Why Writing for Content Mills Isn’t as Bad as You Think

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I’ve been writing for more than 20 years, and in that time I’ve seen some pretty crazy sales pitches.

“This book will get you out of the rat race and into a hammock.”

“These tips can turn an aspiring writer into a hammock-swinging success.”

“Take my class and before you know it your novel will be earning hammock money!” The ones I see always feature hammocks for some reason, along with that tall glass of sweet tea.

I’ve tried a few, avoided the majority, and am still working daily from a chair like some kind of failure, but one recent change has made a big difference.

What if I was to tell you about a writing boot camp that boosts your speed, expands your focus and helps you get more organized than you’ve ever been?

Sounds crazy, right?

Now what if I told you this boot camp pays you to join?

A lot of naysayers are going to tell you to walk on by, but this maligned corner of the freelance world has a lot to offer if you know how to approach it correctly. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the content mill, the P90X of freelancing.

I know. Everyone hates content mills.

As you probably know, there are plenty of downsides to writing for word factories. The pay is atrocious, often as low as one to two cents per word.

Anything you might do to game the system, like typing extra fast, comes back to drag your time down when you’re presented with a suite of complex edits to address.

And there’s an assumption built into the structure of the job itself that writing doesn’t matter; it’s not treated as a skill of any value whatsoever. Your work is just another splat of fake dog doo passing by on the assembly line.

This view can be disheartening, and the repetitive grind of the work doesn’t brighten the view at all.

Content mills can help you learn as you earn

And yet — here is where the techno music starts building softly in the background — content mills have much to offer seasoned pros and new writers alike.

Most require a grammar test. Take it! You’ll probably ace it, but if you don’t, it will show you any blind spots that may be compromising your professionalism.

When you get accepted, take the training as seriously as if you were in medical school. Take notes. Print, save, and reread information.

If you’re new to writing, it’s valuable practice for the day you’re juggling clients who all operate with different guidelines tied to different style guides. Just laser-focus on what’s in front of you and keep circling back to it until the work is done.

For an established writer, dealing with so many new particulars offers a chance to reset and refresh those muscles, and maybe to be humbled a bit.

The content agency I recently signed up with offers outstanding training; the staff are comprehensive and unfailingly kind and supportive, even when middle-aged writers freak out about the terrible pay relative to the obsessively nit-picky level of detail they expect in 48 hours or less.

I bristled at first. I think about quitting once a week. But I’ve kept at it, and the results are noteworthy.

What I’ve learned writing for a content mill

I’ve always been a fast writer, but now I’m an absolute monster. Six articles totalling 2,150 words in less than half a day? Not a problem!

The work has to squeeze in between my regular assignments, running errands and occasionally sleeping for a minute, so there’s nothing to be gained by getting precious.

I spend more time trying to claim and deliver the assignments, which always involves roughly 25 more steps than should be necessary, than I do writing them. The work is nevertheless high quality. I am definitely more efficient now.

I’m able to balance the workload because this new addition forced me to adopt an organization system.

An online discussion thread led me to the Bullet Journal method, and it’s absolutely perfect for my needs; yours may vary. A dry-erase board above your work station may help, or a calendar nearby with deadlines posted may be all you need to stay focused. Whatever it takes, make it a priority.

Another gift from this this ostensibly crappy job is the ability to write on any topic an editor could possibly come up with, because that’s exactly what the work consists of.

Granted, writing about facial exfoliation one minute, foreclosed homes the next, then pivoting to bang out a series of blog posts for a Unitarian church can induce a kind of mental whiplash, but you do it and get through it, like a series of reps on a leg press machine.

Yes, the work is a grind, and I often look at the pay next to an assignment and spitefully calculate the rates of all my other clients in comparison (the absolute lowest pays eight times the highest rate available to me at the mill right now).

But the skills I’ve gained have changed my approach to work in ways that make it more lucrative, not less.

Prior to my time as a word miller, I neglected to answer calls for submissions if the subject was something I didn’t know about. Today? I know there’s nothing I can’t learn and report back on, and my pitching reflects it. I’m more optimistic, which often helps get a pitch to “yes.”

And it feels good to always have work! Searching for lucrative assignments can be discouraging, but plugging in quickly between paid assignments and committing to a pitch goal for the end of the week?

That’s feeling the burn in the best way possible.

Have you ever written for a content mill? What did you learn from the experience?

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Heather Seggel is a full-time freelance writer whose work has appeared on The Toast, in BookPage, at Zocalo Public Square and a host of other places, all of whom pay more than a penny per word. She is based in Northern California while seeking her forever home.... .

