What is a Ghostwriter? A Peek Behind the Literary Veil

Abi Wurdeman
April 23, 2024

Welcome to ghostwriting, one of the most misunderstood and controversial jobs in the world of publishing.

Let’s clear up some common misconceptions before we dive in:

Ghostwriting has nothing to do with ghost stories (unless your client wants it to). It’s not plagiarism (or rather, if it’s plagiarism, it’s not ghostwriting). And it’s way more common than people realize.

When you take a job as a ghostwriter, you agree to write something on someone else’s behalf and let them take all the credit.

Why would a writer do that? And why would someone hire that type of service?

Those are the questions we’ll be exploring in this article. As you’re about to learn, there are many benefits to working as a ghostwriter, as well as a few undeniable downsides.

We’ll also talk through the ethical dilemmas that can arise in this line of work and you’ll leave with some tips for starting and succeeding in your own ghostwriting business.

So grab your chains and let’s get to rattlin’.

What Does a Ghostwriter Do?

A writer types on a vintage typewriter at a desk in a dark room.

A ghostwriter is a professional writer who applies their own writing skills to turn someone else’s ideas into a written work. 

There are a number of ways this collaboration could play out. The ghostwriter might work from their client’s notes, interview the client, or even revamp the client’s initial attempt at writing the project on their own.

Whatever the process looks like, the outcome remains the same:

The client is credited as the author and the ghostwriter is not. In some cases, the ghostwriter even signs a contract stating that they’ll keep their involvement in the project confidential.

Isn’t That Unfair?

I have inadvertently horrified many friends and killed the vibe at dinner just by explaining what I meant by “I’m working on a new ghostwriting job.” 

They’re upset at the thought of someone else taking credit for my work, and they’re even more upset when they realize their celebrity role model might not have written their own autobiography.

I get it. I do. It feels like deceit. Honestly, there are situations where even I would argue that it is (which is why I don’t take those jobs).

The entire topic of ghostwriting is complicated, which is why my rambling justifications to my friends often leave them unsatisfied. It’s also why I’m going to let the rest of this article answer the question of fairness for me. We’ll cover all the whys, hows, and why-nots so you can draw your own conclusions.

After all, what matters is what you think, especially if you’re considering getting into this field yourself. 

The Responsibilities of a Ghostwriter

A round table covered in a mess of notebooks, loose pages, stacked books with post-its sticking out of them, a bowl of pecans, an orange, a water glass,  coffee cup, and a bunch of pens.
Ghostwriting kind of looks like this sometimes.

As a ghostwriter, you take someone else’s source material and apply your own creative know-how to shape it into the finished product. 

This often begins with a meeting in which the client clarifies their vision. They might have a specific idea of what they want, including a chapter-by-chapter outline. Or you may need to guide the planning process a bit.

Either way, unless your client is also a writer or publisher, this person is counting on you to be the expert on the written word. Don’t hesitate to weigh in if you have any concerns about the way they want to present their ideas in the finished product.

The two of you will work out a timeline, including deadlines for the planning, writing, and revision process. Then you’ll get to work. 

Ultimately, your job is to fulfill the client’s vision, writing in their voice and style. You’re the expert on effective structure, pacing, and prose. The client is (supposed to be) the expert on content.

What a Ghostwriter Doesn’t Do

One gray hand reaches out, palm open, while another gray hand makes a "stop" gesture at it. Between the hands is the word "NO!"

It’s hard to nail down the boundaries of a ghostwriting gig, because individual writers set their own guidelines. Context can also dictate the parameters of a ghostwriter’s job. 

For example, writers who contribute to a ghostwritten series like Nancy Drew are often responsible for coming up with their own stories.

For nonfiction, however, the concept, content, and related research are usually the client’s job. The client should also be able to provide details about their target audience and market to guide the writer’s approach. 

