How to Work With a Ghostwriter

I’ve been a ghostwriter for over 10 years, working on blog articles and even books with people who have a story to tell. I’ve worked with dozens of clients and have written over 3,500 articles in that time, as well as eight books, including my new novel, Mackinac Island Nation.

My clients have ranged from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to entrepreneurs running one-person operations, both in the United States and overseas, in a staggering variety of industries. I’ve been able to learn from all of them, and — I hope — they’ve been able to learn from me.

For those of you who are thinking about working with a ghostwriter, whether it’s for corporate blog articles or even your own memoirs, there are a few things you need to realize before you start.

It’s going to cost money.

A photo of hands over an old Compaq keyboard, like a ghostwriter.

You can tell this is an old photo (from 2004) just by the Compaq logo in the bottom corner.

Writers need to eat. We have to pay our mortgages. We have to take care of our families. We don’t write for the promise of royalties or the exposure. This is not a hobby, this is our job. And just like any skilled position, the better the writer is, the more it’s going to cost. Things will get done faster and they’ll be done better than if you go with the less expensive option.

So while many people who want to write a book have a fascinating story to tell, a good writer is not going to want to spend 3 – 6 months working on your book in the hopes that they’ll get something from your efforts. It’s impolite to even ask, so if this is your plan for paying them, either save up your money or start writing it yourself.

Typically, a ghostwriter will ask for half up front and half at the end, but my practice has been to ask for half of the fee up front, one-fourth when we reach the halfway mark, and the remaining fourth when the final chapter is delivered and/or the manuscript has gone through one or two rounds of edits. For corporate ghost blogging clients, I typically work on a retainer basis where there will be a set number of articles written each month, and the client is invoiced on the 1st.

Be prepared for some give and take.

This is a collaborative process, and the manuscript will be evolving and changing. When the ghostwriter gives you the first draft, that’s so you can make the big changes, like rearranging sections, clarifying details, and rewriting problem sentences. This isn’t the finished product, so don’t get upset that your writer just handed you a pile of garbage. Your job now is to go back and read it and make sure everything is correct and you’re satisfied with the direction this is going.

That first stage is also not the time for fixing typos and punctuation or spelling errors. That will come later. Like I tell my clients, there’s no point in polishing a turd, let’s make it a not-turd first. Make all the major revisions and changes before you start fixing the tiny errors.

Similarly, you will have to call it done at some point. Yes, you want this to be perfect, and you want it to be polished to a high sheen, but that’s not always going to be your ghostwriter’s strong suit. Their job is to write the manuscript, make some revisions, and get it to a reasonable state where a copyeditor could take it over.

So be sure to work out in advance how many revisions and changes you can ask for. No writer wants to spend 12 months polishing and changing your manuscript, so save your revisions for one major passthrough rather than trickling them in. Typically, you should be able to get to the copyediting stage with no more than two revisions. If you’re not getting there, then one or both of you are the problem.

Leave the mechanics to your writer

There’s a very good chance that you’re good at punctuation and grammar, but there’s a very good chance that your ghostwriter is a nerd about it. That means that they know whether the grammar rules we learned in school are totally bogus..

For example, I was working with a client who tried — rather smugly, I thought — to correct me on a preposition I had used at the end of a sentence. So I explained to him:

This is a rule that should never have been in existence in the first place, but it had been created by an 18th-century Latin scholar named Robert Lowth in his book, A Short Guide to English Grammar. Lowth had read a similar admonition in a commentary by a 17th-century poet and scholar named John Dryden.

The problem was Dryden and Lowth were applying Latin rules to English, even though English didn’t actually need a few of those particular rules. It has been unnecessary for centuries, and most grammar nerds will never expect someone to contort their sentences just to follow that rule.

I could tell by the reaction from the client that he hadn’t expected any of that.

“Oh,” was all he said, and he never brought up grammar issues again.

The moral of the story: When someone starts spouting 400-year-old grammar history knowledge, he probably knows when you can break the rules.

So let him.

Don’t feel guilty that you’re working with a ghostwriter

Look, if you could write, you’d be a writer. If you had the time, you could do this yourself. But chances are, you’re working with a ghostwriter because either writing is not your forte or you just don’t have the hours and hours to put in the work.

This is the same reason you don’t change your own oil, fix your own leaky plumbing, re-roof your own house, or do your own taxes. You want a professional who’s good at what they do so you can look great at what you do.

