If you’re a writer, just saying those words together is the emotional equivalent of cursing in front of your grandmother.
Truthfully, content mills do make for a ridiculously easy target.
They don’t pay enough.
They work their writers to death.
They churn out crappy copy and turn search engine results into dumpster dashes. They teach writers to be worse at their craft, not better. They eat self-esteem for breakfast. They disappear at the most inopportune moments (like just before payday).
Did I mention they don’t pay enough?
But content mills can also be “crash course” training grounds for long-term success in the grown-up, go-it-yourself freelance world. Here are the 6 most valuable freelancing lessons content mill writers can learn from the experience.
1. Lack of firsthand knowledge is not an obstacle to your writing career
In other words, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about silkscreen adhesives or cloud-based security solutions. That’s what the Internet is for.
Today, thanks to the content mills, I enjoy and welcome the challenge of a new or unusual topic assignment.
New Freelancer Tip: To translate the skills you’ve gained through working for the content mills into the big wide world of “no-mills freelancing,” sit down and make a list of all the weird, unknown, strange, and also familiar topics you’ve written about for the mills. Re-read that list every time you are tempted not to query, submit, or accept just because the subject matter isn’t something you already know well.
2. Your self-discipline is solid
Liza Minelli once sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
She, of course, was referring to New York City. But truthfully, for an exhausted content mill writer the Big Apple holds no kind of temptation compared to the lure of your own comfy couch and the promise of (yet another) restful nap.
Thanks to the content mills, I know I have the self-discipline to make it as a work-from-home freelancer.
New Freelancer Tip: Your mill experiences have given you confidence that you can write on deadline and submit clean, fabulous copy. That same discipline will now stand you in good stead as you take over the other behind-the-scenes tasks the mills used to do for you (including setting deadlines, sending email updates, updating client contact information, generating topic ideas for queries and submissions, following up on those queries and submissions, etc.).
Luckily, technology is just a click away to help! Here are just a few great tools you might consider using: Online Stopwatch for time management, Mail Chimp for email list management, Evernote for keeping track of topic ideas, Trello for to-do lists. (By the way, all of the resources listed in tip #2 and tip #3 are courtesy of our very own fearless freelance blogger, Sophie Lizard! Get the full list here.)
3. You’re a warrior on your own behalf
If you’re like many new freelance writers online, you may have found yourself working for more than one content mill simultaneously.
This means you had to juggle different sets of writer guidelines, different editing systems, different invoicing and payroll schedules, different payout deadlines, different error resolution processes, and more. It also means you’re now a vigilant samurai warrior on your own behalf, which is a skill you will need when working for your non-mill freelance clients as well!
New Freelancer Tip: You now get to set up your own in-house systems for setting rates, negotiating with clients, issuing and executing contracts, invoicing, and tracking payments. As tip #2 outlines, there are many great apps and tools that can help you take care of all kinds of small business essentials – often for free or just pennies per day. You may want to use some of these tools to help with the financial side of running a business: Adobe’s Echo Sign for e-contracts, and Harvest for time sheets and invoicing.
4. You have a thick skin
Looking back over your content mill writing days, how many of the mills you’ve worked for expected you to churn out Pulitzer Prize-winning literature – even if you were writing blender reviews?
Probably quite a few, right? They didn’t hesitate to alert you when the content you submitted was not quite up to their exacting specifications. Happily, this creates one of the most priceless gifts the mills have given you – your ability to take instructions and criticism.
New Freelancer Tip: Thick skin notwithstanding, to transition successfully away from the mills into a stand-alone freelance career, you will need to clear your head of past bruises and bumps from content mill criticism. You can now choose who you acept as clients – and you want clients who are like you.
So right now, before you even launch your new biz in earnest, sit down and write out all the reasons you KNOW you are AWESOME (this can include, but certainly shouldn’t be limited to, your writing). For example, you do what you say you are going to do. You do your best on every job (even if your pay doesn’t reflect what your best is truly worth). You are kind and respectful. You are honest and you have integrity.
FYI: you’ve just written out a list of the qualities you want in your new freelance clients. 🙂
5. You have worth as a writer
Even though you’re just at the beginning of your journey as a non-mill-dependent freelance writer, this doesn’t change the facts: you’ve already been making a small but noticeable chunk of your annual income through your writing skills. Thanks to your stint with the content mills, you know you can “earn while you learn”.
New Freelancer Tip: No client worth working with is going to ask you to be perfect, to never ever make a mistake, to be able to rattle off an encyclopedic knowledge of esoteric subjects at the drop of a hat. They expect you to have writing skills. The rest will be a process of first drafts, second drafts, further refinements, and then a finished product.
To transition with success away from the mills and into your own freelance career, give yourself permission to be imperfect, to make mistakes, to correct those mistakes with alacrity and grace, and to stay a willing student even as you grow and strengthen in writing and in business.
6. You can write for big businesses
Some of the content mills you’ve worked for may have kept client identities anonymous. But perhaps some have not. Even if you can’t show clips to prove it, you can still walk into your new no-mills freelance business knowing some of the clients that accepted your content were heavy-hitters. How’s that for a confidence-builder?
New Freelancer Tip: Sit down and make a list of any companies you know you’ve written for through the content mills. If you’ve only worked for mills that keep client identities top secret, then make a list of the posts and articles from top magazines and blogs where you have found yourself saying, “I could write as well as this!” or “I could write better than this!”
Those are the big boys and girls you can write for – and to successfully transition away from mills feeding you an endless succession of anonymous, low-paying assignments, you must commit to reminding yourself of this. This will give you the confidence to pitch that big blog or magazine – because you CAN do it. You absolutely can. (If you’re struggling with this, read this awesome post. Then read it again. And again. And again…)
All that to say, if you feel like a “victim” of the content mills, I encourage you to sit down and reframe your experience in light of valuable lessons learned.
The truth is, you are nobody’s victim, but rather a courageous freelance warrior who’s survived the toughest of the boot camp trenches!
Need help to move from content mills to big-budget gigs? Check this out: