Brace yourself. I’m about to say something nice about content mills.
First, the not-so-nice parts: If you’ve ever written for a content mill, you already know that they’re all about quantity, not quality, and management tends to be better at drawing people in than fostering morale or editorial standards. There’s a reason such places have been dubbed the sweatshops of online writing.
And yet, content mills helped me leap from ferociously insecure writer to someone with a robust, independent writing career. Here’s how it worked for me.
My first writing job was a one-off newspaper article that eventually turned into six years of weekly columns and a book deal. Freelance gold, right? But I didn’t know how successful it would be, and at the time I suffered from deep insecurity that, combined with the lack of feedback in the days before social media was a “thing,” left me convinced that my nascent column was a fluke.
So, instead of pitching ideas to other publications, I sought refuge in the low expectations and anonymity of content mills that paid by the piece. I was a fast writer and researcher, so within a few months I was clearing $30 to $60 per hour with little effort and no need for long-term commitment.
Suddenly, writing was far more lucrative than the side job I’d been working. I became a full-time freelancer, even if it didn’t look anything like I’d imagined when, at about six years old, I started telling people that would be my career path. Encouraged by my new job title, I finally sent out a few more pitches. Some of them were accepted.
Soon, I was straddling two career paths. On one side, seemingly endless access to a pool of easy money; all I had to do was endure a series of small indignities that I could escape by clicking “Log Out.” On the other side, a non-content-mill career that was growing along with my confidence, and had the potential to actually take me somewhere.
The content mills made my choice easy by collapsing. It was sink or swim time and I swam, buoyed by a series of lessons and skills that, in retrospect, I acquired from one of the most unlikely places.
It’s in the content mills that I first learned the quality of my work is more important than where it runs, that there’s no substitute for spending a lot of time writing (no matter the circumstances), and that having a prestigious job title like “editor” doesn’t guarantee the person actually knows what they’re talking about.
I also learned that flexibility, resiliency, and a willingness to “make it work” are what really make a freelance career go; and that you’ll be paid and treated just as poorly, or as well, as you allow. The latter may be the most important lesson of my freelance career – scratch that, my life – and has guided me every time I decide how to handle difficult colleagues or a challenging situation.
Over the years, I have also learned that not all online content brokers follow the content mill model. Contently pays magazine rates and is a pleasure to work with. I hear that ClearVoice might pay similarly, although I haven’t yet had the pleasure; and Ebyline usually pays at least newspaper rates. I would argue that makes all the above very different from content mills, but the bottom line is that it’s up to you to decide which content companies are – or aren’t – worth your time.
Lisa is a freelance writer and editor based in Anchorage, Alaska. She’s the author of “50 Hikes Around Anchorage,” the 11th edition of “Moon Alaska,” and the forthcoming “Day Hiking Alaska” from Mountaineers Books. She did a stint as senior editor of Alaska magazine, and has published a number of magazine and newspaper articles about travel, the outdoors, and profiles of anyone that’s willing to tolerate her natural nosiness. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her at maloneywrites.com