The truth about writer content mills, bidding sites and job boards

Still searching for that magic online writing site for freelance work? Please stop now….


Many new freelance writers search hopefully for that one perfect website that will (a) pay decent money, (b) provide consistent work and (c) give them a sense of personal fulfilment. Unfortunately, this magical site doesn’t exist. Of the astronomical numbers of writers who slog away for peanuts on sites like Elance, Upwork, Freelancer, Squidoo, Scripted and all the rest, very few are making enough to quit their day jobs.


The main problem with these kinds of sites is the abysmal pay – and the hassles you have to endure to earn it. When I first put my toe in the water with online writing, I briefly wrote for a couple of these websites and looked very closely at many more, but the rates of pay were insulting. I could have made more money delivering pizza or slinging suds at a car wash.


As a writer, always look for new ways to sell what you’ve already written. I originally self-published this outdoor survival manual in 2000, then let it go out of print and forgot about it. Fast-forward to 2016 and it was an easy matter to update it, create a reduced-price eBook version and sell it through my blog.
When I first decided to become a freelancer, I didn’t leave too many stones unturned in my search for a decent-paying writing site. The allure is obvious: if a writer can get steady work, good money and not have to market themselves so much, who wouldn’t want that? But the reality doesn’t match the premise.


The only reason to write for content mills is out of curiosity, or because you enjoy it and don’t care about developing a writing career or earning real money. Otherwise, they’re a dead end. The idea that these sites are a good way for newbies to gain experience is silly: you can get just as much experience writing for 50 cents a word as you can for 2 cents a word – the only difference is income sustainability.


Some writers toil for years at content mills and bidding platforms with little to show for it, monetarily or professionally. Here are just a few reasons why these writing sites are a bad idea:


Despite what they tell you, it’s not about quality writing


Content mills exist for the purpose of generating a ton of content quickly. They’re all about turning writing into a commodity. Article quality has nothing to do with it.


The pay is soul-destroying


Typical content mill earnings range from less than a cent per word up to 10 cents per word. Since you’ll likely have to spend time researching the subject first, your rate of pay per hour can be disheartening. Let’s say you earn two cents a word and you’re submitting a 600-word article. Yippee – you’ve just earned a whopping $12. But how long did it take you? A half hour? An hour? Longer? Don’t forget the time that research, editing and proofreading add to the process.


Or, suppose you’re earning four cents a word for a 2000-word piece. That’s eighty bucks. Sounds pretty good, right? But for some writers, 2000 words might be difficult to achieve in one day. They may have other daily obligations that cut into their available writing time.


Pursuing my own quality clients and making a ‘living wage’ from writing allows me to travel all over the world, exploring remote wilderness river systems. If I was only making 3 cents a word from my writing, I would never have been able to afford a visit to this untouched waterfall in the spectacular Kimberley region of Australia – where the only way in or out was by chartered helicopter ($1400 each way).
Stephen King’s daily quota is 2000 words – and he’s a professional with decades of experience. Jack London aimed for a thousand words a day and Norman Mailer 3000. Lee Child didn’t even own a computer when he wrote his first Jack Reacher best-seller (Killing Floor). His stunning debut novel took about four months to complete, all written with a scratch pad and pencil. It’s not about how fast you are or what equipment you use, it’s how enthusiastically you write that matters.


So maybe you’ll finish that content mill/bidding site article in one day and maybe it’ll carry over into the next day. But do you consider $80 per day a living wage? For most people it’s not. Every time I write a 2000-word article, I make an absolute minimum of $500 and normally finish it within one day, despite the fact that I’m a two-finger typist (I tried to learn touch typing in school but it didn’t stick).


And how many times will you even get a 2000-word article request from a content mill? Not that often – certainly not consistently enough to count on it as any kind of regular work. You’re better off finding your own clients, charging a professional rate and making at least five times as much.


