Monday, July 13, 2009

4 Reasons (Some) Freelance Writers Prefer Writing for Content Mills

Recently I discovered that some freelancing web writers actually prefer writing for content mills instead of writing directly for clients. I learned this while hanging out at one of my favorite freelance writing forums over the weekend. I was pretty shocked to learn this and immediately began thinking: "Don't they know that working for private clients provides much better pay than content mills?" "Don't they know that content mills have a pattern of up and disappearing without so much as a warning?" and of course: "How many articles do you have to crank out to be able to make a part-time, let alone full-time, living?"

About a week or so ago, one site in particular stirred up quite a bit of ire by daring to speak out, advising these writers to avoid settling to become freelancers for these low-budget content mills. Some freelancers took offense stating firmly that it was their decision to forgo private clients and they knew exactly what they were doing. I must admit, I was perplexed. I sat back and continued eavesdropping on this fascinating, virtual conversation and learned a lot about why so many web writers feel this way:

"Writing for content mills is less stressful"

Several writers said that writing for the content sites was much less stressful than writing directly for clients. At first this didn't make much sense to me, but as many writers began discussing past problems of not receiving pay, late payments and the stress of dealing with difficult clients who seem to never be satisfied, I had to admit I know exactly where they were coming from. While I've never had to deal with unpaid work from a private client (knock on wood…), I have certainly had dealings with impossible to please clients requesting revision after revision after revision. The time spent on projects like these cuts into your bottom line – because your time is a commodity – and can become very stressful if you're waiting for a payment you needed yesterday.

Don't have to spend time marketing for private clients

I know lots of freelance writers dislike marketing, but I was shocked to see just how many were more than happy to avoid marketing altogether and write for content mills instead. Many find marketing their own services to be extremely stressful and time consuming. They'd much rather spend that time writing for guaranteed pay instead – even if it means missing out on higher paying private gigs.

Writers can put more focus on writing for themselves

Some writers are using their web writing skills for other objectives like building residual income on content sites or learning affiliate marketing to increase their passive income. Writing for content sites helps pad their finances in the meantime.

You can crank out several articles quickly

I must admit that when I first started freelancing, I worked for a California content mill that paid $20 an article. They would assign me and the other writers batches of articles that I could turn around rather quickly – especially if the topic was in a niche I knew well. I can completely understand this line of thinking because while you see that the writer gets paid $20 and article, depending on how quickly they can write and research the topic, it can easily turn into $40 to $60 an hour and up. Many of these writers shared their monthly earnings on the forum and are making full-time incomes.

On the flip side, some writers spend the majority of their time every day sitting in front of the computer cranking out articles to pay bills when higher paying gigs could mean making the same amount in less time. Burnout can also be an all too real consequence of writing for these sites day in and day out.

Still, what I learned is that many writers who choose this route to freelancing do seem to operate with a plan in place. They write for a variety of sites just in case one should shut down, vary their schedule and take preventive measures to avoid burnout. They have made the choice to write for content mills and proudly stand by it.

While writing exclusively for content mills may not be the freelancing path I choose to follow, I respect anyone's decision to become a freelance writer. We will certainly not always see eye-to-eye, but if you're out there making it work, who am I to criticize?


Yuwanda Black said...

I totally agree that "Writing for content mills is less stressful". Although most private clients are darlings to work with, it's those who request revision after revision that can certainly drive you crazy.

Content mills can be a way to build your confidence as an SEO writer; but after you get this, I recommend moving on to private clients.

But as you say, "that's just me."

Great post Kimberly. I'm going to retweet this.


Kimberly Ben said...

Thanks, Yuwanda. I would also recommend that writers move on to private clients to get more variety and pay, but to each his/her own. BTW, I dealt with a multiple revision requesting client back in December that really pushed me to the edge! Lol

Rachel said...

I currently write for content mills and agree with the statements posted here. However, for me personally, I write more for the content sites simply because I have had trouble finding private clients. But this is probably due to the fact that I have just started.

Kimberly Ben said...

Hi Rachel,

Finding private clients is more challenging now than it was when I first got started (back in 2007). There was a time when I would respond to prospects on job boards and easily walk away with a couple of projects.

For me, marketing consistently (something I admit I've been slacking on this summer) helps a lot. I'm also working on a local marketing campaign. Thanks for stopping by to comment, and good luck!:-)

Eve Lopez said...

Nice post. Sure beats what I normally read about content mills (they're for hacks, not for "real writers"). I just started writing for content mills and believe I have earned much more than if I'd spent the past month trying to find clients, emailing them and and pitching them.

Lori said...

Ah, here I come as the voice of dissent. :)

You know how I feel about it, Kimberly. But let me give my reasons.