Heather L. Seggel | @HeatherSeggel

Comments

  1. I cannot support the idea of handing oneself over to slavery as a learning experience. Not only does this undermine one’s own dignity (and financial status), but it reinforces a system that makes it impossible for other writers to earn a living doing skilled work. Hurt yourself all you like, but hurting other writers is nothing to be proud of, or to proselytize as a great learning opportunity.

    It’s basic supply and demand. As long as there are desperate writers willing to write to relatively high standards for sweatshop pay (and sweatshop deadlines), there will be no incentive for those who profit off of the content (and believe me, they fully expect to turn a profit that will support them, even if you don’t) to find a sustainable business model. If you are embarrassed at the idea of labor organizers singing “Solidarity Forever” and “We Shall Not Be Moved,” then at least use some basic capitalist savvy as the owner of a freelance business to see a bigger picture.

    Believe it or not, writers used to be able to earn money while honing their craft, back when penny-a-word would actually contribute something to a household budget. It’s not an impossible system. When you instead participate in a system that chews you up and tells you to be grateful for the experience, you help make certain that a higher and higher percentage of early-career “opportunities” will be of the same type. Inevitably, the devaluation of the writing profession will creep upward until there is no real “profession” left, just yet another line of work turned into sweatshop labor.

    If people want to support decent opportunities for writers, I suggest joining the National Writers Union. I have not been a card-carrying member in some years since turning my sights to editing, but when they stood up to Almighty Google in the Google Books debacle, I was proud ever to have been associated with an organization that continues to defend the dignity of writers as more than churners of content to enrich others.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, and am not suggesting anyone do this sort of work for an extended period of time; it’s not financially sustainable for the writer, only those further up the ladder. However, new writers still complain that it’s hard to focus, scary to take on new subject matter with confidence, and that getting organized is often the biggest hurdle en route to hanging out a shingle. I’d much rather clock a tiny amount of money while learning all those skills than spend the time for free. And as an older writer more used to print media and constantly facing changes around invoicing and the other nuts and bolts of the job, this brought me up to speed very quickly. Get in, get what you want from the job, and get out.

      • Margaret Mills says:

        So I’m the only writer on the planet who agrees with you, Heather? Unique situation, but I started writing for a content mill as a way to get back into writing after chemotherapy. (“Chemo brain” is real). All the things you mention are what worked for me – short articles, learning I could research anything, the editors feedback and the push to be organized – were things I desperately needed at the time. Earning a few thousand over about a year and a half was a tremendous boost to self esteem at a time when I simply could not have tackled full-on freelance work.

    • Harrison Zayre says:

      All learning is slavery. Did you get paid for going to school? College? I didn’t think so.

  2. Janet Berry-Johnson says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Trish. When one writer is willing to working for pennies, it drags the rest of the profession down. Why pay someone a decent rate for a well-written, carefully crafted article when someone else is willing to write it for $5? As long as one person is willing to work like that, our craft will be relegated to a commodity, available to the lowest bidder.

    • I think, though, that economics itself solves that problem. The key is “well-crafted, and well-researched.” Someone intelligent enough to write a well-crafted, well-researched article, won’t do it very long for $5. They’ve got to eat, and if it takes two hours to make $5, they won’t be able to do it, portfolio or not. They have better opportunities. The people that succeed at content mill writing, have reduced it to a science that dilutes writing so thinly, that it doesn’t compete with “real” writing. It’s another genre.

      • I’m not so sure about economics solving the problem. Actually, I’ve not seen that to be true. For every good writer who drops out of a content mill, there are 50 more waiting to pounce in and take their place.

        Content mills don’t just churn out content; they churn out the corpses of the writers they’ve take advantage of too. That’s why the content mill model still works. When one quits, there’s always a pool of others hungry to earn their five bucks.

      • This is a great point–the wham, bam nature of content IS a genre unto itself. One that’s a great starting place for brand-new writers, because it encourages them to turn work around quickly without getting too “voicey.” Do it for a few months and move on to better-paying gigs and you’ll be so much more prepared for the editorial process, and able to use your voice more artfully as well.

  3. Yes, Janet, I am a believer in the “one writer” formulation of this rule, because each writer thinks they are just “one writer” and that they are just doing this “for now,” while the system continues to destroy any opportunities for a next step up.

    It is not enough to say, “Don’t do it forever,” “Get what you need,” or “Get in and get out.” What must be said is, “Never. Not even once.”

    Ditto for the below-minimum-wage gigs on sites like upwork. If it takes giving your work away to “build a portfolio” with the hope of then landing better-paying gigs, then the model is built on slavery, pure and simple.

