On the surface, content mills seem like a great idea for struggling freelance writers, especially those who are trying to break into the market. No experience necessary! Get paid weekly! Earn as much as you want!
But if you want to make a living as a freelance writer, working for content mills isn’t likely to get you there.
Is it possible to earn decent money with content mills? Sure—but you’d have to be an incredibly fast and prolific writer, able to churn out article after article on a daily basis. The starting pay for most mills is a penny (or less) per word, with many offering incremental increases (fractions of a penny, in some cases) according to a quality rating system. At one cent per word, you’d need to write 5 million words a year to make an annual salary of $50,000 (before taxes, which are higher for freelancers).
That translates to almost 14,000 words per day, every day, or 35 400-word articles. If you want weekends off, you’d need to write just over 19,000 words, or 47 (and a half) 400-word articles, five days a week.
Most content mills do pay regularly and on time, so you can make a little money. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things they can’t do for you, which you’ll typically achieve with traditional freelance writing channels. These include:
Helping you (substantially) improve your writing
In general, if you practice something a lot, you’re bound to get better. The sheer volume of writing that content mills require practically guarantees some improvement. However, you’re missing out on a big advantage of regular freelance work: relationships with professional editors.
In most cases, editors for content mills provide cursory fixes to grammar and punctuation. Professional editors for large publications and online venues work with writers to offer direction on substance, style, and writing techniques.
Teaching investigative research and reporting skills
Articles for content mills typically require a quick Google search for the topic, if that (some can be written off the top of your head). But if you ever want to land high-paying freelance work, you’ll need to know how to dig up information that’s not readily available.
Extensive research and news-gathering abilities are important skills for success with freelance writing. It’s hard to learn those skills when the most difficult thing you have to research is “what color do most people in the U.S. paint their living rooms” (the answer is blue, according to Google).
Improve your marketing skills
One of the perceived benefits of writing for content mills is that you don’t have to pound the digital pavement looking for assignments. You get to pick from an existing database of articles and write the ones you want, without ever having to submit your resume, write a cover letter, or put a pitch together.
Marketing skills are a necessary evil when it comes to freelance writing. Big, well-paying clients don’t simply fall into your lap—if you want high paying assignments, you have to go out and get them. And that means researching your markets, writing solid pitches, and having a professional resume and writing samples at the ready.
Enhancing your reputation
Most editors and high-paying freelance clients are familiar with content mills—and won’t look twice at writers who apply with clips written for these sites. For the most part, writing for content mills doesn’t do your reputation any favors. In some cases you’re not even given a byline, so you can’t claim your work and point to it as evidence of your skills.
The bottom line
If you need the challenge of producing coherent pieces on demand, and could use an extra fifty bucks a week while building your real freelance writing career, content mills could be an acceptable temporary solution.
However, don’t rely on them as the foundation of your freelance career. Put in the time to hone your skills, establish a well-connected network, and build a credible library of clips. And when your freelance career takes off, you can say goodbye to content mills in favor of fulfilling, lucrative assignments from high-paying clients.
About the Author: Melissa Rudy
Melissa Rudy runs a freelance writing business called Words by Melissa in Cincinnati, Ohio. She specializes in web content, articles, blog posts, whitepapers, press releases, emails, social media, and other marketing text. Before starting her freelancing business in ’07, Melissa worked in ecommerce (5+ years) and technical writing (3+ years). She has a degree in English Literature & Journalism from the University of Cincinnati.