Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Content Mills--Why Aspiring Writers Should Avoid Them

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A content mill, if you aren't familiar with the term, is a website that aggregates huge numbers of articles on a constantly-updated basis, written by freelancers who are paid by page views or ad clicks rather than wages or fees. A few examples: Examiner, Suite101, eHow, Triond, Associated Content, Helium.

I've written on this blog about a number of content mills, focusing mainly on their Terms and Conditions and the implications for writers of the legal language contained therein. But are content mills worth writing for? Can you make money? Will they help you start or build a freelance writing career?

This week I'm hosting two guest posts that address these questions (both originally posted at The WM Freelance Writers Connection). The first is by journalist Carol Tice, who argues that content mills are not a good way for aspiring writers to establish a sustainable writing career.

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by Carol Tice

As many WM readers and readers of my Make a Living Writing Blog may already know, I am not a fan of content mills. I advise the writers I mentor to avoid them, and many of my mentees approach me with the specific goal of kicking their mill-writing habit.

I think there are many types of people for whom these sites are a superb option -- but in my opinion, those types don't include writers who're serious about building a good-paying, sustainable writing career. To clarify, I mean people who want to earn $50,000 a year and up from their writing. People who ultimately want to have unlimited earning capability from writing.

Let me explain why I'm down on content mills. In my experience, here are the career problems writers may experience who rely mostly on content-site assignments:

1. It does not teach you to report. Most of the stories on content sites are written with light Internet research or off the top of your head. They don't help you develop newsgathering abilities, which are a bedrock skill needed for most good-paying byline reporting and corporate writing work. You don't develop interviewing skills since you generally aren't conducting interviews. If you dream of earning $800-$1500 for a single article, mill writing is not helping you get there.

2. It does not teach you to research. A lot of good-paying writing assignments call for extensive research. I recently wrote a $650 article for a regional magazine about all the stimulus money our state got and how it was spent. I wrote a $1,500 article about where Seattle's trash goes and what happens to it. I'm doubtful that anyone cutting their teeth on mill stories will ever be able to write stories like these. Writing for mills does not teach you how to do investigative reporting, how to dig deep into documents, understand them, interpret them, or synthesize complex information. Copywriting as well can demand a decent amount of research and ability to dive in-depth into a topic.

3. It does not give you nurturing editor relationships. I would be nowhere today without two or three amazing editors I worked with earlier in my career. Editing at mills is usually cursory at best, and not the kind of close, one-on-one relationship you want where someone will really take you under their wing and take the time to show you exactly what you need to do to improve.

4. It does not teach you to market. Many mill writers have spoken in ecstatic terms of how much they love never having to market their writing. But marketing your writing is a key skill for those who want to earn big. Generally, you go out and find the really lucrative magazine connections and corporate clients yourself...they do not fall in your lap. Every week you write for mills is a week you don't learn this critical skill.

5. It does not enhance your reputation. While some mill writers have reported they were able to parlay their clips into better-paying assignments...I usually find when I nail them down that their definition of "better paying" and mine are very different. They often mean something like they've worked their way to $50 an article. Know that many editors at quality publications discard outright the queries of anyone who offers clips from mill sites, so this work can slam a lot of doors for you.

6. It's a model that may disappear. There's been much discussion online of the possibility that Google may soon find a way to screen out mill sites in its search results. If that happens, the entire article-aggregator industry, which sprung up to serve Google's ranking analytics, will disappear overnight. As it is, mill sites go out of business on a regular basis, taking any promised "lifetime" residuals they owe writers along with them.

If you write for mills, ask yourself how you would replace that income if this model goes away? What other client types could you find work with?

There's already signs that even if it survives, the content-site model is changing -- check out ProVoices, the new site that wants professionally reported articles for up to $250. The trend is toward rates going up, and more work being demanded of mill writers as these sites seek to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Carol Tice is a business journalist, copywriter, blogger and Web-content author. A contributor to the WM Freelance Writers Connection, she also blogs about small business for Entrepreneur magazine's Daily Dose, and about the business of freelance writing at her Make a Living Writing blog. In addition, she mentors writers on how to find better-paying markets and increase their earnings. She has three children ages 7, 8 and 17.