Once, when I was ghostwriting a speech for a client, they felt embarrassed to have someone writing for them, like they weren’t important enough to need a speechwriter. I told them it wasn’t a question of being important, it was a question not having the time.

“Do you have four hours to devote to this project?” I asked.

“No, I barely have four hours to do anything,” said the client.

“Well, I do,” I said. “This doesn’t make you too big for your britches, it keeps you from looking unprepared when you give this speech.”

This is true whether you need a speechwriter, blog writer, or book writer. It’s not a question of whether you’re too important or have more money than sense. It’s a matter of helping you present your best story, whether it’s in a book, your company blog, or even a speech.

You need a professional who understands the subtleties and nuances of language, can tell your story in a clear and compelling way, and can do it in a timely manner.

So if you ever need to work with a ghostwriter, be clear and upfront with your expectations, and ask your ghostwriter to do the same with you. Don’t get bogged down in the process and let them do their job, while you do yours.

Photo credit: hobvias sudoneighm (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

The Code of the Ghostwriter

Being a ghostwriter means following an unwritten code of ethics and practices.

(Or at least, we wrote it down, but like most ghost articles, no one knows who did it, so we can’t find it.)

Ghostwriters need a code of ethics and practices they live by. A short list of things we’ll do and not do in service of our clients. Based on my own work as a ghostwriter, as well as talking to other ghosts, these are the four main tenets of our profession.

1. Ghosts are heard, but never seen.

GhostwriterYou may read our work, but you’ll never know it was us. The ghost writer is there to attach the words to someone else’s stories. The sports star who spins a good yarn, but can’t write a grammatical sentence to save his life. The politician who’s too busy to spend six or eight hours a day writing down her life. The CEO who spends 14 hours a day running a global company, but doesn’t have time to send emails, let alone write a 200 page book.

So the ghostwriters do it. We don’t talk about it, we don’t get credit, we don’t get mentioned at awards time. Sure, we might get a small mention in the foreword, but it’s pretty rare for people to know who the ghost is. Some won’t even admit it, like whoever wrote Snooki Polizzi’s books.

2. Ghost writers should charge a fair price.

The price you charge needs to be fair to other writers as well as your clients. If you undercut your prices, and do the work for 20% less than your competition charges, you’re not only hurting yourself by leaving money on the table, you’re hurting the entire industry.

And what if the tables are turned. Some hack charges 20% less than the going rate, and your new client now expects the same price? Not only do you have to match it, but you may even have to beat it. Imagine going from $75 for an article to $60 to $50, all because you were too timid and your self-esteem wouldn’t let you charge enough to actually make it worth your while.

3. We’ll never reveal our clients without their permission.

Clients hire us because we agree to be heard, but never seen. They are paying, not only for our writing talent, but for the expectation of silence. That means we have a standing order to never tell anyone who we work for, because it means exposing a secret the client didn’t want to share.

If you want to be able to tell people who you work for, you need permission from your client to share that information. Otherwise, just don’t tell anyone.

4. There are some professions that should never use ghostwriters.

Academics, journalists, researchers, and students.

These people should never hire ghostwriters, and ghostwriters should turn down the work, because it could damage your own reputation. Using a ghostwriter in these situations is unethical, because these are the professions who are expected to do the work themselves. Using ghostwriters constitutes plagiarism, and these are the professions where plagiarism is a huge deal.

Ghostwriting is a profession for people who don’t have big egos that need to be stroked or warmed in the spotlight of recognition. But while a good ghostwriter may be quiet and unnoticed, they have the skills and experience to get the job done when no one else can do it.

Photo credit: Matthew Hurst (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Five Best Blogging Service Providers in Indianapolis

It’s a great exercise in humility and a test of your ego to answer the question, “who are the five best blogging service providers,” and being told you can’t name yourself.

(Of course, anyone from Indiana would know better than to name themselves. Hoosiers are a humble people, after all.)

But who would I name as good content marketing/blogging service providers? After all, I should know this community and industry fairly well.

As I thought about the question, I thought back to my friendships that I’ve established over the years, and the people I’ve shared ideas, projects, and even clients with. And these are the five people and companies I would pick as five of the best blogging companies in central Indiana (in no particular order).

