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

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

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?

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Elizabeth says:

    Greetings! I’ve been writing for my content mill for about 2 years now and have really cared for the experience. In my younger years I was a very talented creative writer with a book in the works and in the process of registering for a liberal arts college to get a formal education. Sadly, my family convienced me that “starving writer” was the only job outlook I’d have, so I gave up my dream.

    Years later, new medical problems caused me to become incapable of maintaining a “normal job” and I asked myself what I loved. The answer was writing. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the ability to attend college and I didn’t even write in a journal anymore, so I was really rusty. (obviously) I ended up turning to a content mill because I believed that they were the only place that would take someone who had the skill level I did. I started writing for a .01 per word. My quality rating is still average but I am a whole different writer and have gained incredible speed and skill. I went from a 2 star author to a 3 star author and it will be a huge acheivement for me when I increase again to a 4 star author. I use grammarly and our proofreaders to help with my grammar, sentace structure, spelling, and general quality. Though, some may view it as a selling out, I’m so happy to be writing for a living that I don’t care. I’m proud to say I write for a content mill, because I’m writer regardless.

    Additionally, while you do get a little bit of “whip-lash” from the wide range of changing topics you also learn so much. I’ve done articles on so much; radon mitigation, HVAC, Lovaganza, fire spitting, chemotherapy, expiramental medications, EDM music, teeth whitening, DIY braces, teaching over sea, political campaigns, stock exchance, porn addiction, product discriptions, a suicide prevention PSA, alcholic cocktails, prius saftey ratings, and the list goes on. Its taught me the subjects I love and those I don’t. The persuit of knowledge is strong with me and I enjoy everything I’ve learned through working for my mill.

    Yes, you are a number, they under value you, you’re replaceable, and your content does not belong to you. Thats okay. I’m using my expirence as a content writer to build my career. When I achieve 4 star status I plan to incorperate myself as a bussiness and take on a few personal clients. Subsiquently, when my grammar and vocabulary have improved I’m going to start writing for me again, expand to proofreading, publishing (my own work and other authors), as well as advertising and marketing for said pubications.

    They are big dreams and I know many writers don’t make it, but in my opinion, I’ll know I can do it if I can get 5 star at a content mill. It tests my skill and my dedication, makes me a stronger writer and motivates me to move forward with my career. I don’t expect to be rich, I just hope to be happy.

  • Jules says:

    I have just come across content mills and signed up to two. I’ve actually been learning about internet marketing since January and haven’t earned a penny yet via my website. Therefore, content mills, are a great find.

    For me, they represent a place to learn more about content that works. I like that I can earn a small amount of money while I learn.

    I want my writing to become better. I want to increase the speed at which I write content. I want to be able to research topics quickly, extract the important details and then write it to meet the needs of the client. I know these skills will help me with my personal internet marketing business.

    I have read the above and can sympathise but before my introduction to writing mills I had never even considered, seriously, a career as a freelance writer. Now, though, a whole new world has opened up for me and because of writing mills that dream is becoming a reality. I had my first payment, and yes it was small, this week but I celebrated it nonetheless.

    Writing mills, and their crazy time limits, are helping me gain a whole new level of confidence as a writer. I won’t be using them to create an online business but I am using them, as Heather has written in her article, as a learning boot camp.

  • Ann says:

    Content mills make you think that they will give you the dream job. You get to write for a living, make your own hours, and choose the topics you want to write about on any given day. But working for them is a different story. You end up spending an entire day and earning $50 – and then, the client comes back and demands revisions. Apparently, they think that paying you a penny a word, they have the right to expect topnotch writing. Not to mention you are not even credited for your work and cannot use it to build a portfolio because once you submit it, it belongs to the client. It is as if he/she wrote it, not you.

    Not to mention that the content mill itself sees you as literally no more than just a number. They don’t care that you have bills to pay and are a human being. They will throw you out of the system without giving a crap about the ramifications for you over one simple misunderstanding and refuse to pay you any money they currently owe you – and they get away with it because of the way they have written the rules.

    The only circumstance under which I would recommend these mills is for people who are having a hard time establishing direct connections with clients and just need to make some money. And even then, don’t settle down with these content mills. Make sure that you’re still sending out emails, networking, etc. so that you can break away from them as soon as possible. Anyone who is good at writing deserves to be CREDITED for their work and paid more than slave wages by demanding clients who expect excellent work for a penny a word.

  • I write for content mills when I need to put food on the table. As someone who’s trying to gain traction as a freelance copywriter, I don’t feel that content mills have anything valuable to offer by way of experience or learning opportunities. The mental shortcuts and hurried style one develops while working for them is detrimental to the creation of quality work; I’ve found myself having to abandon habits learned through them as I slowly build my portfolio. The pay is atrocious, their regard for the craft is profoundly condescending, and one is left with no idea whatsoever as to the value of one’s services. A client can write a single sentence, “please research these three sources thoroughly,” and BOOM: you’ve got an extra hour’s work for that $4.80 job.

