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The Brutally Honest Truth About Ghostwriting

Written by and published

From September 2011 until June 2012 I wrote more than 220 blog posts. These weren’t pushover posts. We’re talking, on average, 1,400 words per article. A few were in the 4,000 range and one was more than 10,000 words.

For those of you counting, that’s five articles a week. One a day.

For each article, I generated ideas, wrote outlines and finished drafts. The research was deep, the editing long. Each article took me between four and eight hours to complete.

Furthermore, I wrote on topics outside of my normal discipline (copywriting and advertising): advanced search engine optimization techniques, business innovation, startup challenges and web analytics.

And these articles landed on notable websites like Mashable and TechCrunch, so the pressure was on to look good.

It was enough work and exposure to make me into an authority. But there was one problem.

Not one single article has my name on it. Someone else got all the credit.

That was on purpose. See, I traded credit for cash. In other words, I got paid to be a ghostwriter.

Ghostwriting is a great way for an expert with a book idea and no writing skills to get their expertise out there. The demand is high enough that you can make a good living.

But for me, not all was sunshine and peppermints.

During this time I discovered something about myself. While I’m not generally over-the-top egotistical (debatable), I missed the attention, the recognition, the authority of having my own name on the writing.

In fact, after about three months I was utterly depressed. Like, near suicidal.

Why such an extreme response to what most writers would think was a pretty good gig? It boiled down to what I wanted to accomplish as a writer.

The Four Flavors Of Ghostwriting

What I described above is a common relationship in the content marketing and book publishing community. Busy CEOs and executives (who are probably poor writers to begin with) hire writers to write in their name.

Here’s Rand Fishkin, CEO of MOZ (formerly SEOMoz), on ghostwriting:

…I found the experience to have positive and negative aspects. The biggest negative, for me, was the voice and tone the writing took. There was nothing technically wrong with the content, but some of the “magic” was missing. In the SEO world, I think the same concerns hold true.

…If you are, yourself, a talented writer or a great communicator, and you possess a unique voice, attitude, and style, ghost writing is tough. It may communicate the same concepts, but the message, branding, and style can get lost. That may mean less impact from a social media perspective, fewer links, less enjoyment and engagement from readers, and these things, directly and indirectly, can negatively affect your SEO.

…If, on the other hand, you’re a great communicator through non-written means and you need help to put your ideas into written language, then by all means, use a ghostwriter if you can find one with the talent to properly convey your message, and your brand.

But, not all ghostwriting is the same. Here are four common varieties:

  • Anonymous sales letters: Someone hires you to sell their product. If it’s a letter from the CEO, it’s clearly ghostwriting. But, if you are creating copy that is anonymous – say, on a sales page where personal brand recognition is not a concern and nobody is getting recognition, then this is not a case of ghostwriting.
  • Their ideas and words: In this scenario, someone pays you to turn their ideas into an article or book. You listen to them talk or take their notes and develop that into content. Or they email you a rough draft. It’s your job to clean up that rough draft.
  • Their ideas, your words: In this scenario, someone pays you to write from an outline or transcript they’ve given you. You do all the research, they approve the final draft. Or they might make substantial changes.
  • Your ideas and words: Here, someone pays you to come up with the ideas yourself, create the outlines, and write the book or articles. Their only involvement is to approve. This would include social ghostwriters (celebrities who hire someone to run their Twitter accounts, for instance).

Pros and Pitfalls of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting is usually the first job a freelance writer gets fresh out of the corporate cubicle – especially a writer that’s fretting about bringing in income. Busy people are always looking for writers. Think easy money.

You can get a free education as a ghostwriter if you research and write about a new field. I got an accelerated MBA in new media marketing during my time as a ghostwriter.

Another benefit, stated by writer David Jacoby:

“Some of the best and most rewarding writing I’ve done has been ghost, because (in my case, anyway) the LACK of a byline allows my normally rather, ahem, obnoxious ego to take a nap.”

You don’t have to worry about taking the public criticism of your content. You just write.

However, there are also disadvantages:

  • You may get taken advantage of: A wet-behind-the-ears-freelancer may not have the experience or courage to negotiate a good fee. And the temptation of volume will depress the per-article fee, meaning you work harder and faster for less. Like the Ghostwriting Dad Sean Platt put it, “Ghostwriting for SEO is rarely worth it because most people willing to hire a ghostwriter aren’t willing to pay the rate needed to do a future proof job. With Google constantly updating (improving) their algorithms, only the highest quality content will work. Otherwise, you’re climbing a mountain of sand.”
  • You are at your clients’ mercy for referrals: Do a good job and your client will refer you to other clients. That is how it is supposed to work. However, this is not in your control. You may land a friendly, generous client who liberally shares your contact information with everyone you meet (which was my case). Or you may meet someone who is absorbed in business affairs and forgets to recommend you even if you do a slamming good job.
  • You won’t build your expertise: We all know content marketing is a hot topic. The demand for content is high, and is only going to rise over the coming years. There is a need out there. So you can make money now, but you need to also consider the long term, like building your expertise (in something other than being a ghostwriter). In the age of authorship, being anonymous won’t help your career.

Is Ghostwriting Ethical?

I belong to a group called the Gotham Ghostwriters. It’s basically a Google Group who receives emails with project leads. Join the group and in a given week you might receive a lead on writing for a Senator, a humanitarian activist, or president of a formidable university. These jobs would look great on your resume.

Since joining this group, I’ve learned quite a bit about the ghostwriting community. For instance, there is a fierce level of pride in being a ghostwriter. Yet this pride seems to be rooted in a desire to convince people what they do is not shady. It’s a sort of pride that encourages other members to resist shame. Those in the SEO community can probably relate.