    If you are going to give away your labor for a chance to learn, then do it for a charity whose mission you support.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • I respect your opinion, Trish, but my experience was helpful in that it gave me a concentrated dose of what I can only call skill-updating. Trying to learn SEM/SEO out of context was hard for me, but being thrown in headfirst got me there quickly. And the specific tone called for in the pieces I was writing was unlike anything I’ve done elsewhere (and that’s a wide swath of territory).

      While I agree that working for low pay devalues the industry, being paid while my other work was in a fallow cycle to learn skills that will help me attract more work going forward was absolutely worth it. I quit after six weeks, but was powerfully motivated to pitch widely for more money and it paid off. No regrets.

  4. I agree with SOME of your points, because I had something of the same experience.
    Out of college, it took me a really long time to find paying writing work. After years of banging my head against closed doors, I found a content mill on Craigslist.

    The pay was unbelievably insulting. The first time I saw the prices, I had to do a double take to make sure that I saw the decimal in the right place. But I decided to humble myself and use it as a secondary source of income.

    Really, it was more that I didn’t know much better, because even though I had a degree in writing, no one had ever actually PAID me to write. So, in the beginning, I was grateful for my $3/per article.

    Like you said, I took it as seriously as if I worked as a high-paid editor. And, I did gain a lot of good experience.

    I learned that every piece isn’t going to be a masterpiece. In school, every paper, every journalism class assignment is a big deal. They each require weeks, sometimes even months of work. (Although, most are done in the last twelve hours before they are due, but that’s a different story).

    In the professional writing world, you don’t have time like that on a piece. You have a few days, sometimes even a few hours. A lot of times, you have to do what you can, turn it in, and move on. Content mills are an excellent way to learn hat.

    They also freshened up my writing skills, which had quite rusted in the years of working dead-end jobs while looking for writing work.

    But, the biggest thing it taught me was the discipline to be self-employed. Now, that I’m a freelancer, I know that’s a make-you or break-you skill. I learned that from the content mills. They have tens of thousands of writers, you are just an e-mail address. And many times, the clients don’t even care. They are auto-generating article topics based on SEO keyword trends. No one gives a flying rat’s tail if you do your piece or not. But, if you want the article to pass through the “approval” process, and translate into money in your little user account, then you had better do it.

    But if you take content mills seriously enough, you can create some portfolio pieces. They won’t be stellar, because it will be weighted down with SEO keywords, and no original reporting. But, a well-research web article may open a few doors to bigger and better things.

    But I wouldn’t recommend content mills to everyone. I think it’s more that I learned good things out of crappy experiences.

  5. And my final comment on content mills (and I will stop after this) is that it’s one of those things based on the anomaly of success.

    If you are successful at content mills, it’s because you are one that would be successful at most things that you would really put your mind to.

    Heather, you are already successful as a writer. (I’m assuming, based on your blogging and your mention of diverse clients). So, the habits, drives, talent and personal circumstances that made you successful as a writer in the first place, are what made you successful as a content writer. Not the work itself.

    And the fact that you gleaned so much from the experience, is also telling of your intelligence and work ethic. You know how to learn from your experiences, and adapt to new and challenging environments. Those are habits of success.

    • Thanks for your kind comments and your perspective on this admittedly crappy line of work! You’re right–it is DEFINITELY not for everybody. But I still maintain that anyone who feels like they’re at loose ends, or “has always wanted to write, but…” can use this as a way to test the waters or get battle-ready. I do have a lot of experience but it was out of date/out of tune with the move to online content, and this was a great way to navigate that and make a tiny bit of money versus submit a draft that’s totally off-key for the venue and potentially burn a bridge.

  6. Hi Heather,

    I once thought as you do here.

    I was with one content mill for a long, long time. I wrote over 200 articles for them and earned just over $1,100 for my efforts. Did I gain skills? Sure. You can’t write 200 articles without getting something out of it. But content mills have nothing to offer that you can’t gain elsewhere — and with your dignity intact.

    Just last week I finally decided I’d had enough.

    I deleted my account at a prominent mill, burned my boats, and there’s no way I’m going back. That’s why I deleted the account, to ensure that I never allow myself to be used like that again.

    There is no benefit that content mills can give you that cannot be found elsewhere.

    To any “new” freelancers out there who’ve been slaving away in the mills: you are worth more than that. Refuse to sell your soul to those chumps!

