Friday, March 12, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Content Mills--Just A Stepping Stone in Your Career

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today: the second of two guest posts on content mills.

In this article originally published at The WM Freelance Writers Connection, writer Angela Atkinson takes a more positive view of content mills, arguing that they can be a good way for new writers to sharpen skills and build experience. The down side: you probably won't make much money. And if you're focused on establishing a career, you need to treat them as a stepping stone, rather than an end in themselves.

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by Angela Atkinson

I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and though I studied journalism in college, circumstances in my life pushed me toward a corporate job early into adulthood. I wrote every day back then--but it was either some corporate communication or publication, or something just for myself that I always pretended I'd work on getting published, but never did.

After leaving the corporate world, I knew that I wanted to focus on my writing career, and even though I understood how to get started the "old-fashioned" way (sending clips, queries, etc. via snail mail, mostly), I was kind of clueless when it came to the "new world" of online journalism.

Since I was lucky enough to have my husband's income backing me up, I was free to take things as slowly as I wanted to--and since I had small kids at home, I definitely took baby steps along the way.

My Experience With Content Mills

I found Ezine Articles online and published a couple of old pieces with them (and later, some reprints.) They paid me nothing, but the byline felt great. I wanted more, so I started doing some research.

That was about the time I ran into my first content mill, Associated Content. AC paid me next to nothing for the 50 or so articles I wrote for them, although I still, to this day, get a little bit of cash from them each month for page views on those articles. I even used AC as a format to promote a couple of clients through articles which linked to their sites. And, though I don't use AC on my resume or website, I can honestly tell you that AC helped me to start my writing career.

You see, with the samples I generated working for AC, I was able to direct other, higher paying companies to view my work. I also sharpened my writing chops working for AC--got my flow going again after years of only writing corporate stuff and fiction on the side.

After I worked for AC, I worked for a few other content mills here and there. I did a stint with Bright Hub as a contributing editor--and while payments were slightly higher than AC, it was just another babystep for me, building my writing portfolio a little more. When Bright Hub decided to ask its writers to do more work than I thought was fair for the amount they were paying, I dropped the account.

Using my AC portfolio, I got accepted as a Demand Studios writer, and later a DS title editor. DS fuels several well-known websites, including Answerbag, eHow, Livestrong and several others. Demand pays more than most "content mills" and even offers health insurance to writers, editors and filmmakers who contract with them. Contractors are paid twice weekly.

They have high editorial standards and their editors even fact check each article they produce. And, unlike some "content mills," Demand doesn't accept every writer who applies. That's probably why they don't consider themselves a content mill.

Along the way, I wrote for a few other "content mill" type places, but those were the most notable. I still maintain a relationship with Demand Studios as a writer and title editor, but only part time. The benefit for me is that when I'm working with a client or on a big project, I can step back from DS at any time--but when I need a little extra income or am between projects, DS is there. There are no minimum requirements. And, there's always work available. I'm not the only one who feels this way--DS contracts with many professionals who agree wholeheartedly.

So, ultimately, my take on content mills is this: if you're going to write for them, do it. Build up an online portfolio, and move on. Use content mills as a stepping stone, and don't get stuck there forever. Like me, you might even want to keep a decent one in your back pocket to fill in the gaps between accounts once you build your business.

What's the alternative? You can write articles free and submit them to sites like Ezine Articles--or publish them on your own blog or website. Or, you can go the old fashioned route and submit blindly to various publications via snail mail. All of these are effective ways to get started, if you're willing to work hard and be persistent.

The Lure of Community

A lot of times, writers find themselves so entrenched in the online communities that often come along with content mills that they don't want to leave. AC and DS, for example, both have really active and helpful writing communities in which writers can discuss anything related to writing, including but not limited to the content mill itself. As writers become familiar with their colleagues in these communities, it can almost become addictive. They stick around and keep writing $5 and $10 articles just to maintain their status in the community.

