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  • Crystal Bedell

Looking for freelance work in all the wrong places (the pros and cons of writing for content mills)

There comes a time in any freelancer’s life when you have to hustle for work. Maybe you’re just starting out and need to flesh out your portfolio or, in the normal course of doing business, you’ve experienced some customer churn. Either way, it’s an uncomfortable position to be in. I am here to tell you: do not succumb to the content mills.

A content mill or content farm is a company that hires a large number of writers to produce a massive amount of keyword-rich content, which it sells to other companies for a high profit. At first glance, working with a content mill looks like an ideal gig.

The benefits of working with a content mill:

· No need to find new clients—that’s the content mill’s job

· You get paid

· And… well, that’s about it.

Content mills like to emphasize that they allow you to work when and where you want. As you know, these are general benefits of working as a freelancer—you don’t have to work with a content mill to realize them. However, content mills have to emphasize these benefits to make up for the fact that they pay writers a mere pittance. I’m talking pennies per word.

Let’s look at an example. I recently responded to a job listing from The HOTH. The HOTH pays its freelancers $16 for a 500-word article. The HOTH provides writers with a broad topic, then expects its writers to conduct research, refine the assignment (further develop the topic), and write the article. Once the article is submitted, there’s a chance that both The HOTH and the client will need edits—separately. There’s no cap on review/revision cycles. (This is problematic for several reasons, which I’ll get to in a moment.)

On a good day, when all the stars are aligned in my favor, I may churn out a 500-word article in one hour, but that’s only accounting for writing time. The research, content development, and revision cycles can easily eat up another hour. That means, at the very most, I’d earn $8 an hour. That’s not even close to a living wage, especially when you consider that as a freelancer I must also pay for my own health insurance and taxes.

Now, let’s get back to those review/revision cycles. Content mills have their clients pre-approve topics, but the assignments themselves are often off the mark. The topic may be misleading or vague, sending you on a wild goose chase in an effort to translate the assignment and then make it fit the research you find. This was a perpetual problem when I wrote (for a brief time) for Skyword.

The editors at content mills don’t understand the market they’re producing content for. On top of that, they’re not properly researching topics. Editors at The HOTH use Reddit to research assignments and actually advise writers to use Reddit for their own research. According to The HOTH, if a topic is upvoted, writers can trust that the information is valid. Let that sink in for a moment.

So, what happens when you’re trying to make sense of a vague assignment—and use unreliable resources as your source material? Naturally, you’re going to have multiple rounds of revisions. Not to mention incredible frustration on your part as you watch your hourly rate decrease. Meanwhile, you’re missing out on other freelance work that pays market rate and will bring you satisfaction. And the content mill won't pay you until the client accepts the article.

I have also found, at least in the case of Skyword, that I had to rush to claim new assignments. Editors did not assign stories to the writers who were best suited for particular topics. Instead, writers were told when new assignments would be posted, and it was a mad rush to claim them. I could literally log into the platform ten minutes past launch and all of the assignments would be taken. (So much for flexibility!)

It’s not always clear if a company is a content mill, and given the money to be made from content, new ones are sure to continue popping up. Research companies before you apply to content writing jobs and promise yourself you won’t sacrifice your personal integrity. If that means forgoing a job that involves Reddit research, then so be it.

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