6 Vital Writing Skills From Content Mills–Plus 1 You’ll Need

color felt-tip pensBy Lisa C. Baker

When the siren call of the content mills sucks you in, it’s hard to climb out. But it’s not just desperation that keeps you trapped. It’s fear.

I would know. I spent years in the mills, churning out articles like a factory worker. I wrote thousands of words a day, but deep down I knew none of them were good enough.

In the mills, I could fake it as a writer. But out in the world of high-paying clients? I thought I’d be roadkill.

When I finally pitched bigger clients, I discovered that wasn’t true. In fact, these six skills I learned in the mills were exactly what I needed to succeed.

1. Count hours

At $15/article, you’ve got to watch the clock to make ends meet. But even at $1/word, time matters if you want to make a living.

Don’t fall down the rabbit holes of endless research and rewriting. Plan your time for a professional hourly rate.

2. Follow directions

In mills, conversation about revisions is rarely an option. To get paid, you have to fulfill vague requests from faceless editors. Professional editors, however, are happy to answer questions — but not to endlessly debate rewrites.

If you imagine you have no way to contact your editor directly, you may decide that “clarifying” question you’re about to ask is unnecessary.

3. Learn the style

In the mills, style guides are confusing and ever-changing. But you can’t waste time looking them up; you need to memorize them.

And when you pitch professional publications, you’ll find good use for that memory for style you developed in the mills. Imitating stylistic details from your target publication will put your pitches a step ahead.

4. Don’t wait for your muse

In the mills, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. There are days when you have to churn out words to meet deadlines for clients, too. Revising a piece to perfection won’t impress your editor if you don’t turn it in on time.

5. Write widely

You may have heard you can command a better rate as a “niche” writer. But many writers spend months choosing a niche, wasting time thinking when they could be writing.

As a former mill writer, you know that with a little research, you can write about anything. Apply that ability to real-world clients, and you’ll soon find your own lucrative niche.

6. Know sources

Mills have strange rules about sources: they may blacklist reputable sites or accept only a certain type of source. When I wrote for the mills, I quickly memorized the best sources for my topics, and I usually took assignments with a source in mind.

In professional writing, knowing the right sources can cut your research time from hours to seconds. And developing relationships with sources can mean getting the right quote when a deadline is looming.

Are you feeling more confident about your writing yet? You should be. With all the skills you learned in the mills, you might be ready for big clients.

What’s missing

There’s just one thing you’re missing if you’re writing for content mills: the ability to develop ideas. If you can learn how to generate salable ideas, you can say goodbye to the mills and never look back.

What have your writing gigs taught you? Leave a comment and give us your wisdom.

Freelance writer Lisa C. Baker blogs at How to Be Supermom.

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40 comments on “6 Vital Writing Skills From Content Mills–Plus 1 You’ll Need
  1. Charles Gray says:

    This is an excellent article. Here’s the thing. I have been working at Textbroker for the last 3 years for 1.4 cents a word. But recently, they downgraded me to a rating 3 and now I make 1 cent a word.

    There’s two things to take away from this– first of all, while TB is pretty low paying, you’re never going to get enough money from these sites to make a good living, not at any reasonable ROI. (My newspaper work pays at least 15 cents a word, for example).

    Secondly, it’s a trap. You will never get a good rep in the industry, because 90 percent of your assignments are ghost written and many mills discourage direct writer/client contact. You don’t get editorial feedback just one day get a decision that cuts your pay, with neither explanation nor right of appeal.

    If you can write good articles (and listen to the commissioners, not the editors), then you can make it in the freelance market. It’s scary and more difficult in some respects, but you can do it– and at the end of the day you’ll find yourself making far more than you did for a content mill.
    Charles Gray recently posted…Story SeedMy Profile

  2. Tom Wright says:

    Sorry I’m late to the party!

    One thing that I’ve learned – don’t be lazy. I lucked into content mill writing as my dwindling unemployment funds were drying up. Out of work and depressed – I received a random email from a guy I’d done some business with. He’d opened a new cheap content site and needed writers. I’m a whiz at writing research papers so I jumped on it!

    The thing I learned fast – procrastination is the enemy! Wait too long and the best assignments are going to be gobbled up fast. This has also kick-started my creative writing as well. I realize now that simply thinking about writing isn’t enough. You have to get out there and do it.

