What I Learned from Trying to Write for Content Mills
Looking back on my life as a writer, I realized that I already have an extensive curriculum with 16 years of experience as a journalist in a Brazilian newsroom, and at least twenty years of writing in Portuguese, Spanish, and English for websites and blogs — in addition to some book chapters, folders, and catalogs of film festivals.
But all my experience was of no use when I recently tried to work for content mills as a freelance.
For those who don’t know, a content mill (also called content farm) is the company responsible for creating tons of ghostwritten articles to feed commercial websites.
The themes are chosen specifically to rank highly in search engine results, and hyperlinks are inserted in the middle of the text to take the reader to the page of some business or service.
A content mill must create massive amounts of content every month, so they are daily looking for new freelancers to write.
Unemployed for a year because of the pandemic, and seeing my savings run out quickly, I decided to write to some of them to supplement my monthly income remotely, without having to leave the house.
I did this little experiment for two months (October and November 2020), and I will share with you what I learned, in case you are thinking of following the same path.
First of all, where to look for work
Writing for a content mill is still less humiliating and uncertain than trying your luck on “platforms for freelancers” like PeoplePerHour, Upwork, or Freelancer.com.
While on these platforms you need to underestimate your own work by charging absurdly low values (contracts are made under an unfair system in which the lowest bids are hired), content mills at least work with a fixed price per written word. Usually, it’s not much, but it’s still better than the values people are paying/charging on freelance platforms.
The best website to find offers by content mills at the moment is ProBlogger. Every day they publish at least a dozen offers from content mills and small publishers looking for ghostwriters.
And you don’t need to create a profile to access the ads, which is always good because it eliminates a link in the bureaucracy chain.
So the good news is that there are plenty of opportunities for you to apply for a job right now. The bad news is that, after a while, you will notice that the same companies repeat the same ads.
It means that they are either not getting along with their freelancers/ghostwriters, or they prefer to dismiss them after a month or so to hire new ones — taking advantage of the huge offer of writers wanting to freelance right now.
Patience is a virtue
But don’t you think that the fact that there is enough supply will make it easier to pass the selection process. As I explained at the beginning, not even my three decades of writing experience prepared me enough for the absurd level of demands from content mills.
And be aware that no one is going to hire you to write about “Star Wars” or any topic of your choice: content mills often work with boring subjects like labor laws and healthcare.
I started responding to their ads in October, and my first disappointment was with a company looking for “Freelance Content Writers”. As part of the selection process, they asked me to write 200 words about the best way for a company to be successful with social media marketing. I researched enough to be able to accomplish the task, or so I believed.
The company’s response was as follows: “We will not be moving forward with your application. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors”. (A few days ago, the company republished the same ad on ProBlogger, leading me to believe that they still haven’t found the person they need. Now, three months later, they did it again.)
The second disappointment was with a content mill that invited me to write 150 words on the topic “Why can tarantulas be good pets?”. I don’t think they actually can, and the research I did on the topic confirmed this (the animal is fragile, difficult to keep alive, and does not do much other than standing still in an aquarium all day).
Even so, I wrote the required 150 words and received an automatic message that said: “We will email you when your application has been reviewed”. That happened on October 2nd and they never answered me. (The same site currently has a notice saying that they’re no longer receiving offers from new freelancers, and maybe my submission ended in limbo.)
Finally, the third disappointment was with a platform whose ad called “50 Essay Writers Needed”, promising to pay seven bucks for each double-spaced page. It would be a great opportunity to work with more challenging topics than tarantulas, but they never responded to my application, not even to say no. (Like the first company, the same ad looking for 50 essay writers has returned to ProBlogger now, three months later.)
Oh, there’s also a fourth unsuccessful application, and the one that hurt my feelings the most: this company was looking for an “Experienced Book Reviewer” and offered $40 to $45 per 350–400 word review! Not bad at all, right? I am a voracious reader and it seemed like a great opportunity, but they also never responded to my application.
So my first four experiences with content mills were four doors closed right in my face!
No matter how well you think you write…
Finally, my fifth application had a positive response. The editor said he was impressed with the samples I had sent and asked me to write a paid test article: a 1,250-word essay on air conditioning.
He would pay me $35 for the article and to watch a video with formatting instructions according to the company standards. Considering that the previous ads that I answered made me write stuff and never paid me a nickel, I was already getting off to a good start!
So I watched the video, I did a lot of research on the subject — since I had to write almost 1,250 words on a very technical topic —. and I sent the article to the company. Five days later, I received my $35 via PayPal.
Wow, it worked!
Unfortunately, they decided not to hire me for future articles. The editor justified it: “While the research was good, the writing style would take me a bit too long to edit”.