But there is one fundamental difference in the ghostwriting community: there are no foils like in the SEO community (think black hatters).

Could there be a wee bit of self deception going on in the ghostwriting community? A reaction to counter the lonely, thankless, paltry-paid months it takes to nail a client’s voice? Of course.

The dominating argument for ghostwriting is that it is a common practice. It’s a business transaction. You get the hunch it’s not unlike being a paid assassin.

This is exactly what ghostwriter Rob Philbin‘s said: “I watch a lot of action movies and so like to think of myself as some sort of copywriting hit man when ghostwriting. No questions asked. Just do the job. Get paid. And get out.”

Smart ghostwriters learn how to bank off the growing success of their clients by incorporating royalties and success measurements into their contracts. So if your client’s work becomes a best-seller or you’re bringing gangbusters traffic to their blog, you reap the additional success.

The more money you make, the more justified your occupation. The only problem with this is that expediency is a poor indicator of right and wrong. Look at it this way: hiring a ghostwriter is not not unlike buying someone else’s research and calling it your own.

Then there is this: what would happen if your client’s readers discovered she did not write the blog posts or book she said she did? Would that tarnish her reputation?


I recall when word got out that Andrew Sullivan wasn’t generating all those posts (50 a day). People were disappointed, but it didn’t cause many ripples. Most people had a hunch he wasn’t churning those out on his own.

Same thing when Guy Kawasaki admitted he used ghostwriters for his Twitter account. We all shrugged and kept pushing forward. Business as usual.

Which should make you pause.

Violating the Contract with the Reader

When someone sits down to read a book or a blog post, there is an unspoken contract that says the name on the content is the person who wrote it.

Where I come from, we call this trust.

So if a real person is claiming to be the author behind a book or blog but hires someone else to write the content, he or she is violating that contract. He or she is breaking that trust. And losing credibility.

Paul Magee, of Subvert Magazine, echoes this sentiment:

As a reader, I lose respect for someone who used a ghostwriter. There are plenty of people I admire who have had writers do the technical job of writing their books for them, but they tend to be given “co-author” or similar status. To not give credit is to pretend you did it, which shows a lack of character in my eyes.

Think about it: in the online economy, trust is huge. Ghostwriting violates that trust. You are telling somebody you are responsible for the words and thoughts when, in fact, you paid for it.

Writer Anthony Sills said, “I think the average person underestimates just how much of the content they consume is not actually written by the people they assume wrote it.”

Indeed. But does this make it ethical? I asked AJ Kohn his take on this question, and this is what he had to say:

(Ghostwriting) is an established practice in the publishing and speech-writing world. A few consumers might understand that, but most don’t. They think it’s really written by that person and that seems to be … OK. Behind the scenes there’s obviously a market for good ghostwriters.

But AJ then went on to summarize the basic problem with ghostwriting in the SEO world:

For SEO, it gets more complicated. From Google’s perspective on Authorship, whoever is claiming it is the author. So if the byline says it was written by the CEO, then the CEO is the author, even if it was written by a ghostwriter.

So I think it works within the online and SEO arena. But only to a certain extent. To my knowledge, most ghostwriters work with the ‘author’ to ensure that the content is authentic. The biographies need to be told from that person’s point of view, their vernacular. Because any follow-on appearances and discussions about the content/book have to ring true.

Where I think it falls apart online is when there is little or no collaboration. When the ghostwritten content is not authentic and doesn’t really speak for that person. That disconnect can be dangerous, because the content doesn’t ring true and any further outreach by that person creates a type of juxtaposition. “You wrote this, but you’re saying something different.”

Two Takeaways on Ghostwriting

At this point I want to talk to the people on both sides of the ghostwriting relationship: the client and the writer.

For the writers: The first thing every writer should ask is this: What do you want to accomplish as a writer? Is building a personal and visible platform important to you? Will it help you in the long run? If you have to ghostwrite to make ends meet, fine. But beat a hasty path out of the business as soon as possible. It’s your turn to run the show.

As a visible, credible writer, you should build your online profile in subject matters you care about. When you do, your passion will come across (something difficult to translate through a disinterested ghostwriter).

For the clients: Resist hiring a ghostwriter. Instead, learn how to write or hire people who can write for you – in their names. This is an opportunity to nurture a rising star. To move away from a consolidation of power and cult of personality and expand your reach within your own ranks.

This is why big media try to hire notable writers. They know the company will rise with the tide of their stable of writers. They can benefit from rising writers. In other words, there is no reason to consolidate power behind you.

And if you have to hire someone to help you write, give them credit as a co-author. It’s only fair.

I’ll conclude with another quote from AJ:

So you can certainly employ ghostwriters for SEO purposes but … it has to be done in the right way. And in the end, I think it may rob the real ‘author’ of connecting with the audience and building their authority and expertise.

To me, it’s not that the writing has to be precise but that it has to be real. You can feel passion through writing, and only a few gifted ghostwriters can accomplish that for another person. So in an age of social communication and people over brand, I think it’s unwise to rely on ghostwriters.

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67 Responses to “The Brutally Honest Truth About Ghostwriting”

  1. Anthony Pensabene

    i’ve ghost written for people who’ve been on MOZ (wonder what Fishkin thinks of that) SEJ, etc.

