6 Vital Writing Skills From Content Mills–Plus 1 You’ll Need

Carol Tice

color felt-tip pensBy Lisa C. Baker

When the siren call of the content mills sucks you in, it’s hard to climb out. But it’s not just desperation that keeps you trapped. It’s fear.

I would know. I spent years in the mills, churning out articles like a factory worker. I wrote thousands of words a day, but deep down I knew none of them were good enough.

In the mills, I could fake it as a writer. But out in the world of high-paying clients? I thought I’d be roadkill.

When I finally pitched bigger clients, I discovered that wasn’t true. In fact, these six skills I learned in the mills were exactly what I needed to succeed.

1. Count hours

At $15/article, you’ve got to watch the clock to make ends meet. But even at $1/word, time matters if you want to make a living.

Don’t fall down the rabbit holes of endless research and rewriting. Plan your time for a professional hourly rate.

2. Follow directions

In mills, conversation about revisions is rarely an option. To get paid, you have to fulfill vague requests from faceless editors. Professional editors, however, are happy to answer questions — but not to endlessly debate rewrites.

If you imagine you have no way to contact your editor directly, you may decide that “clarifying” question you’re about to ask is unnecessary.

3. Learn the style

In the mills, style guides are confusing and ever-changing. But you can’t waste time looking them up; you need to memorize them.

And when you pitch professional publications, you’ll find good use for that memory for style you developed in the mills. Imitating stylistic details from your target publication will put your pitches a step ahead.

4. Don’t wait for your muse

In the mills, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. There are days when you have to churn out words to meet deadlines for clients, too. Revising a piece to perfection won’t impress your editor if you don’t turn it in on time.

5. Write widely

You may have heard you can command a better rate as a “niche” writer. But many writers spend months choosing a niche, wasting time thinking when they could be writing.

As a former mill writer, you know that with a little research, you can write about anything. Apply that ability to real-world clients, and you’ll soon find your own lucrative niche.

6. Know sources

Mills have strange rules about sources: they may blacklist reputable sites or accept only a certain type of source. When I wrote for the mills, I quickly memorized the best sources for my topics, and I usually took assignments with a source in mind.

In professional writing, knowing the right sources can cut your research time from hours to seconds. And developing relationships with sources can mean getting the right quote when a deadline is looming.

Are you feeling more confident about your writing yet? You should be. With all the skills you learned in the mills, you might be ready for big clients.

What’s missing

There’s just one thing you’re missing if you’re writing for content mills: the ability to develop ideas. If you can learn how to generate salable ideas, you can say goodbye to the mills and never look back.

What have your writing gigs taught you? Leave a comment and give us your wisdom.

Freelance writer Lisa C. Baker blogs at How to Be Supermom.

40 Comments

  1. Charles Gray

    This is an excellent article. Here’s the thing. I have been working at Textbroker for the last 3 years for 1.4 cents a word. But recently, they downgraded me to a rating 3 and now I make 1 cent a word.

    There’s two things to take away from this– first of all, while TB is pretty low paying, you’re never going to get enough money from these sites to make a good living, not at any reasonable ROI. (My newspaper work pays at least 15 cents a word, for example).

    Secondly, it’s a trap. You will never get a good rep in the industry, because 90 percent of your assignments are ghost written and many mills discourage direct writer/client contact. You don’t get editorial feedback just one day get a decision that cuts your pay, with neither explanation nor right of appeal.

    If you can write good articles (and listen to the commissioners, not the editors), then you can make it in the freelance market. It’s scary and more difficult in some respects, but you can do it– and at the end of the day you’ll find yourself making far more than you did for a content mill.

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