From a Content Mill to Writing a TV Commercial in 2 Months

From a Content Mill to Writing a TV Commercial in 2 months! Makealivingwriting.comFresh out of college, with no real world experience and no real job prospects, I dove into the content mill Textbroker in 2013, lured by the appeal of easy money.

Big mistake.

Over the next three years, I slaved for 1.4 cents per word. Even though I was done with school, I was still living the life of a starving college student. Did you know it takes 7,143 words at that rate to make $100?

That’s hard to swallow now that I know it’s possible to make a lot more money from freelancing. If you’ve been writing for a low-pay, race-to-the-bottom content mill, it’s time to rethink your approach to building a freelance business.

I couldn’t maintain such a grueling writing pace for bare bones rations. I wanted satisfying work. I wanted better clients. And I wanted to get paid well. I finally woke up and realized that low-pay work for a content mill would never yield pro rates.

Now what?

I put five key strategies in place to transform my freelancing business. The result: Bye-bye, content mills. Hello, better pay and better clients — including a major TV network within two months. Here’s how I did it:

1. Set aside time each day to pitch

Before I became serious about my freelance work, I would send out half-hearted queries every so often. When I decided to start taking things seriously, I set aside four hours each morning to research and send out queries.

Within a month, I landed my first assignment with Global Comment. It’s a site aimed at millennials that serves up guest posts and opinion pieces to its audience. I wrote little-to-no-research-required opinion pieces about Netflix, current affairs, and other topics. And at $50 per article, I couldn’t believe I’d been writing for pennies for so long.

2. Use better job boards

I used to think that trolling Craigslist for writing jobs was a decent place to look for gigs. Fortunately, I learned to avoid it because of lessons in the Den. Legitimate clients very rarely, if ever, post on Craigslist. I turned to ProBlogger, the Freelance Writer’s Den Job Board, Write Jobs+, and LinkedIn’s Job Search to find higher-quality clients. Before applying, I’d research the company and then address my email to the hiring manager for the project manager. Doing this helped me stand out from the competition.

3. Post your published work on LinkedIn

When I finished pitching for the day, I turned my attention to my social media pages, particularly my LinkedIn page. The first order of business: I improved the Summary section of my LinkedIn profile.

Then I listed each client I’ve worked with in the “Experience” section, with links to published work.  For example, when I work for a new company, I create an experience listing for that company usually titled “Freelance (fill in the blank) Writer,” where the blank is filled in with the type of role I served. Posting these links gives potential clients the ability to evaluate your work before reaching out to you.

4. Make use of online resources

As a member of Freelance Writers Den, I have access to a host of bootcamps and past forum posts. I took advantage of these resources, including posting my queries for other members to critique.

I studied the bootcamps and optimized my social media presence. But even without the Den, there are a host of free resources available you can make use of like Be a Freelance Blogger, The Renegade Writer, and Make a Living Writing.

5. Treat each job like it’s the best one yet

Because I put everything I had into each job, I produced several knockout posts. Sharing these on LinkedIn caught the attention of CBS Interactive and GameSpot. The companies reached out and asked if I would be interested in writing a script.

The extent of my script writing experience at this point: a college class. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from trying to land this gig. I decided to fake-it-till-you make it, and see what would happen. I proposed a flat rate of $500 and got the gig.

The gig: A five-minute script to promote the release of the video game, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. Fortunately, I had played the previous version of the game. But that’s a lot different than writing a script to promote a game launch. GameSpot gave me access to storyboard resources on the site, and I went to work.

It proved to be the most intimidating project of my career so far, but I completed the project under the deadline. (You can check it out here.)

I worked really hard on this. And once the shock-and-awe of writing for a big-name client wore off, I realized that treating each job like it’s your best one yet, is a great way to move your freelance career forward.

Map out your own plan to leave content mills behind

You can work hard all day long and never find success, if you write for a content mill. If you’re using all of your creative energy to pound out short articles for pennies per word, you’ll rarely find time to pitch better paying clients, and you’ll find it hard to build a portfolio to be proud of.

Put these five steps in place to grow your freelancing business, and you’ll be on your way landing better paying clients. Believe me, I know. If a liberal-arts grad with no real-world working experience like me can do it, you can too.

What’s your game plan to move up and earn more as a freelance writer? Let us know in the comments below.

Patrick Hearn is a freelance video game and travel writer. He can be found online at Patrick-Hearn.com.

Grow your writing income. LEARN HOW! Freelance Writers Den

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53 comments on “From a Content Mill to Writing a TV Commercial in 2 Months
  1. Emily Jacobs says:

    THANK YOU for this post! I’m starting to take my freelance-writing goals and dreams seriously, and this is one of the most helpful pieces I’ve read so far. I’m still writing a little bit for content mills while I seek out my first, ah, “legit” client, and I definitely need the encouragement.