  • Whitney says:

    I’m trying very hard to get out of content mills. There is some value to be taken from the experience, I guess, but at the end of the day they don’t value your time or your hard work and you’re just another number to them. And they don’t even pay you what you deserve for all your hard work.

    I’m dealing with a client right now who didn’t like my work on a few articles and put in all sorts of revisions. Not only that, this person was downright insulting and even abusive in his criticism. I put in “as well as” a few times and he asked if I stutter in real life too. At the end, he said “good grief, if you can’t write about cars, then don’t.” No constructive criticism or telling me what I should work on to do better, just insults. And the kicker – these articles pay less than $12 each, and they are 300-400 word articles. I was so tempted to message this client back and tell him that at the rate he is paying, he doesn’t have the right to be so demanding. I shouldn’t have to spend two hours on a $12 article.

    Content mills really cater more towards clients, not writers. They allow clients to use writers as slave labor. They don’t value or respect your abilities, they just want to squeeze all the hard work that they can out of you while paying you as little as possible. That’s why any writer with actual talent should work to get away and stay away from them.

    • Carrie Smith says:

      Whitney I feel the same way and am trying to get away from mills. (See my post in this thread for details. I’ve had the same issues with disrespectful clients. They could learn from us if they would be open. For example, “fluff” seems to be a sin, but what if you look at it as “storytelling” or adding a “distinct brand voice” and “unique content”? Those qualities are the ones that will make your website stand out to readers and Google, so quit being closed minded, especially with writers who have a serious marketing background. Anyway, I’m traveling the same road as you! Good luck!

  • Ann says:

    I get what you’re saying. And I have found content mills to be of some value as well. One thing I have found is just that I have learned a whole bunch of interesting things that I never would have learned otherwise, as you have to be willing to write on all sorts of topics if you want to make any money at all. And honestly, I thought it was pretty cool that I was getting to do something that I found fun and get paid for it. Also, with a content mill, I don’t feel the same pressure to make the article perfect because my name will not be associated with it anyway and if the client wants it revised, they’ll let me know anyway.

    BUT content mills treat you like crap. I wrote for Textbroker for months, and because I unknowingly broke one of their rules, they denied access to my account without notice and when I called in, they told me I had been banned from the system. That I was not going to be getting my final payout – which in my case happened to be over $1000 because I had been breaking my back working for them the past week. I just think it is atrocious that the people in charge there would show such a lack of conscience that they would TAKE my writing, let the clients publish it or do whatever they’re going to do with it, and not pay me what I am entitled for hours and hours and hours of work. I was actually wondering if that’s illegal and I should look into taking action against them, except the lawyers would get half the money and it wouldn’t be worth my time anyway. They probably saw the fact that I had broken a rule as an excuse to just keep MY money. Never mind that I was robbed of my time and hard work that could have been spent on something else and that I was denied money that I NEEDED for basic expenses and HAD EARNED.

    Also, some of the clients will pay a penny a word and are just ridiculously demanding, as if they have ANY right to be while paying that abysmal rate. I’m on WriterAccess now and even though I’m a level 4 writer (about 4 cents per word for level 4 articles), I took on a level 2 assignment (about a penny a word for these articles) because work was slow and I wanted to be doing something. The client returned the work because the statistics were outdated by a year. Level 2 writers on that site are expected to deliver piss poor writing, and these people were so particular to edit my work. I almost wanted to send them a message back telling them “sorry, but if you want work of high quality like that, you should be willing to pay a higher rate rather than being greedy and expecting great work for a penny a word.”

    It’s good to have these mills as backups when you don’t have any other clients, but I would not rely solely on them to make a living. You CAN make a living with them, but if you are a good writer, they won’t pay you what you’re worth. Clients go to those mills to get high-quality work for next to nothing. It’s set up so that clients can take advantage of writers.

    • Sadly, it is the nature of any exploitative system that it never feels it has exploited you quite enough. Fine print that says they can withhold your fee after you’ve done your work is just the next logical step after being a content mill in the first place.

      I hope you are planning your exit strategy … fast.

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources

    • Carrie Smith says:

      Ann! That’s awful — and it’s horrible that you cannot sue them for not paying you your previously approved earnings! But I get what you’re saying about paying a lawyer. That’s the worst thing about the mills–lack of respect.

      I’ve tried most of them and clients are very rude, speaking to you in all caps and ordering you to make changes that will kill all the good SEO you put into the piece. Typically the clients know much less about SEO than a writer who’s been doing web content for even a few months. I don’t think they would have the balls to use such condescending language if speaking to us in person.

      I have many years experience in writing and marketing (online and off) but self esteem issues often bring me back to the mills. I’m not confident in my ability to deal with clients directly and provide the “hand-holding” direct clients require, so I pick up work from the mills. That keeps clients at a “safer” distance for me. But mills are also self esteem killers with the disrespect found there. It’s tough.

      Textbroker is one of the worst for treating writers like dirt, though. LOL, they call them Authors — what a joke and such a misuse of the term. Authors refers to writers of books, after all. Cheating you out of your money, however, goes beyond disrespect! Maybe small claims court would work?

      With the amount of control they exert, maybe they’ll eventually get a class action against them for acting as employers, rather than functioning as a “job listing board/matching service” for freelancers. Then they would have to pay a minimum for the hours work actually takes, and pay former workers back pay. That would put a smile on my face at this point. Good luck to all the struggling wordsmiths out there and down with corporate greed.

  • 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,

      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

      • 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


  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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? 🙂

  • Joe says:

    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.

    • Heather says:

      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.

    • Ann says:

      We all have bills to pay. If someone is just starting out, or they have very few clients at the moment, I see nothing wrong with having a content mill as a backup. Right now, I need the content mill I work for just to pay bills.

      Also, while 2 cents a word isn’t enough IMO for the amount of work it is (a lot of office jobs pay $15 an hour, for example, which you can probably make with 2 cents a word BUT with office jobs you spend a good amount of time just sitting around and not really doing anything while this is not the case with writing for a fixed price per word), some writers may not have a choice. Maybe this is their only option. Maybe they don’t have any well paying clients at the moment. Maybe they need these content mills just to get by.

      • Moses Jones says:

        Right Now, I make 1 cent a word. But when I put my mind to it and focus, that totals up to $20 an hour or so (I’m a fast writer). And I never knew writing was “hard work”. I worked for labor forces for $7.25 an hour. That is merely $7.25 an hour digging ditches in the hot sun. While sitting in air conditioning writing 300 word articles at $3 a piece.

        That said, if I was making 2 cents per word, I’d be rich. I believe content mills are merely a stepping stone.

        And I have tried looking for higher paying clients. Unfortunately, they don’t think I write well enough. While I’m only making “sweatshop” money. As of right now, my writing is only worth that.

        Eventually I will hone my craft and move up.

        • Moses Jones says:

          I am coming up with an exit strategy for content mill writing. While I am making more than ever with the one I am working with. I do know that it is going to dry up within the next year or two. Now, if I can earn hundreds a week (at least $300) working for content mills, how much more can I earn in a week doing some real Freelance writing?

  • kiwi says:

    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.

  • Claus Martin says:

    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.

    • Heather says:

      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!

  • Wendy says:

    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.

  • Susan Evani says:

    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!

    • Heather says:

      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!

  • 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.


    Chris Desatoff
    Writer for hire

    • Heather says:

      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.

  • layla says:

    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.

    • Heather says:

      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.

  • layla says:

    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.

  • 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

    • Heather says:

      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.

    • Don Luptowski says:

      Sorry, but an awful lot of you are misusing the term slavery. And I’m willing to bet every single one of you calling content mill writing “slavery” lives in a first world nation. Stop it. It’s demeaning to people who starve to death working for pennies *because they have no other choice*.

      Writing is a pretty slick gig, and not really one you can be forced into doing. As far as making more $$ than the content mills provide, either get better at pitching, build a better portfolio, or choose another line of work. Real writers write, and good ones can transition from whatever they’re doing now to build their skills and brand/business to whatever form/niche of writing they WANT to do.

      Methinks someone is insistent on contradicting the article without directly addressing the main points in order to promote their own coaching/consulting services.

      • Whitney says:

        I agree that it’s inaccurate to call it slavery. I’m not saying it’s ideal, and I fully agree that content mills take advantage of writers. But I am a fast writer and make $30-50 per hour on content mills. It’s not my highest quality writing, but I don’t think they’re entitled to my best work for a penny a word, so I don’t give it to them. I just churn out material as quickly as I can and get paid. And $30/hr or more is hardly what anyone would call slave wages.

      • Whitney says:

        I agree that it’s inaccurate to call it slavery. I’m not saying it’s ideal, and I do fully agree that content mills take advantage of writers. But I am a fast writer and make $30-50 per hour on content mills. It’s not my highest quality writing, but I don’t think they’re entitled to my best work for a penny a word, so I don’t give it to them. I just churn out material as quickly as I can and get paid. And $30/hr or more is hardly what anyone would call slave wages.

  • 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.

    • layla says:

      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.

      • Heather says:

        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.

  • 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

    • 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.

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