Thinking About Writing for a Content Mill? Proceed With Caution

Thinking About Writing for a Content Mill? Proceed With Caution

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?

Filed Under: Freelancing
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8 comments

  • I think if a person won’t walk away from exploitative systems like content mills for his or her own sake, then perhaps it would be good to think about what such systems do to all writers and other freelancers: They depress wages for everyone, even those who never use them.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  • WriteX says:

    I have worked with content mills and after a difficult period of getting good reviews but poor pay, set a minimum payment that I will accept. You can do this if you have other sources of income.

  • KARLA Sullivan says:

    I wanted to thank you for this. I have being an experienced writer for many years and worked for a content mill where I was not paid at all. One of my articles went viral and my subscription list was growing. I would write two articles a week because I loved what I did. I had written 30 articles successively until one article was flagged by the manager and told me that I had too much website information about stores that I was reviewing. I pulled the article offline and corrected the areas and he went on and on about plagiarism. I am a English teacher…and probably the most ethical person out there. Needless to say, I quit the blog. He wouldn’t even accept my apology, continued to lambast me on the phone at 8:00 at night. Hours of work with no pay and even though he did not want me to quit, it was ok to continue his tirade. After writing over 1500 articles for other publications and never being criticized, I am done with the content mills.

  • Megan Sharma says:

    Reading this was like a kick to my soul! I’m sorry you had this terrible experience!

    We writers need to stick up for ourselves and what we’re worth.

  • If a writer is willing to take time to learn how to pitch article ideas to real magazines via queries, article sales can be quite good. Skip the mills!!!

    When I began writing back in ’88 with sales to Parenting, Christian Parenting Today and Baby Talk, the pay rate was about .25 to a dollar a word. Yes, per word. Decent magazines still pay well; one sale a few years ago paid me $1100; an international nonprofit organization magazine (so look beyond the news stands). The Writer’s Market, updated annually, will tell you what magazines are buying articles now.

    You can also choose what rights to sell. If you sell one-time rights, you can resell the same article over and over again. I had articles I sold to 3 publications, which I then included later in book material, then reused again as articles/blog posts to help market the books. It puts the writer in full control of payment and timing.

    I’ve taught many workshops and classes on how to do this, and for the moment have some of those lessons posted at no charge at SellYourNonfiction.com (see Laurie’s Lessons). The key is to be willing to learn to do it professionally. I learned myself from the library and Writer’s Digest magazines and books. I would be reading books on how to write & sell articles while nursing my babies, during all car trips, etc! Instead of wasting time with mills like described above, invest in time to learn professional freelance writing skills, then start sending queries to magazines. Swap your TV time for reading books on how to sell your writing properly and start sending out article proposals.

  • It’s important to make a distinction about the sites mentioned here as content mills. For example UpWork – some clients there are mills, some are not. I personally use UpWork and have cultivated some of my highest-paying clients there over time. I also take care of the fees by simply adding them on to my normal rate so that whenever I find a new client, I am getting the pay that I would had they contacted me directly. The problem with content mills is the low pay that they offer for poor quality work, not necessarily where you find them.

    • Andres says:

      Thank you! The distinction must be made. I for one, work on Upwork and I have never had a problem with my rates or my work. Sure, I’ve had some bad clients, but the trick is to know how to handle them.

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