Ghostwriting Rules of The Road
Ghostwriting Rules of The Road
After seven years of being a ghostwriter, I can say that is both the most rewarding and most demanding job that I’ve ever had. The rewards include a steady income doing something I love, setting my own schedule and work routine in a way that suits me and having opportunities to learn skills and knowledge that I’d have been unlikely to learn anywhere else. But none of this came overnight. It took years of internal discipline, experimentation and steady work to finally get to the level of where I am now. Comparisons to bodybuilding and weight loss programs are more than warranted.
While there is no shortage of advice about my profession online, one ultimately learns by doing. Hanging on my refrigerator, suspended by a magnet of Venice, is a list of rules about ghostwriting that have proven to be true for me. Every one of them are things I wish someone had told me when I first started out. They would have gone a long way towards my avoiding some of the more serious bumps on the road. Underlying each of these rules is a lesson, a principle, a practice that made my life easier as long as I kept it in mind.
Every day not spent working should be a day looking for work. Ghostwriting is like any other regular job in that you need to have an employer to work it. If you’ve got a client you’re working for, then by all means, focus on getting them taken care of first. But if your writing workload is empty or light enough to where adding on more work won’t be much of a hindrance, you need to go client hunting. It’s only by a steady stream of work that a reputation is built. I’ll have more to say about that in a moment.
If you have a day job, keep it. This one comes from brutal experience. I fell into ghostwriting simply because all my other options of employment had completely dried up. And no matter what anyone tells you, there are no virtues to be found in starvation or poverty. And your pay for your first few ghostwriting jobs will likely be piddling, gradually improving over time as you do more work.
That last part can’t be stressed enough. Even after a near decade of this work, I am just now coming into sight of the poverty. I have made more running a cash register at Wal-Mart. So, if you want to be able to follow some of the other rules on this list more easily, it’d be wise to hold onto your current job for now (if possible…no one can account for the sudden layoff). In the meanwhile, carve out the time you need to do your ghostwriting. And that thought actually dovetails with my next rule…
Budget your time wisely. I have come to the conclusion that it’s time, rather than money, that is the most precious resource on this planet. We all only have a limited amount of it before our lives end. And while you can always get more money, you never get more time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
So if you wish to commit to ghostwriting, any laxness you have with how you spend your days needs to end now. You need to determine the best circumstances under which you can write with your life as it currently stands: where in the house or elsewhere you can do it, the ideal timing for putting down your day’s work, what times and places to completely avoid doing it at all. Once you have that down cold, do your best to stick with this routine through thick and thin. Much like calorie counting or regular exercise, you likely won’t get there in one day. But you will have the desired results if you do it for enough days. What constitutes “enough” will vary from person to person, so please be patient with yourself.
At the same time, you also need to account for the other important things in your life: family, meals, sleep, bills and of course whatever day job you may still have. So as tempting as it may be to junk anything that isn’t part of your work, always figure out your writing schedule with all that in mind. The different areas of your life have their own particular rhythms. By figuring them out, you’ll be able to flow with them in the course of doing your work rather than stand against them.
Finally, I should mention that it’s far from a “one and done” deal when it comes to figuring out your writing schedule. In practice, this time budgeting is a constant balancing act that will require you to adjust to whatever life changes come along to upend your life (and they will…nothing stays the same forever). But getting a consistent schedule will eventually pay dividends in grateful clients, successful assignments and hopefully a very fruitful career.
Always go through a third party in the beginning. The fact is that the best places to go to look for this sort of work online is through third party sites like Guru and Upwork. The plus side of that is their global reach will give you a wide pool of possible clients (I’ve had employers from no less than five different countries). And the assignments that they post are equally varied, from blog posts to short stories to video game story prompts, just to cite a few examples. But there are also some downsides which can be a real pain. One of them is how these sites charge both employers and contractors with built-in fees. For instance, Upwork not only takes a percentage of your earnings (a percentage that goes down the more you’re paid by the same client) but now also charges for “credits” that allow you to apply for jobs on their site. While you do keep the majority of your pay, using these sites will mean less money for you than a steady paycheck.
