By Andrew Knighton
I’m one of the most prolific writers you’ve never heard of.
Over the past decade, I’ve written thirty-nine novels, thirty-six short non-fiction books, and over a thousand articles. I make a better living and have a more satisfying work life than I ever had as a teacher or office worker. In theory, I’m living the writing dream, but it might seem like a hollow victory because my name’s not on those books.
I’m a ghostwriter, and I’m here to explain my craft:
- What ghostwriting involves.
- Questions of voice, style, and content.
- The pros and cons of this career.
- How you can get started.
Let’s begin with the basics…
My job is to write in other people’s names, based on their ideas. Though I do the writing, I’m not legally the author of the book or article, and I usually can’t talk about it.
If you know anything about ghostwriting, then you probably think of journalists co-writing political autobiographies or celebrity beach books. My work is far less glamorous. Some of it is writing blog posts for business leaders, to fuel their content marketing. But the bigger part, the more interesting part, is writing indie books.
Amazon’s e-book marketplace has created its own industry, almost completely detached from traditional publishing. Within the digital marketplace, independent writers and entrepreneurs publish trope-heavy, high-volume fiction series and derivative, accessible non-fiction guides. Most of it is comfort reading, simple and familiar. It’s never going to win awards, but it satisfies its audience.
The challenge for these publishers is satisfying the Amazon algorithms, which reward authors for providing a constant stream of new books, preferably at least one a month. Almost no author can keep up with that, so they hire ghostwriters to fill the gaps.
I am a ghost in that machine.
What Does a Ghostwriter Do?
On a day-to-day basis, I take briefs provided by my clients and turn them into books.
It starts with an outline. Some clients provide detailed scene-by-scene instructions. Some write a sentence per chapter. Some give me a concept from which I spin an outline, which they revise or approve before the writing starts.
Once the outline’s set, I start writing. There’s almost always a deadline for the book, and sometimes a schedule of chapters each week. The timelines are tight, because of the publishing models my clients are working to. I regularly write a novel each month for half a year.
The client usually checks the first few chapters and provides feedback before I go further. This is valuable for both of us, as it ensures that I’m writing to the style they’re after and lets me make adjustments. Once we get deeper into a book, or when I’ve earned a client’s trust, I’m free to keep writing until I reach the end.
Communication is critical. I’ve had work go unpaid because a client and I had different expectations about a story. Being clear, asking questions about the brief, looking for the unstated assumptions in emails and calls, all of this reduces friction and makes sure I’m writing what the client wants, which helps me get more work.
The exact work involved in a job varies. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I revise, sometimes I just hammer out one draft. Sometimes the outlining and revisions earn hourly fees, sometimes they’re included in the per-word rate for my writing. It’s important to be clear on what claims the client can make on your time and what you’ll get in return.
Once a book is finished or a milestone is hit, I send my invoice or ask for payment to be released through a hiring site. Words turn into money and I move on to the next page.
Style and Substance in Ghostwriting
How much of themselves a ghostwriter puts into a piece varies as much as the book.
Finding and imitating a client’s voice is important, so I read some of their materials before I start. If I’m going to be writing novels, then the client will often send me ones they’ve published, and sometimes pay for my reading time. If I’m writing for a company blog, they’ll point me at existing articles or competitor websites they want to imitate. Finding the client’s voice isn’t just about how they sound now, it’s about what they want to sound like.
As I read, I pay attention to what stands out in their writing. Do they favour long or short paragraphs? How much dialogue is there? What’s their description like? How much time do they spend inside the main character’s head? Are there phrases that the author uses repeatedly, or distinctive things characters keep doing?
I’ve learned from experience that details I find jarring are often ones that an author’s readers love, things I should lean into, not fix. Do the characters guess each other’s thoughts with near-psychic precision? In post-Twilight paranormal romance, that’s a feature, not a bug. Is the protagonist so flawlessly gifted that there’s no risk of failure? Welcome to men’s action harem fiction.
One common feature of indie fiction that makes my job easier is the cinematic style. A lot of the science fiction and fantasy published through Amazon is influenced less by books than by television and films. This encourages a style that doesn’t favour flowery description or linger in the protagonist’s head, even when it uses first person point of view. Instead, action, dialogue, and surface details tell the story. As a writing style, it leaves a lot of missed opportunities, but it works for its authors and their audience. Because it’s relatively simple to imitate, it also works for a ghostwriter.
Similarly, there’s a lot of romance writing that follows a familiar pattern. The protagonist is designed to appeal to a mass readership, who can wish themselves into the character’s shoes. Though lots of time is spent in the protagonist’s head, they don’t have a distinctive voice and perspective that might alienate a reader, and the familiar emotional beats of their journey are clearly spelled out. It’s a style that ghostwriters, like readers, can easily slip into.
It’s much easier to imitate a writer’s style when that style matches half the books in its Amazon sales chart.
As a ghostwriter, how does my own voice fit into this?
It’s not possible or even desirable to completely wipe away your style. As reviews of Spare make clear, that book is as much the work of JR Moehringer as of Harry Windsor, and Moehringer’s choices shape the narrative we’ve been given. Moehringer excels at making his own tricks and quirks feel like those of his subject, in part by picking subjects with similarities to him.