Of course, there may be moments during the writing process when you need to do a little of your own research to make up for knowledge gaps. I’ve ghostwritten a few nonfiction books on topics that fall outside my personal experience, and each time, I’ve had to read similar works to make sure I’m using the right terminology the right way, including insider lingo.

As a ghostwriter, you might be asked to write a query letter or book proposal. But it’s not your job to publish or promote the finished product. If you’re good at those things and want to offer it as an additional service, go for it. Just know that it’s not an assumed responsibility in the ghostwriter package.

Finally—and I cannot stress this enough—it’s not a ghostwriter’s job to “write a bestseller.” Many factors determine the success of a book, including things that are out of your control, like marketing and the value of the content. 

Don’t work with anyone who wants to hold you accountable for the performance of their creative vision.

What Ghostwriters Write

Colorful books on black bookshelves.

Most people think of ghostwriting in the context of celebrity memoirs. The fact is, you can ghostwrite just about anything, including:

  • Novels
  • Short stories
  • Memoirs
  • Essays
  • Self-help books
  • Travel guides
  • Emails
  • Blog posts 
  • Songs
  • Social media posts

If you write it and someone else puts their name on it, it’s ghostwriting.

If no one puts their name on it, that’s different. Ad copy, uncredited blog content, unsigned newsletters… all these fall under the headings of copywriting or content writing.

Ghostwriting vs. Co-authoring

Two people sit and have a conversation in front of an open laptop.

So what about co-authoring? How is that different from ghostwriting?

The simplest answer is that a co-author gets credit. For example, James Patterson has famously worked with tons of co-authors. He comes up with the story and provides a highly detailed outline, his co-author writes it, and both names appear on the cover.

The term co-author can also refer to a writer who collaborates with one or more fellow writers throughout the entire writing process, from planning to writing to revising.

And you may have seen autobiographies or memoirs credited as: “by [the person this book is about] with/as told to [professional writer].” That means the second person fulfilled a ghostwriter-esque role for the first person, but they still got credit. 

That technically makes them a co-author, though you will hear people refer to them as a ghostwriter. 

Why Do People Hire Ghostwriters?

Two professionally dressed people shake hands in a modern office.

So who are these people seeking ghostwriting services? Why can’t they write their own book or blog? And why do they have to take all the credit?

The answers vary from client to client, but here are a few of the most common:

They Don’t Have the Writing Skills

Literary inspiration strikes where it strikes. It doesn’t care if the strikee is a skilled writer or not. And sometimes a non-writer gets so excited about the idea in their brain, they’re determined to make it a reality.

It might be an epic fantasy novel, a memoir, or a personal finance blog. Whatever it is, they know they’ll have to hire a ghostwriter to do it justice.

They Don’t Have Enough Time

Many ghostwriting clients hire writers because they want written materials to support their brand. 

Maybe they want newsletters that feel more personal than a marketing blast. Or regular blog posts to keep their website at the top of the search results. Or business books that give them credibility in their field.

The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to embark on a major writing project while also building a business empire. You and I both know how time-consuming writing is. So they outsource it. 

They’re Not Proficient in the Language of the Market

This is an under-discussed reason, but it’s come up for me a few times. I’ve had multiple clients who had a great story to tell or guidance to offer, but they wanted to write for an American market and English wasn’t their first language. They were comfortable sharing their vision with me in conversation, but writing English to a professional literary standard was another matter.

For one client in particular, working with a ghostwriter was a way to stay competitive in his field. He ran a nationwide franchise, mentored other entrepreneurs, and was a public speaker. To stay visible as an emerging thought leader, he needed books and articles in his name.

They Want to Push Out More Books… Fast

Sometimes an author or publisher will hire ghostwriters to capitalize on the success of a series or name.

For example, Ann M. Martin wrote the first several dozen Babysitters Club books, but not all 130+ of them. Eventually, ghostwriters were hired to contribute to the popular series. 

