Ghostwriting 101: Tips from a Veteran Ghostwriter

Have you ever wondered how busy executives and thought leaders crank out so much content? How do they find the time to write daily social media posts, weekly blog articles, monthly magazine columns and annual books – all while doing their day jobs?

The answer is simple: they don‘t. Most of them hire ghostwriters.

Ghostwriting is the practice of writing content that is officially credited to someone else. The ghostwriter pens the piece, but the named author gets the byline. It‘s a practice that‘s much more common than you might think. In fact, one survey found that over 50% of business leaders and 80% of celebrities use ghostwriters at least occasionally.[^1]

And it‘s not just non-writers leveraging the practice. A poll of content marketers revealed that 35% have ghostwritten for someone else, and 55% have hired ghostwriters for their own brand.[^2] Even prolific authors and journalists like Gillian Flynn and Sari Botton have been ghostwriters at some point.[^3]

So if you‘re a marketer, executive, thought leader or writer, ghostwriting is a skill you need in your toolkit. In this post, I‘ll share tips and best practices from my 15+ years as a professional ghostwriter. Whether you‘re looking to offer ghostwriting services or outsource your own content creation, you‘ll learn how to do it right.

Why Ghostwriting Is Valuable

Before we get into the how-to, let‘s talk about why ghostwriting matters. Some people believe ghostwriting is deceptive or inauthentic – after all, the named author didn‘t technically write the content. But I believe ghostwriting, when done well, is not just acceptable but hugely valuable. Here‘s why:

  1. It allows experts to share their ideas with a wider audience. Many brilliant people with important insights to share simply don‘t have the time or writing chops to package their ideas into compelling content. Ghostwriters help unlock that wisdom.

  2. It improves content quality and clarity. Professional ghostwriters know how to take complex ideas and communicate them in an engaging, easy-to-understand way. The result is better content for readers.

  3. It‘s an efficient use of time and resources. For busy leaders, writing a book or article themselves would take time away from their core responsibilities. Ghostwriting allows them to publish more content than they could alone.

  4. Readers care more about the ideas than the byline. As long as the content is accurate and provides value, most people don‘t mind that the credited author got writing help. One study found that 84% of readers believe a book can be considered the work of the author even if they did not do 100% of the writing.[^4]

  5. It provides income and skill-building for writers. For freelancers and aspiring writers, ghostwriting provides a steady stream of paid work while honing their craft. Many successful authors got their start by ghostwriting.

So ghostwriting, in my view, is a win-win-win – for authors, writers and readers. But to deliver on this potential, ghostwriters need to really know their stuff. Let‘s look at how to do it right.

The Ghostwriting Process

Every ghostwriting project is unique, but I typically follow a 5-step process:

  1. Interview the author
  2. Capture their voice
  3. Structure the piece
  4. Write a draft
  5. Edit and refine

Let‘s unpack each step:

Step 1: Interview the Author

The first and most important step is to deeply understand the author‘s ideas. I do this through an in-depth interview, which typically runs 1-2 hours.

In the interview, I ask open-ended questions and give the author space to explain their views. I come prepared with an outline of topics to cover, but I always allow room for spontaneous tangents – that‘s often where the best insights emerge!

Some of my go-to questions include:

  • What‘s the main idea you want to get across in this piece?
  • Why does this topic matter to you?
  • What personal experiences or examples relate to this?
  • What would you say to someone who disagrees with your view?
  • Are there any other points we haven‘t covered that you want to include?

I record the conversation (with permission) so I don‘t miss any key points. Throughout the interview, I‘m listening for soundbites and phrases that capture their voice.

After the call, I review my notes and the recording to identify themes, arguments and anecdotes to highlight in the piece. I also flag any statements that were unclear or need fact-checking.

Step 2: Capture Their Voice

Ghostwriters are part writer, part mimic. Our job is to write content that sounds like it came straight from the named author‘s mouth or keyboard. Readers should never suspect the piece was ghostwritten.