    • Carol Tice says:

      All too true.

      I knew one mill writer who at one point, when assignments were dwindling, kept having to get up at 2 am in order to grab any decent titles. What kind of life is that, and all for a pittance of pay? I thought the idea of freelancing was to be able to keep a BETTER schedule than I did at the day job, not more stressful one.

  3. Lisa, it’s the sixth one I still find difficult. Thank you for pointing out a couple ways to do it.
    D Kendra Francesco recently posted…Finding Your Niche Part 2My Profile

  4. Great article, LIsa! I was fortunate enough not to spend too much time bogged down in the content mills, but as you said, the temptation has been there at times.

    I’ve tried to make sure that on the rare occasions when I venture into a mill, I have a goal and I’m using it instead of letting it use me. For example, I will sometimes pitch an article to Scripted in one of their categories when I want a writing sample in a new market or niche. I don’t get a byline, but I do get a sample that I can send clients, and $25 or so to cover what would have otherwise been unpaid research and practice time.
    Shelby Blanchard Stogner recently posted…How Zombie Content Keeps Your Blog AliveMy Profile

  5. Terr says:

    Okay, I just had to update with something else I’ve learned writing for mills: Every penny per word COUNTS and is hard to come by!

    I mention this because I’ve just read a comment on a SMO site, left by a contractor who works for a certain “mill”. With giving up too many “deets”, the writer turned in double the words that was required for the task. Yet (Of course) the writer will still earn the same amount of pay for the task.

    So to repeat, that writer doubled their workload for the same amount of pay. Or, it could be said that they volunteered to cut their pay in half for the work that was rendered!

    Whyyyyyyyyyyy would anyone do this? Yet I used to do this. I’d turn in a hundred or more so words than I needed to per task. Now I work for a mill where I can see exactly how many words I’m typing per task. I might go over up to 30-40 words but otherwise, I “slash and chop” if I need to, lol. I’m not giving away half of my pay per article!

  6. I wrote for eHow for several years and as you pointed out, you learn a lot by constant writing.
    Virginia Allain recently posted…Thinking about Writing for eHow?My Profile

  7. Great list! I would also add “fact checking” and research as a skill you learn in the mills. A good journalist, even when writing for a mill, will do careful research and make sure that they are writing correct information. The importance of these skills is more important after you leave the mills, but it is something that you can acquire while the mills.
    Jennifer Gregory recently posted…5 Steps to Using Paid, Owned and Earned Media to Make More Money as a Content Marketing WriterMy Profile

    • Lisa Baker says:

      Oh, good point! I didn’t think about that one because in the mills I did all online research, which is really different from the interviews I do for serious publications. But yes, I probably did hone my research skills some there. At the very least, I got really fast at Google — which is always where I start research even now. 🙂
      Lisa Baker recently posted…16 Chores Your Toddler Can DoMy Profile

  8. Terr says:

    Hello,

    First Lisa, this is a great post. The fact is, “mill” workers have just about all the skill sets they need to sell a story. They simply need to learn how to generate stories, where to pitch the stories and “industry rules”.

    That leads me to my response to Deborah, my fellow “mill” worker. Yeah guys, I’m currently a mill worker. However, I’m a mill worker with a plan. My plan is to take advantage of all of opportunties for learning that Carol and Linda offer, as they pertain to my career goals. In fact, I’d say that’s step one. Develop career goals for yourself. Do you want to live a life of “getting by” to pay the next bill, or do you want to make your mark on the world somehow?

    And before you or anyone out there says “But But!”, here’s a little brief about me: I’m single. I have no family or husband to help me financially or morally. I’m currently poor. I lost everything a few years ago and I’m still in the financial and personal recovery phase. I live paycheck to paycheck. So I relate to not being able to just leave the mills.

    However, I do have free time that I’ve dedicated to learning. I just signed up for that low cost Blast Off course and I’m treating that like Saturday College. Yeah, if I have time and energy at night, I’ll study then as well. But you see where I’m going? I still work to eat and pay bills and yet, I’m studying to increase my income and achieve my career goals.