In situations like these, authors and publishers choose to release books under the name or pseudonym of the original creator because that name is essential to the brand. It signals to readers that this book is just like all the other books they’ve loved from the author. 

In fact, that’s why many ghostwriting clients opt to keep the credit for themselves. Celebrities and experts want to make it clear to readers that these are their ideas, their stories. Entrepreneurs want to make sure their audience knows their name and recognizes them as an authority in their field.

If someone else’s name is on the book, readers won’t necessarily assume that the ghostwriting client is the mastermind behind the content.

Why Would You Want to Be a Ghostwriter?

A person sits beside a cat and writes in a notebook while smiling at a computer screen.

Even if someone else comes up with the content, writing is still a big undertaking, especially if you’re ghostwriting a book. 

It’s a task that requires tremendous skill, an understanding of the market, and an ability to adapt your voice to sound like a whole other person. You’ll spend hours upon hours outlining, drafting, and revising, all the while checking in with your client to make sure you’re on the same page.

When so much of your own labor and talents go into this project, why would you be okay with letting someone else take credit? Why not just write your own stuff or stick with freelance writing gigs that actually give you a byline?

Let’s talk about that.

The Pay is Often Better

Most freelance writers charge a higher rate for ghostwriting services. That’s what you get in return for no credit. You can even negotiate your rate based on the level of invisibility your client wants from you. Are we talking Casper here? Or the ghosts from Paranormal Activity?

For example, even if you don’t get credit on the cover, can you put it on your resume? Tell prospective clients about it? Mention that you “consulted” on the book, blog, or whatever it is? Will your ghostwriting client give you a testimonial you can share?

Or is it a “pretend it never happened” situation?

If you can’t use this project to build credibility with future clients, make sure the rate you charge makes it worth it.

You Have More Control Over Your Own Brand

As someone who’s done a lot of ghost blogging, I can confirm that there’s an upside to not having your name splattered across a ton of web content that 1) you have no control over and 2) cover topics that might confuse your own author brand.

When someone Googles my name, the vast majority of the search results will be my own blog and projects, plus a bunch of Dabble articles like this one that align with the type of work I want people to associate me with.

I’ll also admit that I’ve stumbled across content I wrote fifteen years ago that no longer represents my best work. Can’t fix it now. It doesn’t belong to me. It’s just out there.

Of course, for freelance writers who want to establish themselves as expert content writers in a certain niche, that byline is important. It shows you’re experienced and tells people where to find you if they want a blog post like that.

I’m just saying that anonymity has its perks, too.

You Learn Cool Stuff

A person studies at a narrow wooden table.

As a ghostwriter, your job is to make the client sound good. In order to that, you have to actually understand the thing they’ve got you writing about, whether it’s minor league baseball, their life story, or how this book fits into a larger middle grade mystery series.

Even if you’re already familiar with the topic at hand, you’ll likely learn a lot more. This can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. Plus, that new understanding can help you carve out a niche in the ghostwriting world. 

If you happen to land a gig where you’re ghosting for a more accomplished author, that’s a huge learning opportunity. You’ll get an inside look at what it takes to create a bestselling series and build a powerful author brand.

No matter what kind of ghostwriting job you pick up, all this writing is going to sharpen your skills. You’ll get faster, your prose will get smoother, and you’ll become more confident as a freelance writer. 

It Can Be Surprisingly Fulfilling

The reason people cringe so much at the idea of ghostwriting is because they see it as someone taking credit for someone else’s work.

As a ghostwriter myself, it feels less like that and more like I’m unlocking the gate that’s keeping a person who has something valuable to say away from the microphone.

It’s deeply satisfying to see how excited a client gets when I manage to put what they’ve been trying to say into clear terms. It’s even more fun when I meet them for coffee after my job is done and they giddily hand me a proof of their book—their ideas, mined from their own soul and experience, out there for a world full of strangers to learn from and connect with.

Of course, it helps that I only work with clients I like and whose messages I feel good about putting into the world. But we’ll get into those types of decisions in a bit. 

