How Content-Mill Writing Can Build Your Freelance Writing Business

By Samar Owais

You hear it everywhere: Writing for content mills is bad business. If you do it, your freelance writing business won’t grow and you’ll forever be stuck in a rut.

Granted, writing for content mills is bad for business — in the long term. However, there is nothing wrong with writing for them in the beginning.

The secret to making content mills work for you

Content mills can give you samples, experience and your first few clients. The secret to writing for content mills is to have an exit plan. Take the time to mark out your strategy.

When I started freelancing, I wrote a few articles for Helium. Then I used those articles to get accepted into Bright Hub, which paid $10 an article at the time. From there, I used my Bright Hub articles as samples whenever I applied to writing jobs.

Proactively look for work

I didn’t want to write for content mills forever so my strategy was simple: Find client work – any work, even if it was low paying.

I blogged regularly to get more samples and would spend an hour every day scouring Craigslist and various other job boards. I applied to every job for which I was qualified. If I didn’t have a related sample, I wrote one tailored specifically for the job.

Another thing I was very careful about was not linking to my content-mill articles in the applications. I would either paste them in the email body or send them as Word, PDF or text documents, depending on the job specifications.

My first client was a small plumbing company that paid me $10/article. I applied to their ad on Craigslist with a sample written especially for them.

Don’t let low-paying clients define your freelance writing business

I’d like to tell you I was very business savvy. That once I got clients, I started raising my rates. The truth is, raising my rates didn’t even occur to me for six months! It wasn’t until I landed another gig (through Craigslist again) that paid $15/article that I realized I could earn more.

Raise your rates to attract the clients you want

Soon after, I applied for a blogging gig that asked for a quote. That’s when I realized I could be charging more instead of just accepting the rates clients set! I decided to double my article writing rates, quoted $30 and was accepted! I slowly raised my rates to $50/post.

My clientele changed with the change in my rates. Now instead of writing for plumbing companies, I was writing for solopreneurs and other freelancers who subcontracted their work.

One thing I always did was quote $15 above my rates so that even if the client negotiated, I could give them a ‘discount’ and not go below my actual rates.

Turn prospects into clients

With every job application, rejection and job I got, I learned the art of turning prospects into clients. I learned that for a prospect to think of you when they need a freelancer, you have to

  • Stay in touch: Even if you’ve been rejected, stay in touch with the prospect so that the next time they need to hire a freelancer, they’ll think of you. I follow my prospects on Twitter and send occasional emails.
  • Follow up: If you haven’t heard back from the prospect, follow up after a week. Quite a few times a client has told me that my application got lost in their inbox.
  • Provide value: Every time you contact your prospect, go out of your way to provide value.

Writing for content mills gave me an entry in freelancing world and gave me a safety net while I searched for clients.

You can successfully use content mills to get started in freelance writing — as long as you have an exit plan.

Samar Owais is a freelance writer and blogger. She offers rock-solid tips for freelancing success at The Writing Base, along with a free 58-Page Guide to Turning Prospects into Clients.

Photo via stock.xchng user yaba

Tired of earning peanuts writing for content mills? Learn to earn from your blog instead. Coming up: The return of free blog review day! Subscribe and you won’t miss it.

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17 comments on “How Content-Mill Writing Can Build Your Freelance Writing Business
  1. I’ve sharpened my writing sword at the $5 per piece whet stone that sits in the center of musky SEO sweatshops. It’s not always fun, but it can be rewarding.

    (Especially if you like the type of internal reward that comes from helping someone else average $.50 – $1 per day in Adsense revenue, every day, for the next year or two, by publishing your work. Warms the heart, doesn’t it?)

    The tip on starting price negotiations higher than what you’re willing to work for is great!
    R Matt Lashley recently posted..What Message is Aflac Sending Out

  2. Jan Hill says:

    Thanks Samar. That is pretty much the blueprint that I followed to start out also, and I am now making the break toward better gigs. I have one question–you said you were careful not to link to your content mill articles in the applications. Did you just offer the articles as examples of your work then, without explaining where and when they were published? I have direct links on my blog to some of my articles on wiseGEEK and LoveToKnow (which I consider content mills–they do have relatively high standards but low pay), but now I’m rethinking that…

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Jan —

      Samar is overseas, so I’m sure she’ll pop in and respond in a bit.

      I loved her tip of writing a custom sample just for a particular job you really want to get — to me that shows the kind of hustle you really need to succeed and move up.

    • Samar says:

      Hi Jan,

      Excellent question. Content Mills that have high standards can be linked to. Bright Hub has a very good editing process. You work one-on-one with an editor and are taught SEO.

      Because the overall quality of articles is excellent on Bright Hub, I linked to my articles there in applications. But Helium and other content mills weren’t.

      If a client ran a search on google or copyscape, the articles would show up. But since they were under my name, I never worried about a client googling my work and finding out where I had originally written that sample. If a client was going to such lengths with my samples then they were obviously interested in my work and in the end, most clients don’t care if you’ve written for content mills once they’re interested in hiring you.

      They key is to get them interested in the first place.