    I think it’s sneaky, but i guess since “perception” is so huge in this industry, people feel the need to get ‘their’ writing seen and read… (some owners share my articles, but won’t ‘follow’ me, because, well, you know, who am i?)

    for a writer, it is soul-less, but we need to make money, right? especially, when some will pay you peanuts to write for one assignment, but if it’s to make a personality look better, they’ll throw you a bit more…

    i always wondered what those accepting the written pieces and brandishing their authorship on other’s property thought. i guess, again, it’s mostly about perception to get popularity to get money.

    i’d much rather be the writer in the corner, knowing those celebrations are really for that silent ink in my pen, and not that ‘businessperson’ trying to make impressions/dividends, but i guess that’s why i have less followers and seo bling. thank the powers that be.

  2. Vinny La Barbera

    I don’t have much of an opinion on the ethical side of ghost writing as I’ve never really gone that route. I will say that I have tried to use a ghost writer on a couple occasions, but in both situations I found myself rewriting most of the provided work anyways as it just didn’t feel “right” with the content not being communicated in my words / tone / style.

    My stance on ghostwriting has come to be more about the necessity of the learning process. A big (and probably the biggest) reason why I have not gone down the ghostwriting path for my company blog is that I find myself learning more from writing a post myself than from most other practices in our space.

    What’s that saying?

    “The best way to learn is to teach…”

    Something along those lines anyways. Either way, I really believe this to be true.

    I am also not very good at pumping out posts so when I do have time to write I would prefer it be for myself / my company as opposed to someone else’s. I suppose this is why I don’t like (have time for) guest blogging either.

    I have the utmost respect for quality writers, especially since each article is a big undertaking for me, and I still think that they are the most under-appreciated resources that a company can have. The best ones deserve credit and acclaim for their talents as writing is really an art form.

    Thanks for bringing this topic to light as it’s very common in our industry. I’m sure many ghost writers who are reading this have big smiles on their faces and are starting to question whether or not it’s time to start claiming credit where it’s due.

    • That’s a great point, Vinny, one I’ve heard people complain about: the writer just not doing a good enough job, and then having to rewrite the copy. (That can also be true even when writers have their names on it, too.) It takes time to adapt to someone’s voice. And yeah, I totally enjoy the writing/teaching/learning process. Writing for me is how I think. It’s how I process my thoughts. Even if I have to speak/argue in front of people (casually or formally) I like to write out my thoughts. This is why I encourage everyone to write. You don’t have to be great … just passionate.

  3. Will Eifert

    I’ve always found ghost-writing in the SEO world to be so incredibly cheap, and I’m speaking from having written the now-frowned-upon horrific “SEO source articles.”

    It’s submitted under somebody else’s name, it’s sent off to an obscure corner of the internet where nobody will read it, and the content itself doesn’t matter because its sole purpose is for the keywords and a link. Because of this, no writer is going to spend a lot of passion on it.

  4. Demian,

    Thank you for writing such a thorough article on the topic. Ghostwriting has been on my mind a lot lately. Not because I plan to use one for or want to become one but because I have so many clients that need fresh content for their websites but whom I know will never create it themselves.

    Granted, they could always have people write under their own names (which is what I generally recommend) but some of them want to build their own authority (and are rightfully authorities on their topic) and hence want things written in their names. They’re just usually not good writers or at least efficient.

    After reading this and considering the big picture my recommendation would likely be to do a combination of the two, where 1) they simply pay writers to contribute in their own name and 2) have things published in the business owners name but with a reasonable amount of collaboration between the owner and the writer rather than “pure” ghostwriting.

    As always, keep up the good work.

  5. I think ghost writing is the one writing field that loses the most writers.

    Personally, I think writers need to wisen up. Get in for a short while. Get out before it sucks your writer soul dry. And always manage the client’s (and your own) expectations.

    I’ve found ghost writing articles and blog posts for clients to be lucrative. To make sure that both parties get the most out of it, I:

    Get 50% upfront payment.

    Brainstorm ideas with the client, get him to okay it, along with where he wants the posts to be placed (If I’m handling this part for them)

    Ask the client what angle he wants the content to go in (this step usually becomes redundant after a few posts since by then I know how my client thinks)

    Always send a small synopsis of where I’ll take the post (around 250 words). After I turn in the synopsis, the 50% payment becomes non-refundable.

    Personally, I only take one ghost writing client at a time. My terms and condition and and explanation of how I do things is often enough to tell me whether the client and I are a good match. It tells me how aware, involved and accommodating a client is.

    With one client of mine, I had the voice problem you mentioned. Even though she loved what I’d written, she didn’t feel it was her voice. We found a solution by getting her to write the intro. It was enough for me to catch her voice and take it forward.

    In my experience, for a ghost writing arrangement to work (keeping aside other considerations), the client needs to actually be an authority on the subject, be willing to get involved and invest some of his time. Ghost writing doesn’t mean the client hands off something to his writer and forget about it.

    • Great comment, Samar. Sounds like you worked out the kinks. I should have consulted you before I jumped in. Perhaps I might have found it more pleasurable. Do you plan to do this type a work for the long haul? What’s your future plans? Do you like working for yourself?

      • I just have an unhealthy obsession with working out every aspect of a scenario 🙂

        The way I handle ghost writing gigs isn’t something that endears me to clients. Most of them feel like it’s an additional hassle. Which it is initially.

        I’ve never shied away from ghost writing but I don’t actively promote my ghost writing services. My writer site doesn’t even list it as an offered service.

        As a result my ghost writing clients have been few and far between. Unless they’re actively involved in content marketing themselves, most run away when I tell them how I do things.

        My future plans are to continue working in the same vein and to find a balance between the two. Less client work and more personal projects though. The need to get recognition for my work is rearing its head for me these days 🙂

        Right now, that means take on one ghost writing client at a time (when i have them) and keep publishing posts under my name so I don’t feel like someone else is getting the glory for all of my work. In all fairness though, I don’t hold my clients responsible for feeling this way. I signed on the dotted line. If I feel disgruntled, it’s my job to find a happy medium.