    You think they care about you? Go to your content mill’s homepage for CLIENTS and look at all the big companies who’ve bought your work. Those guys have DEEP pockets, and they’re shelling out 4- and 5-figure projects to these mills, but you’re not seeing any of it as long as you are selling yourself for pennies on the dollar to the mills.

    Get out.
    Believe in yourself.
    Stay out.

    Aloha,

    Chris Desatoff
    Writer for hire

    • Use it as a boot camp, *not* for a full tour of duty. That’s what I’m suggesting. And if you’re ready to jump in and start pitching major publications, stop reading this article and get to it because I want to read them.

  7. I’m in a career transition and have been looking at ‘content mills’ as a way to gain experience, learn, get exposure AND fill up my portfolio. It’s the ol’ you can’t get the gig til you get the experience and you can’t get the experience until you get some gigs.

    At any rate-what ‘content mills” are you/have you worked for Heather…I am trying to figure out what sites will be worth it…thanks very much!

    • I’d advise you to start by searching “Content writing jobs,” then check out the websites for each to see what they’re offering and how the work is structured–they’re all a bit similar, but some pay more than others and there’s variety in the types of things you can write about/deadlines/etc. Most important is to find a place that works with your schedule/interests/etc., and then get in, build up your portfolio and swing for the bleachers. Good luck!

  8. Perhaps not “content mill,” per se, but I’m tried my hand at contract-facilitating sites. The pay is, if anything, worse (half a cent per word if you’re lucky, and don’t count the time you spent landing the contract in the first place), and you can easily spend 20 hours a week unsuccessfully trying to land a gig. Factor all that in and you’re lucky to make 50 cents an hour.

  9. I have following proposal:

    Nowadays we can use a lot of other possibilities in the Internet. Writers can form global teams and agree, to work together, to write about a topic, which is of global interest for instance.
    Everyone can support the others, by reading their artictles and give hints, how to improve them.
    Then they can publish their work as eBooks, print on demand books etc. and share the profit.

    With that method it should be possible, to improve the writing, to learn something about an interesting topic and to enjoy also, to work in a team.

    • It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure how the economics would shake out. Best of luck to you if you try something like this; I’ll be curious to see the results!

  10. If I never wrote for a content mill, I’d have nothing on the portfolio page on my website. That said, I have continually raised my rates and now I won’t work for less than 7 cents a word.

  11. The idea that a seasoned professional would benefit from content mills because they make you take a grammar test is ludicrous.

    Writing is hard work, and I think it would be counterproductive to fill in time between good assignments with work that pays pennies a word. I’d rather rest my head and recharge.

    If you are new, and need clips, well OK. If you are using content mills in a short term strategic way in which you have a plan to translate that into decent paying work, I can buy that.

    But if you are a seasoned professional who is desperate enough to churn out 2100 words a day for $20, I’d suggest you find a different career. This one isn’t working out for you.

    • The reality is that many seasoned professionals have blind spots that can compromise that professionalism. I am always happy to reevaluate and tune up my work, which is one of the reasons I remain highly employable. And while resting and recharging are crucial in the big picture, so is learning–not grammar, but SEO/SEM, various markets well outside my purview and their specific needs, and how content marketers market their services to them. All very useful to me. Not so much to you? God bless.

  12. Heather, I missed your post when it first appeared a few weeks ago, but I’m so happy to have stumbled across it now. While so many of us got our start “working the mills,” admitting that they can help a writer improve their craft seems to be somewhat of a taboo subject.

    Writing for these groups should definitely be a stepping stone, but I know a good number of professional writers who could benefit from being corrected on simple errors in their otherwise flawless prose…

    I’d go a step further even, saying I still am not above taking on work on these platforms, even with my full roster of clients. Last year, I was offered a private contract on Textbroker for a simple translation that netted me a cool $257. As I excitedly shared with my own blog readers, that piece took me a little less than two hours, netting me about $125/hr.

    I admit, that’s far from the norm, but I’d be crazy to turn down easy work at that price, no? 🙂

  13. Some nice read here! The funny part is that when native writers are turning down content mills writing gigs, the non-native like me hurriedly sign up and pick them for pennies.Now it’s about time we upgrade and stop working for the content mill” peanuts”.

    hey, am looking for a good freelancer site that accepts non-natives for freelancing writing work apart from upwok,fiverr and the already popular one.

    Thank you.
    From Kenya.
    Samwel Dollah

  14. Excellent article, and an excellent discussion. I cut my teeth on a content mill, and it gave me the confidence to step outside of that platform and build a business as an independent freelance writer.

    On the other hand, I agree with those who point out that working for 1-2 (or even 5-8) cents a word can drag the industry down.

