What is life as a freelance ghostwriter like?
By Ed M.
I began freelancing while living in Boston, when I couldn’t get a journalism job after graduating from college during the “stagflation” of the late 1970s. My focus of study was in history and newspaper work—talk about impractical! So my first published pieces were in the East Boston Community News, published near Logan Airport, and in a free entertainment weekly. These didn’t pay much, but I was able to build up a portfolio of published pieces. I also made contacts with skilled journalists who later became editors at the Boston Globe.
In time, paid pieces came along from more established publications like the Globe and the Boston Herald. Some of these articles were fun: one was on a record-setting team of recumbent (horizontal) cyclists at MIT, who set the world’s land speed record for non-motorized vehicles. The need to pay the bills made me get contract work with Massachusetts’ then-burgeoning computer industry, which consisted largely of the smaller-scale “minicomputers” made by the likes of Digital Equipment, and the first word processors made by Wang Labs. Knowledge of word processing proved very remunerative at a time when almost every writer and editor worked with a typewriter.
I landed interesting work with the computer firm Data General at the time it became famous as the company in Tracy Kidder’s classic popular technology book, Soul of a New Machine. I received a real education in computer science, which led to work of increasing responsibility and pay in technical writing in other Boston-area computer firms, including Dun and Bradstreet Inc., which also provided experience in the financial and business realms. However, I longed to write in my chosen fields of history and politics. So I moved to Washington, D.C., and got a master’s degree at George Washington University.
The degree combined old and newfound interests: in politics and foreign affairs, in business and economics, and in science and technology. I would go on to write extensively in all these fields. On graduation, I found myself hurting for money again–in the tough recession of the early 1990s. I fell back on technical writing to make ends meet, and continued to write for fun on the side, especially in two favored fields, humor writing and “expository writing,” that is, speech writing. Then I was the recipient of two lucky breaks.
Jay Leno had recently replaced Johnny Carson as “Tonight Show” host, and I mailed him a stack of my humor writing. To my shock, he wrote back to me, asking me to be a free-lance joke writer for the show. For two years, I faxed jokes to his staff, and every weekday night sat down expectantly in front of the TV to watch his opening monologue. If a joke was used, I got paid as piece work. I never got invited to join Leno’s permanent staff in LA, and the pay was modest, but the gig was a real feather in my cap.
Life as a Freelance Ghostwriter Continues
Around the same time, 1991-92, I took a stack of my political musings and sent them off to the White House of President George H. W. Bush. Again to my shock, I got a letter back–from the Deputy White House Chief of Staff (a Mr. Robert Zoellick who would later run the World Bank)–asking me to contribute speech material to the 1992 presidential campaign. Bush lost his re-election bid, either because he didn’t listen to my advice enough, or listened to it too much, but I had another great job to put on my resume.
The Leno and White House work, along with other published articles, helped me get a big break–a contract with Random House and Crown Publishing for two books of political humor: The Politically Correct Guide to American History and The Politically Correct Guide to the Bible. Nation-wide radio campaigns to support these books ensued. These books weren’t bestsellers, so the need to pay the bills reared its head again. By the late 1990s the Internet was taking off, and I read every book I could on the new technology. This helped me land a job in Maryland as a tech writer for Celera Genomics, the company that famously mapped, or “sequenced,” the human genome.
This biotech experience in turn led to a job as speechwriter for the CEO of a major drug company, Human Genome Sciences. And my political humor experience helped me find work as one of those fabled “Editors of Time-Life Books,” where I worked on such published books as Inside the CIA. Since then, I’ve often worked in technical writing and editing while pursuing intriguing free-lance projects.
I’ve co-written or written the following history and political books: America from A to Z, Armchair Reader: World War II, and Amazing Book of History. Also a book on the Internet, Secure Internet Practices, and an unpublished, “ghosted” “autobiography” of tech pioneer Rocco Martino, an early innovator in space flight and electronic funds transfers. And I’ve ghost-written two lengthy corporate histories of Fortune 100 pharmaceutical firms, Pfizer, Inc., and Abbott Labs, which allowed me to combine my graduate work in science, business, and public affairs.
Most recently, drawing on my experience in promoting books, I’ve been an adviser on social marketing for the CEO of a financial services firm. And now I am working for Ghost Writer, Inc., a new almost steady job for me as a freelance ghost writer. I take incoming work leads on and try to convince clients to hire my services as a freelance ghost writer or book editor of their cherished works. This isn’t hard for me, for in my career, I’ve learned that every job you worked, and everything you learn, can be put to good use in the writing and editing profession.