Capturing the author‘s voice starts in the interview. I pay close attention to the words and phrases they use repeatedly. I note if they speak in short soundbites or long, winding paragraphs. I tune in to their tone – are they formal or more casual? Assertive or diplomatic? Serious or prone to crack jokes?

After the interview, I study the author‘s existing writing – their blog posts, speeches, social media feeds, etc. I‘ll read until I start to think in their voice. Some questions I ask:

  • What distinctive words or phrases do they use?
  • Do they prefer simple or complex sentence structures?
  • Are pop culture references a common feature?
  • How do they open and close their pieces?

As I write, I imagine the author reading the draft aloud. I know I‘ve nailed the voice if I can hear them saying the words in my head. I also share the draft with them to confirm the voice feels authentic.

For one author I‘ve ghostwritten for many times, I keep a "voice guide" – a list of his signature phrases, preferred words, and idiosyncrasies. Referencing this while writing helps me quickly slip into his voice.

"A great ghostwriter is a world-class listener, a deft translator of other people‘s ideas. It‘s a bit like being an actor."

– Joshua Wolf Shenk, author and former ghostwriter[^5]

Step 3: Structure the Piece

With the author‘s ideas and voice captured, it‘s time to map out the content structure. I use the interview notes and any other background material to craft an outline:

  • Opening hook
  • Key arguments and supporting points
  • Examples and anecdotes to include
  • Closing thought or call-to-action

The structure should flow logically and keep readers engaged from start to finish. I often use the "rule of three" – grouping ideas into three main points or illustrations. Research shows our brains are wired to remember information delivered in threes.[^6]

I also consider the author‘s goals for the piece. Are they trying to inform and explain? Persuade and inspire? Entertain and delight? The content and tone should align with their objectives.

Once I have a solid outline, I share it with the author for feedback. We might move some ideas around or identify gaps to fill. Getting aligned on the direction early prevents frustration later.

Step 4: Write the Draft

Now the real writing begins! Using the approved outline and voice guide, I expand on each point with detail and color.

Some things I keep in mind while drafting:

  • Hook the reader early. The intro should be punchy and hint at the value to come. No one wants to read five paragraphs before getting to the meat.

  • Use the author‘s phrases, but don‘t overdo it. Peppering in a few signature words makes the piece sound like them. Too many and it feels forced.

  • Provide evidence to back up claims. I use research, data and examples to give the author‘s arguments credibility. No one wants unsubstantiated fluff.

  • Keep paragraphs short and vary sentence length. Big walls of text are hard to read, especially online. I aim for 2-4 sentences per paragraph.

  • Make the conclusion actionable. I end with a clear takeaway or next step so readers leave feeling inspired, not unsure what to do with the information.

As I write, I try to channel the author‘s energy and enthusiasm for the topic. My goal is to communicate their ideas with the same passion they conveyed in our interview.

Step 5: Edit and Refine

With the draft complete, it‘s time for the author‘s red pen. I share the piece and ask them to provide feedback:

  • Does this accurately represent your views?
  • Are any points missing or unclear?
  • Does the tone and voice sound like you?
  • What else would you add, change or cut?

My job is to implement their feedback until they‘re thrilled with the final product. Sometimes this is quick; other times it requires a few rounds of revisions. The important thing is they feel 100% confident putting their name on it.

Beyond the author‘s content edits, I also give the piece a final polish for grammar, clarity and flow. I use tools like Grammarly and Hemingway Editor to tighten the language.

Once the author and I are both satisfied, the ghostwritten piece is ready to be published. But my work doesn‘t end there – I also provide ongoing counsel on promoting the content and engaging with readers‘ responses.

Navigating Ghostwriting Challenges

The ghostwriting process is satisfying but not always easy. A few common challenges:

  1. Getting enough content and context from the author. Busy executives often only have 30 minutes for an interview instead of the hour needed to really dig in. I‘ve learned to come extra prepared and be ruthlessly efficient in my questioning.

  2. Resolving inconsistencies or simplifying complex ideas. Sometimes an author‘s explanation doesn‘t quite add up or is too dense for readers. I point this out diplomatically and suggest ways to tweak it.