Ridiculous, time-consuming guidelines


Content mills have specific guidelines to follow and hoops to jump through. They may provide inconsistent editorial feedback or restrict you to a narrow field of permitted information sources. They may follow nit-picky formatting rules. You may have to submit a sample piece (unpaid, of course) and go through a tedious acceptance/probationary period. By the time you’ve jumped over all these hurdles you finally realise the pay isn’t worth the aggravation.


Your skills aren’t valued


To a content mill, you’re not a professional wordsmith – you’re cheap labour, easily replaced by the next desperate writer to come along. If you want to know how depressing the environment can get at content mills, just check out some of their online forums. This miasma of despair is in complete contrast to the positive relationships you can build with clients you find yourself. These are based on mutual respect and your perceived value as a professional who brings a crucial service to the table.


The highest-paying freelance writing jobs aren’t advertised – you have to go out and track them down on your own. If you’re looking for work where every other poverty-stricken writer is looking, it’s a bit like being in this herd of white-lipped peccaries (observed from an elevated hide in Madidi National Park, Bolivia) – you’re just another face in the crowd rooting around in the same picked-over mud patch.
Because content mills are geared toward churning out volume rather than quality, they’re not a good place to get ‘clips’ – examples of previous work that you’re proud to show off and that might encourage higher-paying clients to hire you. Even if you do write something exceptional, you’re unlikely to get a byline at a content mill – so how can you even prove you wrote it?


The time vs. money equation just doesn’t add up


Each human lifespan is finite. What defines our lives is how we spend our time. Content mills don’t teach you anything, don’t provide an opportunity to grow your writer brand and offer zero job security. If the website you’re writing for folds (as many seem to be doing these days), what are the chances you’ll be paid for your completed work? Slim to none, probably.


There are better ways to spend your time as a writer. Write an eBook, approach some Fortune 500 companies, choose a niche and let that market know you’re eager to write for them. Pitch articles to high-end publications, online and in print. Expand your skill base to include editing, social media strategies, white papers, direct response copywriting or basic web design. Approach promising corporate clients through networking events and trade shows. Create and monetize your own blog. Check out opportunities to write for trade publications or the health industry. Any of these steps is a better use of your time than churning out fluff copy for a website at four cents a word.


If you’re writing for content mills, you’re not networking


Networking isn’t a word that should scare you. It just means getting your name out there where potential clients can see it and hire you. You can network by phone, by email or in person. You can attract clients by sending them free reports. You can give a talk at the local library on how to start a freelance writing business or ‘mistakes to avoid in your website writing’. You can make the acquaintance of magazine editors, CEOs, web designers, PR agencies and other likely prospects. If you’re slaving away at a writing site for pocket change while other writers are out there marketing their skills to awesome clients, you’re hurting your career.


Freelance writing can be performed from just about anywhere on earth, as long as you have a table and chair, quiet, privacy and reliable Wi-Fi. This is my 7th-floor AirBnB apartment in Salta, Argentina, where I spent a month earlier this year writing for high-paying clients and sightseeing.
One of my former clients is the head of one of the fasting growing companies on earth. Still in his early twenties, he already has a personal fortune of over $50 million. He once told me “It’s really hard to find a good copywriter.” I was stunned by this remark. Here’s a guy with more money than he knows what to do with, an urgent need for ongoing content and an inability to find a decent writer to help grow his business.


But his comment proves an important point that many new writers don’t seem to get. If you’re a reasonably good writer (not excellent, just good, available and reliable) there is far more money and less competition at the pointy top of the writing spectrum than down at the broad bottom, where millions of writers jostle and scrape for low-paying work. If you’re writing for a content mill, you’re a tiny fish in a huge, overcrowded pond. But if you can separate yourself from that pack by elevating the quality of your work and the quality of your clients, your income will skyrocket.


Content mills are like quicksand. Once you step in, you get sucked down into a pit that becomes increasingly difficult to escape from. These sites monopolise your time and give you nothing tangible in return – except less money than your writing skill deserves.