15 comments:

Ceallaigh said...

I recently found an article I wrote for my own web site referenced in an eHow article. I posted the article on my own site not for money-making purposes but rather to offer help to anyone else who might have interest in the topic. However, the writer of the eHow article aggregated my work and the work of another writer into an article that contained almost none of her own content. My web site was credited as a source, and I was mentioned twice in the article's text, but the eHow writer was clearly pulling content written by others from elsewhere on the Internet in the hope of making money on it.

I mention this because that sort of behavior further diminishes the credibility of sites like eHow. As you say, it isn't research. In fact, it reminds me of the sort of things my students used to hope would pass for research, like skimming the Internet for whatever might fit a particular assignment and then hoping to pass aggregations of several web resources off as their own work.

Angelia Almos said...

I avoid content mills for the simple fact that I was interviewed for what I thought was a final paper for a school report which ended up showing up on one of these (I was never told and stumbled across it). The "writer" lied about me as proof to back up her conclusions. The writer refused to change it when I contacted her. I contacted the site. They refused to take the article down (even when I pointed out it bordered on slander and didn't they want good journalists), but did finally remove my name from the article (they changed the name).

This experience makes me wonder about any of the articles that would appear on these sites since I know from personal experience that the "writer" and site aren't that concerned with using actual facts to back up what they write. I know there are also writers that practice good research and journalism that also post, but how am I supposed to tell as a reader who is who.

Doreen McGettigan said...

Thank you for this insight..as a new writer it is so tempting to just write for anything..I have made a habit of research; research; research before I agree to anything..Thank you!

Anton Gully said...

Hmm. Isn't Provoices the next tier of Allvoices? To my untrained eye Allvoices appears to be a simple variant on a content mill. Am I wrong?

That aside, I dunno. On the one hand I'm all for Google discouraging the spamming of the Internet by tens of thousands of near-identical articles. On the other hand, I do seem to use eHow an awful lot.

If someone is making money from content mills, then good luck to them. They're doing better than 99% of aspiring writers out there.

Still, I respect your point of few and can see it's very well intentioned.

Najela said...

I use content mills to make some side money when my jobs don't come through with the hours. I will never use them as clout on a query letter though... I almost thought about adding it to my resume, but thankfully your post told me otherwise. Thank you, you saved me from making a grave mistake.

Brian Hunt said...

I've learned more about writing from working with good editors than from almost any other source (other than actually writing and rewriting). When the writer/editor relationship is good, it's very satisfying and beneficial to the writer, the editor, the client, and the eventual consumer of the content you're producting. You'll never have that relationship with a mill.

Brian Hunt said...

Yeah, see. I needed an editor on that last comment. :-)

"Producting." Sheesh...

jchunter said...

how about a blog about how to avoid scammers in the self publishing industry, that is made by said scammers in the publishing industry?

selfpublishingjourney.wordpress.com

there are quite a few of these out there...I guess they feel they need to dilute the field of honest writers looking out for their own kind...

S.M. Carrière said...

Wow. Clearly I know nothing. I had never even heard of content mills, though I am more of a novelist than an article writer... perhaps that is why?

I did intend to start writing articles though, just for a bit of side money. I now know what not to do and where to go!

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I almost got suckered into writing for Examiner thinking it was a legit job. When I read the contract they sent, it made no mention of payment at all! Needless to say, I ran from them and told all my friends.

Most writers who work for these mills claim that they're just trying to get their first clips. Funny, my first writing gig paid me $60 and that was work I found on my own! It was for WritersWeekly and I haven't had to lower my rates yet. Yes, it's hard freelancing, but business of any kind is tough. You are in control of how much you get paid but once you give up that control then you're reduced to writing for whatever THEY tell you is a fair wage!!!

Anonymous said...

I write for both Examiner and Helium and have made some good pocket change from both. I've also written for many websites that don't pay a cent. If making immediate $ is anyone's primary goal, then writing for these sites is not the answer. But the truth is, there are just too many writers and the Internet has changed things, making info readily available, that the old days of getting lots of bucks per article is in the past, unless you're a "big name" writer or critic, or just happen to luck out with connections.