        I love working for myself. I’m one of those new breeds who started freelancing straight out of college 🙂 So except for a 6 month stint where I satisfied my curiosity about working full time, I’ve never worked for anyone else except myself.

  6. “Resist hiring a ghostwriter. Instead, learn how to write or hire people who can write for you – in their names. This is an opportunity to nurture a rising star.”

    Uh, no. For the commercial writing Google is “forcing” every business to produce, what you’ve said is really “spend some of your profits developing the career of an independent practitioner with no expectation of any return on that investment”. That’s not how business works.

    To understand where Google is pushing everyone with this authorship nonsense, look at the Actors Guild, the music and entertainment industries and their complicated legal infrastructure, and indentured servitude laws that prevent me from “nurturing a rising star”.

    As long as Google pushes “rel=author” and the concept of authorship for search, it will continue to hurt writers and the writing profession. A business cannot afford to “invest” without a return. A business should not invest in the lesser of any two opportunities, all else equal. And an “industry” cannot afford to allow a community of outsiders (writers) to assume influence over the industrial commerce, just because Google says that’s “best for users”. For every dollar Google spends learning what is “best for users” the industrial participants (i.e. businesses in that vertical) have probably spent 10,000 or more. Much of what Google thinks is true was actually made true by Google… because search is new, disruptive, and changes the way systems and people behave.

    If you get an offer for ghost writing, it is because ghost writing is the most effective way to achieve the goal (according to Google’s rules). If you don’t want to be a ghost writer, then don’t take the job. And if the only way to feed your kids as a writer (between successful novels) is to be a ghost writer, blame Google, not the businesses that hire ghost writers. Those businesses hired SEOs, designers, PR firms, advertising agencies, and street sign waivers in the past, and will hire whatever works in the future.

    • A lot of what you just said doesn’t make any sense. What kind of commercial writing does Google want? What does the Author’s Guild have to do with rel=author? I demonstrated businesses can invest in writers and have a return. They call them bankable talent. People who draw audiences. And why does getting an offer to ghostwrite equal the most effective way to achieve a goal? That’s a circular argument, friend.

      • Sorry if I wasn’t clear… and sorry in advance if I don’t come back and spent adequate time following up. I’ll try to address your comment here.

        1. “commercial writing” that “Google wants” is everything like a blog on a smb website to “expert description of what you do”. Before Google, plumbers didn’t need to write articles about plumbing, and florists didn’t need to write articles about which type of rose matches which type of holiday. In fact, one used to have to GO INTO THE FLORIST to find that out, which was excellent for the florist’s business. Now Google demands (commercial) writing.

        2. Every time an author puts a byline on sponsored work (in Google’s rel author world), some value is transferred to and stored in that writer’s profile (and identity). That’s what we in business call an “inefficiency”… and the business owner and the writer funded it, not Google.

        3. The Guilds are legal entities created to manage the complexities of IP for creators, in industries where creative works generate value separate from the value they could have created alone. Those organizations are quite complex and expensive to maintain, and again, the membership funds it.

        4. The “people draw audiences” is not a valid argument except for established talent. Promoting a new talent is expensive and may not even depend on the talent very much… without a system to manage the investment (agents, contracts, agency laws, guilds, etc) the indentured servitude laws prevent a business from capitalizing on the earned asset value of a human.

        5. The goals I refer to were the business’ goals, not the writer’s goals. For a business to rank in Google (the goal) it is forced to hire a writer (or as you suggest, learn to write).

        One of the reasons I won’t be back for this discussion (much) is I can’t afford to spend the time… I recognize you are a writer.. which by definition is in some sense (to a degree I do not know) a poser. You may choose to write in a sincere way, with an authoritative tone, based on knowledge you gained from research, in my field… and yet be little more than a troll seeking discussion and debate to (possibly) improve your craft and knowledge. You may withdraw at any time from argument, and simply cite your status as a “writer” exercising in the space to the limits of your awareness and knowledge. Perhaps not actually involved in my field (publishing, hiring writers for strategic web content) at all. Perhaps after your coffee break, you’ll return to writing on topics of disposable diapers or dog training.

        We have a lot of that “problem” in SEO. If you don’t believe me, write an essay about how SEO is dead. It will be well received, and if you can negotiate a byline for yourself, you can launch an SEO career.

        • John, I have a thought about what you said here—

          “For the commercial writing Google is “forcing” every business to produce, what you’ve said is really “spend some of your profits developing the career of an independent practitioner with no expectation of any return on that investment”. That’s not how business works.

          —and I’m curious about your answer and Demian’s to my question:

          Why is spending money on a good or potentially good writer, who writes under his/her own name and uses Google Authorship, something about which a business would have no expectation of any return on investment?

          If an Authorship writer’s articles bring organic traffic to a website, and the organic traffic to a website has high conversions, and the conversions make the business money, and the writer leaves, and the business doesn’t do anything to jank up the existing, high-converting organic traffic… how does this hurt?


          Before Google, my plumber or my florist would have hired an advertising firm or asked someone at the local newspaper to write and create an ad or hired a signmaker to paint an attractive sign. Either those marketing methods worked or they didn’t, but the plumber or florist wasn’t the person doing the writing.

          After Google, my plumber may need a different kind of writer to get me to find his website, or my florist may need to hire an SEO so I find him when I’m looking for a “We Never Put Carnations In Bouquets, Ever” florist.

          But when it comes down to it, the expertise I’m looking for has to do with the person I plan to hire for the work, not the marketer who got me in the door. Before or after Google.

