Inside the career of a successful ghostwriter

Jonathan Rick’s writing appears in hundreds of mainstream publications, but it rarely includes his byline.

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Not many people know what it’s like to have their hopes and dreams crushed over the course of a single lunch meeting, but Jonathan Rick experienced it firsthand in 2004. That’s the year he got an internship at Time Magazine, a dream role for someone who wrote for his college newspaper and had long wanted to break into journalism. 

One day Priscilla Painton, who was then an assistant managing editor at the magazine, took Rick out to lunch. “She asked me about my goals, and I told her that I wanted to be the next Joe Klein,” a veteran Time columnist. “And she said, ‘That's great. Come see me in 30 years.’ And she was serious.”

Painton explained that you didn’t just wake up one day and become a magazine columnist. Most of the top opinion writers first spent years as reporters, performing the kind of meat-and-potatoes journalism that can be found in virtually every newspaper, from your local weekly all the way up to The New York Times. “But I didn’t really want to become a reporter,” Rick told me. “I wanted to become a columnist.”

He decided to give it a try anyway. After he graduated college, Rick applied for a journalism fellowship and got placed at The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I was quickly disabused of the notion that I wanted to pursue journalism,” he said. He realized he would never be the next Joe Klein.

And yet here we are 15 or so years later, and Rick’s opinion writing appears regularly in places like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, and Fast Company. He gets paid thousands of dollars for each piece, often more than the per-word rates of other freelancers who write for these same outlets.

There’s just one catch: his byline rarely appears on the op-eds.

That’s right. Rick is a professional ghostwriter, one who pens articles and other content on behalf of executives, academics, non-profit leaders, and virtually anyone else who wants to engage in any sort of thought leadership. And he does all this while charging far more on a per-word basis than all but the top tier freelance journalists.

Pivoting to public relations

So how did Rick bypass the 30 years of gumshoe journalism that had been prescribed by that Time editor?

It was a fairly circuitous path that started with him landing a role in the media relations department at the Cato Institute. “At first I was disappointed,” he told me. “But actually it turned out to be a good thing, because it set my career on the trajectory that it's been on.” Rick edited and pitched op-eds that had been written by the think tank’s scholars, and he began to grasp that there was this vast ecosystem of important people who wanted to leverage the media’s reach to influence the population at large.

His second major realization came in the mid 2000s when then-Senators Tom Coburn and Barack Obama pushed through legislation that mandated more transparency in federal earmarks. “For the first time in history, bloggers were invited to the White House to witness the legislation getting signed,” Rick recalled. “I was not among them.” Up until then, he’d worked entirely in traditional PR, but the White House event opened his eyes to the digital future that was fast approaching, one in which user generated content could influence the political dialogue. “It was at that point that I realized that I need to shift from traditional communications to digital communications.”

From there, Rick landed a series of digital marketing roles at employers that ranged from Booz Allen Hamilton to boutique PR agencies. In most cases, he was brought on to manage the social media accounts for a firm’s clients. “We were dealing with everything from startups to government agencies to Fortune 500 companies,” he said. If back then you read tweets from, say, the Department of Homeland Security, chances are that Rick was the one behind them.

Hanging up his own shingle

One day, Rick was working late at a DC-based marketing agency when one of his bosses came by his cubicle. “He said, ‘I just got an invitation to speak to the American Marketing Association. I can't do it. Any interest in taking my place?’” Rick jumped at the opportunity and spent hours putting together a presentation titled “How to Win Friends and Influence Bloggers.” After giving the talk, he converted it into an article and submitted it to Mashable. The editor turned it down but encouraged him to submit something else. A few days later he wrote another piece, this time about storytelling through social media, and Mashable ended up publishing it.

The article had an almost immediate impact, landing Rick two freelance marketing clients. Over the next few months he was able to build up a roster of clients, enough so that he could quit his full time job and strike off on his own.

In those early days, he continued to focus on digital marketing, but by this point the novelty of social media had worn off. When he joined the industry, older executives were impressed with his knowledge of the blogosphere and Twitter, but it was getting increasingly difficult to justify charging them high rates to manage some social media accounts when any intern straight out of college could do the same work.