No referrals or testimonials


One thing that distinguishes successful freelance writers from their struggling peers is repeat business from happy customers and the kind of solid referrals that lead to new clients. When you write for content mills, you miss out on all that. There is no ‘A leads to B’ in content mill writing – you can’t move from a good client to a great client through a demonstration of previous work. In order to create a portfolio to include on your own website, you must be able to point to previously published copy.


Another problem with content mill writing is that it’s rarely your best work. Future clients are unlikely to be impressed with generic, mind-numbing articles like “Ten things you never knew about Justin Bieber!” or “Amazing suitcase packing hacks!” Far from being an advantage, previous content mill work can harm your chances in the future (unless you hide the fact that you ever wrote for these sites, which many writers do).


Yet another potential hazard with all these ‘Earn money from home as a writer!!!’ offers (have you noticed how there are always three exclamation points?) is that a great many are pure scams. Sites that pay you next to nothing are bad enough, but sites that rip you off, deceive you or don’t even exist are worse.


The best way to succeed as a freelance writer is to go your own way. Applying for low-paying jobs on writing-as-a-commodity websites with millions of other desperate writers for competition will not set you apart. Be unique to be profitable. (Ecstall Lake, BC Canada, 2008)
During my first couple of months on Linkedin, I spotted a post offering work for editors. It didn’t take long for anyone who applied to realise this poster was running a content spinning site and using Linkedin to get free editing from native English speakers. Applicants were asked to provide an ‘editing sample’, but she never paid anyone because there was no job. I’ve seen plenty of other online ads for writers and editors that were obvious scams too.


Scammy ads for writers are usually easy to spot. If it shouts ‘No experience necessary!!!’ or promises unrealistic income, beware. If it asks for free samples or requires that you pay a ‘joining fee’ or spend money for some kind of introductory course, it’s bad news. And if the only online information you can locate about the company is what they’ve written themselves, run the other way.


A simple online search combining the company name with the word ‘scam’ will often turn up several accounts of people getting ripped off. If you’re trying to find writing work on Craigslist or get rich quick sites, you’re taking a huge risk. Any website that suggests you’ll earn a certain amount within a specific time period is also pulling your leg – in the real world of writing, there are no income guarantees.


The best way to avoid scams that prey on desperate writers is to pursue your own legitimate clients. This doesn’t mean you won’t ever encounter a bad client, but there’s a big difference between a bad client and a blatant rip-off site.


Some people write for content mills because it’s not mentally taxing. They may dread the self-marketing aspect of being an in-demand freelancer or just feel it’s easier to write bland content. Unfortunately, this approach ignores two undeniable facts about successful freelancing: (a) the bigger money is normally found just outside the edge of your comfort zone and (b) the best writing jobs are never advertised or found on a bidding site or job board. You have to be proactive and go out and get them. If your approach is professional and aggressive, the sky’s the limit.



Kevin Casey is a professional freelance writer and author of The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures through Freelance Writing.


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5 Comments on “The truth about writer content mills, bidding sites and job boards

  1. Is very demoralizing to search for gigs in contest websites. I’ve been there. The problem is that many new writers feel insecure about their skills. Anyway, Many thanks for your insight, cool pics!

  2. Hi, Kevin,
    Believe it or not, I’ve been lurking on your sites for years while working a day job, with thoughts of someday doing freelance work nagging at me incessantly. Your expertise in so many types of writing, your ebooks, and your easy, conversational way of communicating has been an inspiration. And your adventures exploring the world’s rivers always get my blood pumping (you kind of remind me of another explorer hero of mine, John Goddard). The other day I made a leap of faith and joined Carol Tice’s Freelance Writer’s Den. The next day I was back looking at your writing site for more inspiration, and noted your new book. I’ll order it tomorrow. Thanks for taking the time to share your methods, provide encouragement, and be my unknowing “mentor”.

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