Content Mill Escape: 5 Moves a Hungry Writer Used to Break Out
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Content Mill Escape: A Writer's 5 Breakout Moves

As a brand new freelancer, it’s easy to sell yourself short…especially if you get trapped in the content mill cycle.

You know how it goes.

The self-doubt creeps in, along with the fear that no one will hire a newbie like you. You’re just happy to land a client at all.

So you take any $10 content mill assignment that comes along and toil for 50 hours or more per week. Only to discover that your monthly income is a measly $500.

Then panic sets in as you think about your dwindling savings. And you wonder if you’ll have to pull the plug on your freelance writing dreams.

Content mill crisis? I understand where you’re coming from.

When I started freelancing three years ago, I quickly got sucked into the Upwork trap chasing content mill gigs.

I was working long hours for clients who were clueless or cash-strapped, and was lucky to get $500 a month. My savings were quickly drying up, and I had to do something fast to save my writing business.

I wasn’t about to call it quits and go back to a mind-numbing office job. Instead, I decided to take massive action. I dropped my low-paying clients and came up with a plan to land clients that actually valued my work.

My strategy paid off, and in one month, I scored two quality clients. And just a month after that, I tripled my freelance writing income.

Here’s how I did it, and so can you:

1. Fix your writer mindset (and your rates)

The first step to ditching low-paying clients is admitting you can do better than scavenging for more content mill work.

I learned this the hard way after I ended up with the client from hell. This client paid pennies and was demanding, rude, and unappreciative. Nothing I wrote pleased her, and I had to constantly field endless revision requests.

Time for a wake-up call

I’d never gotten so much criticism before, and didn’t know why this was happening. I doubted myself and worried my writing wasn’t good enough. But then I had a major wake-up call.

I realized my writing wasn’t the problem. The client was. She was unreasonable and had no respect for writers. Pretty typical of low-paying clients from Craigslist, content mill work, and race-to-the-bottom bidding sites.

Only then did I admit I was selling myself short. Maybe I was a new freelancer, but I could do so much better. Once I realized that, it became clear what I had to do next.

I decided to dramatically raise my rates and find better clients.

Questions to help you break out

  • What mindset shifts do you need to make about freelance writing?
  • Are you charging pro rates? Or just taking any gig that comes your way, even if it doesn’t?

2. Drop low-paying freelance clients

My next step was to let go of low-paying clients.

It was definitely a risk, since I didn’t know how long it would take to score better clients. But since I was earning so little, I felt I had nothing to lose.

So I informed my client from hell that we weren’t a good fit and cut my contract short. When my final paycheck arrived ($55 for an entire week’s work), I knew I’d made the right call. And then I dropped almost all of my other clients.

I decided I was done finding clients on Upwork. I’d learned that good clients sure didn’t hang out there. If I wanted quality clients, I’d have to find them myself.

I knew there had to be a way to find quality clients. And I promised myself I’d find it.

Questions to help you break out

  • Do you have a client from hell or content mill gig that pays in chump change?
  • How long have you been working for bad clients?
  • If you dropped all of your clients today, what would you do?

3. Find quality freelance writing clients

After ditching Upwork and swearing off content mill projects, I started to really consider who I wanted to write for. I realized that I wanted to write blog content for tech and software companies. Then I did online research to find some to target.

There were tons of tech companies, but the problem was I didn’t know which ones were good targets. While searching for freelance marketing tips, I discovered the Freelance Writers Den and signed up immediately. As a Den member, I learned valuable strategies for identifying high-quality clients.

  • I learned that I needed to pitch bigger companies who could afford to hire freelancers.
  • I discovered the Inc. 5,000 List and the AngelList database, which turned out to be excellent resources for finding companies to pitch.

After consulting these resources, I ended up with a long list of prospects to target. Then it was time to muster up my courage and pitch my services to them.

Questions to help you break out

  • What’s your niche, area of expertise, or type of clients you want to write for?
  • What some of the dream clients you’d like to write for?

4. Become an unstoppable marketing force to find freelance clients

Even though I had a list of successful companies to pitch, it seemed scary to put myself out there. But I refused to let fear hold me back. I learned how to write a letter of introduction (LOI), uncovered the names of marketing managers at my target companies, and set a goal to send 15 LOIs every day.

  • The results: My first batch of LOIs got ignored. I kept reworking my LOI until I hit on a formula that got responses. Most people who responded didn’t need a writer immediately and put my information on file.
  • But within a month, I heard back from a successful web design blog that needed a writer. Incredibly, they agreed to pay me $200 for a trial post. And just a few days later, a health insurance company asked me to write a post for them, also for $200. For someone who used to make $20 per post, this was a major victory.

It showed me what was possible.

And it gave me the courage to drop my last lousy client.

Questions to help you break out

  • How much marketing are you doing right now?
  • Have you asked for help to write a better pitch or letter of introduction?

5. Add value to show clients what you’re worth

Once I landed better-paying assignments, I knew I needed to prove myself to my new clients. So I studied each client’s blog, reviewed their writing guidelines, and edited my first draft many times.

Both blog editors were impressed with my work, and hired me to write more posts for them. As I worked on these new projects, I continued pitching tech companies. Over time, I landed more clients who agreed to pay me $200 or more per post.