Although he didn’t give me many tips to understand what exactly I had done wrong, it finally taught me that no matter how well you write (or at least think you do), to work for a content mill you need to write as they want. Period.
But at least I left that experience with $35 for an article! Way to go!
(I recently threw the first paragraph of my article on Google and found that it was published with very small changes, despite what the editor said; obviously, it’s credited to someone else.)
I barely had time to digest the rejection because in early November another content mill appeared looking for a “fast, energetic writer to work on fun content” (sounds like me!), and announcing that they had “HUNDREDS of assignments that need to be written”.
The fees were lower than the company that had just “fired” me ($20 to $25 per 1000-word articles), but it’s still ok.
To my surprise, the company responded to my application on the same day. I was asked to answer a huge English skills test and to write the usual 250-word test article for free. Finally, they made me watch tutorial videos on formatting articles. Yeah, again.
At this point, I started to realize that no matter what you know about writing articles, each content mill has its own rules based on SEO techniques or even some miraculous, strange formula.
The formatting style I was asked for in the first company’s air conditioning article (answer the question in the second paragraph and in bold, supposedly for Google search engine to find it faster) was totally different from this second content mill, where I was only required to spread a particular keyword two or three times across the paragraphs.
To summarize a long story, my application was approved and they gave me access to the company platform, where I felt like a child in a candy store. They were not kidding when they said there were HUNDREDS (yeah, in capitals) of articles to be written!
They put me on an evaluation period and asked me to choose and write two articles. I decided to start with something simpler and chose “The best coffee shops in the region of (some city in Texas)” and “Discover the attractions of the Museum of Something” (one of those tourist traps you encounter while driving through small towns).
In the case of this content mill, you are asked to write about a completely random topic and, in the last paragraph, you should mention the business or service that was benefiting from that article.
In my text on coffee shops, for example, I should put at the end “And while you’re in the area drinking your coffee, visit Company X and find the best deals in town”. Looks like a weird marketing tactic, right? I can even imagine an article on COVID-19 that ended with something like “And after doing your mandatory Coronavirus exam, come check out our offers”.
Well, I wrote both articles, but the editors were not satisfied. In the one about coffee shops, I quoted recommendations from TripAdvisor about places I’ve never been in person. The editor complained: “You should write as if you were from there and know these places!”.
Okay, I can lie easily (although I don’t like to), so I went to the Facebook pages of each coffee shop and used the info I found there to write sentences like “The only organic coffee in town”, or “The best apple pie in the state”, even though I didn’t know if those statements were true.
It felt like cheating, and from now on I will read with great suspicion these articles on “10 best restaurants or hotels” somewhere…
But although I rewrote the two articles as I was asked, on the same day I was kicked off the content mill platform!
Basically, the editors claimed that there were many better candidates whose articles didn’t require as many changes as mine (hey, I was just warming up!). And they promised to pay for the two articles if the contracting company was satisfied with them.
I’m still waiting.
They can simply refuse to pay you
As we have seen, you can come across the most diverse arguments for not receiving a cent for your work.
I was still dealing with the pain of having missed the chance to write about shark meat when I was contacted by another content mill to which I sent my resume. And I was finally asked to write about a topic I really knew: pinball machines!
I was asked to write a 1,500-word article on the origins of the game, and they will pay me $0.02 per word — again less than other companies, but at least I was writing on a topic that interested me directly.
Unlike the two previous companies, this one didn’t care about SEO stuff or asked me to put links throughout the article. (As I said, it’s useless to try to find a pattern, each content mill works in its own way!)
A couple of days after sending my article, much to my surprise (and fury), the editor responded accusing me of plagiarism and saying that he would not pay for my 1,715-word article (yes, even more than was requested because I really love the subject).
Obviously, what he called plagiarism was the fact that I cited dates and historical info taken from other websites when telling the origin of pinball machines — the only way to do research, as far as I know. I even threw my article on sites that detect plagiarism, just in case, and none of them found any similarity with any other article already published. But in the end, the guy never paid me for the article.
Therefore, it was not a good November: three out of seven content mills offered me work, none wanted to hire me, and only the first one paid me for the test article! Too much work for nothing.
Learning from failures
Shortly after the pinball episode, another company I contacted called me for a paid test. This time I decided that I would use everything I learned from the previous failures, as follows:
• Give quick answers
Sometimes you ask Google a question, like “Why is the sky blue?”, and just want a quick and brief answer. If more extensive articles appear in your search, and you’re not in the mood for long explanations, you simply move on to the next one in the hope that it will answer your question quickly. That’s exactly what content mills expect you to write to attract clicks: a straightforward answer in the first paragraph. I learned this after the failure of my article on air conditioning, in which I used references from scientific articles and medical research. This article would work perfectly in a newspaper or magazine, but it’s not the kind of publication that content mills want.
• Write with authority
I still don’t like the fact that I was asked to “lie” by writing about Texas coffee shops as if I knew these places personally. But this is what content mills expect from their writers: it’s not about lying, they just expect you to research a subject deeply so that you can write authoritatively about it without citing other articles and studies all the time.
• Try to know a lot about two or three niches
In some companies, you can choose the articles you want to write. In others, you need to work with what they send you. If you are totally uncomfortable with the subject (for example, brain surgery) it’s better to ask to change. But usually the themes are really simple, so it’s worth researching as much as possible about niches like Cars and Pets to have a minimum of expertise. This can be the differential to get a job in a content mill.
• It’s not the best article of your life
I probably tried too hard when writing about the origins of pinball, and the result was a very long and complex article. From then on, I finally realized that these works for content mills don’t have to be the best article of your life — your name won’t even appear on them! All these companies need is 750–1000 standardized, clear, and well-written words, with no flourishes or claims of authorship. So save your prose for when you are hired for a major publication!
• It’s not a scientific article
Don’t waste your time researching the subjects for days as I did with air conditioning. Generally, these articles should be so simple that one or two hours of research is more than enough. Nothing prevents you from reading scientific articles to better understand the topics, but content mills don’t really expect you to write anything that complex.
• Formatting is 50% of the thing
After one of the guys dismissed me because it would take too long to edit my article, I started copying the formatting examples sent by the content mills in their smallest details. I often use the outline sent by the company and write over it, to keep the required formatting. These companies pay close attention to this detail and don’t want to waste time correcting the formatting of your article.
• Be interesting
The themes covered by content mills are more or less the same. A Google search on the same topics will reveal another two or three dozen articles identical to the one you are writing, and usually boring as hell. Rely on them to write something relatively different and trying to be interesting. This will draw attention to your work.
• Stay on topic
Did you answer the question suggested by the company? Great, then you can stop messing around with your article. That extra sentence or paragraph that you found extremely elaborate, maybe reporting complicated statistics about something, will probably end up being deleted as fluff. These guys often pay by the written word and are used to people stretching their writing in an attempt to make more money.
• Overcome rejection
If you can’t take criticism, don’t even consider this job. Yes, I was pissed when I was asked to rewrite an article for which I was earning cents, and I was even more pissed when they rejected the same article and I received nothing. Either way, you can use these rejected pieces as samples of your work when applying for a job with another company. Never give up: the article you are reading right now was rejected three times by two publications here on Medium, and I decided to publish it anyway on my own just to be able to mention it in my portfolio — and help you guys, of course.
• GOLDEN RULE: Be simple!
I am probably repeating myself by insisting on this, but it’s precisely because it is very important. Huge paragraphs? Lots of commas? Long sentences full of complicated words? Forget it, these guys hate it and will probably cut everything off when editing. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs between two and at most three sentences. Make bullet lists. Divide your paragraphs with intertitles. Be short.
Finally a happy ending
So I tried to put it all into practice on my new paid test… and it worked! The guys loved my article, hired me on the spot, and I finally found my place in a very professional and reliable company!
I’m very happy with them. The editors send absurdly complete outlines that guide the entire writing process, even suggesting how the article’s paragraphs should be divided.
All content mills should work like this one. It would save us all a lot of time and spare us from a lot of pain!
I have been working for them since the beginning of December and I have already written 19 articles with between 800 and 1000 words each, for which I have been paid on time.
It’s not the kind of writing job I dreamed of doing, but our relationship seems to be working very well. In addition, I can say that this work is helping me to write better in many ways.
So it’s all about patience: I had to face seven companies before finding the one where I fit the best. These two first months of bad experiences with content mills proved that you can even write a lot, write very well, and still not meet their extremely peculiar requirements.
Basically, you will need to unlearn everything you know and write as they want. They can be extremely demanding. But I recommend that you don’t give up on your first negative experiences, and don’t even settle for the first content mill that decides to house you — you can find one with more offers and better payment right around the corner.
In fact, if you have a lot of time on your hands, you can try to work for two or three companies at the same time. Every day, ProBlogger brings a dozen new ads, all looking for freelancers and ghostwriters to write about basically everything: pets, cars, tech stuff, even sex!
Some of the companies that fired me (including some that still owed me money) are still there looking for new authors willing to follow their strange rules. Therefore, there is no shortage of offers.
But look carefully so as not to go through the same troubles I did.
And good luck with your new career!