A year and a half ago, I was planning baby steps to transition towards full-time freelance writing. At the time, I was working a monotonous day job in real estate content marketing and freelance writing on the side on weeknights and weekends.
My quest for anchor clients
My main strategy was securing a handful of anchor clients — or “businesses or individuals with whom you have an ongoing relationship and a steady flow of projects and income,” according to Funds for Writers — to help cover basic living expenses: food, rent, utilities, etc.
Freelance writers also use the terms “anchor gigs” and “bread and butter gigs” to refer to anchor clients.
This strategy is how I ended up writing for a content mill — and totally failing at it.
I won’t say which site it was, but it’s sort of like the Huffington Post (because they don’t pay their writers) but for mostly college students. Although this was a publication and not UpWork, I still refer to it as a content mill because of its embarrassingly low wages.
My nightmare of a story
I came across a listing in a writer’s Facebook group for a copyediting opportunity.
After sending off my resume and some writing samples, I quickly received an eager reply to talk about my professional experience over the phone. I was thrilled, not only because of the possibility of securing an anchor client, but finally getting some copyediting experience under my belt.
Plus, this was happening in an exclusive writer’s circle, so it seemed like a great opportunity to hop on board with.
When I asked about payment during my initial phone interview, the interviewer said copyeditors earn $1 for every article they submit. To make a “fair” wage of $10 an hour, we were expected to complete at least 10 articles per hour. Shifts were typically between two and four hours, and we’d have multiple a week.
I had a terrible feeling in my gut: $1 per article? That’s nuts, right?
However, I was in an awkward position. I wanted to desperately leave my desk job at the time, and I needed anchor gigs I could rely on for a base income — even if it meant working for a content mill. After all, I was looking for experience to carry with me when I applied for higher-paying gigs.
Plus, I was already having a great conversation with this person, especially since they were enthusiastic about my work, and I didn’t know the average rates for copy editing as a novice.
Instead of listening to my gut, I continued with the hiring process.
I attended an hour-long tutorial, but I wasn’t compensated for my time. On top of a low wage, the system was difficult to grasp: lots of documents to fill out, web pages to go through and articles to read. Despite the anxiety I started to feel, I went with the flow and tested it out.
Soon enough, my first shift came along. My anxieties were validated when I struggled to finish copy editing three articles within an hour. I grew incredibly frustrated at myself.
Why did I let myself get this far to mess up? In hindsight, my anger was misdirected at myself and should’ve been at the company for thinking I could actually copy edit 10 articles (accurately) in an hour.
Forget UpWork or Fiverr, I thought, I’m already a screw-up.
Another writer’s experience
Not everyone has the same experience with content mills as I do.
In fact, some writers successfully kicked-off their careers with them.
For example, full-time freelance writer Ana Gotter describes her experience with UpWork as “[having] consistently had more bad experiences than good ones,” but highly recommends a similar site called Clearvoice. She has also hears about positive experiences with Ebyline from other freelance writers.
“I did get my first ghostwriting book contract out of it and even made it into Upwork’s Top Talent and Pro programs, but I left the site after they hiked up the rates that freelancers have to pay,” she explains. “It’s also common for writers to do work for extremely low pay for great reviews early on, but this can end up hurting them.”
If you’re kickstarting your career as a freelance writer, pursuing work through a content mill isn’t a bad idea.
However, you need to be wise about which sites you’re invested your time into.
Gotter explains Clearvoice and Ebyline have better success rates compared to UpWork.
Don’t spend hours creating an extensive profile with recommendations and pursuing projects if the rates are far too low for your income goals. Especially if you’re trying to establish anchor client relationships, don’t dismiss content mills until you try one out for yourself, but know when to walk away once the rates are low.
Content mills can be a great way to kick off your writing career, especially if you’re looking to become a full-time freelance writer.
However, it’s easy to overwork yourself in an environment that typically underpays its employees. You even might luck out with a decent (or even generous) client.
Needless to say, the consensus of freelancers offer two approaches: run away or proceed with caution.
Have you had a success, nightmare or somewhere in between experience writing for content mills?