When you work as a ghostwriter (aka without credit), building a portfolio becomes even harder as a beginner. One of the hardest parts about freelancing is landing that first job, but if that first job can’t be used in a portfolio, applying to the second job will be just like applying to the first: no samples, no past projects on your resume, nothing but a prayer. How do you prove that you’ve been a ghostwriter and that you know how to do the work without breaking the ghostwriting code or violating an NDA (nondisclosure agreement)? It’s not impossible. You can still build up a nice portfolio as a ghost without breaking any rules or contracts. It just takes a little extra finesse.
I’m going to give you several tips and tricks that you can combine how you wish, but this is the big boy that should always be hanging around the portfolio playground. Need a project list or details on your resume? No problem. The fact that you can’t divulge the name of the author/client or the article/blog post/book doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the work you did for the project. Below are two examples from my LinkedIn project list.
Self-Help for Parents of Addicted Teens Ghostwrite
For this ongoing project, I am writing a 200+ page manuscript for parents of drug-addicted teens compiled from the outlines and blog posts of a professional sober home and rehab consultant. Through phone interviews and the client’s personal writings, I work to capture the client’s voice and craft his knowledge into a cohesive book that will serve as an in-depth guide for parents struggling to figure out the next steps for their children’s recovery.
Cozy Mystery Series Ghostwrite
January 2016 – April 2016
I wrote four cozy mystery books for Tiffany Ladega’s private company, Inspire Publications. Each book was roughly 50 pages and followed female amateur sleuths who solve murder mysteries in their small towns using enthusiasm, skill, intelligence, and a whole lot of heart. I helped point out parts of the plots that were inconsistent, unrealistic, or illogical to Miss Ladega when necessary and brought her outlines to life.
You will note that in the second one, I mentioned a name. That is because Miss Ladega’s name is not on those books I ghostwrote. I worked for her company as an outsourced freelancer. She is one of my references. What you want to avoid is someone being able to google the name of the author on the book and the book title and knowing exactly which book you ghostwrote, as the client doesn’t usually like to see comments on their Amazon page that say, “I heard this was ghostwritten.” If you keep those two things out of it, though, you have free rein to talk about the scope of the book, the topic (without specific details like character names), your responsibilities, and your work methods, which can help you land another similar project.
When you’re applying to a ghostwriter want ad and you’ve just given a description of your work on a similar project, it’s always nice to be able to slip in a line that says, “I will be happy to provide you with that client’s contact information upon request.” In lieu of a sample from the work, you can get your old client to give a reference. In fact, in some cases, that may be better than a sample. Why? As a ghostwriter, it’s your job to capture each client’s voice, but not every client’s voice will be the same. For instance, the author of that book on addiction recovery is very high energy, curses frequently, and is extremely blunt. While I thoroughly enjoyed working under that unique voice, it isn’t going to jive with everyone, and I would hesitate to send that sample to a prospective client whose voice I was totally unfamiliar with. However, I will give out his info for a reference in a heartbeat. He’s a very kind and enthusiastic person, and he’ll talk me up something fierce. Glowing recommendations are often better than a brief sample.
You still need to get permission for that reference, though, because you’re divulging the client’s name in doing so. I’ve never had anyone refuse when I asked, though. With a reference like that, the client’s name isn’t posted online in your portfolio and it’s not even in your first email; it’s divulged to a single person who specifically requested it, and most clients don’t have a problem with that. And actually, so far, I’ve never had a prospective client ask for reference information. My project lists and the fact that I can provide references seem to be enough at this point.
Yes, you read that right. You can still have samples as a ghost; it just works a little differently.
Every ghostwriting contract has a whole section on handing all rights over to the author/client. However, my standard ghostwriting contract has a clause within that section which states that though I relinquish all rights and royalties to the finished product, I am entitled to a 2-3 page portfolio sample that will only be divulged to a third party if the party signs an NDA. It also stipulates that I will never put the sample online. Put simply, this means I can give a sample if a prospective client requests one, but the new client needs to sign an agreement that says they will never distribute the material or reveal that it was ghostwritten. You can work this out however you want. You could also work it out so that no NDA has to be signed, but no information about the project other than the sample is divulged. So, you can send the writing sample, but you don’t tell the new client the author’s name or the title of the book the sample came from.
All that should be worked out with your client. Don’t just slip that clause in and never mention it. Yes, the client ought to thoroughly read the contract before signing, but out of common decency, you ought to mention that the clause is in there. You should also explain why it is. Say something like, “I include that clause as part of my standard contract because without samples, I can’t prove my work experience and build my portfolio.” Then go onto explain that it will never be posted online and will only be divulged through a direct request. If the client still doesn’t want you to disclose any samples in any fashion, I suggest letting him or her know that you’ll have to up the cost if you’re not going to be able to use this project for your portfolio at all.
Again, so far, I haven’t had anyone directly request a sample. My portfolio and many of my pitches/applications state that I can provide them if an NDA is signed, but no one has asked for one after I mentioned that. Honestly, in ghostwriting, your extreme protection of your past clients’ projects is going to be attractive to your prospective clients.
There is one particular ghostwriting project in my portfolio that seemingly breaks all the rules. It mentions the client’s name and the titles of the books I did for her, and it has viewable samples. It was my very first ghostwriting project. I was paid pennies for those books because I had no real clue I could be paid any better (and, honestly, the client didn’t know any better either). When I started looking for more work and it hit me how hard making a ghostwriting portfolio would be, I asked the client if I could use samples from her books in my portfolio. I told her I wouldn’t mention her name or the books anywhere in the portfolio listing, and I would only release the samples upon request and with a signed NDA. She ended up responding that I could use it all (her name, the books’ names, and short samples) on my online portfolio! I have kept those emails as proof because that wasn’t in the original contract. Honestly, it’s extremely rare that you will get this lucky, but you never know. I’m extremely grateful that those projects I was paid so little for are actually helping me in big ways. I’ve sent those samples out many times, and the ratings those books received by the people who actually read them have helped my reputation immensely. However, I always mention that those samples and information are divulged with written consent from the author. Remember, your new clients want to know you will protect their work, so if you do get an awesome client who is willing to let you use all that good stuff freely, make sure your new clients know you have total permission to do so.
Never hesitate to ask your clients if you can use samples. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know, and you’ll make things way harder for yourself. You deserve to be able to use your hard work to further your career. Just approach the situation respectfully, and always start out with the most restrictive rules. If the client is okay with looser terms, let them tell you that, and always be sure to thank them enthusiastically; that’s a huge deal.
When you first jump into ghostwriting, your portfolio is one of those things that makes you grab a chunk of your hair, pull a helpless face, and go, “What the hell do I do? Where do I even start?” You’re still not too familiar with the rules of the business, and you’re super nervous about accidentally breaking them. You may not have ever compiled a freelancer portfolio before, much less one that has NDA’s and confidentiality clauses involved. So, I hope these tips have eased your mind. Just because you work as a ghost doesn’t mean your portfolio has to be a ghost town of phantom projects you can never get credit for. Just remember to err on the side of overly protective when it comes to your clients’ identities and projects, and use the workarounds above to keep your career moving forward.