If you tell somebody you’re a writer be prepared for a smile and nod: they also have a hobby, and you’re about to hear all about it.
Tell somebody that you’re a ghostwriter on the other hand, and you’ll be met with raised eyebrows: there’s a certain mystique to the territory; a kind of allure that comes with the cloak-and-dagger secrecy of pretending to be other people for a living.
But what does a ghostwriter really do? And is the life of a ghostwriter all it’s cracked up to be? The Moon Unit pulls back the veil on the mysterious lives of ghostwriters to answer these questions and more...
An Imitation Game
"They don’t just write for you or about you, they put on a mask and write as if they were you; they impersonate you."
A writer, a freelance writer, and a ghostwriter walk into a bar. She orders a beer.
Jokes aside, what’s the real difference? To put it very simply: a writer writes, a freelance writer writes for somebody else, and a ghostwriter writes as somebody else. Of course distinctions blur and roles overlap, but that’s the general idea.
The obvious benefit of hiring a ghostwriter over a freelancer is that they do the work and you take the credit. And that’s generally the case - think autobiographies or politician’s speeches. But delve into the world of professional ghostwriting and you’ll find the reality is a little more nuanced.
The major reason why you would hire a ghostwriter (and why they are often so highly valued) because they have the special ability to sound exactly like you. They don’t just write for you or about you, they put on a mask and write as if they were you; they impersonate you. Think of it as linguistic ventriloquism.
Doing this well is what separates the marines from the cub scouts. A ghostwriter can be used as a stenographer or for embellishment, sure, but to put a professional ghostwriter to work like that is like hiring a digger to build a sandcastle. It’s wasted resources.
The ghostwriter's most powerful tool is commonality: the ability to empathise, understand, and discourse freely with all types of people. You can’t get in somebody’s head without the ability to match their energy, and the best way to do that is to establish commonality. This allows lets your subject feel entirely comfortable in opening up to you, and allows you to see them as their pure, unmediated self - who they really are.
The mimetic ability of a ghostwriter will vary based on how good they are at establishing commonality, but also on their experience, the type of job they’re given, and the amount of time they’ve been given to research and prepare. Vet them right and you’ll have a juggernaut of writing power at your disposal. Just make sure you put in the effort.
Just as there are different disciplines of ghostwriter - some focus solely on books, some on web content, others like to have a variety of outlets - there are also different levels of anonymity. A ‘first-level’ ghostwriter is one whom is known to their client by their real identity; a ‘second level’ ghostwriter is one whom chooses to continue to be anonymous, even to their clients.
There are pros and cons to both ‘levels’ of anonymity and ultimately it’s down to personal preference. Some like to forge trust with their client by disclosing their identity. Others see their real identity as getting in the way of their work. A certain ‘second level’ ghostwriter once told me that he took a kind of mischievous pleasure in walking past clients that he'd nailed six, sometimes seven-figure jobs for, and they had no idea who he was.
The Ego-Death of the Author
"The mark of a well practiced ghostwriter is, much like a ghost, nothing."
Living life behind a series of masks means, for better or worse, an impact to one’s ego.
There’s a bit of ghostwriter folklore about a guy named Paul. Paul was one of the most successful ghostwriters in the UK. One day, years of anonymous success finally came to a head when he walked into a local bookstore to find that the store’s ‘Top 5 Picks’ were all written by him. He snapped and started throwing books around the shop. As the tale goes, he was still yelling “I wrote these!” as he was escorted out of the store by security.
My point is that writers in general - and I say this in full self-awareness - are a proud bunch. They like recognition. They like to compare themselves to, and measure their success against others.
Part of it is because writing is essentially an individual activity, and therefore promotes an ‘every man for himself’ kind of attitude. There is an ‘I’ in writer. And at the end of the day, most writers want their names emblazoned in gold along the spines of the bestseller shelf and stamped into various plaques and trophies so they can say they’ve Made It.
However not every writer shares these values. Some are born to tell stories. Some see writing as art for art’s sake. Others yet see it as just a means to an end.
Enter the ghostwriter. Here’s a true anomaly of the literary world: a gun for hire; a masked mercenary and master of rhetoric.
The best ghostwriters are able to completely set aside their personal convictions and judgements, and in what could be considered an act of pure empathy, become the person that they are working for. Much like a novelist assumes the viewpoint of their characters, the ghostwriter’s core skill is emulating the thought and speech patterns of their subject convincingly. The mark of a well practiced ghostwriter is, much like a ghost, nothing.
This is exactly what somebody whom employs a ghostwriter is looking for. Why? Well, half of the answer is obvious: they want good quality work that they, for any number of reasons, can’t achieve themselves. There may be time constraints or a lack of writing ability, expertise, even confidence.
And then there’s the other half. From rappers to politicians, from theses to cookbooks, there is an undeniable public stigma against those who use ghostwriters. People see it to be cheating, and for a public figure getting caught employing a ghostwriter is often tantamount to scandal - take the controversy over the use of ghostwriters by both popular vlogger Zoella or the rapper Drake as examples.
Cases like these put the livelihoods of those in the ghostwriting business in hot water. And yet everybody uses them. You’d be shocked at how much internet content you’ve read recently was not written by the person credited for it.
A Question of Values
“A ghostwriter will, at some point in their career, have to make the decision to either leave their morals at the figurative door or turn away work.”
There’s an ethical conundrum that all ghostwriters will inevitably face: having to choose between doing a job that conflicts with one’s personal values or turning it down. It’s not because ghostwriting is in itself unethical, it’s because the ghostwriter needs to adopt the values and opinions of whom they’re writing for (or as) as their own. It might seem like an easy choice - why do work that doesn’t align with your morals? - but as anyone who has spent time as a freelancer will tell you, sometimes you just need to take whatever lands on your plate.
In such a scenario you’d think that one of the perks of ghostwriting is the ability to distance yourself from your work. You’d be wrong. Take, for instance, the story of the ghostwriter of Donald Trump’s autobiography, Tony Schwartz. He finds himself strapped for cash with a child on the way, and during with interview Trump for Playboy he’s asked if he wants to pen Trump’s autobiography. He accepted - and he’s spent the last 30 years regretting it.
The reality is that cases like this aren’t only reserved for books about Triple-A celebrities. Under my pseudonym I’ve done jobs promoting fizzy drink labels and gas-guzzling cars that I’m not proud of, and even if my real name isn’t on it the final product I still feel implicated in giving something that doesn’t align with my values more exposure. At the end of the day though, if you’re not going to do it, somebody else will - that’s the only real certainty in the job description.
Finally, what does it take to be a successful ghostwriter? Writing ability of course, and more importantly, a good ear. A knack for creating commonality. Pride in your work, but not so much that your voice overpowers that of your subject. Good time management, stylistic flexibility, and the contentment that the only real arbiter of your success will be yourself; that you won’t have fancy awards given to you or illustrious guilds seeking to add your name to their ranks, no, you’ll just have to be happy to take your own word for it... But that’ll be ok, because other people usually pay you for that.