          • That was my point, Arienne. It would be a benefit to the company. I didn’t bother responding because John made it clear he wasn’t interested in hearing what I said. Besides, it’s also clear he doesn’t really understand advertising, as you pointed out.

          • john andrews

            Addressing the florist advertising, I suggest that the playing field was much flatter… the yellow page ad cost a lot more for larger ads and there was only so much room for copy. Similarly, the print quality put a ceiling on impact from image quality. I agree though, that if PR pros had stepped up we would have a very different “marketing” landscape than we have today. It could have been so much better.

            Q: Why is spending money on a good or potentially good writer, who writes under his/her own name and uses Google Authorship, something about which a business would have no expectation of any return on investment?

            A: because the writer will raise price along with recognized value, as the market (aided by Google) recognizes it. You assume that the “good writing” makes a difference (conversions, etc) and I am asserting that it does not make AS MUCH a difference as it costs. In this scenario set up by Google the rewards flow from one set of performance measures, while the business value needs to be measured on a different set of metrics. This is very clear EXCEPT when the performance is “measured” in TRAFFIC levels… which is a very murky arena. So murky it works GREAT for Google and often writers, and that adds to the pain of the businesses (who already have enough trouble trying to make sense of attribution).

            When you say “But when it comes down to it, the expertise I’m looking for has to do with the person I plan to hire for the work, not the marketer who got me in the door. ” you acknowledge that the acquisition is key IF the customer comes into the store (to witness the expertise). With commercial writing used to rank sites and used by readers to choose which store to go into, the “winning performance” (winning a new customer coming into the store) is the writing/presentation/marketing. It is no longer the business owner/person with expertise that you want to hire. Andwe’re back to the OP’s recommendation that SMB owners “learn to write”. That’s wrong.

  7. Scott McKirahan

    Nice post. I can certainly relate to it!

    As far as how ethical it is, if it’s ethical enough for the President of the United States (any president) to have all of his speeches written by others, it’s likely ethical for everybody else, too (whether they are speeches, articles or books).

    I’ve been ghost writing for many years – the least I have ever been paid for an article is $100 and that was years ago. I, too, struggle with a twinge of jealousy that others are getting credit, but money is money. I need that more than credit most of the time!

    I found that I can still have my own identity with my own credit by writing for other blogs that I own. Of course, that takes time, too, and might be the reason I work in excess of 100 hours per week!

    • Scott, you scare me when you say things like that. So when Presidents start cheating on their wives, it is then okay for us to do the same? You first have to prove that it’s even ethical for big shots to do it. I don’t think being important puts them above ethics. Or allows them to establish a system of moral principles. And if money is money, why not be a prostitute? You’d probably make more money and have a lot more fun. 😉

  8. Matthew Loomis

    I’m sorry, but John strikes me as a merchant wanting to keep his costs for writing services down as cheaply as possible.

    Bean counters can keep using Craigslist if they so choose. They will just reap what they sow.

      • Now, now. I know and respect Mr. Andrews. He knows his stuff and has a way of thinking about SEO (his area of expertise) that I learn from often, just as I learn often from your area of expertise (direct sales copywriting). He is a critical thinker who values critical thinking—see Flying the SEO Helicopter. He’s also an argumentative bastard 😉

          • john andrews

            I will dare to say I am speaking over your head this time, Demian, which might be why I “don’t make sense” to you.

            Okay with me, if we discover that, but not very nice to write it off as if I just don’t get it or whatever….”last word” commenting is pretty lame. I already noted your economics are different – as a writer, you only gain from continued debate (you’ll use the material for better future seo blogging for dollars) while I pay that bill (in effort).

            Go ahead and claim I don’t respond because whatever (because I know you’re right, because I don’t have a case, because whatever) just know it’s not true lol.

        • john andrews

          Thanks (I think). What we have here is a marketing cross-over blog, that allows guest posts and sometimes publishes someone who honestly can afford to spend a lot of time managing the conversation (because it leads to learnings…and topical writers gain from learnings).

          I’m not so much argumentative as I am specific in my critical thinking. However, if I am the only one thinking that specifically, AND the “owner” of the page is ardently managing it, then this is what happens. One could even argue that the author is a troll, trolling the SEO community in order to obtain material for future writing assignments (and more “arguments” a la “seo is dead”).

          • John, you were the one who accused me of being a troll … and then said I was a poser. Those sound like fighting words to me. (Unless you had some meaning I missed.)

            And then you accused me of pulling the “writer card” and being able to pull out … when you pulled the SEO card and said you would be pulling out of the comments.

            Those both aren’t very good examples of critical thinking … and neither do they engender further discussion. Why should I answer your arguments (“because someone on the Internet is wrong” is a tempting reason)? Especially since you weren’t going to stick around? Which happened not to be true.

            I didn’t write this article to troll. I wrote this article because I had something to say. I also wrote it (and shared it) because I don’t have a monopoly on truth. I have strong convictions, but I also have blind spots. I want to sharpen my thinking. And I find that happens in discussion and debate. I appreciated your original comment, but I honestly didn’t understand what you were trying to say … so I asked you to clarify. Did that offend you? I’m not here to make enemies. Perhaps we could start again?

    • john andrews

      Not at all… I have a sincere investment in the quality of the web and web ecosystem. I can agree everyone needs a job, but I don’t agree everyone’s entitled to “be a writer” or “be an seo”.

      There is a marketplace here and Google holds the reigns.. and the money is NOT rewarding investment in quality writers. Wish that wasn’t true all you like… but I live it every day and have for 15 years.