  3. Pushing back on bad ideas without damaging the relationship. It takes courage to tell an accomplished leader that something they said is off-base! I focus on asking questions versus making accusations. "Can you help me understand…" goes over better than "You‘re wrong."

  4. Feeling constrained by the author‘s voice. Early in my ghostwriting career, mimicking someone else‘s style felt stifling. Over time, I‘ve learned to see it as a fun creative challenge – how can I authentically channel their voice while still producing good writing?

"You have to put your ego aside. You‘re in service to someone else‘s voice and ideas."

– Sari Botton, writer and editor who has ghostwritten for major publications[^7]

The Ethics of Ghostwriting

A quick word on ghostwriting ethics. I believe it‘s fine for authors to use ghostwriters as long as:

  1. The content accurately represents the author‘s ideas and experiences
  2. The author has final say over the content and fully stands behind it
  3. The ghostwriter does not plagiarize or fabricate anything
  4. The arrangement is disclosed if asked, not actively concealed

Ghostwriters should not be a shield for fraud or deception. If you‘re not proud to be associated with the content, you probably shouldn‘t ghostwrite it.

Of course, many authors prefer to keep their use of a ghostwriter private. I always sign a non-disclosure agreement and will only share that I ghostwrote something if the author explicitly says it‘s okay. Confidentiality is critical to trust.

Partnering Well with Authors

To be a successful ghostwriter – and enjoy the process – you need to build strong, trusting relationships with authors. Some advice:

  • Choose authors aligned with your values. It‘s hard to passionately write ideas you don‘t believe in. I‘m selective about the authors I take on and favor those who share my worldview.

  • Set expectations upfront. I send authors a welcome packet outlining my process, rates, typical timeline and their expected involvement. We also sign a contract detailing the scope of work, payment terms and credit. No one likes surprises.

  • Communicate often. I send authors weekly updates so they always know where things stand. If I‘m behind on a deadline or need their input, I tell them ASAP.

  • Be patient but persistent. Delays happen when you‘re working with busy people. I nudge politely if an author misses a feedback deadline, but I‘m not above a guilt trip if truly needed!

  • Express gratitude. I always thank authors for the opportunity and acknowledge that the success of the content is a shared achievement. A little appreciation goes a long way in securing repeat work.

Life as a Ghostwriter

I‘ve been fortunate to make a fulfilling career as a ghostwriter. While seeing my own name in print is a thrill, there‘s immense satisfaction in helping an expert shape their knowledge into powerful content that inspires readers. I know I‘m increasing the supply of valuable ideas in the world.

But ghostwriting isn‘t for everyone. You need a healthy ego to be okay with other people getting credit for your words. You have to be skilled at adapting your voice and working in service of someone else‘s vision. And you need dogged persistence to coax content from busy, distracted authors.

If you relish collaborative creation and can check your agenda at the door, ghostwriting can be incredibly rewarding – personally, professionally and financially. The demand for high-quality content is only increasing, and ghostwriters are essential to meeting it.

Now It‘s Your Turn

Whether you‘re a marketer looking to outsource content or a writer offering your ghostwriting services, I hope this guide has given you the tools and confidence to do it well.

Remember, ghostwriting is a partnership. Honor the author‘s voice and vision while tactfully advocating for the reader. Be organized, communicative and flexible. And most importantly, focus on creating authentic, valuable content – the rest will fall into place.

Happy ghostwriting!

[^1]: "Ghostwriting: The Skill Every Content Marketer Needs." Contently, 2021.
[^2]: "The State of Ghostwriting in Content Marketing." Mantis Research, 2020.
[^3]: "The Secret Life of Ghostwriters." The New York Times, 2019.
[^4]: "Do Readers Care Who Really Wrote the Book?" Reedsy, 2018.
[^5]: "The Invisible Hands Behind Bestsellers." The Atlantic, 2015.
[^6]: "The Power of Three in Writing." Grammarly, 2021.
[^7]: "Ghostwriting for High-Profile Clients." Gotham Writers Workshop, 2020.
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