    Mind you, I have Fibro, which means I’m in pain or I’m foggy or I’m sleepy. I’m supposed to be getting military disability money and the VA is fighting me tooth and nail, denying me this money. I was counting on this money to stop the mill madness but that’s not going to happen. So, I created plan B and C for myself. If you’re in the same boat as me financially, the transition isn’t going to happen overnight. But, it can happen with a plan in place. Hope this helps.

    • Lisa Baker says:

      Terr, that’s impressive — and inspiring! Carol and Linda are *such* incredible resources. The Den is by far the best investment I’ve ever made in my writing career!
      Lisa Baker recently posted…16 Chores Your Toddler Can DoMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Terri, I like how you’re putting the focus on what YOU can control…like we were talking about here back last week, on the Serenity Prayer.

      Putting in more hours has always been my ticket up. I’m willing to give up TV and other time-wasting activities to get the income I need for my family.

      • Terr says:

        Yeah, I have to tell you Carol that your post helped me tremendously, especially that particular day. I actually made quite a few personal yet healthy decisions based upon that post, so thank YOU.

      • Just as an aside to Carol’s comment, I also had to decide what to “give up” in order to create the writing life I want. Not just the life, but make the time to research, market, network, etc. and write. I’m an artistic crafter and I literally had to put the craft things into storage (four miles from home) so I’d stop sabotaging myself and concentrate on freelancing.
        D Kendra Francesco recently posted…Finding Your Niche Part 2My Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Ooh, my mom is a big crafter (rubber stamp nut) so that does NOT surprise me! It’s addictive. And I have been known to make my own cards with pressed flowers from my garden, or dry them for my Welcome basket by my front door… 😉 Inherited a touch of it.

  9. So true – some of the content mill escapees I mentor are excellent and efficient writers who just didn’t know how to market their skills to clients with real budgets. Nice one, Lisa!
    Sophie Lizard recently posted…7 Winning Ways to End Your Pitch, Query or LOIMy Profile

  10. What a great post, Lisa! I agree with all of it. I have used the mills to practice, but now am just getting frustrated with the low pay. My problem is I can’t churn the articles out like a lot of people can. I am too much of an OCD perfectionist. I treat the crap-paying gigs like good ones and end up making about half of minimum wage.

  11. Nida Sea says:

    I wrote for mills for the four years I started freelance writing. I didn’t know there was another way to make money with writing, so I stuck with it. I did learn some of the tips that you mentioned, Lisa. Following directions (the ever-changing style guides), doing revisions without question, bookmarking sources, and keeping time were all traits I learned. But, I always felt that it couldn’t be the only thing to do in writing.

    Luckily, I found release with Carol’s FWD and her blog, among help from other mentors. Now I’m able to get my own clients and make much more than I ever did with mills. Despite my dislike of mills now, there are actually a handful I can be grateful for, due to an editor taking the time to explain something to me without attitude.

    I also made connections with other writers and a few editors of those mills. They’re great people and I appreciate knowing these writers/editors. Really a great and truthful post, Lisa. Thanks for sharing!

  12. I appreciate what you are saying…but to say I am better off leaving the mill than having steady income is great for someone to say who has a steady income… I cannot go 2 weeks without income while I build my writing brand. It is a catch-22 that seems to have no end. If there was a way to find solid income without the mill…quickly…I would be all over it. Help! 🙂

    • Carol Tice says:

      Mark, see the link I left below with Willi on strategies for buying yourself those 2 weeks and more (because it will take longer than 2 weeks) so you can break away from mills.

      Ask yourself this — where will you be in 5 years if you don’t make a plan for finding better writing pay?

      What will your family life be like if you keep earning at a level that leaves you no ability to survive even 2 weeks of downtime?

      What happens if the mill you depend on changes its rules or closes? Because those things happen with regularity in the mill world.

    • Lisa Baker says:

      Carol’s right. It feels like steady, reliable work…but it’s a mirage. I’ll admit though, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t leave till things came crashing at the mill where I was working! So many writers were really mad because they depended on that income. I’d always known it wasn’t going to last — it was clear to me that it wasn’t sustainable — so at least I was mentally prepared.
      Lisa Baker recently posted…16 Chores Your Toddler Can DoMy Profile

  13. Rohi Shetty says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Great post, thanks!

    One reason why I continued to write for content mills is because I’d spent so much time and effort learning all the “rules” that I was reluctant to let it all go waste.