    • Emily Jacobs says:

      Oh yeah, forgot to ask (though I’m afraid this might be a stupid question): Is there a time of day that’s best for looking at job boards? You say you set aside time in the morning for pitching–is that just what worked best for you, or were there other reasons for it (e.g., most jobs are posted first thing in the morning, etc.)?

  2. Thanks for #3, Patrick! I’ve now added five clients to my Experience section, five post links to my Publications section, and the Heading “Freelance … Writer” to almost every Experience entry.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I did a bunch of blog reviews recently for a Den 2X Income Accelerator mastermind group, and it was a shock to me how few had filled out the Experience area.

      Every company you put in there, is another possible way you might connect with someone on LinkedIn! Each of those pieces of history is an opportunity for a prospect to find something relatable in your profile that makes them want to call you. 😉

    • Hey Katherine,

      It’s absolutely worthwhile to follow up on! Like I wrote in the post — some of my best clients came to me. Completely blew my mind (and I almost spit my dinner out when CBS contacted me.) But in business like this, perception is everything. Even if you don’t feel experienced enough, putting that work in your LinkedIn can make your profile look very attractive to a potential client!

      Also, if someone visits my profile but doesn’t reach out, I tend to message them to introduce myself ask if there is anything I can help with.

  3. Jessica Wood says:

    They seem obvious now that I’ve read them, but I realise now I’ve been neglecting a lot of the things on this list, especially setting aside time every day to pitch. I also would just do it occasionally whenever I happened to stumble upon an interesting looking publication. I’m definitely going to try a lot of the things on this list.

    • Hey Jessica,

      This business really is one where you get back what you put into it. Once I realized how little work I actually did, I had an ‘aha’ moment. Once I started to spend time pitching, results started flowing in. I’m sure the results will be the same for you!

      • Jessica Wood says:

        Yes, that’s true. It was only when I started sending out more than 2 or 3 pitches each month did I start seeing major results. I think my freelance earnings went up by several hundred percent!

        • Carol Tice says:

          Definitely 2-3 pitches a month is a hobbyist level of pitching! It’s really a numbers game. I’m coaching writers who’re sending 100 pitches a month or more. Sometimes, a LOT more.

  4. June says:

    Hi Patrick! This has been an insightful post. I’ve been a freelance writer for about 3 months now but I’ve only got 2 clients for a total of $200 each month so far.

    Then 2 weeks ago, I started polishing up my Linkedin profile, as per a suggestion made by another great freelance writer. I published my sample works there, changed my ‘job title’ to reflect what I’m doing and specializing in (fintech and digital marketing). I don’t really have much experience in either niches but I find that I can read up on them and have a decent enough understanding to write a coherent post. I’d also made my Twitter real spiffy and posting regularly.

    I’d been cold-pitching since then too (maybe 2-3 companies a day on average) but although I have one or two who emailed back, I still haven’t manage to close any deals.

    Not gonna lie, it’s been hard trying to keep my morale up. In reading your post, I’ve decided to ‘showcase’ my 2 clients and tomorrow I’ll set aside at least 2 hours for pitching.

    Hopefully I’ll get to see more success, hehe~

    • Hey June,

      Here’s the great thing about writing: you learn a ton by doing it. As you write more and more articles on fintech and digital marketing, your knowledge and expertise will increase. If that’s a field you really want to work with, it may be beneficial to seek out a course or two. Find out if they offer a certification you can include on your LinkedIn to build your credit, and then try to connect with influential people in those spheres.

      I’ve never gotten a job offer via Twitter, but I’ve gotten three on LinkedIn. Let me know if Twitter works out for you!

  5. Cari Mostert says:

    Love this, Patrick and Carol. It took me ages to screw up the courage to start cold pitching but thanks mainly to the encouragement here, I realized it’s actually a no-brainer. So they don’t answer? Send a follow up and move on – there are millions of potential targets out there! And then? “Fake it til you make it” and do your best.

    Thanks for the on-going encouragement.

    • Carol Tice says:

      You’ve summed it up pretty beautifully there, Cari! I’m always hearing from writers who say, “I know I need to start sending letters of introduction, but I’m terrified!” To which I say, ‘Of what???’

      Worst thing that happens is…nothing. And you pitch again.

    • Hey Cari,

      That’s absolutely the way to go about it. The great thing is that once one pitch is accepted, that editor knows you; they’re far more likely to respond to future pitches!

  6. Abby Nduta says:

    Hello Patrick,

    Thanks a lot for sharing your story. I have been writing for content mills since my third year in campus. I came across Carol Tice last year, and I have been reading a lot here.

    I set up a content creation business and took the bold step to create web content for small local businesses here in Kenya, Africa. 3 clients were through referrals and 1 via a Facebook marketing campaign. It has been fun, but most of them are not paying up. So I have taken up some sort of internship with a PR agency in an attempt to get more exposure on content creation in Kenya.

    I have also been bidding on UpWork (thrice per week) with the help of a friend who earns $150 per article, though I haven’t won any jobs yet. I have been publishing on LinkedIn, Medium and on my site (which I need to re-design). I am currently writing my web content strategy too and want to launch stronger next year.

    I know that I ultimately need my own clients, without content mills. What would you advise?

    Abby

    • Carol Tice says:

      Abby, I think you’re on the right track! But hearing local clients aren’t paying isn’t encouraging.

      Be sure to ask for a 50% up-front payment to get started — we find that tends to screen out the people who are just out to stiff you.

    • Hey Abby,

      My advice is to get far, far away from Upwork. It’s a content mill in fancy clothing — not worth your time. While it IS possible to find decent clients there, you’re far better off sticking to the traditional route.

      As for clients not paying, you should speak with a lawyer and set up a contract. A proper contract protects both you and your client; have them sign it, provide them with a copy, and keep the original document for yourself somewhere safe. If they don’t pay, refer them back to the contract. I once had a client that I had to chase for six months to get paid; in all subsequent work, I included a clause that delayed payment would generate an interest fee. Surprisingly, I haven’t had any trouble being paid since then.

  7. MJ Plaster says:

    Congratulations! Great job. I especially understand the part, “fake-it-till-you make it.” If I hadn’t used that tactic for each of the skills I’ve learned, I wouldn’t have the clients I’ve grown into today. The takeaway is that you can always learn. 🙂 Believe in yourself, and the world is your oyster–as long as you convince yourself of your worth and you’re willing to learn and to work hard. Keep up the good work.

    • Absolutely. “Fake it till you make it” is great for a lot of things, including learning confidence — whether that’s in pitching articles, presenting yourself at a business, or even dating.

  8. Hey everyone,

    Thank you for the kind words! I apologize for any delay in answering; I had no cell signal this morning (in another country) and had to wait until I crossed the US border before I was able to respond. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you all out.

  9. Jhatiere says:

    Okay, so I am in this position right now : using the content mills to generate revenue. But it’s not enough to make a difference. I am young and ridiculously inexperienced but I really want to write. Will these steps help me too? I am not afraid to admit I have absolutely no idea hoe to move forward lol

    • Hey Jhatiere,

      I was in the same place. Most common advice is to use past experience, but I didn’t have any. I had hobbies. Use those; utilize your knowledge of your passions and find outlets to write for. Content mills are a trap; they will suck you in and trap you there, never making enough to truly get by and draining you of all creative mental energies.

      You may need to write on topics you aren’t really interested in, at least at first. But the more you write, the better an idea you’ll get of the type of work you want to do. Use the resources here at Make a Living Writing; there are huge numbers of articles for you to pull from. Also, consider joining the Den; when you don’t have much money, $25 per month may seem like a big expense, but I promise it is absolutely worth it.

  10. David Throop says:

    Patrick,
    This is a great action plan and one that really helps me. I’ve been muddled in my thoughts about how to get out of content mills and haven’t had much success pitching lately, so this is very timely.

    In my frustration of pitching, I get lost in how to pitch better. I use a number of job boards but they don’t seem to lead anywhere, so I need to refine my pitch.

    And wouldn’t you know it, there are some great resources at my fingertips. Thanks for reminding me that there are great resources here and at the Freelance Writers Den. I’ll have to sift through all the boot camps and lessons to brainstorm!

    And thank you, Carol for allowing this article to be on your site! You always have great resources and articles.

    • Hey David,

      My best advice is to not worry too much about the quality of your pitch! I’m not saying just throw it together, but if you stress yourself out over the pitch, you’ll never complete it. Write it up, send it out, and if you don’t get an answer, that’s okay. You’ve at least started the process, and actually finishing a pitch makes it easier to write future pitches.

    • Carol Tice says:

      You’re welcome, David!

      Have you seen my Escape the Content Mills course? Might be just what you’re looking for, and it’s dirt cheap.

      When you stop ‘using a number of job boards’ and viewing that as your main route to finding clients, things will start to improve. 😉

  11. Desiree Dow says:

    Thanks so much for this article. I too was writing for Textbroker about a year ago. $2.50 for a 500 page article just didn’t seem right to me. I stopped once I came across your website and read your e-books. No more content mills for me!

    I think I am confused about what I want to do – not necessarily be a “blogger” but maybe a writer for a magazine or something. Anyway, I find your advice truly helpful and look forward to seeing your emails.

