Even elite ghostwriters have weak points and bad days. While the best typically have a truly unique blend of skills—picked up during previous lines of work and ghostwriting experience—there are some parallels running through most professional ghostwriters.
For starters, they’re fantastic writers who are capable of both thinking like a creative writer and consistently delivering like a journalist.
They’ve also picked up skills in project management over the years, which means they know the common barriers that cause projects to get off track as well as their own preferred methods for keeping everything running smoothly.
They blend a capacity to cultivate their curiosity with their innate ability to listen deeply—and these two qualities beautifully compliment and strengthen each other.
Lastly, they know how to hustle. Great ghostwriters aren’t slouching around and occasionally putting pen to paper. They take their client’s project as seriously as they take themselves, and this often means that even when they are not physically writing they are thinking about various dimensions of the project.
But the highest marks in all of those skills still can’t shore up all the missteps and human imperfections that are bound to happen to all ghostwriters. Here are five of the most common challenges that cause professional ghostwriters to go awry:
- They lose curiosity
- They falter on project management
- They go beyond what’s expected
- They become inflexible to client’s requests
- They’re on Desperate Boulevard
Let’s break down each of these for the sake of avoiding (or at least recognizing) such challenges when they present themselves in the future:
Ghostwriting Challenge 1: Losing curiosity
Professional ghostwriters don’t often speak of this one openly, but it’s usually not because they’re trying to hide something. Truth is, this one can be deeply personal. When a ghostwriter’s primary project is, for example, to ghostwrite a memoir for a public figure, what happens when their curiosity about the story begins to fade?
On one hand, their own thoughts are swirling and they are trying hard to reclaim what may have been a passion they felt at the beginning of the project. On the other, the impact of letting their client know the truth of this isn’t likely to keep the client excited about the project or about the working relationship.
So, quietly and to themselves, the professional ghostwriter plods along and tries to write the memoir to the best of their abilities.
At times, this loss of curiosity may not be evident in the words on the page. But it certainly can be, in addition to impacting the ghostwriter-to-client relationship.
As I wrote about in What Separates Elite Ghostwriters From Good Ghostwriters?, great ghostwriters have certain processes or even hobbies that allow them to stay focused and interested.
Meditation and Brazilian jiu-jitsu are two practices that help me, and most ghostwriters I’ve met have something of their own—be it reading poetry, cycling, or anything in between.
Coupled with this, however, is the need to constantly break the project down. My advice here, for professional ghostwriters who are feeling their curiosity fade, is to observe the project as its various components. When constantly thinking about the entirety of it—and especially the end goal of a memoir, for example—it’s all too easy to lose the trees for the forest.
And the trees, at least a few of them, will be immensely interesting to the ghostwriter. Finding a few of them can unlock new doors to curiosity that get the ghostwriter back on track.
Ghostwriting Challenge 2: Faltering on project management
Sometimes projects simply work. The ghostwriter and client may have felt an immediate connection, and once the contract was signed both parties embarked on a relatively smooth process that was free of scope creep and that resulted in a completed project that made both of them happy.
But that’s sometimes. And even when this does happen, it’s important to conduct a ghostwriting project post-mortem to see why it went so well and how it could have went even better (it always could have went better).
This isn’t some exercise just for the sake of it—it’s meant to inform and prepare the ghostwriter for the next project.
To run a project post-mortem (which in the project management field is also referred to as a retrospective or debriefing), it’s important to dissect each stage of the project—trying to uncover precisely why it went so well or slipped up at times. This is of course far easier to do if the ghostwriter has been taking notes along the way, so I encourage all professional ghostwriters to do that.
From there, I recommend compiling those notes and having a project post-mortem phone call with the client at the completion of the project. This isn’t about the final result; it’s about discussing why certain parts went well and trying to get a few questions answered about how the client believes it could have went better.
If the project went well, especially if it was a memoir or other deeply personal book-length project, the client will likely be more than happy to have an open, honest discussion about the entire project. This is a gold mine for the ghostwriter; it’s a true opportunity to get honest feedback that they can incorporate into their next project.