However, it’s been my experience that feeling cheated is the wrong attitude to have towards this. Yes, these sites are making a profit off you and your clients. But they are also the honest broker who will make sure that everybody plays fair. Go outside of their systems and your clients will have no incentive to pay you (think the infamous Nigerian prince scam). Stay within the bounds of their sites and your payment, even with fees deducted, is guaranteed by escrow account, releasable to you upon turning in the work. Should the client try to cheat you in any way, the site can arbitrate the disputes on your behalf. So it’s best to think of third party fees as less as a rental payment and more of an insurance payment. It is in their continuing interest to ensure neither you nor your client gets robbed.
One final thing: their record-keeping of your earnings makes doing the year’s taxes much easier. As there is no FICA withdrawals for your pay, you’ll be responsible for paying out your share at the end of each fiscal year. However, if you’re lucky, the third party may issue you with a 1099-MISC that can help with keeping those expenses down.
Make sure what you are being paid is worth your time and effort. This is always a hard question for any independent contractor: what actually constitutes fair pay for the work you are going to put in? Again, that answer will vary from person to person. However, there are some things you should always account for when you decide on what you wish to be paid. How much time will all this take you? How much time is the client willing to give you? If there’s a firm deadline, how much effort will it take to meet it? What incidentals—research, study of similar works, rewrites, editing—will need to factor into your price as “expenses”?
The good news on this front is that, provided you’re using a third party site, these are matters you have to settle with the client before the job can even start. Once those terms are set, the client shall have to abide by them so long as you do your work. If a job looks like it’s going to pay too little for what you’ll be putting into it, never be afraid to say “no, sorry” and walk away. As long as you’re respectful, the client will be too. Nor should you fear never having a better opportunity to do a similar job later. For a pro ghostwriter, there’s always another job just around the corner.
Never work outside the third party’s system until the client has proven true. This goes back to something I’ve heard for pretty much my entire ghostwriting career. There are always some prospective clients who like talking up how you can earn more money by dealing with them directly. The usual line of logic goes “cut out the middleman, get all the money and we’ll be both happy.”
The moment you hear that line from a first-time or fairly new client is the moment you need to stop considering them as a possible employer. With very few exceptions, they are making promises they have either no intention or ability to keep. The end results are that they get your work and keep their money by cutting out the middleman who might have made you sure you got the latter. Such clients are worth losing.
As to the exceptions I mentioned, they will be more reasonable if they deem your work good enough . If you feel comfortable staying within the system that brought you together, they’ll abide by your wishes, their offer to work outside of it a standing one. If enough months or years of steady work have gone by, that offer will be worth entertaining. Just make sure you have a backup plan in the event that you misjudged them.
Look for jobs that have rewards beyond the monetary.
Consider taking work you would never have considered. I’ve grouped these two together because they are very much related. Ghostwriting covers a wide swath of work, both fiction and non. Anything with a narrative structure can conceivably fall under the ghostwriter umbrella at one point. I have written two visual novel video games, two series of cozy mysteries, a few paranormal romance novels, an entry in a longstanding softcore porn sci-fi series, and an overarching plot for an entire series of books with modern witches as the main characters.
I can assure you that none of these things I’d have written on my own. Yet, in each case, the work was interesting enough for me to want to try my hand at it. And some of them turned out to be genres and writing styles I genuinely enjoy working with to this day. So never be afraid to take a chance on an assignment that you’ve never done if it speaks to you. You might find that you have a knack for them. Also, if they are willing to give you credit for your work in any way—even if it’s just as “editor”—go for it. This can only help you build up your profile. And that leads us to…
Build up your resume with aboveground work where possible. Most of the time, it will never be your name on the finished work. You trade that right away in exchange for a one-time payment. And should you be foolish enough to use work you did under an NDA as a reference, you will have burned your bridge with the client you did it for. While some may make exceptions on this, most of them expect you to have better self-control.