Less stressful - in one sense, that's true. However, I have a client - a well-paying client - whom I work for regularly. I put in an hour and a half of time per project and I get six times the pay that one $20 article nets. They pay on time every month. Direct deposit. No stress whatsoever.

Time spent marketing. See, this is where I scratch my head. Marketing is essential for survival. These are skills that, once learned, will sustain your business. Avoiding it is senseless. If you want to freelance, you have to know how to market and you have to do it. Period. Otherwise, content mills will continue to pay you a fraction of what you're worth.

Writing for oneself. Yes, I can see where that can happen. But I wonder - if you're constantly chasing the dollar, if your pay is so low that you have to churn out more content, how is that making time for your writing?

Cranking out articles quickly. I've done this, too. I have a specialty and I can get a 2K-word article out the door in under an hour. The difference? I get $1 a word. It doesn't really sink in until you see those 1099 forms at the end of the year side-by-side. One publication paid me a whopping $300 for 3K words. The other - $1 a word for $2,500 words. I wrote the same number of articles for each. Seven articles at $300 per is a respectable $2,100. The same seven (smaller by 500 words each and MUCH less work) at $1 a word - $17,500.

Why wouldn't you put a little more effort into your career to earn that?

Lori said...

Kim, I linked to this post in tomorrow's blog. :)

Jennifer said...

I did work like this in the beginning too, but never for content mills--even then, I was only writing for private clients. I've since moved on to specialize in more high-paid commercial writing, but writing articles and working with SEO experts definitely boosted my confidence in these areas and gave me the knowledge i needed to work SEO best practices into commercial web copywriting--a way I set myself apart as a writer.

In other words, I don't think it's necessarily bad to do this type of work, but I think it is bad to stay there (I barely ever market and STILL get more high-paying, and more interesting, work than this).

mkpelland said...

I agree with the con side of this debate. I work full time as a freelancer - 3o years experience. Much of my writing is in print - and pays very well. I have no trouble finding work. I've branched into digital publications and have landed several regular, long term assignments that pay well. For some odd reasons, I signed on with a couple of residual income-type sites and find disappointment each time except for one thing. Your name and expertise get broadcast across the web faster than a speeding pixel - and then you get more assignments or other perks. But you are all so right about the amount of time it takes to keep up with these gigs. I've quit them all now - and am back to marketing about 25% of the tie and writing 75%.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Lori on this. Content mills and their sub-par rates hurt all of us who are out there busting our asses making a living as freelance writers, because it indicates that $20 er article is okay or fair, when it's not.

Plus, the amount of content you have to generate in order to survive solely on content mills is so high there's no way you can keep it up AND keep up any quality. You'll have a nervous breakdown eventually. Or burn out. Or worse.

"writing articles quickly", i.e, batches, usually means sub-par content, at least in the long term.

"less stressful" -- how can it be less stressful from the sheer amount of content you have to churn out to earn a living wage?

"don't have time to market" -- bubbelah, if you "don't have time" and marketing yourself effectively is not a priority, you don't belong in this business. Yes, it's hard to carve out the time, especially when you're working hard. But the pay rate and the quality of client you get when you put in a couple of hours every day into effective marketing means you're working smarter, not harder, and gives you MORE time to write for yourself and live your life.

I think, in many writers' cases, it's because they're too AFRAID to market (because, yes, it's scary to put yourself out there), and they hide behind "don't have time."

More time for your own writing? When? In the shower at 3 AM? By writing for mill content sites, you lock yourself into quantity versus quality boxes, and, to keep the income stream going, you have to put in more hours, eventually outside of your field of expertise, unless you get away with recycling content indefinitely. And that means you're not being paid for the research you have to do on the batches of articles you now have to come up with to meet need.

Writing for fewer, better-paying clients FREES up your time to do your own writing.

Also, the last three editors and two non-profits who hired me (in the past month) said that, if they see work on content sites used as clips, or content sites mentioned on a writer's resume, that writer is automatically out of contention; their experience in the past is that the people work for content sites rather than individual clients means they are incapable of the skill level, content quality and uniqueness, and the detail work to meet these particular clients' needs.

Kimberly Ben said...

I've been out of town and am sorry to respond so late. I LOVE the conversation this topic has sparked!

I wish I could post the forum conversation that inspired this post, but I don't want to stir a hornet's nest by exposing the touchy comments from both sides of the fence.

@ Eve Lopez: I didn't start out writing for content mills, but in the beginning I was thankful for them when I needed to keep the income momentum going. I'm so glad you appreciated this post.:)

@Lori, Devon, Jennifer & mkpelland: While I can see why many writers start their careers writing for these sites, and turn to them from time to time as they get started, I do not advocate staying because I believe it limits income potential.

