Savvy Diversification Series – Don’t be scared! How to Add Ghostwriting to Your Portfolio of Services

“It was a dark and stormy night. A strange figure appeared in the window of the haunted house on the hill as a bloodcurdling scream echoed in the distance…”

Let me start with the bad news: today’s blog post is not about how to craft a spooky story to tell around the campfire. Instead, we are going to look at the other kind of ghostwriting. And there’s plenty of good news to go around.

Behind the Scenes

Put simply, ghostwriting is where one person writes a piece of copy that is published under another person’s name. It’s long been standard practice in the world of celebrity memoirs. But more managers and thought leaders are also outsourcing their writing to professionals, commissioning anything from press releases and blog posts to opinion pieces and speeches. These extremely busy executives might not have the time, the writing skills, or the inclination to put pen to paper. And that’s where ghostwriters come in.

Perks and Pitfalls

As a type of copywriting, ghostwriting is an attractive field for translators looking to diversify their business. Before we dive deeper into the skills that successful ghostwriters need to master, it’s essential to know some of the benefits and drawbacks.

Let’s get the biggest downside out of the way first: You do all the work but get none of the credit. Not only does your name not appear on the final copy, but you also generally cannot use this work in your portfolio or to build your business. Many clients will have you sign non-disclosure agreements so you cannot claim any connection to your brilliant piece of writing, either. Like translation projects, ghostwriting assignments often require quick turnaround, and time is of the essence.

On the upside, though, ghostwriting is usually better paid to compensate for the fact that you don’t get any of the glory. Ghostwriting projects help you forge close relationships with executives. If they are happy with your work, they might well refer you (discreetly) to other big names in the industry. And you will also build soft skills, such as asking good questions, listening with empathy, and understanding different viewpoints.

Write Like a Chameleon

Beyond crafting outstanding prose, good ghostwriters master two main skills: They fully understand the topic they are writing about and can nail the client’s voice. Specialized translators with subject-matter expertise are ideally positioned to work as ghostwriters. If you spend your days translating about contract law, you probably know enough about recent landmark rulings to write an opinion piece for a legal expert. If logistics is your niche, you could likely knock out a blog post about the latest trends for a shipping company’s CEO in no time.

Capturing the client’s voice is a different cup of tea, though. To be a good ghostwriter, you have to have empathy, put yourself in the client’s metaphorical shoes and walk around in them for a while. Just like a chameleon changes color to blend in, you need to take on the client’s persona and perspective. The bottom line is that whatever you are writing, it must sound like something that could have come from their mouth or keyboard.

Get (and Craft) the Message

Executives who use ghostwriters are busy people. Nonetheless, it is important to arrange a phone or video call to learn their voice. Email just doesn’t cut it. Ahead of the meeting, you should have received information about the brief: what will you be writing, what is the topic, how long should the piece be, and when is the deadline?

The call is the time to listen and ask questions. If possible, ask to record the meeting. If that’s not an option, make sure that you take copious notes and sum up what they have said before the call ends to make sure you have understood properly. Be curious and dig deep to learn more about their opinions and outlooks. Ask if there are any words or phrases that the client does not want you to use.

After the call, you can identify themes and consider how to structure the piece. And then it’s time to write. Think about the wording the client might use. Would they use longer or shorter sentences? Would they inject humor or keep things prim and proper? If it’s a speech or narrative piece, you should also read the copy aloud to see if it ‘sounds’ like the client. Once you have submitted your work, it is not unusual for the client to change things here and there. That is part of the process of creating copy that the client can literally put their name to.

Next Steps

If this sounds fun, you might be wondering how to land your first project. As with translation, it’s all about building your brand. An excellent way to begin is to author well-written articles in your specialist field (for the above examples, perhaps an essay on the impact of a ruling on contractual law or a blog post on the top 10 logistics trends in 2021). Nowadays, anybody can showcase their writing on LinkedIn and platforms like Medium, but you should also consider pitching to magazines in your area of specialization.

Don’t forget the importance of word of mouth, either: add the phrase ‘ghostwriter’ to your social media profiles and consider creating a separate page on your website dedicated to ghostwriting.

If this sounds interesting, try and take one small step today. I’m sure it won’t come back to haunt you later.

Author bio

Abigail Dahlberg is a German-English translator and writer specializing in environmental issues, primarily recycling and waste management. She has completed a number of ghostwriting projects (but she can’t tell you who for!). After completing an MA in Translation in 2001, she worked as a staff translator in Germany before relocating to Kansas City and launching a freelance business in 2005.

Over the past 15 years, she has helped dozens of direct clients in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland communicate with an English-speaking audience via her business, Greener Words. You can reach Abigail by emailing her at hello@greenerwords.com or visiting http://www.greenerwords.com.

Switching from science to translation?

Reblogged with permission

I often receive emails from aspiring translators who are switching from a career in the fields of science or healthcare and are seeking advice from someone with the same language combination who made a similar change, albeit several decades ago. This blog post is an expanded version of my response, in the hope that it will save me writing similar emails in the future, while reaching a potentially larger group of career switchers.

