It’s 1:30 am, I’m sitting at my computer waiting for my Skype interview for a travel writer position. My prospective clients are on Singapore time. The excitement at getting the gig far outweighs the amount of coffee I had to guzzle to stay awake. Unfortunately, once I got the job, I realized it was nothing more than a content mill.
Experts say if you want to have any kind of career in freelance, stay away from content mills. These are companies paying pennies a word just to get content. In fact, Kelly James-Enger in her award-winning book Writer for Hire has an entire section labeled “Say No to Content Mills”, outlining the value you need to put on your time and your writing. But I was just starting, I figured I needed to pay my dues and I didn’t have any long-term clients.
Well, you can pay your dues and be paid fairly doing it. Here are some warning signs to look out for if you are looking for clients and want to avoid the dreaded content mill.
1. The Pay
If the pay is low you walk away. It’s a little easier said than done especially for a young, naïve writer, like me, just hoping to get paid to write. If you’re working for less $1.00 an hour, it’s a good sign you’re working for way too little. The name of the game here isn’t “how low can you go?”
2. “We Can’t Pay You Yet”
This is something I see way more often than I’d like. And the bummer is often these websites and blogs focus on things that I want to write about. When the majority of your submissions are going on to websites that promise to pay later or say that just getting published is pay enough, walk away. Unfortunately for fiction and creative nonfiction writers, more often than not these are the kind of markets you find. Sometimes you have to dig to find the sites that pay, but it’s possible.
3. It’s Too Good To be True
Look at that, you’ve landed the client. And they have lots of big dreams, the pay is low but they promise that if you stick with it, you can make bank. Unfortunately, more often than not, these kinds of practices are just ways to convince you to keep churning out content and keep a website’s freelance writer base up. The reality is, of the hundreds of writers a website has, only 1 or 2 will be able to make any kind of living. Those are not good odds.
4. Going Once, Going Twice
I was briefly part of a few websites that promised big paychecks if I put my hat in their ring. The catch, I had to bid on jobs like an eBay listing. Of course, the client is going to choose the lowest offer, so instead of competing for a reasonable rate, I was competing with other writers to advertise the lowest rates with the quickest turnaround. Websites like freelancer.com excel at this business model.
It can be sorely tempting to find a startup and send your resume. They have a dream, a business plan, they know exactly what they are looking for, but because they have no income or their Kickstarter campaign hasn’t reached its goal, you are left just writing for another low paying gig.
6. Amount Per Article, Per Word, Per hour
One of the writing jobs I had, I realized I was getting paid less than .50 an hour. Yeah, you heard me. Not viable by any stretch of the imagination. But the client I was working for addressed this by saying it was per article. Take a look at the paycheck. Does it justify the time you spend? Is it per article, per hour, or per word? Can you buy a meal at McDonald’s on it? No? Then maybe walk away.
7. Look at the Mission Statement
What is the company or clients aim? If it’s a content mill they are going to want more, more, more, easily linkable, lots of buzzwords. It’s about the money and web traffic for them, so if they can get by paying you a pittance, they will.
8. Know Your Job Board
Can you find reputable work on Craigslist? Absolutely, but you have to know how to decipher the real deals from the raw deals. Chances are if there’s no company name, if you can’t google it and find more info about the client, if they can’t pay you yet but they have an AMAZING novel that will be a bestseller, it’s not the gig for you. Become a keyword master when looking for jobs. Websites like Problogger and freelancewriting.com do a lot of vetting for you.
9. The Deadline
Working with deadlines, working for less than was desired, and learning to work with editors are all important skills to have in your arsenal. That’s freelance 101 right? To an extent yes. But you also have to know your limits. What kind of content do you want to write? Can you confidently produce a million words a week with no hassle? Then more power to you. I could not. I can work with deadlines, but not content mill deadlines. I’m all about quality, not quantity.
10. Application Requirements
Believe it or not, for some reason the less reputable the content mill, the more hoops you have to jump through. Be thorough in your investigations before you start the application process, how many tests and assessments are required? Do they even care about your website, blog, and twitter? What do they want from your cover letter and writing samples? Are they going to ask you to write a sample for free? Is it possible they will use your writing samples without your knowledge? These are all good questions to ask yourself when applying for longer term writing gigs. A little scrutiny can save you time and writing that could be better served to pitch to magazines and reputable websites.
After my own experience and walking away from my first content mill, I had to take a hard look at myself and realize, OK, my time is actually worth more than pennies an hour or pennies a word. Beware the content mills. It’s easier than you think to find yourself in the thick of it but just focus on your time and break it down to the bare bones. If it’s something you love, if the deadline isn’t excruciating, and if it’s shaping your writing, sometimes it can be worth it to take a lower price tag. But these ten warning signs can help you avoid the gigs that won’t do anything for your profile or career. Instead, after I walked away I found myself back in the game, honing my craft and writing about what I was passionate about.