  • I discovered that clients who understand the value of good content are very willing to pay pro rates. This helped me finally gain the confidence to charge what I was worth.
  • Within two months, my efforts paid off, and I managed to triple my income. This proved to me that I’d found a marketing approach that worked.

Questions to help you move up

  • What can you do to create better content and better results for your clients?
  • What can you recommend that will help your clients be more successful?

Move up and earn more

I continue to use this strategy to build a roster of well-paying clients and grow a successful freelance writing business. And so can you.

So if you’re a new freelancer, struggling to make ends meet, or feel stuck doing content mill work, know that it doesn’t have to be this way. By following these steps, you can ditch the low payers and land clients that will pay you what you’re worth.

Now go and make it happen.

What are you doing that helps you write during a pandemic? Leave a comment and share your tips.

Tara Malone left corporate America to launch a freelance writing career. She specializes in creating long-form blog content for technology and digital marketing companies and is a SmartBlogger-certified content marketer.

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13 comments on “Content Mill Escape: 5 Moves a Hungry Writer Used to Break Out

  1. Brad Carroll on

    There’s a ton of actionable content on this blog! I’m going to take this post as my general guide. Inc 5000 and AngelList sound like they’ll keep me busy. Although looking up paying blogs in a couple of niches might be a good deal for me too.

    This is the post that really “clicked” for me. Of course I’ll need to review some posts on LOIs, pitches, and Linkedin. But it’s time for ready, fire, aim! I’ll come back in a month and let you know how it’s going!

    Reply
    • Tara+Malone on

      Hi Brad, I’m so glad to hear that this post really resonated with you and that you found the suggestions to be so helpful. All the best as you dive into the prospecting and pitching process – I look forward to hearing how it goes!

      Reply
  2. Aunice Reed on

    Thank you, Tara for your inspiring message! I worked for a few content mills years ago (Ex. Demand Media) and at some point stopped writing and in the meantime completed 2 degrees. (BA in Psychology and MS in Addiction Counseling). Now working on licensure. I;m looking forward to picking it up again on a part-time basis, as I have clients to counsel now. I’m looking forward to building a practice and writing again!

    I’m with Diane (previous commenter) nothing really changes in a Pandemic as far as writing life goes. You’re inside anyway and it’s solitary work.

    Reply
    • Tara Malone on

      Thank you for your kind words, Aunice! I’m just thrilled to hear that my post inspired you. Congrats on completing your degrees and I wish you the best as you build your practice and get back into writing again!

      Reply
      • Joseph on

        Writing articles that will boost spirituality. The pandemic has left deaths, agony and fear on the world. Spiritual booster is in immunity against any loss. So writing to lift up downcast spirit is vital in this pandemic.

        Reply
        • Tara Malone on

          Hi Joseph, I definitely understand how writing articles on spiritual topics can help people cope with the pandemic and everything else that’s going on now. Focusing on our spirituality can really give us strength in these difficult times, and through our writing we can help others as well.

          Reply
        • Carol Tice on

          Have you found paying markets for writing about spirituality, Joseph? I’d be interested to know, get asked that all the time but really know of few paying markets in this space.

          Reply
  3. Emaido on

    Hi Diane!
    Thank you for your encouraging words, you just described my current situation no thanks to low paying upwork clients. But the unavoidable truth is that getting the big jobs outside the content mill is pretty tough; no one seems to believe you can create good English contents because you are not from a native English. And in the pandemic, its tougher with lots of people flooding the gig industry so, you see the competition is impossible. But, thanks anyway, i will think of starting a blog and possibly hitting on some individual companies.

    Reply
  4. Jurgen Smith on

    Sticking to a niche, l found short courses on Udemy which are cheap to help make video content and and other soft skills which makes me more versatile to different projects.

    Reply
  5. Diane Young on

    The pandemic has really changed my life very little. My car died two years ago after 23 surprising years and now I have a ride to town, 12 miles away, once a week for masked shopping and errands. The libraries are shut down until further notice, so I read free books online or from Amazon. My post office is a mailbox across the road and a book of stamps. I research my articles online, do phone interviews and I write in almost total silence in a small coastal Maine town. No stoplights or sidewalks. Most of the time, all I hear is the wind through the trees, bird- song, the clock ticking, and the fridge humming in the kitchen. No distractions or someone at the door. The rest of the time, I do as I damn well please.

    Reply
    • Tara Malone on

      You paint such a vivid and lovely picture of your writing life, Diane. It sounds like you live in a place that’s very conducive to writers and reading your words gives a sense of peace that’s rare during these times. I also understand what you mean when you said the pandemic has changed your life very little, because the same is true for me. I’ve been working from home for three years now, and my daily routine hasn’t changed much. I continue to spend most of the week in my home office where I can be alone and free to focus on my work. Being able to work in silence, without distractions is really so essential for us writers!

      Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      Diane, you remind me of my 20 years on Bainbridge Island at the end of a 5-house little cul-de-sac, near Seattle. Now that I live in town, the LIGHT at night drives me nuts. We’re used to it being so dark and quiet, if we heard car wheels, we’d stop what we were doing and go out and wonder what’s up!

      When we first moved there, I was working as a staffer remotely, for a trade pub based in Manhattan. The first year I was there, I won an inter-company award for writing the MOST articles of anyone across all 5 of their publications!

      Reply

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