    Another “incentive” was to reach the next milestone of “x” articles leading to additional “bonuses.”

    Once you’re on the treadmill, it’s not easy to get off…

    The biggest lesson I learned from writing for content mills: The sooner I get out of my present comfort zone, whatever that may be, the better.
    Rohi Shetty recently posted…My Ten Favorite Humorous QuotationsMy Profile

  14. Willi Morris says:

    Oh, this is brilliant stuff right here. You’ve made another great argument in Carol’s war against mills and created some useful tactics. Fabulous.

    I wholeheartedly agree that it takes having a host of ideas to make a living. That is what I’m struggling with currently. I’ve learned that writing is about quality, not quantity. However, marketing yourself and sending LOIs and queries is about balancing both quality and quantity.

  15. What have I learnt from my writing gigs?

    The fact, Lisa, that those gigs shouldn’t be the only thing you do day-to-day as a freelance writer.

    Learning, planning, networking, marketing and improving your writing and website are almost equally important in your weekly freelance routine.

    These things may seem to knock back your income if you look at each day on an individual basis. But without them your business simply will not grow.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted…5 reasons why rookie copywriters should only blog once a monthMy Profile

    • Deborah says:

      I am stuck with content mills right now because it’s steady money paid regularly. I hate it, but I can’t take the time to try to get out. I hate the editors. They are seemingly stuck there too, and they make us writers pay by nitpicking the tiniest things. And the clients! OMG! I’ve been crowdsourcing for one client, and their client is an absolute IDIOT! If you are to believe the guidelines, he thinks we’re all writing works of art that will last for generations, when in fact we’re cranking out 400 word SEO articles that will probably not be seen by anybody, because all the material is already online. It’s insane, and crazy-making. I wanted this to be the year I broke away, but circumstances have kept me there way too long. I have one more essential thing I need the money for in early September, then I’m starting to submit queries to print pubs.

      • Willi Morris says:

        Deborah, you don’t have to be stuck. Just get out! I’ll be frank – it’s better to not have that steady income than to stay. It shouldn’t take long to come up with a query to send to an editor. Just take that first step!
        Willi Morris recently posted…A New Beginning – Welcome to My Freelance Life.comMy Profile

        • Colin Guest says:

          For what it’s worth I totally agree. If you are not happy at work it usually means you take your bad mood home with you. In the past I have walked away from jobs that I did not like. Maybe I was lucky to be able to do this, but I do know that I enjoyed the work that I did during my working life.I also had a happy home life, which of course is something we all want.

        • Carol Tice says:

          I’m actually a pretty risk-averse person, so my way out was always to work more hours, find those better clients, and then drop the losers.

          But one thing’s for sure — if you keep doing what you’ve always done, then you get what you’ve already got.

          I did a post a while back about ways to make the switchover happen: The Essential Item You Need for Freelance Success That No One Dares Name.

      • Lisa Baker says:

        I know how it feels, Deborah, believe me! It took my favorite mill just about disappearing to finally push me out. But it was so, so worth it! I won’t say I’ve *never* looked back…and there’ve been times I’ve been tempted to write an article or two just for the quick cash…but so far, another LOI or query has come through in time every time. 🙂
        Lisa Baker recently posted…16 Chores Your Toddler Can DoMy Profile

      • Deborah, would it help to only partially cut you mill time? I am planning to cut my mill time in half, so I still have a bit of income from them to fall back on, and spend the time I’ve cut out of them trying to get real work. Carol says once you fire one crap client (mills, in this case), a better one will come along to fill that space.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Great suggestion, Lindsay! And yeah, I’ve seen it happen so often. It’s like the good client can’t locate you as long as your head is bent over that mill dashboard.

          I’ve seen so many Den members start pitching and get great clients, and pretty darn fast, too. It’s not a fluke, it’s not just me able to move up and earn more…people who market consistently can find better pay and good gigs. Believe it.

    • Lisa Baker says:

      Great point, Kevin, and that’s definitely one of the big barriers to breaking out of the mills too. In the mills you kind of bypass marketing.
      Lisa Baker recently posted…16 Chores Your Toddler Can DoMy Profile

    • How do we balance all of these things with writing? Learning, planning, networking, and building a website all take time.
      Jessica Flory recently posted…The Secrets of Getting Romantic Tension into Your NovelMy Profile

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