    • Hey Desiree,

      I didn’t know what I wanted to do, either. The main goal was simple: make a lot of money. I took any job that paid well, but after a bit of time, I’ve discovered the ones that interest me. Getting paid a lot is one thing, but getting paid a lot for writing on a topic you enjoy? There’s no better feeling. And believe me, if I can do it, absolutely anyone can.

    • Jon Lee says:

      $2.50 for a 500 page article? I’m assuming that there’s some sarcasm at play here?

      • Sadly, no. Textbroker pays, at its four star level, around 1.6 cent per word. A 500 word article is worth $7.

        • Jon Lee says:

          1.6 cents a word is pretty deplorable, to be sure. Still, it beats what would be the average for a 500 page article.

          Just being a little sarcastic here. I understood what you meant. The appeal of taking the “low hanging fruit” type work is pretty easy to understand, however. For starters, there are some content mills that pay better than that. Secondly, there is something to be said for being able to line up steady assignments.

          I’ve said it before . . . . I can’t imagine how ANYONE could line up any kind of living doing this without retainer-based clients, or at least clients that guarantee a certain amount of work. Spending money? I could see that. But an actual, full-time career? I just don’t see it.

        • Carol Tice says:

          It just makes me crazy that ANYBODY, anywhere, takes that deal. Glad you got out of it!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, few writers these days write for ‘A’ magazine — successful freelancers write for many. 😉

  12. I appreciate your advice about sharing published work on LinkedIn. I have a couple of published pieces and adding them separately under the “Experience” section would really help draw attention to what I’ve done.

    I also recently updated and hopefully improved my Summary on LinkedIn. What are your thoughts on re-posting blogs from your own website on LinkedIn?

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Hey Raquel,

      I don’t really have any input on reposting them to LinkedIn. I include links to my own blog, and if I feel the article is high enough quality, I’ll make a status update (I guess that’s what they call it on LinkedIn?) to let my followers know. Most of my personal blog posts are not really relevant to the work I do, though; to tell the truth, I’m still trying to figure out how to use my own blog to do more than show I can keep to a schedule.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Raquel, I’m seeing quite a few freelancers doing it. Don’t know how much exposure or traffic it brings, but one thing’s for sure — it makes your LinkedIn profile look spiffy, because those posts are graphical and appear right at the top above your summary. So that seems like a plus to me!

  13. Deirdre says:

    Very inspiring article Patrick! After working almost exclusively with a local pastor on his doctoral dissertation for the past few years, I am refocusing my energies on acquiring more freelance clients, freelancing full-time and developing my own informational products.

    That means finishing up my website, submitting more queries, and working on some projects I have in development. It seems daunting sometimes, but I know I can do it.

    By the way, I watched the Mirror’s Edge trailer and you did an AWESOME job. It made me want to play the game. I just might – LOL!

    • Hey Deirdre,

      Thanks so much! That was easily the most stressful job I’ve ever taken, but it’s paid wildly in dividends; I’ve started writing for Screen Rant as a result of my work there!

  14. Wendy Jacobson says:

    This is inspiring; thank you for sharing your story with us. All fantastic tips, but two great take-aways for me:

    1. Pitch every day. Of course, easier said than done (for me, anyway). It’s on my list every day, yet every day I don’t necessarily pitch. I need to change that.

    2. Treat each job like it’s the best one yet. YES! Business begets business.

    Thanks again!

    • Hey Wendy,

      Number two, absolutely. Since writing this post, I haven’t pitched in ages; I haven’t needed to. I have three established clients, and they refer me to more and more people. If you put 110% into every article, the quality of your work shines through and clients will be eager to recommend you. They understand how freelancers work and want to help you succeed.

  15. Fouad says:

    Nice plan Patrick.

    Help me out. I’m a tech writer with a few guest posts and a lot of articles published on my tech blog. I find it difficult to identify who exactly to pitch. It’s more like I don’t know who my exact client is.

    Please tell me who my client is. I’d appreciate if you give me examples of those to pitch.

  16. Mike Gayette says:

    Excellent article! I’m following a similar path putting content on LinkedIn. And it’s helped my visibility and leads.

    I do have one question. You said you addressed emails to hiring managers and project managers. Did you find that more successful than contacting marketing managers in those same companies? Or did it depend on the structure of the individual companies?

    • Hey Mike,

      To be honest, it never occurred to me to reach out to marketing managers. I was contacted by a few after I reached out to hiring and project managers, though; in my experience, if the company is interested, they’ll point you toward the right person. But I’ll definitely remember to reach out to marketing managers in the future!

      • Carol Tice says:

        I agree — I usually end my pitch letters with, “If you’re not the right person for this, I’d appreciate your forwarding it to the best contact.”

        Writers spend way too much time overthinking who is the very best person to pitch. Pick a likely title and go for it!