First, let’s talk downsides.

What are the Downsides?

A person in a red shirt frowns.

We’ve touched on most of these already, so I’ll be brief. Here are a few of the disadvantages to offering a ghostwriting service:

Limited resume and portfolio - Depending on your agreement with ghostwriting clients, you may not be able to tell anyone you ghosted for them. That makes it tricky to promote yourself and land more ghostwriting work.

This is less of a concern, however, if you get in good with a publisher or agency and pick up jobs through them.

The topic might be boring to you - Okay, so this is true for any freelance writing gig. But if you’re ghostwriting an entire book or maintaining someone else’s blog, you’re in it for the long haul.  

The occasional ethical dilemma - You’re essentially agreeing to be the voice of somebody else. A situation like that is bound to come with the occasional moral quandary. 

In fact, the field of ghostwriting presents enough potential ethical dilemmas that we should probably talk through a few of them.

Ethical Considerations

Close-up of a stressed person in a striped shirt talking on the phone.

Even if you’ve decided you don’t have a problem with someone putting their name on something you wrote, you may run into situations that make you feel uncomfortable about the whole setup.

Unfortunately, I can’t promise to help you identify a potential dilemma before you sign the contract. What I can do is encourage you to ask yourself a few questions before committing to a specific project.

Questions like…

How Personal Will This Get and Are You Comfortable With That?

Most ghostwriting gigs don’t get that personal. You’re either sharing expertise or operating entirely within the world of fiction.

But if you’ve been hired to write something that delves into the client’s private life, like a memoir, try to get a sense of the specific topics you’ll be covering.

Will you be writing about a traumatic experience? Does the client envision this as a shocking tell-all novel or confessional blog? Is there anyone you’ll be interviewing in addition to the client—anyone who might be sharing their own deeply personal information?

I suggest trying to get the lay of the land upfront for a few reasons.

First, it’s important that you, as the ghostwriter, are able to respect your client’s privacy and reserve judgment while collaborating. If you can’t, that’s totally fine. This just isn’t the job for you.

Second, remember that you’re going to have to exist in the world of this project for a while, especially if it’s a book. If that means being confronted with a lot of very raw stories connected to a topic that’s triggering for you, factor in your mental health before you sign the contract.

Are You Being Asked to Come Up With the Content?

Let’s set aside fiction ghostwriting for a minute, because that’s a different animal. You might be expected to pitch your own story if you ghostwrite for a popular series. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

The issue is when a nonfiction client wants you to come up with their “morning routine for winners” or do all the research for the Jane Goodall biography and then put their name on the finished product.

When you do all the planning and writing plus the ideation and research… well, you’re not ghostwriting anymore. You’re just writing. And your client? They’re not an author. 

See, there’s one thing I immediately clarify when someone gets upset that someone else takes the writing credit when I did all the work.

I didn’t do all the work. My clients bring me their years of insight and expertise, packaged up in notes, videos, voice recordings, and outlines they agonized over after their kids and spouse went to bed. They make time for me to interview them, review the sections I send them, and work with me to make sure their message gets across.

Now, let’s say your client wants you to just write them a book that makes them look good with zero involvement from them. There’s a potential ethical issue here aside from that icky feeling in your gut.

If the client is using the book to present themselves as an expert in a specific area but it’s not written from their expertise, it’s misleading at best, fraudulent at worst. You especially want to be wary of a setup like this if they plan to use the book to win credibility with buyers.

Are You Being Asked to Make Stuff Up?

The words "SCAM ALERT" written in white chalk against a black background.

Again, we’re in the realm of nonfiction here. And if you’re familiar with the art of creative nonfiction, you know “truth” can be a tricky topic. In memoirs and personal essays, for example, there’s some leeway for embellishment or writing dialogue without recalling exactly what was said. There are limits, of course, and you can learn more about that in this article.