  • Metonymy Media: President Ryan Brock has made it a mission to hire only creative writing graduates, which is good, since creative writing as a professional pursuit is difficult. But it also makes Metonymy great story tellers. If we do face an impending content shock, then the storytellers are going to be the ones who win. He’s also managed to grow Metonymy into a sizable agency with several professional writers, and taught the city of Indianapolis what “metonymy” actually means. Ryan is also the founder of Indy WordLab, a writers’ meetup I attend nearly every month.
  • Lindsay Manfredi plays guitar

    Lindsay Manfredi. Seriously, how can you not be impressed by someone who has her own band?

  • Raidious: CEO Taulbee Jackson and I wrote The Owned Media Doctrine together last year, and I ended up learning a lot from him about content marketing on the enterprise level. They treat their content marketing efforts like a newsroom focusing on each day’s stories, being able to provide content to clients within hours, not days. Raidious also ran the Social Media Command Center for Super Bowl XLVI, a practice that every Super Bowl has adopted since then, and will continue to do so.
  • Lindsay Manfredi: She was one of the first bloggers I met when I started in this business, and I’ve learned a lot from watching her work. She was also willing to give advice when I needed it, and I’ve even referred a couple clients to her. Plus I love her energetic writing style — it matches her in person energy and the energy she brings to the stage when she’s playing live music around the city.
  • Digital Relevance: I’ve known Jeremy Dearringer since Digital Relevance was Slingshot SEO, and the company was just three guys doing SEO work for corporate clients. They’ve suffered under Google’s different algorithm changes, but have managed to pivot and become a content company that does SEO. They’re still one of the biggest tech employers in the city, and I’ve known several people who have worked at Digital Relevance (and Slingshot) at one time or another. If anyone knows SEO better in the Midwest, I haven’t met them.
  • Jackie Bledsoe: I first met Jackie during the Branding Yourself book launch in 2010, and have helped him as he learned about blogging and the professional copywriting life. He has parlayed his hard work into becoming one of the premier bloggers on fatherhood and family, writing for several family-related websites and publications, interviewing several celebrities, launching a podcast for couples, and is even working on an educational series that may turn into a book and speaking tour.

Those are the five people who I look to for my own inspiration and ideas of what I should be doing in running my own business. I try to learn from their creativity, their storytelling, work ethic, attention to technology, and energy. Hopefully I’ve been able to take something from the best of each of them and incorporate it into how I work.

What Goes Into Writing a Blog Post?

After yesterday’s post on Suggested Freelance Writing Rates — Midwest Edition, I was asked why it costs so much ($75 – $125) to write a blog post.

“It’s 350 – 450 words. How hard can it be?”

Actually, that depends. It depends on what you’re writing. If you’re writing a personal blog entry about the hamburger you enjoyed at lunch with your besties, that’s not hard at all. Takes you 15 minutes tops. But I have yet to meet anyone to hire me to ghost write their personal blog entries.

Writing corporate blog posts is a different matter. The actual wordsmithing — spinning out 350 – 450 words — is pretty straightforward. Yes, you’re paying for the writer’s expertise and skills (remember, this is a trained professional who has dedicated himself or herself to the written word), but there are other factors that go into corporate blogging. Here’s the basic process that most professional bloggers follow:

  • Regular research of the client’s industry. We have to know as much as we can about your industry, reading related blogs, trade journals, and news articles.
  • Interview the client. For Pro Blog Service, I interview our clients about that month’s blog posts, record the interviews, and we write the posts based on that.
  • The writing. This is the act of putting the words into a word processing document.
  • The editing. Any writer will tell you that the editing process is just as crucial as the actual writing. As first draft writers, most of us vary from horrible to passable. There are very, very few people who can write a great first draft. So the editing is just as difficult as putting down the actual words.
  • Publishing to the blog. This includes adding photos, any outbound links, using tools for SEO like WordPress SEO and Schemas. This is the other place people have problems, because they don’t have the time to dink around with finding photos, creating links, etc.
  • Promoting each blog post. You can’t just throw up a blog post and let it sit. You have to promote it to your social networks. And you have to grow those networks. A full-service professional blogger will also include that in their offerings, helping you grow your network so you can reach a bigger and more target audience

Blogging is much, much more than just spinning out the actual words, although that’s certainly the most important part of it. Without the research, the editing, and the promotion, you’re just writing in a diary about whatever randomly pops into your head.

If you’re thinking about blogging, more power to you! Please do. It’s an important part of social media marketing. But just remember that it takes about 1 – 2 hours worth of work to come up with a single blog post. That’s why you either need to hire it done, or allow for that much time in your schedule.