For the unknowns, I'm of the opinion it is better to get your stuff out there, and if you can make some pocket change, great. There's nothing wrong with writing for these sites, as long as you know what to expect.

Carol Tice said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments here! I personally have never found an eHow article that was accurate in what it was explaining! So if you're relying on their stuff to teach you anything, watch out.

Anonymous at the bottom there, I have to say I disagree with pretty much every point you make.

"There are too many writers" - Maybe, but there are still not enough good ones. Just the other day I heard from a large hospital chain that said they can't get anyone who can do the writing they need. There are so many publication and copywriting niches where they continue to struggle with finding qualified writers.

"The days of getting lots of bucks per article is in the past"-- Really? I made $1500 for an article earlier this year, and have two $800 article assignments right now. The days of getting lots of bucks per article are over only for people who don't pitch good-paying markets, and who have a pervasive sense of hopelessness that keeps them from getting quality assignments.

"unless you're a big name writer or just happen to luck out with connections..." I am not a "big name" writer, and I don't consider myself lucky, just hardworking. I got most of my high-paying connections by pitching them with queries I worked hard to create.

Stop waiting for the luck fairy to bring you good-paying writing gigs and go out and find them.

There's nothing wrong with writing for mills for "pocket change"--if that's what you want to do with your time. But for anyone who aspires to feeding their family, I believe there are many better options.

Second anonymous -- the first article I wrote paid $200, for L.A. Weekly. People who'd like to earn a living from writing need to wake up and see how these mills and free sites take advantage of their insecurities to impoverish them, and get out there and pitch. They could be earning soooo much more.

Anton - ProVoices is part of a mill...but it's a way better-paying part, and shows how the industry is changing to favor people with real talent and an understanding of reporting basics.

Thanks for all the feedback!

Carol Tice
Make a Living Writing blog

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Experienced writers obviously have other projects to pursue in order to grow their career - nobody is disputing that. But I would have to disagree with your inflammatory comments on eHow. By overgeneralizing, you are losing credibility. Ehow has implemented various measures to ensure the integrity of the site. For example, Ehow has copywriters that fact-check new submissions, and it also has a blacklist of sources that writers are prohibited from using. I suggest you do further research (or update the content on your site to match current events). I understand this comment is being moderated and it would be in your best interest not to post it. Therefore, this comment is just for your own self-improvement. Cheers.

Sarah said...

Regarding the comment on eHow accuracy by Anonymous above ...

I am a full-time freelancer who dallied briefly with Demand Studios/eHow, and I beg to differ about their editorial standards.

In fall 2010, I wrote my second and final article for them on how to become a pharmacy tech in a certain mid-sized city.

I wrote a well-researched article that took several hours to complete. My professional background is in career development, so I felt like I had a certain integrity to uphold.

To make a long story short, the ed. pretty much eviscerated my article of factual information so it would meet DS'"demanding style standards."

The kicker -- I was forced to take out an entire section on obtaining a job as a pharmacy tech.

In the editor's words, "This is about becoming a pharmacy tech. It's not about landing a job as a pharmacy tech."

Huh?

In our state there is no formal certification/registration process for pharm techs, so that makes like zero sense.

By his definition, everyone in the state is a pharm tech.

So basically there is now no useful information in the article whatsoever and it's posted to eHow to mystify the world.

So that's my experience with DS' new and stringent writers' guidelines.

Anonymous said...

You can make money writing if you write in certain high-demand niche areas such as finance or business but that is not the case in every topic area. Some topic areas or niche areas pay very poorly. I do agree that content mills are a waste of time.

Check with the National Writer's Union to find out how much the average freelance writer makes. Last time I checked it was under $15,000 a year. Most freelance writers have to teach or work a part-time job to make end meet.

By the way, I've used eHow and learned a lot from reading them.

Writers, if you want some good free advice on writing gigs check out the Working Writer's Site or Ed Gangia's website. They are both EXCELLENT SOURCES and will give you all the advice you need free of charge.

Join reputable organizations such as The Freelancers Union or The National Writer's Union. They will give you great advice on the topic of freelancing.