photo by MiyabiI can’t possibly write about new freelance writers without putting in my two cents about an (apparently) very divisive writing topic: to write, or not to write, for content mills?

A content mill, depending on who you ask is either a.) a place where bad writers write shoddy, inept pieces or b.) a fantastic supplemental income that has a supportive learning curve. Not many writers weigh up in-between, but I’d definitely include myself in the grey of the scale.

I’ve written, and from time to time I still write for content mills. It’s fresh cash, staves off boredom while I’m between private orders and keeps me sharp. I also don’t feel I’m degrading the written word, nor do I feel I’m cheapening myself. I don’t have to apologize for my choices.

Trying to break into the freelance writing market as a newbie, and being told ‘Don’t write for a content mill, under any circs- cold call businesses! Buy magazine subscriptions and submit! You are worth more than $1/500 words!’

Thousands of people want to write online. If everyone takes that advice, who’s earning the brilliant bylines and better money?

The worst? When ‘established writers’ pshaw about content writers not really writing, and they still provide content for those afore-mentioned evil mills.

The reality is this: there are good and bad things, which you have to weigh carefully, before signing up for a content mill (Demand Studios is gasping its last, according to sources, but: TextBroker, Yahoo! Contributors, Seed, London Brokers, Media Piston and eCopywriters seem to be alright).

I’ve created a list of minuses and pluses writing for content mills. The choice at the end of the day is up to you:


The Bad and the Ugly of Content Mills

Writing for a content mill won’t get you a Pulitzer, by any means. The companies are out to make their bucks, not to make you some. The topics/clientele can be bizarre or pedantic. A look at the basic bads:

Paltry Pay. The pay scale is low. There’s no beating around the bush. We’re talking $3-4 for a 500-word article, though some offer $10 to $15-20.

You have to take into account research time for unfamiliar topics and navigating your head to translate (many times)    mind-numbing titles into good copy.

Mental or No Editing/Keyword Fixation. A lot of content mills don’t offer editing; if they do the editors are random. Many times you don’t get the same editor. You don’t get reasons for rewrites, or at least a cohesive reason. You get ridiculous rewrite requests. You have silly perameters for key-wording, like ‘client needs keywords (4x each phrase, 300 words total)’ that you automatically know is going to bomb with Google’s Panda.

Content Considered Social Spam or Web Pollution. Your name will be attached to articles that could be flagged as spam, relegated to the last possible page to see or even lumped in with the blackhatters or copy-pasters that just use content as an anchor for slaplink ads. Not great.

Mediocre Material. You have to be aware of the audience you’re writing for. It typically won’t be topics you’re passionate about. Obscure health topics, writing advertising articles for plumbing or SEO for a marketing site you don’t quite ‘get’ are the norms.

Ruining Your Online Rep Before You Truly Begin. It is a plain, hard truth that you can’t use a lot of your content mill experiences to sell yourself to quality sites once you’re ready. It doesn’t matter how well written the pieces are, the sites themselves have a slight smear on them within the writing community.

I’d certainly love to be able to detach myself from some early trial-and-errors. There’s nothing like the Internet memory to nudge a reminder you of being green- in a way most don’t have for normal jobs. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Your writing does.

photo by imelenchonThe Good and the Tangible of Content Mills

Not to repeat myself, but time and again I see so many nugatory snipes about those who deign to write for mills. I’m sure those successful writers out there really have your interests at heart- competition for them in their respective and ‘respectable’ venues.

I’m sure of it.

Too many people do make a good living, however, off of writing for content mills. It can’t be all that bad. And it’s not:

Gain Experience. I won’t claim that writing about parakeet diapers helped my online prowess, but it did in fact challenge and edge my product writing skills- which I now use for nice money.

The variety of types of writing (press releases, SEO content for multiple companies, reviews, newsletters) gives you the experience you need to go on to more fruitful projects. With confidence.

It’s a Springboard and a Network. You learn, you grow, you grow out of your limitations. On the way, you meet and connect with like-minded people. I can’t list how many great jobs or job possibilities I’ve received from the kindness of fellow writers. Mixing and bitching with people in the same boat can pay off in the long run.

Online Research Skills That Are Killer. I’m very research-savvy, at the moment, thanks to being pushed (kicking and screaming, sometimes) to the limits of my research to write a supposedly ‘simple’ article. And no, that in no way includes Wiki-anything (which is great for general info, not credible specifics).

My research skills have translated in being able to find out valid info about companies I want to work with, and contacting them successfully. You learn to be more mentally acrobatic than a simple Google search.

Starting Your Online Portfolio. This might seem at odds with the previously mentioned ‘minus’ of a bad rep, but this is where it really comes down to you. What you’re looking for as a newbie freelance writer.

 Content mills can actually help you pay your bills when you’re starting from zilch experience. They can boost your online visibility. And while the pay isn’t remotely stellar, it adds up.

It’s Smart Business Sense. You’re starting out a business, and you hope to be successful. For any business, you don’t limit yourself to merely one possibility and pin all of your hopes on it. What if (gasp, shock) The New Yorker doesn’t reply?

Diversifying your newbie writing- across a broad spectrum of maybes (content mills, cold calling, submissions, directories, guest blogging, etc.) guarantees at least a modicum of success. A little income starting out is better than no income, while you’re waiting for Godot to publish you.

It can be difficult to know which direction to go in, especially when the ‘pros’ tell you ‘no,’ without a relevant substitution or legitimate advice. I tried to compile a realistic set of the pros and cons about content mills, because it’s your freelance writer’s choice. Whether it’s a good fit for you- or the opposite of what you’re looking for- no one else has the right to decide what you write or whom you write for.

It’s just you. M.