What is a ghostwriter?

This question pretty much tops the questions people have about ghostwriting, so let me give a very complete explanation, which I will break down into three parts.

  • Definition of ghostwriter/ghostwriting.
  • What a ghostwriter does – and doesn’t do.
  • Who needs a ghostwriter – and who does not (in what situations is a ghostwriter your best option?)

 Definition of ghostwriter

What is a ghostwriter?  Simply put, it is a writer who is not seen.  A writer who is not credited or acknowledged.  A writer who is invisible – like a ghost.  You read a book or an article and you never know who the real writer was, because it was ghostwritten.

You would be surprised at how much is ghostwritten.

Almost any autobiography of famous people is written by a ghostwriter. Think about it; it makes sense.  Somebody might be a great statesman, or a great scientist or a successful businessman.  But that does not mean he is a good writer and more than a good plumber or a good teacher.  For teaching, he sends his kids to school and lets a professional handle the job.  For plumbing, he calls a plumber to fix his leaky pipes – a professional who knows what he is doing.  For writing, he calls a professional ghostwriter.

Most speeches you hear have been ghostwritten.  Busy political and industrial leaders have neither the time nor skill to write their own speeches, so they hire speech writers.  For important addresses, very often they will edit and send back for several drafts; but most of the writing is done by a ghost.

What does a ghostwriter do?

A ghostwriter does the writing.  The ideas come from the “author” or the speaker – the client.  Done properly, the writer picks the words that best express how the client would write or speak if he had the time and ability to pick his own words.  This is not always easy and sometimes not completely possible.  But it is the ideal goal.

The ghostwriter does not make things up.  OK, sometimes a ghostwriter and/or PR department and/or political handlers do make a lot up.  When I worked for a politician, there was a fair amount of material that I wrote on my own initiative, guessing what my boss would have said.  But in such cases, the ghostwriter has a “regular” client and can make such guesses based on previous experience.

  • The ghostwriter might do research.
  • The ghostwriter does keep in the shadows.
  • The ghostwriter does not reveal her identity.
  • The ghostwriter does not take credit.
  • The ghostwriter does not (usually) get royalties.

When do you need a ghostwriter?

There are three factors that you need to factor in when deciding whether to hire a ghostwriter or to choose some other alternative (which you can probably guess without even looking at the list):

  • Skill
  • Time
  • Money

Skill is the biggest show-stopper.  If you can’t write well, you need to outsource, the same as you probably need to do with plumbing and teaching and growing wheat for your bread.

Skill is not a black and white factor.  It is pretty complex.  There are many people who simply can’t write.  I could show you reams of partially legible emails I receive. And there are many people who write quite well. And there are many people who write passably – they can communicate their ideas, but they do not inspire or pull the reader along.

But one’s skill at writing depends also on what one is writing.  I write good quality blog posts.  I write great how-to and self-help material, and I can write excellent humor.  But if I wanted to write a novel, I would outsource the project.  Yes, a writer hiring a ghostwriter.  I simply do not have the skills required to write convincing fiction.

And then there is speaking.  You might be surprised how many people have difficulty with highly personal speeches, such as for accepting an award of some sort or  best man or other wedding speeches.  They often call on a speech writer.

Time is also a big deal.  Many of our clients are hard-pressed business leaders who simply do not have the time to put all other things out of their heads and focus on writing their business book or autobiography.  Some have the skill, many do not, but none have the time.

Time is money, so if you don’t have the time to spend, it might even be less costly to spend the money.  Better to spend $12,000 in ghostwriting fees than $100,000 in lost time.

Speaking of money, ghostwriting does cost money.  Here is a list of some “typical” pricing.  In real life, plenty of high end ghostwriters charge more, and plenty of low end writers charge less.  But you have to be careful, because you will discover that at the bottom end the quality really suffers.  We try to keep our prices below average, at least to the extent that it does not sacrifice quality.

If you can’t afford the cost of writing your book, your screenplay, your letter or your speech, you might have to spend more time and write it yourself.  You might have enough money to hire a writer to edit your writing, which costs much, much less.

But a word of caution: if your writing skills are not fairly strong, your manuscript might not be good enough to edit.  You won’t save much money if the writer has to rewrite your material from scratch.  So, as I said above, skill is the show-stopper.

If you don’t have the money, you might be able to inspire some wealthy relations.  Maybe they will hire a ghostwriter for you.

 

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10 thoughts on “What is a ghostwriter?

  1. Well, being a ghostwriter may give you some $$ but writing for your own blog or website will give you a lot more than that.

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  2. Hi David,

    I work both as a freelance and ghost writer even though I am more of a Freelance writer. As long as they pay me well I don’t mind writing without my name on the piece. It can actually be fun to read the comments on blog posts, and know that it’s my work. This is still gratifying in my book.

    Thanks for this great post :)

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  3. How can it be enjoyable that you are writing posts written by you and some else is taking all the credits?

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  4. @Maddy, most people are ghosts. Some are ghostwriters. Some are ghost packagers. Some are ghost farmers. Everything you buy was ghosted by a ton of people. When you buy a box of cookies, the people who wrote the text on the package are not credited. The people who took the photos for the package are not credited. The people who laid out the packaging design are not credited. The people who came up with the packaging strategy are not credited. The people who an the printing press. The people who tooled the machinery that cut and folded and shaped the packaging. The people who baked the cookies. The farmers who grew the wheat. The sugar. The unpronounceable chemicals they inject into packaged foods. Nobody gets credit for their work. They are all ghosts. Including the ghostwriters.

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  5. Hey David,

    Thanks for such a great post. I am new to blogging and writing and I heard the term ghostwriting but I never stopped to think what does it mean. But your post did a good job in explaining it. I liked what you had to say that “Time is money, so if you don’t have the time to spend, it might even be less costly to spend the money”. You are right as time is the most expensive commodity nowadays in such a fast-paced and hectic life.

    Thanks again for such a value-packed post.

    Neamat

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  6. Yeah i think today its a trend bcz it is the quickest way to earn some bucks. .. . as we know most of all bloggers are very busy so they are hiring writers and mostly as ghost writer.

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  7. Can anyone tell me if a ‘ghostwriter’ holds any copyright protection in Australia?

    Eg: If my employee (a Publisher) tells me to ghostwrite an autobiography of someone famous, and I do that in close conjunction with the person, who actually owns the copyright to the published autobiography ? is it my employee, me, the famous person, or all 3 of us ?

    Cheers

    Phil

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    1. Hi Phil.

      First, let me say that this is NOT legal advice; you would need an attorney for that.

      International copyright conventions place ownership in the hands of the person who actually writes the words. That being said, if you do so as an employee, on the employer’s time, I am pretty sure you are acting legally as an agent for the employer. Therefore it would technically be the employer who wrote the words. As to who owns those words, that depends on the contract the employer has with the famous person. But in the absence of a contract, the employer would most likely be the owner.

      Once again, this is not legal advice, nor is it Australia-specific information.

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