      ANY business desires to keep costs down… that’s how they stay in business. Show me a writer who returns value in excess of costs and I’ll show you a good value to be hired and paid.

      • I’m not suggesting that everyone is entitled to be a writer. You are right: a writer needs to justify his pay (everyone needs to justify their pay). And he does that by bringing in value excess of costs. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

      • This idiot named john andrews doesn’t deserve to have his name displayed on your blog. I’m here reading this 3 years later, and smh. What a child. A stubborn child. With a narrow one-sided view. Pathetic or pitiful, I don’t know. He just needs to shut the fuck up because not only are his opinions wrong, they are parasitic (i.e., Arienne Holland thinks he knows what he’s talking about = poison to other people who think the same).

      • Somebody with a mindset like yours is obviously…broke.
        That is why you are obviously…mad.
        Because you obviously fail.
        Especially at recognizing the …truth.
        Losers like you who expect the worst in other people are usually the ones who are plotting the worst against others.

      • Content article marketing. You are a fucking joke. It’s obviously why you don’t understand the value of copywriting. Keep to yourself, or in your content marketing buddies’ corner.

  9. It’s all in the motive and the voice. Your motives matter in that are you willing and able to let go of your visibility (your name attached to your work)? Your “signature” however, can often be in your writing; the way you say what you say. Even if you’re adopting your client’s voice.

    However, ego can still be varnished. You know, and your client knows, who wrote that piece. The elephant is the relationship that a successful piece brings between you and client.

    And, can the creativity that struck such chords in the piece be transferred by the client when their public want to know more – can they translate your creativity into words when it comes to spreading “your” message?

  10. MikeTek

    I’ve ghostwritten in the past but mainly help produce ghostwritten content for clients these days. While I see everyday the pragmatic utility of ghostwriting, I also see the cases where attribution is a lie as ethically bankrupt – though far more on the part of the publisher.

    As a writer must have some engagement in the business of making money, selling time this way is just one of many ways. You could wait tables, too, but why not hone the craft a bit at no expense to your good name?

    That good name, though, requires your best work.

    “Build a good name. Make sure everything you create and share stays true to it. Stick it out until that name becomes currency.” -William S Burroughs

  11. Anton Rasmussen

    I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know there was a term for what I’ve been doing for some extra cash lately. Alas, apparently I’ve been Ghostwriting…

    I keep picturing myself with a flaming skull as I type this.

    For me, it’s all about the work–and the lessons learned. I.Love.Writing. It’s what I do for fun and I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. That said, up until my recent ghostwriting gigs, I haven’t made a lick of money doing it. It turns out there IS a market for my writing and if that means I don’t get credit, the only way I’m going operate in that market is if I get something of value greater than the credit I would otherwise receive.

    And the value is simple for me to understand: I’m writing more than two thousand words a day (for someone else) about topics which I have never written, at a pace that is steady bordering on fast, and I’m banging it out. . . all from the comfort of my shitty apartment.

    More importantly, I’m improving.

    I haven’t seen this kind of growth in my writing since I was deployed to Afghanistan for a year (back in my ole Army days–cue ‘nam voice). My motivation isn’t the money; it isn’t the credit; it’s the opportunity to write outside of my box and to get more efficient along the way. And, can I just say it again? I LOVE IT!

    Now that I know this is actually a “thing” and not just something I’ve been doing for fun, it makes me want to learn more about it… does anyone have some ghostwriting recommendations? In particular I find the kind of “lessons learned” that some of the above writers have hinted at particularly interesting. Other resources? Books? Personalities to follow?

    {in my best Nick Cage voice} …now, to find where I put that damned motorcycle.


    • Got to confess that writing that much will improve your writing. Like I mentioned in the article … when I did that much it was like an MBA in new media, with the bonus that so much writing was getting done. When you have that much focus you are bound to get better. As long as you have someone giving you feedback and it is deliberate practice (see the book Talent Is Overrated). That much writing can lead to burnout, however.

  12. Thomas McMahon

    I’ve done a bit of ghostwriting, and while I wish my name was tied to the content since some of it got on very decent sites I didn’t feel ethically unjust in my work.

    If anything it was a partnership with the client. He had the connections and the follow through, but he wasn’t comfortable with his writing and was very honest about why he needed me to ghostwrite. While my content was good enough to get on the top rated blogs, my connections weren’t and I know that he’ll be a great reference for me in the future if I ever need him to be.

    I also learnt a lot about how much value I give to my time. The money I made from these posts was not worth it considering the time and effort I put into writing the posts. I think the most I made was $65 for one post that went 1800 words, $25 was the minimum for a 750 word article). Now if I get approached to ghost write I quote high and don’t worry if they turn down my services because I know I won’t be happy at a lower rate.

  13. If people can’t write, then they should expect to hire ghostwriters at the standard rates, or stay out of the business. The people that want to be an author but don’t want to do the work nor pay for it fairly usually expect a 100% high quality, “make me a bestseller on Kindle” ebook.

  14. Brian Roesch

    You are sworn to secrecy. A code of conduct as a ghostwriter. A ghostwriter may get paid less than a thousand dollars to create fictional characters, spend months writing and finally complete a future masterpiece that becomes a top seller; ranking number one; selling millions of copies and no one knows who the stunt man truly is who made the author look so fine. The ghostwriter takes the truth to his or her grave. That’s part of being a ghostwriter.

