Welcome to Bolt’s insider secrets series! The Insider Series will take you behind the scenes into the worlds of writers from different industries. Here, you’ll find out everything from what their jobs are like to how to get started in their field.
Lurking in the shadows, studying their subjects and penning down their thoughts, ghostwriters are the closest thing writers will ever be to being spies (unless they’re actually spies, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).
As a ghostwriter, -redacted-’s career accomplishments are shrouded in mystery. We may never know what thought leadership pieces he/she/it/they/them has drafted for CEOs, but they/them/it/she/he is here to answer every other question you’ll ever have about ghostwriting.
First things first, I’m afraid of ghosts, can I still be a ghostwriter?
Are you afraid of the dark? Does it give you goosebumps? This is turning out to be a Real Singapore Ghost Story.
I have to confess that as yet, supernatural beings and eldritch horrors have yet to contact me for freelance work, although I have written quite a few fantasy stories and fairytales for overly confident businesses.
How did you get started with ghostwriting?
A friend of mine got me into it. At first, it was a one-off favour, for which I received some amount of money. I was surprised and extremely pleased to have a marketable skill, and started talking to people who eventually got me to do more and more.
We know you can’t tell us who you’ve written for, but could you share some industries you’ve ghostwritten for?
I have not worked on Beauty or Fashion, but I’ve dipped my toe into every other industry. On the whole, tech and digital businesses (eCommerce, Marketing-Internet Services-Web & Social Advertising-Hardware/Backend/Cloud) are fairly keen on content generation.
To my thinking, these businesses value a stream of proper content/articles more highly and will come back if you do a good job the first time. It could be because they do most of their marketing online, and having a proper pipeline of well-written content helps their inbound/SEO/collaterals/conversions. My understanding is also that they may not have sufficient manpower to support content production on a consistent scale. Have you noticed that every vaguely reputable company has a blog? Some have been forgotten, some only post every lunar eclipse, but there seems to be an acknowledgement than people want to read words.
What are the most common types of ghostwriting assignments you receive?
“Here is fifty dollars, here are my product stats/a press release, please write an article that will go viral and make us all millionaires.”
I am, unfortunately, not kidding. Most assignments are poorly thought-out or functionally a sales pitch masquerading as an ‘informative’ article. If you wouldn’t read the nutritional label on a bar of chocolate, you won’t read it when it’s described in long-form prose either.
A wise man once said that doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark; you know what you’re doing, but nobody else does. In that regard, paying for a single article is like buying somebody a drink: it’s expensive, and you feel like you’ve achieved a lot, but that’s just one instance of interaction, and by no means, sealing the deal. This comes from personal experience.
Sure, you might get lucky and some customers may make a purchase after reading one article; but in general content should fit into part of a greater scheme backed up by other marketing efforts. To put it in relatable terms, would you only read the first review of a restaurant and go “One person liked it, that’s enough proof for me!” People scroll through and read a few other reviews, then they might look at a few photos on blogs or even consider other restaurants. One single article is a drop of water in a very large internet.
Good marketing doesn’t talk about what’s being sold, it subtly suggests that you want it, and leaves you to find out more yourself so you want to buy it. People go around incepting ideas into other people’s heads all the time – only sometimes it’s called gossiping, and other times it’s marketing.
How would someone be able to tell if an article is ghostwritten?
I would compare ghostwriting to make-up; if it’s done well, you won’t notice it’s there, but if it’s done badly it will be clear as day. (This may also be why I haven’t been offered Beauty gigs). Good ghostwriters are good writers who can take on the voice of the CEO (knowledgeable; good business acumen) or the brand (Smart! Fun! Vivacious!) or even the person on the street who’s impressed by the product/service.
Poorly ghost-written articles read like unhappy Google Translate accidents or lousy formulaic writing designed to optimise SEO, search engine marketing, link building, keywords, web marketing, digital formatting, Google front page, pagerank, Bing.. You get the idea.
What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to ghostwriting?
Unrealistic expectations. Some customers believe one article can make their business blow up, others feel one article is enough for a ‘marketing plan’. There’s also this slightly worrying trend where ghost-writing services are being offered at lower prices. The entire industry loses – customers pay for nonsense, the web is flooded with lousy content, and I can’t charge my exorbitant fees any more.
You are paying me for this, right?
What kind of prep work goes into writing a ghostwritten piece?
Research is important and often takes longer than actually putting fingers to keyboard. Depending on the article, it could be sourcing the voice of the author, or understanding the industry as a whole and the trend of where it’s moving, or even delving deep down into some technical product jargon.
I don’t need to have seen a carburettor, but it’s key that I know how to best explain that in a car, it’s the part that mixes fuel with air in proportion so that the fuel can burn properly without causing the car to explode or stall.
*That sentence took ten minutes of reading up on Wikipedia and two minutes to type.
What if your subject doesn’t write? How do you create a voice for someone else? Is there a piece of you in all your subjects?
Good customers will come prepared with their executives’ voice or identity; what they’re like, what they’re keen on, how they wish to be portrayed. That, alongside past articles and marketing materials will generally suffice.
The generic voice is simple enough – everyone wants to sound knowledgeable about the subject, positive about what they’re talking about and confident in their field, without being overly jargony or arrogant. There are few executives who would compare their jewellery to cheap prawn sandwiches or declare that they know words and have the best words – in those cases, the voice is already clear and extremely well-defined.
Do you like ghostwriting more than the more traditional types of writing?
It certainly pays better than my attempts at fiction (nil) or satire (nil).
On the one hand, because I do not choose my topics, at times I have to study some genuinely dry subjects (like desertification in the Sub-Saharan); on the other hand, this lack of choice throws up some interesting subjects that I would never have explored, and allows me to gain general knowledge in extremely unexpected places and win pub quizzes.
How do ghostwriters beef up their resume if they can’t reveal anything?
I can’t comment. The resume is perhaps less important than a portfolio of writing samples; especially if your work is recommended, that is proof enough. It’s also impractical to list every single piece of work produced for reference (nobody will read it all; and there will be pieces you do for the money only). With that said, most ghostwriters are also egotists, and will keep a copy of everything they’ve written in case that article on five ways to use squid for cleaning around the house becomes relevant for a new gig in the future.
If you could ghostwrite for anyone, who would it be and why?
It would be interesting to be a political speechwriter. It would be the ultimate test of capturing a candidate’s voice accurately. Also, the product is the candidate itself – can you make him/her/the party credible? Likeable? Will he sound like a man with a plan to build a canal, or does he sound like he’ll siphon off taxes to private accounts in Panama?
If there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, who do I call?
-Redacted- Bespoke Writing Services, available for enquiries – Reasonable rates, exquisite eloquence, and proper usage of the Oxford Comma.