    Its an interesting problem from both perspectives. I think there is room for both, as the industry and the market evolves. Just as in any other market, there are businesses who can afford to pay upwards of $1, and there are businesses who cannot. As long as the market remains competitive, we are in good shape. Remember that clients are savvy about the freelance market as well. A business may hire from a content mill or from an independent contractor based on their needs assessment and budget for each project. They need not be exclusively one or the other. As writers, we adapt.

  15. I’m glad you posted this! I’m brand-spankin’ new to the world of freelance. In fact, this was my first week of writing after setting up my website, getting a business phone, and a PO box last week. Working the content mills has proven to be an amazing way to hone my skills, find my niche, and bang out some quick (albeit very little) money. I’m using the mills as a training tool to cut my teeth and streamline my process before going after the “big dogs.” Got an extra client or two to throw my way?

  16. Catherine says:

    Hi, Heather

    I am 24 years old and an aspiring writer. I have always wanted to be a novelist. I used to write stories until I dream in letters when I close my eyes. I have always aced my assignments in English class at school. I have always wanted to study creative writing… then reality hit and I became an entrepreneur and everything went crazier and crazier until it just won’t stop. Now I have a steady business and I finally sat down, hitting ink to paper. Yes, I have a kickass idea that I am positive will sell – but the gift is gone. I used to be excellent. I still have pieces that I wrote in high school and I just don’t know how I did it so well. My brain is asleep and I crave having that teacher around to slap it awake with a new assignment here and a different one there and so on. There’s nothing wrong with my grammar or spelling. It’s the “thinking outside the box” that rolled over and died on me. I am going to use content mills to wake up that exact lazy-ass brain that used to be so brilliant. Instead of paying a wad of cash to undergo some course, join some writing group or study creative writing (which I still might do for fun in the future), I think I’ll try content mills. I don’t have to pay them anything, they will be that valuable teacher that I missed drilling me so much, PLUS they’ll give me a small something to at least afford a drink at the bar on the weekend – which the teacher obviously didn’t (ha ha!). I’m not in it for the money – I’m in it for the training. And content mills seem like the cheapest, most valuable way to do it. I hope this works. I really reaaaalllllyyyy want to write a publishable story before I die. Thanks a bunch for this article. It is what I wanted to hear (which happens rarely in this world). 🙂

    Kind regards

    Catherine

    • Catherine,

      I wish you all the best with achieving your goals as a writer, but I still believe content mills have serious drawbacks not only for the individual writer but for the writing profession as a whole. In other words, I really do believe that writing for them is enabling a system that harms even writers who never write for them.

      Have you considered making a list of charities you would like to support and approaching them about donating your “usual fee” for writing content for their websites and other materials? You would still be writing on assigned topics under tight deadlines and often learning to deal with SEO. No, it wouldn’t directly buy you a drink, but you’d get a tax deduction that might free up some drinking money.

      Also, you mention that you own your own business. If you’re going to write content to build up someone’s business, why not your own? Start a blog on your website, and create all the content yourself. No one will pay you by the word or by the article but if you do it well, you will increase revenue for your business by a whole lot more than a content mill will ever pay you to increase revenue for someone else. That’ll buy a few drinks!

      It may even buy a few resources to wake up your creativity and improve your writing skills. It doesn’t necessarily take a whole “wad” of cash. For the price of a drink or two, you can buy ebooks of exercises from places like my own shop. For the price of three or four drinks, you can hire a professional editor to critique your blog posts before they go live.

      Think about your options. Yes, you can learn from content mills, but you can learn at least as much in other ways that do not perpetuate an exploitative system.

      Again, I wish you success with your writing career, no matter how you get there.

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Writer’s Resources and Freelance Editorial Services
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com

      • Catherine says:

        Hi, Trish

        Thank you for the advice. I am so new to the writing profession that I have not even been born into it yet – to date I have never earned a cent on writing in my life. That being said, I don’t think I am in any position to debate about any of this until I have tried it out myself. But I will definitely take to heart what you said and explore other options. Can’t hurt, right? 🙂

        Kind regards

        Catherine

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  1. […] got my start writing for content mills when I was 18. Do I always recommend them? No, but they did help me get […]

  2. […] pentru unii sau alții, fabricile de conținut nu sunt atât de rele. Până la urmă, pe oriunde treci poți […]

  3. […] others however expertise had been too flurry and futile. But, According to Heather L. Seggel at http://thewritelife.com/why-writing-for-content-mills-isnt-as-bad-as-you-think/, content mills offer quality jobs, nice experience and high paying jobs due to majority of reasons. […]

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