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Working With a Ghost(Writer)

“There are infinite shades of grey. Writing often appears so black and white. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.” - Rebecca Solnit

I love being a ghostwriter because I love writing.

And while I have an endless list of ideas I’d like to write about, I don’t always have the time to write them - and then the time attempting to get them published (which is an entirely other piece of work in itself).

Ghostwriting has always felt like a win-win situation for me. I get to do what I love for others who appreciate the skills I bring to the table. Being able to elevate someone else’s voice and professional offerings is something I find very fulfilling. It’s the main reason I keep doing this work.

And it’s also the reason I can be quite selective about who I work with.

When I say ghostwriting, I’m referring to any writing done on behalf of clients that then sits under their names. This includes books, ebooks, blogs, conference papers, opinion pieces, newsletters … you name it. But you might also simply call this a content writer or copywriter (the distinction between the two I won't go into here).

I learn a lot from the clients I work with and their respective areas of profession, so I tend to work with people in areas that match my own career direction or personal interests - it just makes reading, researching and learning about them easier and more engaging.

I’m always open to new areas if they pique my interest, but mainly I stick to what I know and what adds value to my growth. This also means I bring a solid foundational knowledge base to my clients, most of whom are keen to work with someone who understands their industry and professional areas of work.

I’ve worked with everyone from top global organisations to individual thought leaders, public sector and private organisations, small business owners and emerging professionals.

When you work with such a breadth of people, you quickly learn what feels suitable for you in terms of the things that make your work easier: constructive feedback, positive support, trust, respect, reliability, invoices paid on time etc.

And you learn what doesn’t.

Some people think that working with a ghostwriter is a great idea for their business but don’t fully consider precisely what this means or take a moment to reflect on how it could make them feel.

For solopreneurs, individual business owners, and anyone else simply used to doing everything themselves, it’s not always easy handing over the ‘voice’ of your business to someone new. It does require a certain amount of mental preparation and openness to take on feedback, be willing to make changes, and see that doing things differently doesn’t mean doing things ‘wrong’.

I’ve experienced firsthand what happens when this doesn’t happen, and it makes my job much more challenging.

Working With a Ghostwriter: Before You Begin

“The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” - Rebecca Solnit

I have a pretty full roster, but if someone new comes along and their work gets me excited, I’m usually happy to have a conversation. In this conversation, I try to establish whether we’ll be a good fit.

When I’m talking about ‘before you begin’, I’m referring to before you even reach out to a writer you want to work with. There’s the mental prep that needs to happen. It’s usually quite apparent when a client hasn’t thought more deeply about the impact of bringing a writer into the fold.

What does this mental prep look like? Great question!

Here are some of the questions/discussion points I think you should consider before seeking out a ghostwriter for your business:

  • Why am I seeking a writer, and why now?

    • What’s happening in my business that means a writer is needed?

    • What critical projects/tasks do I need assistance with?

    • Is this the best time to add another outgoing expense?

  • What is my content currently doing for my business, and what would I like it to do?

    • Can I clearly communicate this to an external party?

  • How much value do I think the content of my business has to support my goals?

  • How will I feel about someone writing on my behalf?

    • Am I prepared for things to change based on recommendations?

    • Am I happy to explore new content ideas and ways of using content to engage audiences?

    • Am I prepared to trust another person’s opinion about my content?

  • How much control do I want over the content cycle?

    • Do I want to give them ideas or have them present ideas?

    • Am I open to feedback?

  • What role do I see the writer taking on - is it purely just writing or overall content management?

  • Have I confused ‘writer’ with ‘social media manager’, ‘PR professional’, or ‘marketing executive’?

You’d be surprised how much that last one happens.

One mistake I see from clients when they seek me out is that they’ve only done so because they want it to save them time: they haven’t considered how they feel about the content and what it means within their business.

They only start to think about this once I’m writing for them. Then they find it extremely difficult to relinquish control, spending hours picking apart sentences and going back and forth on edits - they end up spending more time on their content than before.

And this tends to come back to the questions I’ve outlined above.

I know you might be thinking, ‘Well, perhaps the issue is your writing and not the client’, and I’m not saying I am a perfect writer, but I have been doing this for close to a decade, have many happy clients, alongside having been published widely - plus I find these clients are almost OTT in telling me my writing is excellent.

There’s this weird dynamic where they’re pulling apart everything I’ve written while simultaneously reassuring me the work is really good. On some level, I think they know the issue lies with them and their inability to trust the process and relinquish a little control.

Otherwise, why continue working with me?

Working With a Ghostwriter: Things to Clarify

“But in this way, either knowingly or unknowingly, we reject everything that, to be said fully, would require effort and a torturous search for words. Honest writing forces itself to find words for those parts of our experience that is crouched and silent." - Elena Ferrante

Some of my clients are very flexible - we have a close, professional relationship that sees them taking on board what I have to offer and running with it, offering feedback, ideas and relevant information about their business when I need it. We send emails back and forth regularly, leave comments on docs, move things around, and genuinely just work as any co-workers would. It feels like a team effort with a great balance of respecting my input and skills alongside ensuring it meets their business needs and goals.

These relationships work best for me: being seen as a co-worker rather than a subordinate. The two have many differences, and clarifying how you want to work together right at the start of the relationship is vital.

When I’m first starting with a new client, here’s a little of what I like to clarify:

  • Timescales, deadlines and delivery expectations: I have a somewhat flexible schedule, so I ask clients what would work best for them. Some have clear answers (great) some need to get the ball rolling to see what does and doesn’t work (totally fine).

Consider what you need, when you need it, and what your work week looks like. Set aside time to review content and factor that into the deadlines you request.