Here’s a five-point summary of translators’ core skills, so you can identify areas that you need to work on. Translators have:

  1. Excellent source-language understanding
  2. Sharp target-language writing skills
  3. In-depth subject knowledge
  4. A good command of the translation process
  5. Business know-how

1. Source language

Since you’re interested in becoming a translator, I imagine your source language is already good. The best way to improve is through immersion. Living for extended periods in your source-language country will give you a native-like understanding of your source texts. If moving countries is impossible, you can easily access foreign language resources online, through language courses, videos, podcasts, films, blogs, etc. Reading – fiction and non-fiction in your specialty – will improve your source language at every level. And remember, there’s always room for improvement.

2. Target language

You might think that your native target-language writing is good by definition. Unfortunately, scientists and healthcare professionals aren’t renowned for their writing skills. You may need to brush up on your grammar, refresh your punctuation and writing style, learn to write clearly or improve your technical writing.

3. Subject knowledge

Most translators agree that specialisation is the key to success. As a subject-matter expert, you’re ideally positioned at the start of your translation career. Your past experience will help you produce robust translations and reassure clients that their project is in the right hands. But bear in mind you will be applying your specialist knowledge to specific areas, such as clinical trials, patents, medical devices, regulatory affairs or research articles. Each genre has its own style, format and terminology and you’ll need to specialise further to adapt your knowledge to these genres. Learning about and working with corpora is a good way to solve linguistic problems in your specialty.

The AMA Manual of Style is a gold mine for medical writing and the online platform Cosnautas is the go-to place for Spanish medical abbreviations and tricky terminology.

4. Translation: theory and practice

If you have little translation experience, then an MA translation programme will give you a solid foundation. Nikki Graham’s blog reviews many master’s degree programmes in Europe. Other onsite and remote options include general courses at translation schools, such as Translator Training and WLS, and more specialised courses, such as those offered by Estudio Sampere and AulaSIC. If self-learning appeals more, then read up on general (In Other Words, The Translator’s Invisibility) and specialised translation techniques (Scientific and Technical Translation Explained, Scientific and Technical Translation, Medical Translation Step by Step).

Getting feedback on your translations is important for everyone at every stage of their career. If you decide to dive in now with little or no translation theory, feedback will be a lifesaver. Be sure to check out the networking tips below.

Computer skills are essential. You’ll need to be a competent MS Word user, know how to search for information on the internet and be familiar with specific software – CAT tools – for translators.

5. Business know-how

Business acumen is a soft skill to work on alongside the core competences mentioned above. From writing your CV and marketing yourself, to keeping track of your projects and invoicing, running your own business is no small feat.

The eight-week ITI SUFT (Setting Up as a Freelance Translator) course offers advice and hands-on practice for small groups of students, with ample opportunity for discussion and learning from your peers. One of the modules deals specifically with the thorny issue of overcoming the no-experience barrier and getting your first job. (Disclosure: I’m a tutor on this course.)

Take advantage of experienced practitioners’ books on the business side of translation. Recommended reading includes The Business Guide for Translators, The Prosperous Translator and 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know.

Last but not least: networking

The above points barely skim the surface of what you need to know about the world of freelance translation. Networking gives you a key to delving deeper. It opens the door to on-going contact with peers who can guide you through the first months and years of your new career. Here’s a list of networking ideas:

  • Get active on social media. Join conversations on Twitter and Facebook groups. Meeting and communicating with other translators virtually makes it much easier to connect at real-life events. On Twitter, check out #xl8 , #medxl8 and @translationtalk. On Facebook, join Standing Up, Traducción médica aplicada or Translators for Health.
  • Join a translation association and get involved. Associations offer training, forums for general discussion and terminology, member directories and specialised resources. Visit their websites to see what they offer: Asetrad, Institute of Translation and Interpreting, ITI Medical and Pharmaceutical Network, ITI Spanish Network, Mediterranean Editors and Translators, Tremédica.
  • Sign up for in-person translation training events. If you’re already active in social media groups and translation associations, meeting people for real will be the next step in learning and working with your colleagues. Referrals play a key role in a freelancer’s portfolio.
  • Go to industry events. As an expert yourself, you’ll be able to talk to potential direct clients on equal terms. And you’ll keep up with the latest changes in your field.
  • Try co-working with colleagues.
  • Attend social networking events in person. Going out for a meal or a walk is a great way of getting to know your colleagues.
  • Work with a mentor. Many translator associations organise mentoring schemes. Direct contact with an experienced colleague who gives you guidance and feedback on your work is invaluable.
  • Find a revision buddy. If you take networking seriously, you’ll be more likely to come across a colleague who can revise your work and have the confidence to approach them. New translators with strong linguistic training will be delighted to get subject-knowledge input from you, and you, in turn, will benefit from their translation expertise.

The translation sector benefits hugely from subject experts like you. I hope some of the above ideas will help you on your way to becoming a great translator. Good luck!

Suggestions?
If you’ve already switched from science to translation and think I’ve missed any important resources or points, please mention them below. My perspective is limited to my personal experience, so there are big gaps, especially in US courses and associations, and other language combinations.

Acknowledgements
With thanks to Helen Oclee-Brown and Tomás Cano Binder for their contributions to the recommended reading lists.
Image attribution: Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash