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

65 comments

  • Annette says:

    I do agree that you learn a lot of random information from writing for content mills, which can be kind of cool. But the thing is that you can get those same learning experiences writing for actual clients who will pay you better and treat you better.

    I’m on Textbroker right now, and half of my articles get sent back for supposed “identical wording” to other articles even though the wording is not identical at all. One of them was actually not even based on internet research at all and STILL sent back for supposed plagiarism. It’s total BS. I don’t have the time or money to do copyscape searches on all of my articles, especially considering the slave wages that Textbroker pays.

    I would advise anyone who is writing for a content mill to ONLY use it as a backup, as some others have said. Only when you’re not getting enough legit work and just need money to be able to pay your bills. That’s what I’m doing right now because I don’t have enough work from my direct clients. But when you’re having to work for content mills, also be doing everything you can to get away from them at the same time – send out emails, do everything you can to find new clients.

    Content mills will suck you dry and expect excellent, flawless work for a penny a word. It’s beyond ridiculous. They are set up in a way that caters to clients and exploits writers.

  • Charles Shorrock says:

    Heather –

    Thanks for sparking a lively discussion. It is a particularly timely one for me, as someone who is considering taking the plunge in to freelance writing.

    The majority of my peers have held at least one (and often more) entry level job or internship that they would call miserable. It is worth noting, I think, that the most successful of the bunch generally finish the story with all lessons they learned from it.

    I’m planning on checking out all my options, including the mills, to learn and grow as a writer. Even if this was not a new path for me (which it is), I agree that we can always find areas to improve or skills to refresh. This is true regardless of how long we may have been doing something.

    I think the key approach in any undertaking is to be authentic. Know what Is important to you and make choices that are in line with your values. So if you truly don’t believe there is something beneficial to be gained, then absolutely walk away. In my case, I would say this aligns with my belief in “nothing ventured nothing gained”.

    I’ll let you know how it goes. If nothing else, I bet I can get a good story out of it!

  • Robert A- says:

    I actually took the time to read ALL the posts here. I think the problem we’re dealing with is the international economy. Globalization, easy internet access and English taugh as early as kindergarden in some countries means as writers we are competeing with people from all over the world. They need little to meet their basic needs and as such have found writing to be a substancial financial windfall. Many start website themselves and hence you end up with people not concerned with Craft but to whom you are “e pluribis unum” .

    Dealing with content mills it seems that it is the easier road to go when just starting out – which like boot camp is a painful learning experience. You graduate or you get kicked out, but I can’t imagine anyone stays in boot camp a day longer then need be.

    Like many things in life, probably better to have several exit stratigies before singing up.

    Type on

  • Debbie Dey says:

    Heather, I absolutely agree with your views on content mills. I, too, started out writing for one (no, I didn’t play the field.) I actually had a good experience and learned a lot about writing for the web. I’d been used to writing in an office/print environment and SEO, html, B2B, and all the other jargon was foreign to me. I quickly connected with clients that requested my services with higher-paying direct orders and even some fairly lucrative teams.

    No, it isn’t something I wanted to do forever, but it instilled some confidence to go out and find my own clients that value my work. I’ll soon be launching a home improvement website with a client/mentor/partner. I’ve come a long way and may never have done it without the help of a content mill.

  • Carlie says:

    This is such an interesting discussion! I am not currently writing for content mills, but I have in the past. I thought it was a good learning experience. It gave me the confidence I needed to go out and get better writing work. I’m working on a blog post right now about how I became a full-time writer and came across this post as I was doing research. 🙂

  • Kpopost says:

    I must say my experience with agencies is that you can easily get $50 for just 500 words. I often get $60 or even $70 depending on the agency. Longer posts, of course, mean even more money.

    I love writing for agencies: they GET the need for good writers and they pay promptly; they are pretty easy to land as clients, so long as you have some experience. My own experience working with businesses directly is that they can be much longer in paying. In addition, I love the “regular” work — and payment schedule — an agency provides.

    Agencies NEED writers. What’s more, they KNOW they NEED writers. Hence it’s a relatively easy sell. I would say anyone with some experience should start marketing to agencies and go no lower than $50 for 500 words. You’ll have to show you’re worth the $50, of course (hence the need for writing experience), but with some – not necessarily a lot — concentrated marketing effort, you could easily find yourself well-booked quickly.

  • Dave Mashburn says:

    Layla said, “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.”

    That’s dead wrong. I live in a small RV in a nice RV park/retirement community in the mountains that’s paid for. I pay $2600 a year to lease the property my RV is on, but much of that gets waived because I help out with chores around the park at times. I pay about $50 electricity per month, $7 for phone minutes, use EBT for food. I have no transportation costs, since I have no car. Water and Wifi are included in my lot lease. I walk the 1/4 mile to the store when I need food. At times, I ride a bike or catch the county bus for $3 if I really need to go somewhere. Sometimes I catch rides with neighbors.

    In 2015 and 2016, I spent about $5000 total, each year. I worked about five hours per weekday for a few content mills, making on average about $5 an hour.

    I spent the rest of my time doing whatever I wanted. I saved about $1500 each year.

    There are lots of ways to live quite well on next to nothing, especially if you live in a rural area and aren’t materialistic. I’m healthier and happier than I’ve ever been and if necessary, can easily pay my bills doing HITS on Mturk using Hitscraper and Panda — which I do at times, and make about $5 an hour up to five hours a day, taking surveys.

    Plenty of people live with mom and dad, have roommates, have no/low rent, etc etc. So yeah, what Janet said is right, “As long as one person is willing to work like that, our craft will be relegated to a commodity, available to the lowest bidder.”

    Content mills are basically designed for people like me. I’m very grateful for their existence and they’ve been the best thing that ever happened for my happiness and health.

    • I am always glad to hear of someone who is able to pursue their happiness and health doing something they love.

      I guess the one issue that comes to mind is that if you are not buying your own food, then you are not in fact making enough money to pay your bills. Taxpayers are paying one of the most fundamental ones for you. If you were earning at least minimum wage from your writing, you might actually be able to pay your own way, especially given your simple lifestyle. But because you rely on the content mills and their substandard wages, you can’t.

      It’s not really about not being materialistic. It’s about for-profit businesses being able to get the services that enable THEM to make a profit at prices indirectly subsidized by taxpayers. In the end, it’s a form of corporate welfare for your clients. It’s not clear to me why they are entitled to that. They should be paying you enough to buy food.

  • Angie says:

    Just be careful that you don’t break any of the content mill’s rules. They will throw you away with no warning and possibly even withhold any remaining pay they owe you, even if you made a completely innocent mistake. As a writer, you are completely and totally disposable to them. Both times it happened to me, the content mill was my sole source of income, and they didn’t give two shits even when I told them this. It didn’t matter one bit to them that I was being left to possibly starve because of a truly innocent mistake. I was just a number to them, and there were hundreds more where I came from. The one good thing that came out of it is that I built a great rapport with one client while I was working with the second content mill. Because I was no longer with the mill, I was now free to contact the client directly (against the rules of the content mill) and got a gig with them where I could periodically write articles. And working with them directly, I got much more money per article. And I decided to say to hell with the content mills and just contact clients on my own, and I never looked back. And my life is all the better for it. I’m poised to make a six figure salary next year, which could never, ever happen if you’re relying on content mills for your income. Not to mention with multiple clients, you don’t have all your eggs in one basket – if things go wrong with one client, you’re still fine because it’s just one of many.

    Content mills suck. They’re good to have as a backup maybe, but they don’t care about you. They’ll let you go at the drop of a hat at the smallest infraction.

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