Who Really Wrote That Relationship Advice Book?
The spooky side of ghostwriting, and why I left it behind.
When I escaped the 9–5 world to become a full-time freelancer, I got a lot of freelancing gigs through a site called Elance, which is now defunct.
At first, I got mostly ad copy, web copy, and other such professional writing jobs. In retrospect, those were the best kind. They were quick and straightforward. I should have stuck with them. Instead, I got enchanted by the idea of ghostwriting.
In case you don’t know, ghostwriting is an arrangement in which Person A has an idea for a book, which Person B writes, but Person A puts their name on it. As far as the world is concerned, Person A the author.
A lot of the projects I was being offered were creative writing, aka novels. I was excited. I could get paid to write long-form creative works from home? Great! Sign me up.
I managed to find some benefits to this arrangement.
- Ghostwriting was a nice way to train myself in terms of discipline. To write long-form works, you have to be dedicated to hitting regular word count goals. Typically, at the beginning of their career, a novelist is not working with someone who is expecting pages. I was. This trained me to think of writing — even novel writing — as work.
- Ghostwriting freed me of being too precious about my work. If you have to send pages no matter what, you can’t be too obsessed with every word. Ten years in, I can now report that this is a very necessary skill for a professional writer. I’m glad I honed it early.
- Writing someone else’s concept was like one big writing prompt, which was creatively exciting, and writing in someone else’s voice was a fun artistic challenge (this is actually one reason I was drawn to ghostwriting in the first place; I’m fairly skilled at adapting to someone else’s voice).
- It was relatively freeing to write under a mask. I was able to write things that, if my name were tied to it, I might have been more timid about. I was a young writer working hard to find my voice — it was nice to get to explore anonymously.
- I was compensated very well.
I also managed to find some real negatives, friends.
My mom has a saying at clothing stores. As she sorts through the clearance rack looking for a good deal and is instead greeted with a bunch of duds, she says, exasperated, “There’s a reason something’s on the clearance rack.”
Yeah, no one wanted it.
There’s usually a reason someone is hiring a freelancer to ghostwrite their book. In my experience, those reasons were:
- The person had a “really good idea” (the ideas were not good) but no writing skills, passion, or discipline.
- The person was a fine writer but was a very busy professional and didn’t have enough time to actually sit and write the book him or herself.
The majority of the projects I was given fell under #1, and I found it incredibly draining, creatively, to write something that I knew was not very good. Plus, it irked me that someone with a bad idea who couldn’t write was going to have a bunch of pages bound together (even at their own expense), call it a book, and say they wrote it.
So, I took projects from column #2. This was what broke me.
The project was a relationship advice book.
As in — here’s how to succeed in relationships and finally find a partner. My client was a so-called relationship expert who was so knee-deep in successfully coupling people that they didn’t have time to write their own book.
In terms of workflow, this project was a dream. There was a firm outline for the book. Each chapter had a theme, and every morning, my client would email me a video where they talked for 15–20 minutes about the topic of that day’s chapter. This made capturing their authentic voice for the video a bit easier; I was able to work in some phrases and energy that was really true to their voice.
I was also very well paid. I received the highest hourly rate I’d billed at that point in my life.
There were a few things that never sat well with me.
Although I was working from videos this actual expert was making me in their actual voice, I knew that I myself was not an expert.
Far from it.
I’ve had one boyfriend my entire life — he’s now my husband. I’m an emotionally intelligent person, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that people were (theoretically) going to buy this book trusting that it was written by the actual expert. Yes, they read every word I produced and tweaked it to make sure it was in line with their intention. But, still.
That, and — though I’d ghostwritten several novels at this point, they were self published, quietly, by my clients. My client for the relationship advice book was a well-known personality who had business savvy.
Which means they did press.
Which means I listened to interviews where they described what it was like to write the book.
In one interview, they actually talked about what it was like to come up with some particular phrasing in the book. I thought I’d be more chill about this, but I remember doing a little jumpy dance of frustration in my kitchen as I listened to my client talk about looking up from their pen and looking out the window to come up with that specific combination of words.
I’m not sure, ultimately, if my frustration was that my client was pretending to have written the actual words (which, of course, was our arrangement) or that people listening would indeed believe that had happened. But it caused a shift in me.
I no longer felt good about ghostwriting.
And there were other ways to make it as a writer. So, I hung up my invisible, ghostly hat, and I walked away from it. I didn’t walk away from writing. Just ghostwriting.
And in fact, separating myself from ghostwriting made me do something I’d been putting off because I was “too busy” — it got me to start thinking about how to write stuff that had my name on it, loud and proud!
Lauren Harkawik is an essayist, fiction writer, and local reporter in rural Vermont.