I've been a full time freelance writer for two years now, and I can tell you the biggest problem I encountered started from scratch was, well, where to start. I knew nothing of marketing my services (until finding Lori & Yuwanda's blogs - THANK YOU LADIES!!!). I was just lucky I guess that when I applied to a couple of job boards and a craigs' list ad to be earning a pretty decent income within a month (although many of those clients are now gone). But the fact is many writers don't know how else to start freelancing.

I know that the information writer's need to be successful is available online (we just have to be willing to look for it), but many people are completely lost when they first get started and this is where they end up.

I also learned than some writers prefer to write for content mills. They don't mind churning out batches of articles and like that they can work when they want. Some writers are afraid to move out of their comfort zone to start finding work on their own, but others just plain seem to like it. I say to each his/her own.

Carson said...

To each his/her own, indeed.

I don't think the content mills are the end-all-be-all of freelance writing income. I say that as someone who owns a fledgling mill, too (yeah, we've just decided to embrace the expression).

They can be part of an overall plan and different people do have different reasons for doing what they do.

I don't think it's fair to be dismissive of the cheaper end of the content market. It can be one option for a writer to use as he/she builds the career of his/her choice.

Kimberly Ben said...

Hey, Carson, and thanks so much for dropping by. Because the early days of establishing my freelance writing business included a content mill, I believe I'd be a hypocrite to put the writers choosing this route down. Maybe because I was "lucky" enough to work for a company paying $20/article instead of $5/article I am biased.

While I do think writers should be paid more than $5/and article, I also support a writer's choice and prefer not to judge. Who am I to judge?

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Anonymous said...

A lot of good points here. As an analogy, I have a friend who got into real estate several years ago and continues to make great money. Jumping on that bandwagon in this economy is going to be an uphill battle. You have a learning curve plus a lot of competition. So, if you are recently laid off from a advertising or other writing position, it is much more difficult to get a lot of well-paying clients off the bat in this economy. One client threatened to badmouth me if I didn't turn over a media list, which was not part of our agreement. I was also burned by a Web design company. They said the client was unhappy with my work and so they turned it over to a staff writer. This simply wasn't true because I had talked to the client myself a day earlier and he planned to cancel his account due to a lack of communication on the company's part. According to him, they kept adding fees even though the Web site wasn't finished. This kind of dishonesty prevails. If someone can get something for nothing -- especially if you're new to freelancing -- they are going to do it.
Another bit of good advice is to STAY AWAY from non-profits. I have found them to be notorious for wanting work at a reduced cost. Then they will pressure you to do more for free.
So, we breathlessly say, if you need a job TODAY...$20 an article might be the only option. At least you'll be writing and no losing skills. The truth is that in the beginning, you are going to spend a TON of time marketing yourself. Only money pays the bills. And you are going to be going up against glossy ad agencies that offer a wide range of services. It can be done, it's just not easy to do it.

jimmy said...

As a full-time writer, I've written copy for "mills," if that's what you call them. The key to understanding how to choose between them is to decide what you want out of a writing career. If you are a true artist, you'll write in areas that reflects your talents and passion, regardless of immediate income streams in. If you are looking just to "get published somewhere," chances are you will either do a bunch of work for very little money or end up taking jobs that you don't exactly enjoy. Let's face it. Not all writers are versed in every style of the pen. Choose your battles. If you find a company, even it if it's a "mill," that will pay you for your writing and it's a fair price, then take it. And don't let anyone tell you what is a good price for writing and what is not. Writing is like making art. Content is usually only worth what people are going to pay for it. I, for example, write features for magazines. I usually won't touch one for less than $250. I know other writers that wouldn't write a mag feature for less than $500. I also write for several Web content houses (mills) that offer an array of standard flat fees and revenue sharing. As a writer you will find flat fees range from a couple of bucks to $25 to $50 per clip. You might be thinking "I will only write $50 stories and do pretty well." Think again. I have weeks where I don't find a single article title worth my time (your time is money) in an entire bank of $50 articles. So, I pick from a lower-paying tier titles that fit my style and expertise and let the words flow. I usually end up making more on lower-paying jobs because I can complete them faster than toiling through higher paying titles. The problem writers have is they try to "write where the money is." This causes blocks and the inability to create organic, readable copy. Imagine authors like Hemingway and Dickens and what their work would have been like if they chased dollar signs. It would have been nothing more than manufactured copy. Now, there are some "mills" that will accept that kind of writing. Some will pay for it. If that's the kind of writing you want to do and can bang out articles, you can make a living. However, if you want to be a true "writer," and make a living, you will write for a variety of paychecks as long as you don't compromise who you are as a professional and artist. Because that is what writing is. A famous musician told me not too long ago: "Art is about making people think, including the artist. If you aren't making people think, you aren't making art. You are only making 'records,' and there is a big difference."

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