Luckily, by this point companies like Hubspot and the Content Marketing Institute had shepherded in a new philosophy on marketing, one centered on thought leadership. It was no longer adequate for an executive to merely do their job; they were expected to also establish their expertise through content published to their blogs, YouTube channels, and even traditional media outlets. Given his skills in writing and knowledge of the marketing space, Rick was perfectly positioned to step in and offer ghostwriting as a service.

Rick’s transition into ghostwriting was gradual. “I don't make my living on volume,” he said. “I make my living on quality. In other words, I choose to have fewer clients who pay me more. And in that sense, I really have to treat each engagement with great care. I want to make sure that I hit a home run with each engagement. You do a good job for one client, and they tell another client, and they tell their friends.” 

Over time, the term “ghostwriting” began to apply to many things other than simply penning op-eds. For instance, a client asked him for help sprucing up their LinkedIn profile, and now Rick offers that as a service. The same went for designing slide decks and even editing Wikipedia articles. Eventually, Rick created separate landing pages on his website for all his different services, rather than listing them all in one place. “So that way, when someone was looking for something specific, instead of just pointing them to my ghost writing page, I could say, ‘I do exactly this, and here's more information about it.’”

What goes into ghostwriting an op-ed

I’ve told you how Rick got to where he is today. Now let’s take a look at his process.

He starts every engagement with a kick-off call, and he first asks the client where they hope to publish the piece. “Do they want an op-ed published in the New York Times, or is this something they’ll be self-publishing on LinkedIn or Medium or their own website?” He then begins brainstorming article ideas, forcing the client to come up with actual headlines for each piece. “Getting them to focus and concretize their abstractions is the most important -- and often the hardest -- part about my job.” By getting them to attach a headline to their idea, it forces the client to concisely sum up what the article is actually about.

Rick likes to get his clients oriented toward listicle-style op-eds that use a handful of subheaders to hit each core point, all within roughly 800 words. After the kickoff call ends, he’ll pull together an outline that he can send to the client for approval. “I'll then go off and do the research and writing, and I'll deliver a draft,” he said. “Generally there are two rounds of revision. The first is substantive, the second is stylistic.”

The engagement doesn’t end with the delivery of a final draft. “Now you have to promote the piece; just because you publish an article doesn't mean people will read it,” he said. “So I'll draft upwards of two dozen headlines. I'll draft social media copy for them to promote it. If they give me their login information, I’ll actually go into their LinkedIn profile or Medium account or company blog and help them publish it.”

If the op-ed is meant to run in traditional media, Rick will actually go out and pitch it to editors. “Part of my job is setting expectations,” he said. “You never want to surprise a client with bad news. So I tell clients that in pitching an op-ed, we’re at the mercy of op-ed editors who owe us nothing and can be notoriously unresponsive. I also explain that even the best op-eds don’t always land in the top spots. Sometimes the given pub recently ran something similar. Sometimes the editor doesn’t think the author is high-profile enough to opine on the subject at hand. Sometimes the editor disagrees with the author’s politics.”

It’s Rick’s pitching success that often sets him apart from most other ghostwriters who he competes with. After all, all you have to do is go on Upwork if you want to find a freelancer who will write an op-ed for only a few hundred dollars. “I often have this conversation with a friend of mine where we ask, ‘Is what we do all that difficult?’ And I used to think, well, come on, how difficult is it to Google the email address of a newspaper’s opinion editor and email them?”

But over time he began to see how bad his clients were at pitching their own stuff. “They don’t follow basic guidelines. They don’t make it clear that the op-ed is exclusive and hasn’t been submitted elsewhere. They don’t know how long to wait before it’s permissible to follow up. These are all part of the art, rather than the science, of pitching.” 

And that’s an art that sets Rick apart from most other ghostwriters. Which brings us to the biggest lesson he’s learned over the last decade of running his own communications business: “Once you cultivate a niche, you can charge a lot of money for it.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.