So, whenever possible, write work of your own that you can show to prospective clients. Any assignments that allowed you to retain total credit (short story entries are the norm for me on this) should be put in the portfolio. Also, get your own stories and reviews published on a website if possible. This tells the client that you’re good enough to be worth reading.
Secure a reference or contact info from grateful clients. This is actually less of a hassle than you might realize. Third party sites have ranking systems for both clients and contractors when a job is concluded. There, both of you can score each other on a variety of areas and can write up your own comments and thoughts about them. This, in turn, feeds into your scoring on the site, which raises your profile enough to make clients seek you out. I’ve lost count of how many such prospective clients have come to me in the last year alone that way. One even came back to me after the initial rejection just to see if I was finally not busy enough to work with them! Point is that there is no greater reference than a grateful client.
Know when it’s time to rest.
Get enough to eat.
Be on the lookout for burnout. Fact: the body can only go so long before it needs to shift into idle mode. Given the heavy mental demands of writing of any kind, this is doubly so. As such, there will be days when you feel like you’re less than your best, where you might dread the thought of sitting at your keyboard. Show up anyway and see if you can get any work done. Once you get going, you may surprise yourself.
However, you will also have those days when you realize that you’ve pushed yourself too hard or that you didn’t sleep well the night before or that this other thing needs to be dealt with before you can write. Those are the days you need to rest. Just listen to your body—that is, your body rather than your ego or fears—and it will tell you what it needs. You may need to rest more than you want to, which is okay. Unless there’s a pressing deadline, you can usually take the time. Just keep showing up on your schedule and making the attempt. You’ll know when you’ve finally cleared the rest hurdle if you keep doing that.
Find a daily minimum word count. Improve upon it if it gets too easy. As I hope the preceding has made plain, the key to long-term success in ghostwriting is discipline. A good many assignments will take a great deal of time to write out, weeks or months being the norm.
Therefore, it is useful to have a daily minimum word count that you must try your best to hit. I myself have a minimum word count of 2,000 words I strive for each working day. At the end of a week, that can total up to 12,000 words, provided I work six days of the week. Given that the average novel tallies between 60,000 to 80,000 words, that’s a good steady pace to finish most of your assignments on time with clients.
Still, be gentle with yourself on the word count, especially in the beginning. Think of it as more of a guideline than an iron rule, an ideal to strive for much like how many pounds you wish to weigh. However close you get to it is a small victory for you, regardless if it’s a little light. In time, you’ll might find yourself exceeding this word count, sometimes by a large margin. If you feel the word count has gotten too easy, adjust it upwards to a new number.
Work on outside projects when you feel secure enough financially and mentally. This one is strictly optional and down to personal preference. You might find yourself quite content to be a ghostwriter once you’ve done it for enough time. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts that go into doing your own projects that go well beyond just writing. You’re guaranteed to bypass all those messy details by letting your clients worry about them as you focus getting the words done.
However, it has been my experience that sooner or later, most ghostwriters wants something that they can publicly call their own. And while these projects are worth pursuing, you need to apply the same time budgeting principles that you do to the other areas of your life. You will likely not only be doing this work but your ghostwriting and regular life duties on top of that. That might be far too daunting for you mentally or maybe what you have to earn money takes precedence over your dreams for the moment.
Still, when the stars seem right and you have enough mental and financial fortitude to proceed, I say go for it. You might have your own personal success as a result that outdoes anything you did before. And you may look back on your ghostwriting as an paid internship where you learned the skills to make that dream happen.
Some of these principles will likely work for you better than others. We are, after all, only human and our different temperaments require different rules. Still, I encourage you to at least try each of these out and see if your work gets easier as a result. Hopefully, all this advice that I’d wished I’d gotten myself will put you on the path to ghostwriting success. Happy writing!