      One suggestion: If you’re working with editors on WiseGeek and LoveToKnow, then I would recommend asking them for testimonials. Not collecting testimonials early on is a mistake I made which I wish I hadn’t.
      Samar recently posted..Talking Money With Clients- Dealing With Unpaid Invoices

  3. Cyd Madsen says:

    Thanks so much for this post. The discussion about content mills seems to have ended on writing blogs in late ’09. This is very helpful in deciding whether or not they can help build a career as a freelancer. Like you, I’ve been “cutting my teeth” on Helium, but the site is making some changes that could backfire on the beginning writer. Have you visited the site lately? As of tomorrow, all new content will be exclusive to that site for a year. Whether or not that’s helpful or hurtful for a budding career is a decision that each person needs to explore. Unfortunately, they’re deleting posts from the discussion that ask difficult questions, making it hard to make an informed decision.

    What I found disturbing was #3 in their User Agreement. I’ll put it here for you and others to consider:

    3. Rights to submitted articles and other content

    Helium does not claim ownership of the content you publish on the Site. After publishing content on the Site, you (or a third party who permitted you to publish their content on the Site) continue to retain all ownership to the content, subject to the license terms described herein, and you continue to have the right to use the content in any way you choose. In exchange for your services and granting Helium a license to use your content, Helium provides you with earnings and recognition as defined herein.

    * Grant of license: By submitting your content to Helium, you grant Helium (and any Helium successors-in-interest, subsidiaries, or parent companies), a worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, transferable, non-exclusive, sub-licensable right and license to, in whole or in part, with or without attribution to you, use, copy, modify, edit, adapt, publish, publicly display/perform, translate, display, create derivative works from and/or license and/or distribute content posted to the Site. Helium’s rights to content you submit include the right to make editorial revisions to your content; to use your name or pen name as author of your content; to use in any way the materials you submit on the Helium website or in other Helium media, whether now or hereafter created; to use for our own internal business purposes; and/or to reproduce and distribute the materials for Helium’s marketing and publicity purposes.

    If I’m reading that correctly, they can change my article, use it as they please with my name, and there’s nothing I can do about it. The agreement also states that they can change the User Agreement at any time, without notice, and your continued participation on the site constitutes agreement with the changes. I doubt their changes would be to weaken the article, but those changes won’t have your voice, your style, or your niche (if you have one).

    How important do you think keeping control over your IP rights are when starting out, and how important is it to develop your style and voice without someone else taking over? You just never know when something’s going to go viral (wouldn’t that be nice!:-)

    • Carol Tice says:

      Interesting question — most of what I write is work for hire and I can’t ever reuse it…but I get paid a whole lot for that privilege. Be interested to hear others weigh in on this change at Helium!

    • Samar says:

      Hi Cyd,

      I’m no longer active on Helium so I wasn’t aware of the changes. The ‘with or without attribution’ part has me concerned.

      I’d say starting out, IP rights are the least of your concern. At least they were mine. The content mill could do whatever it wanted with my writing as long as it let the original article intact on it’s site.

      My main aim was to use those articles as samples and start getting clients asap so I could rely on sample work done for clients instead of content mills.

      About writing voice, don’t worry too much about it. Your writing needs to reflect your client’s voice. You should have a blog for your voice. Don’t rely on content mills to safeguard your style and voice.

      Also, duplicate content almost never goes viral.

      Every time a content mill changes it’s policies (or even before it does), you need to ask yourself what youe aim is by writing for these mills. If it’s to gain samples, the chances of being hurt by their policy samples is very low. You won’t be writing for them forever. Use the articles there as samples to gain clients and get out of the content mill writing cycle as fast as you can.

      I know it easier said than done but what other choice do you have?
      Samar recently posted..Talking Money With Clients- Dealing With Unpaid Invoices

  4. Jess says:

    Samar,

    Love this post. Brings me right back to two years ago when I began toying around with the idea of freelance writing. The content mills are a great place to start. I developed a portfolio and gained the confidence I needed to strike out on my own and wrangle in my own clients. While the thought of writing an article for $5 seems absurd at this point, it really got me to where I am now.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Jess —

      Thanks for adding your inspiring story!

      I think it’s so hard when you’re starting out and getting a low pay rate per article to imagine that there’s a whole big world out there, where you can move up and earn more. Congrats to you for having that vision and growing your earnings!

      I’m with you — I went through a while at the beginning where I was excited to get $50 an article, and now I’m at the point where I recently dropped a client because they were my lowest payer — at $350 a story.

    • Samar says:

      Hi Jess,

      I’m so glad that you were able to successfully use content mills to your advantage. And yes, writing for $5 sounds absurd now. Actually, it felt absurd to me back then too but I figured it was the price of getting samples and experience.
      Samar recently posted..Cure Your Writer’s Block By Pissing Off Your Writing Muse

  5. Pooja says:

    Thanks for posting this, Samar. I’d go ahead to say this reflects me and my story in some ways.

    I started with mills and quickly learnt there was more to do. I found the exit gate and started exploring the outer world. I still believe that to wet your feet, content mills are terrific! But nothing beyond that.

    ~Pooja
    Pooja recently posted..Free Ebook- Ghost-Writing Secrets- Uncovered

    • Samar says:

      Hi Pooja,

      Content mills are a great option for freelance writers who don’t know anything about the business of freelance writing. But a lot of freelance writers get stuck writing for these mills. They fall into the trap of thinking that it’s regular work even if it’s low paying.

      I’m glad you found the exit and are doing so well. You’re an inspiration :)
      Samar recently posted..Cure Your Writer’s Block By Pissing Off Your Writing Muse

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