Ghostwriting Challenge 3: Going beyond what’s expected
As mentioned earlier, professional ghostwriters are often notoriously hard workers. They have incredible respect for their clients and they want to deliver in a way that goes beyond their client’s expectations.
But there’s a darker side that can come of this.
Because of this mentality, and because independent ghostwriters often rely in large part on referrals from their clients, it’s easy for them to begin taking on tasks that go above and beyond what the contract requires of them—or even what they’re qualified to do.
This can happen when, sticking with our example of the ghostwritten memoir, the ghostwriter also takes on the responsibility of a literary agent and spends hours trying to pitch the memoir to editors or publishers.
Or, because the marketing of a book happens long before the book is published, the professional ghostwriter begins helping out with social media or even creating content marketing strategies in the hopes that, upon publication, the book will be a tremendous success.
Again, all of this, even if the ghostwriter does have experience as a literary agent or in content marketing, is likely far outside of the project scope.
Why is this so bad? Because it can mean the client develops a new set of expectations, and it can mean the ghostwriter is likely on their way to experiencing burnout—which can lead them to experience our Ghostwriting Challenge 1.
Ghostwriting Challenge 4: Becoming inflexible to client’s requests
Elite ghostwriters give the whole of themselves to their projects. It’s the best way to create with class and empathy, and deliver in a way that the client truly appreciates. However, it can be easy for professional ghostwriters to go so far into the project that they lose sight of who this project is for.
It’s at this point where a ghostwriter can become inflexible to the requests of the client.
Now, to be fair, the ghostwriter of course should show some rigidity at times. A client with the classic Type A personality may try to dictate the entire project from start to finish as though they are the experienced writer, as though they have done this before.
At some point during this the ghostwriter probably should try to gently reel them back in a bit. After all, in their heart of hearts most clients want the best work for themselves and their career, not the best work they could come up with as the choirmaster.
Still, it’s important for the professional ghostwriter to know when they are in too deep and to know the difference between rigidity for the sake of the project and rigidity for the sake of themselves. This comes with practice and reflection—including taking the project post-mortems seriously.
Ghostwriting Challenge 5: Desperate Boulevard
As with losing curiosity, a professional ghostwriter who took on a gig purely because they were desperate for work may have inadvertently set themselves up for a few of the challenges we covered here.
Traveling down Desperate Boulevard in ghostwriting can be rough. It may mean the ghostwriter took on a project they have absolutely no interest in (which means they’ll struggle immediately with Ghostwriting Challenge 1) and it may mean they’re trying to juggle multiple projects at once (enter Ghostwriting Challenge 2).
Do you see where I’m going here?
Ghostwriting Challenge 3 then arises because the ghostwriter is hustling so hard, driven by that scarcity mindset, and they want to go above and beyond what’s expected so they can potentially get a referral for another great project.
Lastly, a somewhat reversal of Challenge 4 can arise—the ghostwriter becomes completely flexible and willing to say “yes” to everything the client says. This means their experience as a writer and in the industry are often thrown out the window—all for the sake of ensuring the client is pleased at every step of the way.
This type of ghostwriting mindset, one striving to avoid friction at all costs, may mean both parties are left unhappy with the completed project.
Most ghostwriters know Desperate Boulevard quite well. They know the potholes and may even be seasoned enough to know how to navigate around them. Still, it’s worth noting that this is part of the game. While that feeling of desperation can certainly inspire an amazing project and the incredible work ethic necessary to bring it to life, so too can it give birth to additional challenges.
A final note
It’s worth repeating that these are simply five of the most common challenges that professional ghostwriters may encounter. They may or may not occur for some, and they may occur in batches for others.
It’s helpful, before embarking on a project, if both the client and the ghostwriter are aware of these before they begin their work together. This can ensure that both parties are a bit more sensitive to the signs of such challenges, and therefore likely more prepared to respond if/when they arise.