Content Mills: Why Aspiring Writers Should Avoid Them
By Carol Tice
I think there are many types of people for whom these sites are a superb option — but in my opinion, those types don’t include writers who’re serious about building a good-paying, sustainable writing career. To clarify, I mean people who want to earn $50,000 a year and up from their writing. People who ultimately want to have unlimited earning capability from writing.
Let me explain why I’m down on content mills. In my experience, here are the career problems writers may experience who rely mostly on content-site assignments:
1. It does not teach you to report. Most of the stories on content sites are written with light Internet research or off the top of your head. They don’t help you develop newsgathering abilities, which are a bedrock skill needed for most good-paying byline reporting and corporate writing work. You don’t develop interviewing skills since you generally aren’t conducting interviews. If you dream of earning $800-$1500 for a single article, mill writing is not helping you get there.
2. It does not teach you to research. A lot of good-paying writing assignments call for extensive research. I recently wrote a $650 article for a regional magazine about all the stimulus money our state got and how it was spent. I wrote a $1,500 article about where Seattle’s trash goes and what happens to it. I’m doubtful that anyone cutting their teeth on mill stories will ever be able to write stories like these. Writing for mills does not teach you how to do investigative reporting, how to dig deep into documents, understand them, interpret them, or synthesize complex information. Copywriting as well can demand a decent amount of research and ability to dive in-depth into a topic.
3. It does not give you nurturing editor relationships. I would be nowhere today without two or three amazing editors I worked with earlier in my career. Editing at mills is usually cursory at best, and not the kind of close, one-on-one relationship you want where someone will really take you under their wing and take the time to show you exactly what you need to do to improve.
4. It does not teach you to market. Many mill writers have spoken in ecstatic terms of how much they love never having to market their writing. But marketing your writing is a key skill for those who want to earn big. Generally, you go out and find the really lucrative magazine connections and corporate clients yourself…they do not fall in your lap. Every week you write for mills is a week you don’t learn this critical skill.
5. It does not enhance your reputation. While some mill writers have reported they were able to parlay their clips into better-paying assignments…I usually find when I nail them down that their definition of “better paying” and mine are very different. They often mean something like they’ve worked their way to $50 an article. Know that many editors at quality publications discard outright the queries of anyone who offers clips from mill sites, so this work can slam a lot of doors for you.
6. It’s a model that may disappear. There’s been much discussion online of the possibility that Google may soon find a way to screen out mill sites in its search results. If that happens, the entire article-aggregator industry, which sprung up to serve Google’s ranking analytics, will disappear overnight. As it is, mill sites go out of business on a regular basis, taking any promised “lifetime” residuals they owe writers along with them.
If you write for mills, ask yourself how you would replace that income if this model goes away? What other client types could you find work with?
There’s already signs that even if it survives, the content-site model is changing — check out ProVoices, the new site that wants professionally reported articles for up to $250. The trend is toward rates going up, and more work being demanded of mill writers as these sites seek to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
If content mills are such a career dead-end, you may ask, how are writers to break in and start a freelance writing career? Plenty of ways. Tune in next week for my guide to better approaches for breaking into freelance writing and earning more sooner.
This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.