accept ghostwriting. They do this primarily to prevent people from selling their positions as "writers" for those sites and publishing whatever a sponsor wants them to publish.

Legality of Ghostwriting

The thing is, there are plenty of occasions where a ghostwriter is a good idea, even for such sites. You have the opportunity to write for a high-profile magazine, and you have an idea you've pitched and have had accepted, but you don't have the time or the talent to actually write it. It's your original thoughts but ghostwritten by someone else. Is that unethical? No, of course not.

Some people will draw the line here and say that when you're providing guidance and ideas, it's collaboration, not ghostwriting. There may even be some truth to that. The reality is, however, that the difference between collaboration and ghostwriting is credit. If you co-write something with a collaborator, pay them for their work, and take sole credit, that's ghostwriting from your collaborator. If you give them credit – whether or not you pay them – it's collaboration.

Ghostwriting is only illegal if you're a client who paid for writing with a contract that said the writer gets credit and then didn't give them credit. Then it's not ghostwriting; it's theft.

Do You Need a Ghostwriter?

Knowing what you now know, do you need a ghostwriter?

Solution Chances are, yes. Even if you're a writer yourself, you can hire a ghostwriter to produce content for you that can fill out your own blog, a business blog you own, or low-stakes content while you focus on the high-profile content you really want to write.

As an added bonus, it makes you look even more prolific!

Ghostwriting Blog Post

If you're not a writer, well, chances are pretty good that you need writing somewhere in your life. Maybe you have a novel idea you want to be written but can't put pen to paper yourself. Maybe you run a business, and you know that content marketing is a huge part of modern business, but you don't know how to handle it yourself. Whatever the case, you can probably benefit from hiring a writer.

Tips and Best Practices for Working with Ghostwriters

If you've decided that you need a ghostwriter, great! I can help you along. Check out the rest of my blog – there's plenty of information here for all kinds of writing. More importantly, though, you need to define your needs, so you can hire the right way.

1. Determine if you really need a ghostwriter.

I know, I know; I just said that these tips are based on the premise that you've decided that you want to hire a ghostwriter. And that's fine! Just make sure that's actually what you want. Sometimes people hire ghostwriters for tasks that would be better served by other professionals.

Most commonly, this means an editor. Maybe you've written a rough draft, and you want it polished up; you could hire a ghostwriter to take the content and rewrite it, or you could just hire an editor to review it. Often, the editor will be cheaper and will do a better job of polishing an existing piece of writing than a ghostwriter would. Most ghostwriters assume they'll be working with editors, or an editor will review their content, so it's not necessarily polished, final-quality work.

Man Making a Decision

If you have ideas and want them written out as content, then yes, a ghostwriter is the way to go. Alternatively, find an industry expert you can hire who can get a byline and help you build authority. There are many considerations here, and a pure ghostwriter isn't always the best option.

2. Remember that ghostwriting is a business relationship.

When you get right down to it, ghostwriting is about one thing: money.

Ghostwriters do what they do, nine times out of ten, because they want to get paid for their work. They don't care about the byline, and they don't care about building their brand in public. Very rarely you'll find a ghostwriter who does it for the love of the subject or because they're very shy or have a good reason not to have their name on a particular kind of content, but those are uncommon. Most of the time, it's all about the money.

Ghostwriting Business Relationship

What this means is that you need to go into the relationship with certain expectations. Money will be a primary topic of discussion, and if you can't afford the going rate for the kind of work you want to be done, you're going to have a bad time. On the other hand, properly valuing your writers will earn you long-term loyalty.

3. Determine how much work you're going to be putting in.

I've mentioned it a couple of times throughout this piece, but ghostwriting is a spectrum.

On the basic end of the coin, you can give a writer a basic topic, keyword, or industry, and have them produce content for you. This puts a lot of burden on the writer – especially if you want things like keyword research, metadata, and other marketing-type content produced as well – and will cost you more as a consequence. The writer gets more freedom, but freedom isn't always beneficial. Guidance can be very helpful.

A step up from that point is giving your writer basic instructions or a topic and letting them write whatever they can on it. This often relies on your writer's ability to research and write authoritatively on varying topics but can get you very good content if you hire the right people.

Creating Written Content

Another step up is where you produce an outline or more detailed guidelines for the writer. This can include things like a general style and voice, but more often will include a list of points and data to hit, conclusions to reach, and so on.

At the top, you have more of what I mentioned above as "need an editor" work, where you produce more or less a full piece of content, and have a writer turn it into something optimized for publication and polished for consumption.

The more work you put in, the cheaper the writer will be, to a point. On the other hand, the less benefit you get from hiring one, as opposed to either just doing it yourself or hiring an editor instead. The choice is yours, of course, but have a plan for how you want the transaction to work.

4. Figure out what kind of budget you have for writing.

Budget is going to be at the forefront of every writer's mind when you're considering hiring them. Knowing your budget will help you know where to go to find writers and how much to offer them for their services.

Determining Writing Budget

At the cheapest end, you're best off going to freelance hubs and content mills. The writing you get won't be very good, but neither will it be very expensive. You can put the elbow grease in to polish it up and get something serviceable out of it, but you also need to watch out for scams.

A step up from that is freelancers on hubs like Freelancer or Upwork. You can also ask others you know if they've hired writers and, if so, if they can recommend one to you. At the top end, you can find writers who have their own portfolio sites or put out an open job ad and see who applies.

5. Look for a writer where writers hang out.

Finding writers isn't that hard if you know where to look. In fact, I have a job board (coming soon) right here! You can also look at other job boards, freelance hubs, writer-focused social media, and Reddit subs.

Various Writing Job Boards

This is really the least challenging part of the whole process.

6. Develop a contract that works for both parties.

I've mentioned contracts a couple of times, and that's because they're very important. A contract protects a writer from client scams and a client from writer scams. It provides a legal repercussion to not upholding the terms of the agreement. And, if you find the right writer, it should never come into play.

I recommend developing a template contract but being willing to customize it at the request of the writer. It's all down to negotiation and how you want to work with each other, after all.

Developing a Contract

Once you've located a writer, you can give them a writing test (and pay them for the work) to see how well they can fulfill your needs. Sometimes, a writer will look good on paper and sound good when talking to them but won't be able to write on target. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, so a writing test is the way to go.

Don't be afraid to ask for revisions and help guide a writer to the content you want them to write. These relationships are meant to evolve, especially if you have ongoing work for them. Once you fall into a rhythm, you'll be good to go.

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Written By:
Shaun Connell
Shaun Connell has spent his entire career either working as a freelance writer or hiring freelance writers for his many successful publications. Shaun has learned the exact tricks of the trade to hire the perfect writer for almost any niche.

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