Ghostly Expectations

Having a great idea for a book doesn’t translate into having the skill to bring it to life. The effective use of language requires sophisticated expertise. Those who understand that — and know their own skills fall short — hire ghostwriters.

Ghostwriters write for income. Like any other unregulated industry, the quality of the work proves the competence of the ghostwriter. The truism must be said: You get what pay for. Before you hire a ghostwriter to write your masterpiece or business guide or case study, keep these tips in mind.

Review the ghostwriter’s writing samples. The evaluation of content resembles the identification of pornography in that it’s difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it. Any ghostwriter you consider should be willing to provide examples of previously written work to demonstrate the quality of his or her writing.

What should you consider when evaluating writing samples? Determine whether the content engages and holds your interest. Although academic writing differs from fiction writing which differs from copy writing, well written content gets your attention and keeps it. Is the writing clean? Examine the content for misspellings, incorrect punctuation, arbitrary capitalization, verb-noun disagreements, and other glitches concerning the mechanics of writing. Remember, you’re looking for excellence, not perfection. Writers — and editors — are human and don’t always catch mistakes.

Understand the division of labor. When you hire a ghostwriter, you tell him or her what to write, not how to write it. You can impose style guides (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style, Associate Press, or your company’s in-house style guide) to maintain consistency of the content produced. Just as you’re the expert in your field or industry, the ghostwriter is the expert at writing.

When telling the ghostwriter what to write, details make a huge difference. If you wish certain points made within the document or specific details included in the story, then be explicit in informing the ghostwriter before writing begins. The ghostwriter can’t read your mind. Be open to the insights or special knowledge your ghostwriter may have; they can improve your article or story by adding authority and/or realism.

Decide whether you need a generalist or subject matter expert. For instance, most blog and newsletter articles under 1,000 words long don’t require a subject matter expert. A generalist’s value shows when tasked with writing upon a variety of topics: the writer is versatile. A subject matter expert’s value lies in in-depth knowledge of the project topic. That intense level of expertise commands a high price.

Your feedback guides the revision process. Because the ghostwriter can’t read the client’s mind, expect at least one round of revision. During the process of content production, the ghostwriter will submit a draft of the document. Review it carefully, because the ghostwriter will revise according to your comments and requests for change. The ghostwriter’s fee may include more than one round of revision: ask to make sure.

Discuss compensation. Professional ghostwriters charge by the word, not by the page or by the hour. When you think about it, per-word fees make sense. Consider a page. What are the dimensions? What font is used? What size? Is the spacing single, double, or something else? Are wide are the margins? Taking those factors into consideration, the number of words per page can and does vary wildly. When specifying “per page,” the ghostwriter can only estimate by a standard manuscript page which averages 250 words.

Research shows that it takes the average writer three hours and 20 minutes to research, draft, self-edit, and revise 1,000 words. Some projects require more research than others, such as those that require the writer to conduct interviews to obtain direct quotes. Research takes time. Decide not only the value of that ghostwriter’s time and skill, but also the value of the content he or she will produce for you.

If you want to estimate the cost of a writer (or editor’s) time, consult the rates published by industry authorities such as the Editorial Freelancers Association and The Writer’s Market. These resources offer fee breakdowns at per-hour rates. The ghostwriter will factor in the time he or she will spend on researching, drafting, self-editing, and revising the content into the per-word rate. Understand that in-depth documents such as white papers (2,000–5,000 words) require a significant investment of time before the ghostwriter writes a single word.

If you post your project on a freelance platform such as Fiverr or Upwork, avoid low bid providers. Remember the truism that you must pick two: cheap, fast, or good. You won’t get all three. It may seem counter-intuitive, but look at a request for bids from the ghostwriter’s perspective: for example, a 20,000-word book delivered in two weeks for $50. The ghostwriter will see such a bid and calculate the hours needed to produce well-written content (66), the number of 8-hour working days dedicated to this project (8.25), and the anticipated wage per hour earned ($0.75). This estimate does not and cannot take into account the additional time the client needs to review the drafted material and return feedback to guide revisions. The ghostwriter does not control the client’s schedule or effort. If hiring through a platform, the platform likely charges a hefty commission (e.g., 20 percent) they deduct from the ghostwriter’s earnings. The ghostwriter will certainly take that into account, which reduces the per-hour wage of this hypothetical project to $0.60.

Would you work for that?

Ghostwriting is work-for-hire. The essence of ghostwriting is that content hired by a client and produced for a client belongs to the client upon receipt of payment in full. Especially for long-term or large projects, a ghostwriter often requires a contract that does not transfer ownership of the content to the client until the fee is paid. Non-compete agreements and nondisclosure agreements do not apply to ghostwriters, unless they have access to the client’s proprietary information. No reputable ghostwriter will steal a client’s idea or content.

Upon delivery of the project, however, allow the ghostwriter to claim the project in his or her portfolio. Be fair. After all, you wanted to see examples of prior work and so will the writer’s potential new clients.

For more information on the ghostwriting process or ghostwriting services, contact Hen House Publishing.

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Hen House Publishing (Holly Bargo)

Hen House Publishing (Holly Bargo)

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Karen Smith writes and edits fiction and nonfiction on a freelance basis and is a published novelist.