One of the very first freelance gigs I ever landed was for a content mill, a concept the existence of which I was blissfully unaware at the time.
Because it was my first time selling my work to an independent third party, I felt immeasurably flattered and I was walking on air for at least a day subsequent to getting the job. To me, it meant that I was good enough, it provided some sort of validation which I had been craving for a while.
Little did I know that what lay in store would amount to intellectual slavery.
For those of you who don’t know, a content mill is an individual or company that gets contracted by other companies to provide content (usually in the form of blog posts) for their own websites. The content mill than “farms out” the writing tasks to freelance writers who are paid a pittance for an insane amount of work which includes researching subjects they know nothing about.
I ended up working until all hours for about a week, after which I was facing the very real possibility of burning out and so decided to call it quits. My reward? A measly $6 per article of 500 words.
Here are some things that I learned:
- It’s very easy to get suckered in, especially if you’re new to the game. As a freelance writer just starting out, one tends to crave validation, some sign that your work is good enough to actually win clients. So, when a content mill comes along and seduces you with promises of steady long-term work with guaranteed payment, it’s all too easy to fall into their trap. The pay is generally very low, the editors impossible and the deadlines, well, deadly.
- Burnout is pretty much inevitable. Because the pay is so pitiful, you end up having to write a crazy amount of articles to earn any sort of real income. The result? Physical and mental exhaustion, loved ones who feel neglected and little to show for many, many nights spent working.
- The editors will butter you up and make all the right noises. The editors of content mills are adept at spotting newbies, and they tend to exploit the new writers’ need for validation and steady work. Thus, they’ll spend a lot of time praising your work (I’m not saying it isn’t good, but these people lay it on thick) while simultaneously making sure you know just how much of a chance they’re giving you.
- They won’t let you go without a fight. Sadly, many freelance writers waste years of their lives writing for these content mills, who end up pocketing most of the money. And, when you finally catch on and/or reach a point of such exhaustion that you have no choice but to quit, the editors will again tell you that you’re the best writer they’ve ever had (again, not saying you’re not) while steadfastly refusing to pay you more for your work. Goodbye!
- You’ll be forced to write about content you know nothing about. Content mills tend to have clients in one specific industry (I had to write about air conditioning) so, unless you are familiar with the subject material, you’ll spend a lot of time doing research for which you won’t get paid.
There are upsides, however. I learned to be much more selective when it comes to selling my expertise and, because content mill editors are at least insistent upon quality, you’ll learn to thoroughly proofread you work a couple of times before submitting it to your client.
If I can give you one final piece of advice on the topic of content mills, try steer clear of bidding websites. Those websites are designed to benefit the client by forcing (often desperate) freelancers to undercut one another in an effort to win clients. This, to me, is completely undignified and you are much better off checking out a site like Problogger.