  15. Zoe Stoffel

    So I’m a college student, and I someday want to be a novelist. I don’t care much about being famous, really, I just want to get my ideas into the world to be consumed by the public – but I’d still like to get the credit. I recently started ghostwriting children’s books (not the market I want to go into, but the only one available to me right now) to make some extra cash and practice my writing skills. There was no contract; I just responded to an ad, and now I’m writing these short kids’ books for money. Anyway, as much as I like getting paid and being forced to write, I get sort of uncomfortable when I see the books on Amazon with my employer’s name on them. I don’t even know if what I’m doing right now is good for me – helping hone my writing skills, getting me used to the real world, etc.
    I guess I’m just asking for advice. Is what I’m doing actually effective? Should I get out of this situation? Or, should I do this as much as I can because it’s good for me as an aspiring fiction writer?
    (Also, in case you were wondering, the books are the Legendary Enderman series by Heroic Steve available on Kindle through Amazon; they’re not great, but they’ve gotten good reviews so far.)

  16. I am interested in “For the clients: Resist hiring a ghostwriter. Instead, learn how to write or hire people who can write for you – in their names. This is an opportunity to nurture a rising star. To move away from a consolidation of power and cult of personality and expand your reach within your own ranks.”

    As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by religious at an early age I have been engaging with the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse here in Australia. I have an interest in working with someone to write of the first few years of my engagement with the Commission. My writing skills are not up to what is required.

  17. Andrè M. Pietroschek

    I dunno, if you prefer it called article or experience report, but I think it is a pretty detailed, easy to read and easy to contemplate piece with several mature and professional aspects to consider. Looking at the plummeting depths of my bank loan I already altered my master-plan. To me the notion of co-author (or editor) being equalized for or with the ghost-writer is pretty normal. So thanks for mentioning several aspects which may make me one notch more of a professional author!

  18. I dont understand what is wrong using a ghostwriter. Unfortunately we are not all excellent writers, but we may be great in our niche and want to spread our ideas and thoughts to an audience. Just because I have not been blessed with perfect grammar/spelling and creative writing ability – does that mean I should not convey my message to my audience and I should just keep quiet? Are “real” writers only ones who are allowed to “talk” to people online?
    I use ghostwriters because I am not native English speaker and because there are people who are experts in writing – which I am unfortunately am not. They write in my style and content I pick – they polish my thinking into words just like my accountant does with my hard earned cash.

  19. Vanessa Sands

    Very good read — thank you for expressing your thoughts so well, and in so doing, helping to clarify mine.

    I’ve been writing, editing and designing websites for a couple of decades now. I’ve done a lot of copywriting, which of course is anonymous (think promo materials: ads, brochures and the like). Ghostwriting feels different to me, though. I’ve ghostwritten quite a few articles, and the difference for me is all in the byline: If there isn’t one, then I’m simply the Voice of the Company, as with copywriting — and I can point to such an article in my portfolio.

    If there IS a byline, however, and some living, breathing person (as opposed to a company) is assuming credit for my work and the attendant authority in his/her field, it feels all wrong. The person is being recognized for expertise he may or may not have. When the comments on a blog post are positive and he graciously engages with the readers on that footing, it feels all wrong. A byline such as “Joe Schmoe on behalf of Barb Jones” or “by Joe Schmoe and Barb Jones” would be more ethical. I can’t very well include a piece written by “Barb Jones” in my portfolio without explanation.

    I understand the need for ghostwriters. Not everyone can write! But *if any credit is given*, I’ve come to believe it should at least include a mention of the actual writer.

  20. I’ve never done any profressional writing until an opportunity came up in my current job. They asked me to do social media which led to writing blog posts for our company pages. This is on top of the work I already do, but I don’t mind the larger work load and I really enjoy writing. The topics themselves aren’t the most interesting to me, but the chance to research and do something creative is much more fulfilling than the rest of my job.

    They post the blogs under one of our operations manager’s name since he has more connections in the industry and can reach a wider audience. So I feel like, technically, yes I am a ghostwriter. Even that I don’t particularly mind.

    But now I have questions on what to do to make sure I’m getting what I need out of this as much as they are. Can I list myself as a ghostwriter on resumes and LinkedIn? Do I need some sort of contract stating that I can claim these posts as my original work (to use as part of a portfolio or sample writing) even if they’re not published under my name? Should I be getting paid per article on top of my regular salary? Since I’ve gotten postive feedback on my writing, I would like to try find more writing opportunities, but I’m just a little aprehensive on how to use my current work to do that.

    Any opinions or suggestions?

  21. Such a thorough look at both sides of the coin. I find elite ghostwriting (working 1:1 with an executive who believes in his ideas) to be very satisfying and meaningful. The transactional post-for-SEO ghostwriting is a lot less meaningful and something I would phase out as my business grows.

    I think intentions count, so when it’s a powerful speaker/thought leader crunched for time who needs writing support (or a writing coach) I can full-heartedly stand behind that. If I found out someone worked with a writer like that, I wouldn’t think less of them. However, if they simply bought all the content and stuck their name on it, yes that would bug me and make me reconsider following them.

    Thanks for making us think about it, Demian!

  22. A girl posted an ad for a blog writer in a Facebook group I belong to, and I replied to her ad. She explained to me what the blog was about, which is basically writing people’s profiles, and sent me a bunch of random information about the first person I’d be writing about. When I sent her the first article she loved it, posted it on her blog, adding just a few pictures to it, and asked me to write a second one. After the second article was on her blog I noticed she had signed it with her name: by Jane Doe. Even though I had no intentions of having my name signing the posts in her blog, I got a little offended when I saw she was taking credit for my work. Asked her to remove it, which she did, but I guess now she won’t be requesting any articles to be written anymore. I guess I didn’t know much about ghostwriting and it certainly wasn’t clear to me that that was what she expected.

