Arts and Culture

What it’s like to be a Ghostwriter

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As my days, weeks, and last year has gone, I woke to the construction violence outside my saw-dusted window. Usually, it’s too dark to see the hanging avocados or the flicker of parrots silhouette against Karl the Fog’s presence, making the sounds outside reign supreme. Just another day in Covid-19 America, I told myself.

How long had it been going on? I wondered that morning, peeling my limp corpse out of bed at 530AM like a rotten, stubborn banana. At least since last March. Oh God…has it been a year? Is this my pandemic-versary?

Coffee ground and brewing, my Athletic Greens drank (I am the biggest sucker for Podcast endorsements you will ever meet) I ambled to my office to check on my UpWork account where I work as a ghostwriter. The platform was something I got into back in March 2020 when everything shut down, and everyone was shut-in.

Upwork is a web-based platform that brings visibility and trust to remote work. Its success derives from easy access to a large pool of proven talent, with workers able to enjoy freedom and flexibility to find jobs online. There are millions of jobs posted on Upwork annually, where independent professionals earn money by providing companies with over 5,000 skills across more than 70 categories of work. I lean more towards creative writing and ghostwriting, but there are many different avenues one could go depending on their expertise.

Upwork at first was half distraction from my real work as a fiction writer and half validation as a writer, considering I was getting paid. Most literary journals, at least the ones I was looking to get into, didn’t pay, where these clients did, however weird the project was. Over this strange, terrible year, though, I have come to see Upwork not only as a financial means or a distraction, but a thriving market with people excited about a multitude of projects.

“Ah,” I said aloud, ready to get to work. “Let’s get this done, five-part romance novella.”

After writing for a couple of hours, I received a proposal to write about ten different dog foods from the first-person perspective of a canine. After you build your personal profile on Upwork’s platform and have a decent amount of work under it, clients start to reach out to you, which is a great tool if you’re not a fan of scouring their potential job boards. I clicked on the invitation. 

“I can do this,” I said, reading the details and noting the price of a thousand dollars. “I got my BFA in acting. How hard could it be?”

As I finished up my proposal describing my top three types of meat, “a puppers lovers,” I got a ping from a long-standing client, a contact by the name of Elk-Nuts Incorporated. I was transcribing his screenplay into a novel. I know it’s not the usual way of doing this kind of thing but, they were not a usual client. Another thing I found: all clients love is to be accessible. Upwork has an app that I constantly use and makes communication with clients seamless. 

“Lot of good stuff here,” Elk-Nuts wrote. “Try to cut as much exposition as you can. I feel like it slows the action down. Also, make sure to send everything to my wife. I don’t read any of your pages. She’s the reader. I hate reading.”

I stepped away from my computer a little frustrated by this remark and picked up George Saunders’s most recent book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, where he quoted Bill Buford, a fiction editor of the New York Yorker: “Well, I read a line. And I like it…enough to read the next.”

I told myself that even if my client wasn’t interested in the work, I sure as hell could be, and that was enough.

There are challenges to being creative while, at the same time, working with non-creatives. Most of my clients don’t write. They have ideas, send me an outline, then I write everything, where they then publish it under their name. That’s the job of a ghostwriter. 

I sat back down and saw that Elk-Nuts also wrote, “You’re making this entire process better.” I realized that simply supporting a client’s idea and seeing the beauty in their silly, full-of-holes, secret agent screenplay or their mystery/thriller novella or their short stories was actually the point. It’s one of the most important parts of being a top-rated freelancer.

As I ran Grammarly through the romance novella edit (I highly suggest trying Grammarly out if you can swing the cost), I got a few notes about my dog food proposal. Tweaking some sentences here, cutting some overdone details there (I tend to do that a lot), I was approved. Checking one’s ego at the door when it comes to taking criticism and being flexible is key. It is the groundwork for a healthy, pleasant, and professional relationship with clients. On top of that, it almost always ensures a great review once the project is finished, another essential asset to have on one’s profile.

Top 3 Tips to Working on Upwork

– When you’re working on a project for a client, make it your best work. The higher the quality of work that you do for your clients, the more jobs you’ll get in the future.

– Be active. By regularly submitting proposals and being active on the site, you increase your chances of being included on Upwork search results.

– Find your niche. The more you focus on specific skill sets, the easier it will be for you to grow your business.

As I finished up for the day, the construction noise going from warlike to bearable, I saw I got another invitation to interview. The project was writing a memoir about a former clown. They included a picture that I couldn’t help but laugh at. That’s one of the best things about Upwork: every day is a new adventure.

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Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.