  • Editing process: I usually work in Google Docs, providing editing access once a piece is ready to be reviewed. I ask clients to leave comments and make direct edits as they see fit. I like to remind clients that I am human - and that being a factual truth, I may occasionally misspell a word or have a mind blank about whether to use a comma.

Pro Tip: Highlighting these things in red with tagged comments along the lines of ‘What’s this about?’ will not a positive working relationship make (remember we’re trying to be a team here, you’re not my Year 11 English teacher).

Have an open discussion about what you want to happen with editing, including minor grammatical edits and larger changes. Agree on a process and be open to tweaking it as you discover what works best for each party.

  • Expectation management: I’m freelance, and most of my income comes from my freelance work, so I expect my invoices to be paid in a timely manner. I expect my emails to be replied to in a timely manner - and I endeavour to do the same. I expect open, honest communication about the work we’re doing together, what’s working - and what’s not. I expect respect and trust for my expertise and skills, and perhaps most of all, I expect the work I do for you to be valued*.

Discussing expectations when things are just getting started is vital to ensure everyone is on the same page, knows how to engage with each other, and sets things off positively. Talking about what you expect your content to achieve is also essential in this regard. Some clients think after publishing a couple of blog posts, they'll be ranking in top place in Google search (wouldn’t that be nice) - SEO takes time. Balance your expectations.

  • Giving and receiving feedback: I’m upfront with how I want to receive feedback. If something isn’t working for a client, I absolutely need to know about it, and I want to ensure I can act on it.

As a writer, receiving vague feedback that lacks action or clarity, goes against something we discussed previously or is just outright negative/unnecessary is a huge turn-off. And trust me, I’ve ended working with clients because of their inability to change how they give feedback.

Chat about what feedback looks like from both ends and personal preferences around feedback (and then make sure you act on it - there is nothing more frustrating than being asked how you like to receive feedback and someone totally ignoring it).

*What do I mean by valued? I want to work with people who know how great content can elevate their business and are excited to work with me to make that happen. If your content isn’t a priority for you, it’s not a priority for me, and I'll suggest we part ways.

Working With a Ghostwriter: When it Doesn’t Work

“A good writer refuses to be socialised. He insists on his own version of things, his own consciousness. And by doing so, he draws the reader’s eye from its usual groove into a new way of seeing things.” - Bill Barich

Not everyone is for everyone: that’s true for friendship, romantic partnerships, work colleagues - and freelance-client relationships.

I’m (fairly) confident of my skills, experience and expertise in what I offer clients. I receive glowing testimonials regularly and have several clients who have come to me after being referred my way by another client. I say this not in an ego way, but an ‘if-we’re-not-a-match-it-won’t-cripple-my-professional-identity kinda way.

If my writing isn’t a fit for you, I know it will be a fit for someone else, so if you don’t feel like our working together is what you want, please be upfront about that and don’t waste my time. It’s an awful saying, but it’s especially true for freelancers - time is money.

I can’t reiterate this enough: I (and most freelancers) want to work with clients and organisations who love, value, and respect what we do. Life is too short for anything less.

If it’s not a love for my work, then it’s a no. Let’s all move on.

And now for the flip side of the coin, allow me to share a few reasons why it hasn’t worked for me from a writer's perspective in case this offers some insight:

  • Lack of respect: This goes back to my co-worker vs. subordinate comment. I don’t tolerate rude, overly critical/negative, or disrespectful comments or feedback - period.

  • Lack of value: As mentioned, if you don’t value what content can do for your business, why are we working together? One client asked me to just respin content they’d already written and made it clear they didn’t need me ‘working any magic’ (after a lengthy conversation where I’d completed an audit of their content offering and made several recommendations about how to liven things up). I am nothing if not a magic maker with words. If you don’t want that, let me spend my energy with those hungry for what I could help them achieve.

  • Lack of professional understanding: From replying to emails to paying invoices on time, getting back on edits - it all adds up. One or two misdemeanours are passable, but consistently behaving this way strains the working relationship.

  • Lack of professional ethics: Unfortunately, I’ve worked with a couple of clients who would regularly take others' ideas as their own without acknowledging the origins of the work. From a coach who claimed a lesser-known leadership framework as their idea and wanted me to write about it in such a way to their audience to another client who took resources from one professional's website and wanted me to rebrand them as their own - it’s a big no from me.

There are a few others, but these are the ones that have come up most often and led me to end a working relationship with a client.

Make it Positive

“Don’t ever diminish the power of words. Words move hearts, and hearts move limbs.” - Hamza Yusuf

That got a bit dark and heavy there for a moment. I’m actually super fun to work with - promise!

What I’m trying to sell with this piece is self-awareness. I’ve worked for big corporates, and that’s fun, but it’s nowhere near as fun as working with passionate individuals doing amazing work in their respective fields.

These working relationships get me out of bed in the morning, and it’s disheartening for me to go through the process described above when I’ve gotten my hopes up about a new potential client.

The bottom line is; words and writing get me excited. Learning about new people and their passions and helping them connect with their audiences through writing gets me excited.

Deciding to be a ghostwriter doesn’t mean I’m not a human with a genuine passion for my work.

While I may lurk nameless and faceless behind the curtain of a client’s business, working with me doesn’t have to be scary if you know your why and are keen to embrace the real value strong content can deliver.

Sound like you? Got to the end of this article feeling empowered? Need a wordsmith?

“My focus has always been on the work — that work being critical thinking and writing. I am always doing that. That’s where I am, wherever I am. Critical thinking and writing as my heartbeat.” - bell hooks


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