    • PaulLambeth

      Were you getting paid for it? If so, it should’ve been very clear. Asking her to remove it was probably a more drastic move than necessary, if it was a paid gig. And if you weren’t getting paid for it, I’m intrigued to know why you did it at all.

  23. Navin Israni

    Most of my income as a freelancer comes from Ghostwriting. In fact, I’ve gotten so used to ghostwriting that I can’t write topics on my own that are dear to me. It takes so much of an effort to bring out fresh ideas when you have been writing articles based on suggested topics. But hey. did I have a choice? I was looking at my bank balance dwindling.

    Fortunately, I found a couple of business writing projects where I am writing for a company’s FULL website, and getting paid handsomely for it. Here I don’t care about credit, coz I get to write what I want to; there is no set title to follow. I have a topic at hand and decide my own title and just let it flow. It unlocks my mind!

    Having said that, I am also pretty PROUD of some of my ghostwriting works. I worked really hard on them and learnt, polished my writing. It’s my training ground :’) That satisfaction itself largely covers the wound of not getting the credit (of course, a lot of that feeling is related to the fact that I charge rates that could be called “premium” in my country, but then I also maintain the quality)

    Do I think ghostwriting is “ethical”? Of course, if the content is going in my name, I would want to write in my own words. And if I cannot for some reason, I’ll hire someone. It’s as simple as that, NO NEED to fuss over WHY someone did it. In all likeliness, the percentage of ghostwritten articles by a person would be much lower than his/her original articles.

    What bugs me however is the callous attitude by the clients. Some of them just don’t bother to even read it (collaborations are still few and far between). If I ever hire someone to ghostwrite for me, I will make sure I collaborate and edit it. In certain cases, I may even give co-credit.

    Basically, we need to think of Ghostwriting as a mechanism, not just a tool 🙂

  24. Kristy Elik

    Holy smokes, people! Been reading some crazy posts here.
    Clearly Mr. Farnworth has (without meaning to, of course) irritated what is already a sore spot with many of us ghostwriting folk. Writers are ubersensitive, no?
    I recently discovered and was lured by the potential financial goldmine that is ghostwriting. I didn’t mean to do it, I swear… I simply agreed to “edit” a “friend’s” self-help book. Even though it was an unpleasant experience because our parameters weren’t at all clear; i.e. expectations around copy editing plus proofreading plus formatting, I learned a ton in the process and I’m proud of the work I did, even though it galls me that I am anonymous.
    The book has since gone on to be a “#1 International Best Seller” on Amazon. What the heck?
    I’ve since learned that if a book hits #1 on Amazon, even if it’s for a millisecond and only because it costs .99 that day, it’s deemed a bestseller.
    So I am the editor of a #1 International Best Seller? Can I put that on my resume?
    Is it only me, or is this whole best seller moniker just all a big lie?
    A little about me: I’m a former community newspaper editor. I made a really dumb choice to leave my cushy job to seek something more noble. I’d write a book! Found a magazine! Become the fabulous host of my own talk show!
    I’ve since become convinced that, in this cruel world, the idea of nobility, especially for creative types, is something of an oxymoron.
    I’ve been looking for steady work—as in, get up at the crack of dawn and commute to some silly office for the day, but appreciate benefits and a biweekly paycheque kind of work—for four years, and have succeeded in finding only freelance jobs that pay a pittance compared to the effort I put in to write what, in reality, are embarrassingly cheesy advertorials.
    But that’s okay. I know my day will come and I will write something of such importance that a legacy will be left and my story will be told.
    Until then, more #1 Best Sellers and cheesy advertorials for me!

  25. TJ Ifill

    Hi Demian,

    I have one question…

    Can you be a ghost writer and also have your own personal blog as well?

    About to start ghostwriting for and organisation (as opposed to an individual) my name would be included as one of the contributors but not as the author of the piece (since there would be no one author and the information i receive would be contributed form more than one individual).

    i want to ensure what i’m doing is not only ethical but right..

    I would also ghostwrite blogs for an author however he reviews the content and makes necessary changes before it’s posted and i am using his material to write. He is the owner of the blog …

    Is this ethical?

    Yes i want to make money however i want to sleep with a clean concience at night lol

    awaiting a reply…

  26. This was a great article. You are right, credit should always be given to the author and this should be done inside an employment contract as well. Otherwise, it’s looting. You can’t copyright ideas, but you can copyright the turning of those ideas into writing, so a case of one person having the ideas and another one doing the writing is not collaboration.

  27. Isabelle Crusoe

    I had a horrible experience with a Ghostwriter a few days ago.
    I paid $400 in advance (Payed by the hour), got the first scene from him. He asked for my thoughts and told me I had $200 left of my payment. I read it and asked for revisions.
    After almost a month of hearing nothing, his WIFE (who’s also a ghostwriter) writes me and tells me not to try and teach her husband how to write, which I didn’t, and that his work was amazing. She went on to say my suggestions for MY story didn’t make sense.
    I thanked them for their time, and ended the collaboration. I asked for a refund of the $200 he’d not used, and she said I owed her money. Listing services I NEVER asked for.

    I’m still fighting to get my money back, and have contacted the police.
    It’s awful, the kinds of people that are out there.

  28. Russell Grimes

    I just don’t understand. I can get $300 for a one-page resume and cover letter. I get up to $60 per hour for video script and sales writing. Why are people writing ebooks for others, thousands of words long, for chump change? It makes no sense to me. If I want to write ebooks, I’ll write them for myself. What a colossal waste of time.

  29. Russell Grimes

    I have always advised people to study words, study syntax, study rhetorical devices, study logic. With those tools, one need be an expert of nothing else and their writing business will flourish.