In future posts, I’ll be talking about what makes a good writer, and why, even though we all learned how to write in school, those skills are not enough to make an effective writer.

Three Ghost Blogging Concerns We Hear From Clients

Some people have issues with ghost blogging. We’ve got clients who use it on a regular basis, and love it. Other times, we have run into some people who can’t wrap their brains around it. They’re not sure they want to do it, and they have trouble accepting our help. These people tend to fall into one of three categories.

  • They don’t think they have a high-enough position to need a ghost writer. They don’t think they’re that important to “deserve” it. They think their company needs to be bigger, or they need to have a more prestigious position. I saw this a lot when I was doing speechwriting for a Congressional candidate in 2004. It’s not a matter of prestige, it’s a matter of having the time to do it.
  • A ghost

    Okay, that's kind of creepy.

  • They feel they need to “earn” the words by doing the work themselves. These people have a very strong do-it-yourself ethic, and think that they should be able to and know how to do every aspect of their business. They don’t want someone to do the things they should be capable of doing themselves, and they feel like they’re slacking when they don’t. But a lot of people can’t write quickly or efficiently — they take a couple hours to write a single blog post. That’s a problem when their time is worth $250 an hour, like a defense attorney. Why spend $500 of your billable time, three times a week, when you could hire someone to do the ghost blogging for you?
  • They think writing is so easy that anyone can do it. “After all,” they reason, “I learned how to write in school, so I can just take the skills I learned 20 – 30 years ago, right?” This is like saying, “I know how to work a table saw, so I ought to be able to make my own custom cabinets. Look, we all learned how to communicate via the written word, but that doesn’t make you a writer. A professional ghost blogger has been trained on how to write tight, concise copy that will inform, entertain, or persuade. While some people are able to do this without training, those people are few and far between. Don’t risk turning off your audience with less-than-professional writing that rambles on, is filled with errors, or just plain doesn’t make sense. (Not so surprisingly, these are the same people who demand that every position in their company has experience in their industry, including the accountant, the IT person, and even human resources staff.)

Ghost blogging is one of those services that companies need to maintain an online presence, but don’t have the time or resources to do it. It’s for the people who are too busy to write on a regular basis, no matter what “level” you are in your career. It’s for the people who struggle with writing, or are basically too expensive to do anything that doesn’t directly result in bottom line revenue for their company or firm.

Photo credit: starfish325 (Flickr)

Three Reasons Why Your Blog Needs to be Well-Written

If you can’t write, you won’t show up on the search engines.

That’s because Google is now looking at user experience as its primary ranking factor. That means, they check whether people are sticking around on your site, reading the great content you provided.

They also know when people leave your site because it sucked.

According to a Google employee, Wysz, on the Google Forums, Google uses a number of different signals to find low quality sites, including shallow or poorly written content. Here’s what Wysz says:

Our recent update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites, so the key thing for webmasters to do is make sure their sites are the highest quality possible. We looked at a variety of signals to detect low quality sites. Bear in mind that people searching on Google typically don’t want to see shallow or poorly written content, content that’s copied from other websites, or information that are just not that useful. In addition, it’s important for webmasters to know that low quality content on part of a site can impact a site’s ranking as a whole.

This can be a bit of an ego blow if you actually create your own content. I mean, it’s one thing to try to trick Google with a bunch of crap copy that got puked out by an article spinner. You shrug your shoulders, say “it’s a fair cop,” and then figure out another way to peddle your penis pills.

But if you’re not trying to trick Google, it has to be the worst feeling to find that Google dinged you because your writing was shallow and poorly written.

While Google isn’t getting into the literary criticism business or making moral judgments about you as a person (that’s what Facebook is for), Google wants you to write good copy that uses proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Here’s why:

  • People spell and use grammar correctly when they search. That’s because Google will correct their spelling in a search. “Did you mean _____” appears at the top of the search engine if you typed in a word incorrectly. Or if they think you’re really stupid, they just ignore your word choice and do a search for the correct spelling, giving you the option to click the less desirable, incorrect choice.
  • People share awesome. Scott Stratten said this once, and I’m stealing it. If you write some great stuff, people are more likely to share it. That means people are more likely to link to it in their own blogs, which builds backlinks, which helps your Google juice. But, more importantly, Google is starting to tailor your search results, not with the “official objective” results, but with the results you are more likely to be interested in. For example, you Google “Moleskine notebooks.” Instead of getting the regular search results for Moleskines, you’ll see a blog post I wrote about the little black notebook in your results. You’ll either see it because we’re connected socially, or because someone in your circle shared it, tweeted it, or even left a comment.
  • Google is getting better at semantic search. That means, Google knows what you meant, rather than what you said (see #1). Combine that with the fact that programs like Microsoft Word can check your grammar, and I can see a day where Google uses a grammar checker in their indexing to weed out not only the shallow, poorly-written copy used by spammers, but start dinging the poorly-written copy from people who just can’t write to begin with. After all, Google is about providing the best user experience. So that may start including ranking “good” writing higher and “bad” writing lower. While I can’t see them using an review system to rank sites, I can see them pushing all the lunatic ramblings, misspellings, and drunken love poetry off the top pages.

If you’re a writer, this is one more reason to work on improving your craft. If you’re not a writer, this is a great reason why you need to improve. And if you’re a business trying to rank high in the search engines, this means you need to consider hiring a ghost blogger or other professional copywriter who actually knows what they’re doing.

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds (Flickr)

315 Million Reasons Why Writers Shouldn’t Write For Free

The online newsies of the world all pointed and shouted with excitement, “See?! SEE?!” when AOL bought the Huffington Post new blog for $315 million. Newspapers and journalists all hunched over and typed a little faster when they heard the news, hoping they too could be the next major acquisition by the online giant-emeritus.

But it’s only recently that people began realizing that Huffington Post built its success on the backs of unpaid writers — writers who want to be compensated, even just a little, by the news source they built. (Simon Dumenco has a good wrapup of how Huffington Post is screwing their writers.)

I understand the appeal. The writers were promised the one thing every startup publication offers plenty of (but usually has none): exposure.

“We can’t pay you, but we’ll put you in front of all of our readers,” they promise. “Once we start to get money from ad revenues, then we’ll start paying you for future articles.”

But Huffington Post aside, those 9 million other magazines and newspaper startups never see enough revenue to pay for the celebratory kickoff party, let alone paying the bankruptcy attorney when they fold three months later. Besides, it doesn’t sound like HuffPo ever offered money. Ever.

It’s real simple, writers shouldn’t write for free. In that link, scifi writer Harlan Ellison rants about how writers are constantly getting the short end of the payment stick, thanks to the mistaken idea that what we do is somehow easy.

What we do is not easy. We’ve only done it for so long, we make it look easy. It still takes work to string together 500+ words, make sure they’re spelled correctly, are coherent thoughts, and are assembled into something that’s both easy and enjoyable to consume. (If you think it’s easy, take a whack at 500 words on any topic, and send it to me for an “honest but thorough” critique. I dare you.)

Look, if you want exposure for your writing, and you want to write for free for Huffington Post. Go ahead. But don’t do it in the hopes that they’re going to come up with a little thank you gift for all your hard work. You knew it was free going in, and that was the deal you made with them.

I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic, because I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been screwed by an editor or potential client. I fervently believe that Huffington Post should do the nice thing and show a little love and gratitude to the people who made them worth $315 million, but I don’t think it’s something they have to do. Not because it’s their party, and they made the rules, but because the writers never had the expectation of getting paid, and went into the relationship fully expecting to never receive money.

(Update: One friend who runs a very popular community blog said if he gets a front page placement on Huffington Post, his site get 10,000 – 50,000 extra visits from the story. Otherwise, he runs around 2,000 extra visits. For a site that makes money from selling advertising, writing for free for Huffington Post is worth it, because it helps him serve up more ads, which makes him more money.)

If you want fame and exposure, write your own blog. Work your ass off in that niche, become famous, and work on your personal branding to find new readers. Then leverage that into paid bylines in real print publications, public speaking gigs, and even a book, like say, one on personal branding (affiliate link).

While that strategy is much, much harder than knocking out a few blog posts for Huffington Post, it also protects you from being totally screwed when the website is sold to a giant conglomerate and you don’t get anything. At least when you’re writing your own little blog, you’re getting nothing anyway, but without the painful screwing that the Huffington Post writers just experienced.

There’s no reason you have to write for someone else, especially when all you get is a byline. Thanks to all the different free blogging platforms that are available — Blogger, WordPress, Posterous — you can have your own blog and write for free to your heart’s content. And when someone makes an overture to buy you for $315 million, you don’t have to share it with anyone at all.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

Photo credit: Daniel Borman (Flickr)