The strange things a writer will do to get paid. By Gwenna Laithland.
This article is only half of a whole. I’m teaming up with Daryl Bruce to share some of our experience working as freelance ghostwriters. To read his half, click on the link below.
Lying & Writing: The Weird World of GhostwritingGhostwriting hasn’t only expanded my skills, it’s imbued me with the greatest asset a freelance writer can possess.
I have a vast and prolific portfolio as a writer. I’ve written about everything under the sun — from politics to penises. The sheer variety in my body of work is impressive.
And I can never, ever show you any of it.
Even in writing this article, I’m cherry-picking who and what I talk about. I can’t risk giving away too much or being too obvious. I’m a ghostwriter and under contract to keep my mouth good and shut.
Typically, when I tell people, especially fellow writers, I work as a ghostwriter, they are appalled.
“You do all that work and don’t get any of the credit?”
“That seems so dishonest!”
“Oh! I could never write something for someone else like that!”
I’ve written in a hundred voices over a thousand topics and get no credit for any of it. I do, however, get a paycheck. A surprising number of people need reliable content for their website or newsletter but can’t or don’t want to do the work.
I volunteer as tribute.
Ghostwriting can seem like a fancy, digestible term for lying. To some, it is a false representation of a company, brand, or client. No one should get to take credit for work they didn’t do. It almost feels like hiring a ghostwriter is akin to a paying some nerdy kid to do your homework for you.
Most of us are at least subconsciously aware that major brands and famous figures only create a tiny portion of everything they are supposed to have said or written. A good chunk of Hollywood folk has media teams and marketing advisors carefully sculpting their public image. Someone else is paid to think, write, and tweet in their voice.
I’d put money down that Taylor Swift, the fifth most-followed human being on Twitter, put no thumbs to phone for this post.
Her media team did that. In other words, she had a ghostwriter. Or probably 12 of them in Tay-Tay’s case. Media teams are, essentially, ghostwriters. They act on behalf of their employer, speaking in their boss’ voice to their boss’ hard-won audience.
It doesn’t feel so much like lying put in those terms.
The stuff I ghostwrite most often is fluff that doesn’t even have an author attribution. A hefty portion of my portfolio consists of words no one ever thinks about as having been written by a human. Product descriptions, podcast summaries, ad and web content copy, the About Us sections of company websites: someone had to write them. Chances are better than none; it was someone like me or Daryl — a ghostwriter content to string words together in exchange for a few bucks.
Ghostwriting allows you to ignore the niche concept completely.
I have, however, had some unique topics as a ghostwriter. Ghostwriting allows you to ignore the niche concept completely. I can accept clients from across the spectrum of industries & topics.
For a time, I was contracted to write blog posts for a unique men’s underwear product. I spent many an evening drafting clever ways to describe the benefits of this particular brand of tighty-whities. Blog post after blog post on how to protect your twig and berries from chafing is hard enough.
Added to that challenge, I have neither twig nor berries. I’m a 30-something-year-old female and have never possessed a nether rod & dangles. I still giggle when I think of all the guys who trooped into their bathroom to slather themselves with diaper rash cream on my recommendation. If only they had known they were taking advice from the unequipped…
We spin back to the dishonesty loop again. How is it not lying when you’re writing stuff about which you have no idea? How can a client agree to hire an unqualified writer, ghost or not?
The truth is, I was qualified because I am a good writer.
Content writing is rarely just about the facts.
This particular client found their readers cared less about the tips (HA!) and products than they did the humor behind the posts. The client wanted puns and double entendre. They wanted juvenile jokes and gutter-snark. I could provide those things for a reasonable rate. My writing style was more attractive to the client than my knowledge base. They knew I’m female and dude-junkless yet still enjoyed my work. I wrote for them for two years. (For the record, my stint writing for that particular client equipped me with no less than 347 synonyms for the masculine downstairs.)
Moreover, I’m a good researcher. I knew where to find the information — mostly my husband in the case of the banana hammock handlers. I’ve ghostwritten for dozens of industries I knew nothing about before accepting the contract. But I knew how to learn about them, quickly, efficiently, and reliably.
Content writing is rarely just about the facts — if it were, everyone who could operate a computer to be a writer. My underwear guys knew their stuff. They knew what their product did and why the public needed it. What they lacked was someone to take all their boring, monotonous facts and give them some flare.
That’s why they hired me. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the equipment or couldn’t use the product. It mattered that I could make their product sound good, appeal to their client base with a quirky sense of humor. My job was to translate dick jokes and rash treatment hacks into dollars and positive reviews. That’s the power of good content.
I’ve done similar stuff for funeral homes, military surplus stores, plant nurseries, alternative-teaching-method daycares, restaurants, and a plethora of other clients. They needed my writing skill, not my industry jargon knowledge. They gave me most of the fact; I just made it pretty and consumable for their customer base/readership.
So if it’s not lying, why ghostwrite? Why not just let them attach your name and get the readership?
I’m not ghostwriting to win awards, accolades, or even praise. That part of my writing career is a straight-up business. Bills get paid by letting someone else take credit for my words. By keeping my name out of it, contractually, I am safeguarded from terrible editing or a company/client suddenly going super-evil.
In the case of the undie-men, I wasn’t gung-ho about trailing pages of penile punchlines behind me. It could be hard to explain if pitching to a more conservative client or audience-building. Plus, if the company tanked, my name wouldn’t go down with them. It wouldn’t appear as though I backed the wrong horse. I didn’t back any horse. I wrote words anonymously, and they paid me for my service.
Ghostwriting is a means to an end — one of those sticky, money-based topics most writers prefer to avoid. My topical skills, efficiency, writing system, and grammar have vastly improved while ghostwriting. I’ve honed my craft and generated a hundred new ideas for my personal writing. My ephemeral knowledge base grows with every random client I scoop, leaving me all sorts of tasty bits to weave into stories and articles.
Gwenna Laithland is an independent journalist, humorist, and freelance writer in Oklahoma. She writes contemporary sci-fi and is working on her debut novel, Beyond the Sky.
Notes from the Honeypot editors:
Being a writer is not always a bowl of cherries. We want the truth and nothing but the truth. Gwenna is among the few authors out there who write about what it actually means to make a living from the craft. We thought that was worth sharing.
Image: One Line Man and Almix, Shutterstock