Here's my advice on that--make connections with people who seem to be on a similar path and take those relationships outside of the content mill community. Email or chat via messenger. Networking is an important component of a successful writing career, and there's nothing saying you can't find decent writers in content mill communities.

Join other online writing communities too. Or, just check in once or twice a week for awhile as you work on growing your career. Don't let yourself be held back under any circumstances.

Bottom Line

Though I am well aware that some of my colleagues will disagree with me, I don't think content mills are all bad. I think they're an ideal place to get one's feet wet in the industry--a jumping off point. Sharpen your skills, get used to working with editors, that sort of thing.

Beyond that, I think you're wasting your time and talent if you don't try to branch out and move forward.

The bottom line is that most content mills don't promise you the world. They tell you, up front, that the work is "write for hire" and in most cases, you know up front what you'll make. If you make the choice to write under those terms, then you know what you're getting yourself into.

Don't quit your day job, though--because you won't make much without working 16 nonstop hours a day (though a determined writer could easily make $300 to $500 a week writing for DS working about 6-8 hours a day, five days a week.) Still, if you can write on the side, or if you're lucky enough to have a working spouse who can afford to support you as you start your career, content mills present one option to help you get moving in the right direction.

I don't believe that content mills are the only way to get started--just that they're one way. You have to choose the path that's right for you. And, if you've got the time, inclination and determination to start with content mills, it just might work for you too.

Angela Atkinson is a freelance writer, editor and researcher. In addition to writing and editing for websites and corporate clients, she is the co-founder of the WM Network, which currently includes The WM Freelance Connection and The WM Parenting Connection. She's also the author of an award-winning inspirational blog called In Pursuit of Fulfillment. Angela is happily married and has three beautiful children.

7 comments:

G.~ said...

What a great post. Thank you.
The content mill is definitely used as a stepping stone for me. It's nice to see my articles published somewhere. I write because I love to write. I research because I love to learn, so to be able to publish somewhere, even if it is for next to nothing, it's a start. ;)

S.M. Carrière said...

That was a good opposing point of view on content mills, and it sounded pretty sensible to me!

Frances Grimble said...

I agree that it's a good idea for beginning writers to sharpen skills, to get into the habit of writing regularly, and definitely, to have some other source of income, whether through a spouse or some other part-time work.

However, there are plenty of magazines with more or less recognizable names, that pay low, but not nearly as low as the prices mentioned for content mills. Granted, I was doing journalism awhile back, but even as a beginner I never had any trouble finding low-paying magazines that still paid more than what people are mentioning for content mills. Furthermore, as I only sold first serial rights, I was also able to sell the same articles to other magazines.

If you really want to get paid nothing or close to it, there is absolutely no shortage of places on the net that will be happy to use your work, that are not content mills.

Anne Wayman - About Freelance Writing said...

Totally agree... and I would add that it can make a whole lot of sense to begin branching out as soon as you've got your first content mill article up - a copy of writer's market or the online service is probably the best way to find out where to submit.

Rafael said...

OK, so the content mills (first time I've heard that expression) offer a "decent" first step, but how does one find these magazines that allegedly pay more and better than the CMs?

James Morgan - Puritan Financial Advisor said...

Since I was lucky enough to have my husband's income backing me up, I was free to take things as slowly as I wanted to--and since I had small kids at home, I definitely took baby steps along the way.

Nick @ EXP Content said...

I've always thought of content mills as belonging to a different category than actual freelance writing. When you work for a content mill, it's on a contractual basis but there's not much client interaction involved. A freelance business involves a great deal of management, although obviously the potential rewards are far higher.

I run my own freelance writing business, and I suppose it fits between the two. Like most content mills, we're aimed at webmasters, but we're not brutally cheap to work with either. I think that, as time goes on and quality content becomes more important online, the market for content that falls between a magazine and a cheapo website in quality is going to expand, which is VERY good for the writers currently stuck in content mill jobs.