My clients hire me after reading samples of my work, and they’re hiring me for my ability with words. Ghostwriting is about finding the right compromise between your style and someone else’s, a compromise where your personality fades into the background but your skills make the story shine. Clients wouldn’t hire me if there weren’t elements of my writing that will enhance their stories and satisfy their audience.
The Pros and Cons of Ghostwriting
There are some serious pros and cons to ghostwriting, and it’s worth considering both before you give it a go.
First off, there’s the money. After ten years of building up my business, I earn a good living off my words.
Balanced against that is the lack of credit. I’ve written millions of words that I can’t lay claim to, and for some people, that would be an insurmountable downside.
But not having your name on a book can be a good thing. The readers I aim my own stories at, the ones who read On Spec or Nebula-nominated novels, the ones I share my tastes with, wouldn’t like the things I’ve ghostwritten. Given the choice, I’ve not to put my name on some work for hire, because if those readers read it, they’d never touch one of my books again. In both style and content, these works are different beasts.
While I can’t claim credit for individual books, I can lay claim to my career. Records on hiring sites prove that I’ve written novels. There are clients I can get discreet references from. I’ve talked about my work on panels at conventions, where more famous writer friends treat my work with curiosity and bewilderment.
But the real pro/con of ghostwriting, the one that will define whether this is the job for you, isn’t the money or the reputational issues, it’s the process.
Ghostwriting as Work
When ghostwriting, I draw on the same part of my mind that I use to write my own fiction. That can have two effects: to exercise the writing muscles and to tire them out.
Ghostwriting is a great opportunity to practice my skills, try new tricks, and get the experience that’s made my own writing shine. Without it, my latest novella Ashes of the Ancestors might never have been published.
But mental exercise tires out your brain. I have to set aside days when I’m not working on other people’s projects, to save energy for my own work. Ten years of practice, and some luck in how my mind works, mean that I can do four long days of ghostwriting and still write my own chapters on a Friday. But if your writing comes in brief, glorious bursts, if you’re a sprinter rather than a marathon writer, or if you can only write when the muse strikes, then this isn’t the job for you.
The problem isn’t ideas. My clients provide the broad strokes for their stories, and while I add details, I save the best ones for myself. As many writers will tell you, the challenge isn’t coming up with ideas, it’s finding the time to write them. Ghostwriting can steal that time.
There’s also a question of boundaries. You have to let go of characters you’ve brought to life, scenes you’ve written, rich descriptive details and precious metaphors. You have to be willing to hand them over to someone else, knowing not only that you won’t get credit, but that they might butcher them in the edit. This is work for hire, and once you’re paid, it’s not yours anymore.
Even for an experienced ghostwriter, that can be tough. A few years ago, a client asked me to outline a series I’d like to write for them. I went at it with excitement and enthusiasm, then handed over the results. Their changes flatly contradicted what I’d been passionate about and left me fuming for days, because I’d let myself get attached to the story. On top of that, I still had to write the novel, based on this broken outline. It was a valuable lesson in the importance of staying detached. My job is to write stories that excite my clients, not me, and it’s their right to alter them however they want.
There is no magic trick to letting go. It’s a matter of deep breaths, bitter experience, and focusing on the money. That might sound mercenary, but this is my day job. It’s replaced my days in the office, not my creative writing, and judged on those grounds, the frustrations are worth bearing.
I take pride in the work I do, but it’s pride in how I execute my drafts, not what they’re about or how they end up. I can argue with a change if I think it’s bad, but I seldom try. I’m not the author, just the writer. These books aren’t mine.
Getting Into Ghostwriting
If all of that hasn’t put you off, then how do you get into ghostwriting?
I can’t speak to the world of big-name books, where JR Moehringer strikes six-figure deals with Andre Agassi. But my path started with freelance hiring sites, places like Upwork, Guru, and People Per Hour. These are marketplaces where you can list your skills and experience then bid on advertised jobs. Successful projects will earn you feedback that potential clients can see, even if they can’t see what you wrote. That lets strangers put their trust in you, while the escrow systems ensure you get paid, in exchange for the site’s cut.
As in any profession, you’ll have to start at the bottom. That means taking small, poorly paid gigs to get your first ratings, which lead to slightly less crappy jobs, then tolerable ones, then maybe some that pay what you’re worth. Look for projects writing about things you’ve studied or worked on, or genres you’ve had stories published in, as this will help you to get those crucial early jobs. Management qualifications that I never applied in the office have been godsends in the freelancing space.
As you build up experience, you can use it to attract more jobs and even personal referrals, a happy client recommending you to their contacts. Your career can build its own momentum, reducing the pressure to waste your hours on underpaid work, freeing up time to search for the good stuff.
Should You Be a Ghostwriter?
To do this work, you need to accept the hard parts: financial uncertainty; managing client relationships; the relentless pace of writing; spending precious writing energy on stories that others will ruin.
In return, you get the chance to practice your craft, to earn money off your words, even to sneak a peek at the reviews and see that people enjoyed what you wrote, even though they don’t know it was you.
It’s not for everyone, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
Andrew Knighton is an author of short stories, comics, and the fantasy novellas Ashes of the Ancestors and Silver and Gold. Working as a freelance writer, he’s ghostwritten over thirty novels in other people’s names. He lives in Yorkshire, England, with a demanding cat and a heap of unread books. You can find him at andrewknighton.com, on Twitter as @gibbondemon, and on Mastodon as @firstname.lastname@example.org .