But if you’re asked to fabricate events that are flat-out untrue or you’re expected to make things up yourself just to fill in the gaps, I’d call that a red flag, ethically speaking. 

It happens more than you’d think, especially in an age when stars are expected to constantly churn out more content. A surprising amount of influencer content is generated by ghostwriters who don’t even have access to the person they’re writing for.

Are You Comfortable Putting This Project Into the World?

Sometimes, as ghostwriters, we run into a project that conflicts with our personal values. It might be that you’re uncomfortable with the messaging. Or maybe you’re uncomfortable with the execution. Maybe you’d rather not contribute to the client’s public image.

Whatever the reason, feel free to skip the job. I’ve yet to hear of a ghostwriter who wishes they took a job that required compromising their values, but I’ve heard of several who accepted the gig and left with regrets.

You can respect a person’s right to tell whatever story they’d like to tell however they want to tell it. But that doesn’t mean you have to be part of the process.

Is It a College Application Essay?

That’s not ghostwriting. It’s plagiarism and it gives students who can pay for it an unfair advantage. Don’t do it.

Famous Ghostwriters

A beautiful library with ornate ceilings and a grand staircase.

How’s that for an oxymoron?

But there are, in fact, several famous ghostwriters. Or at least famous within the publishing world. We’re going to take a quick look at three of them, each representing a different aspect of this particular writing career.

Catherine Whitney - Whitney is a prolific ghostwriter with over 50 co-written and ghostwritten books under her belt. She’s worked with several famous clients, including Lee Iacocca and Judge Judy.

Dalton Trumbo - Trumbo made his career as a screenwriter working under his own name until he was blacklisted from the industry due to his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during their anti-communist investigations in 1947.

To make ends meet, he wrote absolute buckets of screenplays and sold them for cheap, hiding his true identity and allowing another writer to take credit. In fact, his screenplay for Roman Holiday won Best Story at the Oscars but was awarded to the writer who fronted for him.

So it’s not a feel-good story about a guy and his ghostwriting business, but it does illustrate the complicated and varied history of writers who let someone else take the credit.  

Carolyne Keene - Carolyne Keene isn’t actually the ghostwriter here. She’s the pen name used by Mildred Wirt Benson, the original author of the Nancy Drew series. A rather long list of ghostwriters have continued Benson’s work, all operating under the name of Carolyne Keene. 

How to Become a Ghostwriter

Two people sit on either side of a wooden table having a conversation with a laptop between them.

So how does one get into the ghostwriting business?

I’ll admit that I Googled that question several times myself over the years and still managed to stumble backward into ghostwriting. I suspect that’s true for a lot of us, which is why there aren’t a lot of clear-cut step-by-step guides out there.

Even so, I can offer a few suggestions.

One is to build your network… in all directions. Befriend fellow ghostwriters who can introduce you to new opportunities and send work your way when they can’t take it on themselves. Attend conferences and events where you’ll have a chance to meet publishers who might hire ghostwriters from time to time.

It’s even worth it to let your friends, family, and social media networks know that you offer ghostwriting services. 

You can find opportunities on job boards or check with ghostwriting agencies to see if they could use another freelance writer on their roster. And if you’re feeling bold, reach out to a professional who works in a field you know well and ask if they’d be interested in boosting their visibility with a book.

Also be aware that other freelance writing jobs can be a stepping stone into ghostwriting. When you write content for a client and manage to capture the spirit and voice of their brand, they notice. And they’ll likely go to you first when it’s time to hire a ghostwriter.

Or, better yet, they’ll take you up on your offer when you go to them with a proposal for boosting their brand with blog posts or a book. 

Tips for Aspiring Ghostwriters

Four kids stand in a row wearing sheets like ghosts and sunglasses.

Once you’ve landed your first client, you’ve got to follow through with a job well done. So how do you do that? What does it take to be a successful ghostwriter?

