Friday, November 6, 2009

And the Content Mill Debate Rages On…

For the past three weeks or so there’s been a lot of controversy stirred up in the freelance writing community about content mills. I’ve visited this topic before and prefer taking a “Switzerland” position on the whole thing.

I have no problem admitting that I started off writing as an online freelancer for a California content mill making $20 an article about two years ago. I kind of fell into writing for the web during a time when my husband (our family’s breadwinner for the previous four years) closed down his business and had no income. Believe me Georgia Power and Bell South could care less about any sob stories I had to tell. That content gig plus a couple of private clients helped me make mortgage and car payments, feed my family of six and essentially get us back on our

Is freelance writing a job or a business?

The thing is back then I didn’t think of the service I was providing as a business. I was working from home, which was great; but I was also limiting my income potential. I just didn’t know it. I did absolutely no marketing, and made my living strictly by applying for writing jobs on job boards and waiting around for existing clients to send me work. For most of us that wouldn’t work so well these days.

Online research

When someone goes online searching for information about how to get started as a freelance writer, what they’ll find is lots of information detailing which content mills and bidding sites are best. But if they dig a little deeper they will eventually come across an established freelancer’s blog providing valuable advice about why it’s essential to treat freelancing as a business (e.g. marketing, querying, establishing a portfolio, rates, etc.). The trouble is these blogs and other resources rarely provide the specific information many newbies are looking for to help them get started or improve their operation.

The real business of freelancing

Speaking for myself, it’s been a journey of trial and error to some degree. Early on I’d see lots of writers posting on a forum about how great Elance was so I joined only to discover that wasn’t the case for me. Thankfully I also came across blogs like Words on a Page, Inkwell Editorial, All Freelance Writing, Catalyst Blogger, Thursday Bram and Freelance Writerville. The writers of these and other blogs gave me a new perspective.

I began to realize marketing was important if I wanted clients, but had no idea where to begin or even what to put in an email query. I didn’t know who to target as a potential client or how to get their attention. I didn’t know that many of the best clients don’t advertise. All of this can be really overwhelming for a writer getting started who needed to pay the rent yesterday. So they turn to cranking out volume content for content mills instead where to their relief all expectations are on the table.

Here’s what I really think about content mills…

Personally I don’t think content mills are such a bad place for writers to cut their teeth and build confidence – as long as they aren’t those dreadful $5-an-article jobs. I know, some of you might clutch your pearls as you read that sentence. But I also think writers with a serious intention of building a business should prepare to move onward and upward to bigger and better opportunities as soon as they can. Writing for content mills day in day out quickly leads to burnout. Plus, you’re only getting a small portion of what you could get paid if you had approached a client to work with them directly. Don’t let the recession fool you; there are opportunities out there.


Carson said...

FYI- There seems to be a formatting issue with this post. Your lines aren't wrapping for me in FF.

Kimberly Ben said...

Ugh, I was having some trouble with formatting while posting, but thought I fixed it...back to the lab to try and correct. Thanks for letting me know, Carson.:)

Kimberly Ben said...

Okay, the formatting issue should be fixed now.

Devon Ellington said...

Also, remember that more and more legitimate, well-paying employers will toss you out of contention of you have a content mill site on your resume or use material from content mill work as your clips. It's come up a lot more in the past six months than in the previous few years.

Several clients have told me -- after they hired me to clean up the mess created by content mill writers -- that they no longer use them because they've only had poor quality and missed deadlines from them.

You know how anti-content mill I am -- why WOULD you accept slave wages for your work when, with just the tiniest bit more effort, you can get paid a living wage?

You can't churn out enough content to pay the bills and retain quality for any sustained period of time .

Kimberly Ben said...

Devon, I know where you stand on the content mill debate. I must say you raise a valid point when you mention how listing a content mill on your resume or as a portfolio sample could produce a negative effect for someone seeking clients. I listed the company I worked for on my resume, but then they weren't as well known as companies like Demand Studios, Textbroker or Wisegeek.

I also completely agree with you about how a writer can do much better financially by putting forth just a little more effort into finding private clients and refocusing your objective as a freelancer. What I'm trying to share with successful writers like yourself is that some people who come to freelancing don't even see a possibility beyond content mills. Some of the problem is that they don't know there's a better opportunity out there. Another huge obstacle is having no earthly idea where to start.

Fortunately I was able to move on from the content company I freelanced for within a couple of months because I had too much work coming in from my private clients. That's when I realized what I *SHOULD* be doing - getting more of my own clients and cutting out the middle man.

Getting private clients is what prompted me to start thinking of myself as a business and search online for more guidance in that regard.

There are a ton of forums and blogs advocating bidding sites and mills, and many new freelancers get stuck seeking guidance from these sources.

Debora said...

Kimberly, please contact me at

Lori said...

Terrific post, Kimberly. And a wake-up call for those of us encouraging writers to aim higher. I'll heed the call and put up some of my older posts on how to query, market, etc.

And thanks for the link love. :)

Kimberly Ben said...

Thanks, Lori. Freelancers new to the game will find some really good marketing guidance at your blog.

Lori said...

Gotcha linked up tomorrow, Kimberly. :)

Yo Prinzel said...

Thanks for the link Kimberly :) As someone who started at the content mills myself (which you know if you read Freelance Writerville) I know how it feels to think, "Wow, I can work at home and make $15 per article!"

But once you remember that this is a BUSINESS, you think, "Wow, $15 per article is not good at all when, if I position myself correctly, I can make $50 and up for these articles!"

When I first started making a nickel a word, I began to see exactly how much was possible and lemme tell you, it was not long before I was charging .25 to .35 per word. No significant, time consuming changes on the marketing end, no speculative queries that may get turned down, no bidding for jobs at job sites. Just major branding, a fair amount of networking and a dash of marketing.

And really--wouldn't you rather spend 2 hours a day focusing on that so you can get higher paying clients and interesting work instead of trying to squeeze out another 8 DS articles?

Kimberly Ben said...

Thanks, Yo, for stopping by to comment.:)

I agree - at first it's such a blast just knowing you can stay home and still make money.

Once you realize the true money making potential of the service(s) you provide, you have a choice: keep doing what you're doing (which is comfortable and safe for some), or branch out and start earning more.

Some writers use content mills as "filler income" while continuing to brand and market their writing services so that they can eventually move on to work only with private clients.

Yo Prinzel said...

Yes, and they are great for filler income when you are starting out. I used to use DS every time I wanted to go to Old Navy--write a few articles over the course of a week, go shopping. I think that is a reasonable use for CMs and I think most writers will find, as I have, that the more you branch out the less you need content mills as fillers anyway.

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