• Advice

Give up the ghost (writing)

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

When I got started as a freelance writer, I had probably written approximately a million and a half words displayed on pages somewhere on the Internets.

But if you Googled my name, you wouldn’t see any articles.

Okay, you’d see my columns from my college paper, which have encapsulated in digital amber all the half-formed, too-strident, black-and-white, since-evolved opinions of my late-teens brain. But you wouldn’t see any of the professional content I’ve written for industries from health care to law to transportation to lawn mower maintenance to building workplace culture to how to hire house cleaners to technology.

Why? Because most of what I’ve written is ghostwritten.

In my experience, ghostwriting is one of those things that people in the marketing and PR industries accept as a matter of course, but people not in the industry don’t really understand.

I’ll never forget the first time I pointed out a column to my friends in the local paper that my agency had written for a local influencer in the transportation industry — the shock and horror surprised me. “You mean they stole your work?” one friend asked, while others questioned the ethics of it.

Personally, I don’t have an issue with ghostwriting.

Naturally, the CEO of that hugely successful company isn’t writing columns for magazines or posting 1,500-word blog posts every other day. (Yes, I know some company leaders actually do write prolifically and well and with insight and style — and I have great respect for those rare birds.)

If the subject I’m ghostwriting for genuinely has interesting ideas or expertise in his or her industry, then it’s more about bringing those ideas to an audience who could benefit. That visionary thought leader isn’t stealing credit for my ideas — I’m putting words to hers.

But ghostwriting does present its problems if you’re a freelancer — namely, how do you find new clients without bylined articles and clips?

Business development as a freelancer is always a hustle, and everyone wants samples so they can see how well you write, your voice and what topics you’ve covered before.

So here’s how you handle “Can you send me some samples?” if you don’t have any bylines:

Join a community of freelance experts (it's free!)

Become a Freelancers Union member

Create a personal blog

As a freelancer, your writing portfolio can be subject to a lot of whims — the clients’ preferences, your editor’s preferences, the industries you’re writing in, what kinds of content you’re writing.

If your experience is all over the place like mine, it’s useful to have a space to showcase your voice and expertise in specific subjects. This is crucial if you’re looking to expand into areas where you don’t have experience.

Of course, some editors want only published, bylined articles. But if they don’t specify, using some of your personal posts as samples can give an editor or content director a much more complete picture of your writing ability.

Ask for references from clients

Think about asking your editors or the individuals who put their names on your content for a reference. This doesn’t have to refer specifically to the pieces you’ve ghostwritten if they would rather not acknowledge that they use ghostwritten content, but it can be something as simple as:

Claire’s ability to take complex information and turn it into useful, actionable content for our subscribers sets her apart from other freelancers. She is responsive, does her research and would be a great contributor for any content strategy.

No need to mention “and she wrote that piece in Forbes on my behalf” or “she wrote most of the posts under my name on our blog.”

Use your ghostwritten clips (judiciously)

I do use my ghostwriting clips as samples.

Usually it’s in a situation where I’m pitching an editor or content director with a sophisticated content stream or a background in thought leadership, because they’ll understand where I’m coming from and may even use ghostwriting tactics themselves.

Be honest

Ghostwriting is common. It’s worth remembering that the people you are pitching are human and are capable of understanding nuance. Editors and content directors want good writers and good content.

Sometimes honesty is the best policy.

“I’ve attached links to some of my clips. Most of them are ghostwritten for thought leaders/blogs/publications in the XYZ industry.”

Be straightforward and unapologetic. It’s not weird that you have mostly/only ghostwritten clips.

Provide additional value in your pitches

You may be competing against writers who have plenty of bylines. Whether you’re trying to get a byline or just pivot into a new industry, if you have primarily ghostwritten clips or write in other industries, you’re going to need to stand out.

Don’t make your potential editor do all the work — sell yourself.

A couple things you could do:

  • If it’s hard to see a trend from your ghostwritten clips, offer to write a post in their industry/style for a negotiated single-post rate (not for free!)
  • Show them that you understand their industry by including a few pitches for post topics or pieces you could write. This helps an editor envision your content on their blog and takes them another step forward in the mental journey to hiring you.

Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to develop freelance business if you have bylined articles.

Once you have a good feel for how to use your ghostwriting experience to get new gigs, try to seek out opportunities for bylines wherever possible.

That said, don’t let a lack of bylines stop you from going after the industries where you want to be or the kinds of content you want to write.

Writing for a living is hard enough without settling for ghostwriting if that’s not a niche where you want to be.

Claire is a freelance marketer specializing in smart content and project management. A proud Coloradan, she currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, close to the mountains and the sea. She can be reached at her website or on Twitter.