Here are some quick tips:

Get to Know the Client’s Voice

The ability to capture the client’s voice is one of the most powerful skills you can acquire as a freelance writer. 

Ask to record any meeting or interview you have with the client regarding a nonfiction project. This will ensure you don’t miss anything, of course, but it also gives you an opportunity to study their speech patterns, colloquialisms, cadence… everything that makes their voice uniquely their own.

If you’re writing fiction, read as much of the original author’s work as you can. Note their writing style, including the way they tackle sentence structure, pacing, and dialogue. Pay attention to the lengths of their scenes and chapters. Read so much that you can conjure their voice in your head.

If you can authentically replicate your client’s communication style, you’ll be irreplaceable.

Understand Why The Project Matters to Your Client

It’s important to understand what your client is trying to say. But if you really want to impress them, work to understand why they want to say it.

Let’s say your client wants to start a financial advice blog for college students. Why is that their mission?

Did they grow up in a home where no one discussed money and they made horrible financial choices in early adulthood due to ignorance? Do they dream of a world where everyone reaches financial independence by age 45?

When you understand the soul within your client’s project, you can infuse that spirit into every chapter. Not only will that help the book resonate more deeply with readers, it will also show your client that you understand what they’re all about.

Lay Out the Blueprint and Timeline Clearly

Communication is crucial, especially if you’ve never worked with this client before. 

Any time you meet with them regarding the project, let them know what you’re going to do next. For example, “I’ll go over these notes and create a proposed outline. It’ll be ready for you to review by next Tuesday.”

Then make sure you do exactly what you say you’re going to do.

Odds are good that your client is very busy. That might even be why they hired you. They’re already balancing multiple projects and deadlines. It’s a huge relief to know they can count on you to communicate clearly and stick to a schedule.

It’s also a good way to become their go-to freelance writer… and a well-paid one at that.

Ask Questions

If you’re not sure what something in your client’s notes means, ask. If you’re wondering whether they’re hoping to launch the blog by a specific date, ask. If you got a brilliant idea for a bonus chapter but aren’t sure if the client will dig it, ask.

There are some things you can figure out yourself. Google terms you’re not familiar with. Go ahead and put in that joke you came up with; if they don’t like it, they’ll tell you in the revision process.

But anytime you’re unclear about something that relates to expectations or big picture ideas, ask. While your client probably doesn’t want to hear from you seven times a day, they’ll appreciate an occasional email asking for crucial clarification.

It’s going to save both of you time in the long run and demonstrates that you’re at your desk, working hard to get it right.

Pro Tip: Dabble’s co-authoring feature allows you to collaborate with a client in real-time. They’ll have immediate access to your planning tools and draft, as well as the ability to communicate with you through comments and sticky notes. If you’re not a Dabbler already, you can try it for free for 14 days (no credit card required!) by clicking this link.

The Best Thing You Can Do for Your Ghostwriting Career

A little ghost decoration on an orange straw.

Before I set you loose to track down new clients and (*cough*) haunt the job boards, I’ll offer one last piece of advice.

Are you ready? This is going to be obnoxiously stupid, but it’s very important.

Get really good at writing.

To succeed as a ghostwriter, you’ve got to know your craft inside and out. Not just because you have to write well but also because someone else is counting on you to be an expert.

I can just about guarantee your client will have questions about the publishing process. They might ask for your advice on plot structure or character development. They’ll want to know how they can make their home organization blog posts more emotionally resonant. 

Or, if they’re a writer or publisher who already knows all these things, they’ll expect you to keep pace with them.

So keep practicing your craft and learning about the business. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend DabbleU. We’ve got hundreds of free articles covering everything from mastering character archetypes to selling ebooks.

I also recommend subscribing to the Dabble newsletter. It’s a spam-free situation, and you’ll get new articles and tips sent to your inbox every week.

That’s my last big tip. Now I’ll let you get to work. 

I understand you’ve got unfinished business.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.