How Ghostwriters Can Gracefully Exit a Project

How Ghostwriters Can Gracefully Exit a Project

Many ghostwriting projects go smoothly, but sometimes ghostwriter and client need to part ways.

You do your best to vet or investigate potential ghostwriting clients up front. That might include Googling them, checking their LinkedIn profile, reading articles about the organization they work for, scanning their blog posts, and interviewing them, trying to get a sense of how easy they will be to work with. At the same time, they’re checking you out, trying to get a sense of what you’ll be like to work with.

As you hunt, you hope that you won’t find anything worrisome, like reports that the company is about to declare bankruptcy or a lawsuit is pending.

Rarely does information surface that suggests that a writing-related project is likely to go south. And few do.

But once work gets underway, the chances of some kind of conflict occurring quickly rise. Sometimes issues arrive even before the contract is signed or payment is received.

Conflicts could include differences in work style or schedule, availability of information, access to key sources, market shifts, unethical behavior, or delays in payment. Even one of these issues could be cause for a ghostwriter to want to walk away.

So how do you do that without creating bad feelings or potentially damaging your reputation?

Here are some strategies for declining the work no matter where you are in the negotiations.

Before you get started: Decline the opportunity. If you uncover something that doesn’t sit right, or your gut is warning you that this is not a client you want right now, let the prospect know that while you would love to work on their project, it’s not a good fit for you.

I would recommend not using excuses like you’re “booked with other projects” or quote a fee that is multiples of what you currently charge just to knock yourself out of contention. Those tactics don’t always work.

Save yourself some time and simply say that it’s not for you. Maybe the topic is not a subject you’re familiar with and would take way too much time to get up-to-speed on. Maybe it’s a genre you’re unfamiliar with. Maybe it’s not a topic you’re interested in, and you have to be passionate about a topic in order to devote the next few months to it. Maybe you’ve never written on that particular subject and know that other writers would do a better job.

Those are all reasonable and polite reasons to give that will convey that you are unwilling to accept the project.

Whenever possible, make it clear that you’re declining the opportunity because you know it is in the client’s best interest to hire someone else.

Once you receive the contract: Decline the opportunity. When you receive a proposed contract from a client and don’t like the terms, say so. Maybe the indemnification clause is onerous. Maybe the schedule is crazy. Maybe you’re being asked to do tasks that weren’t part of your initial discussions but without any additional compensation. Maybe you have to turn in weekly timesheets or found out that a committee of 10 will be reviewing your drafts. Or maybe you discover your client expects you to work 24/7 on their project and that’s just not what you had in mind.

At this point, you can decline to sign the contract if you feel it is not in your best interest. Sure, it’s a little awkward because the client was probably getting ready to begin the writing process, but you’re much better off walking away now and alerting the author-client that they need to find a replacement than waiting until work gets underway.

After signing the contract: Stop work. Sometimes everything goes smoothly until you send the invoice for a down payment and then things slow to a halt. If you’ve billed for a down payment and have not received it, despite follow-ups, and have not yet heard why it hasn’t arrived, you might consider turning your attention to other projects.

If you’re pretty sure the payment will arrive at some point, you might just let the client know that you can’t hold your schedule open for them indefinitely, but that you’ll be happy to get started once payment arrives. And then move on. You haven’t actually walked away at this point, but you’ve conveyed that you have to focus on getting other paying work.

You can do this at any point in the project when a promised payment doesn’t arrive as expected. Stop work until you are paid and the check clears.

Most payments do eventually show up, but in the meantime, invest your time in tasks that will pay off in the short-term.

After signing the contract: Cancel it. Always leave yourself an out within the contract to withdraw from the project with two weeks’ notice. This should be an option for both parties – you and your client. I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice but it’s good common sense to leave yourself an out in any contract.

Two weeks’ notice gives you the chance to wrap up any tasks you were taking care of, to package up your notes or any materials you need to return, and to bill for any work completed since you last invoiced.

There are many reasons you or your client may need to cancel the project. Sometimes senior leadership changes and the project you were working on is no longer a priority. Sometimes the client loses a major client of their own and needs to stop work for cash flow reasons. Sometimes an event in their industry changes the book’s content and they need to stop work, even temporarily.

And in your case, you may have an event in your own life that you know will interfere with your ability to complete the work on their timetable. When that happens, it’s best to alert your client as soon as possible, so they can take steps to continue with another writer.

Or maybe the client starts adding material that you know is dangerous – libelous or untrue – and you’re wary of being associated with the project. That’s another reason to back out. Or, as one of my colleagues once discovered, the client may have plagiarized some material and presented it as their own. That’s a big no-no that you also may not want to be associated with.

These are all legitimate reasons to back out of your contract and as long as you have agreed that either party can cancel with notice, you should have no issue.

Of course, it’s always helpful to suggest other colleagues who could pick up where you left off, but only if you’re comfortable doing that. Or if you can suggest steps that can be taken to make the author less likely to encounter trouble down the line, that’s always a good move.

No matter what your reason for declining a project, and no matter how far along the work is, always be as professional and as helpful as possible. Because you never know when your paths may cross again. If done gracefully, your past client may also become a solid source of referrals for you.

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Marcia Layton Turner


  1. sahil tbgt on December 21, 2017 at 9:56 am

    ohh interesting……..How Ghostwriters Can Gracefully Exit a Project and you also describe it too nicely……..

    thanks for the information.

  2. Harriet Liesegang on March 10, 2018 at 2:11 am

    Very nice advice. thank you. I really like your style of writing.

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