Here’s the Escape Hatch for Writers Who Want to Leave the Low-Pay Grind

Carol Tice

If you’re writing for content mills or bidding against thousands of other writers for gigs, you’re stuck in a low-pay trap.

Mills don’t give raises. And pay is rarely great when it’s a race to the bottom and clients only care about price.

You need a way out.

But the big problem with mill writing or your typical quickie work off Elance and the like is this stuff doesn’t really train you up on how to get better-paying assignments.

You don’t learn how to develop story ideas — the mill dashboard hands those all to you.

You don’t learn how to write query letters and pitch editors.

You don’t learn how to find experts and conduct interviews.

And you don’t learn how to take that pile of notes and quotes and statistics and turn it into a compelling article editors will love and readers will devour.

You don’t know what writing mistakes could get you and your dream publication sued, either.

In the case of some mills, you don’t even end up with your byline on articles you could use in a portfolio.

All it really helps you do is — you guessed it — write more mill articles.

3 Ways to earn more

Despite all this, it is possible to leave content mills behind and move on to better-paying clients. I know because I regularly hear from writers who’ve used my tips to do just that.

There are just a few basic ways to move up and leave this writing underworld behind.

  1. You could start marketing your writing to better clients and bootstrap your way to better gigs. That’s what I did when I got started. You can flounder around, make a lotta mistakes, pitch publications, get a lot of rejections, learn on the job, gradually improve your writing, and slowly, slowly figure it all out over the course of many years.
  2. You could go to journalism school. I hear the connections you get combined with the training can give your career quite a boost. But it’s competitive to get in, and J-school takes a year or two and costs five figures. You probably don’t have the time or cash.
  3. You could take a short crash course where in just a few weeks, experienced pros give you all the journalism basics you need to move up and then critique your sample article.

One thing’s for sure — if you keep writing for mills, and don’t look for clients anywhere else, it won’t help pave the way to earning a better rate.

Got questions about breaking into better-paid article writing? Leave them here in the comments.



  1. Cila

    Slightly confused — the sales page says the calls are Mondays, 19 Nov – 10 Dec but this post says the course begins on 15 November. Which is it please?

    • Carol Tice

      Glad you asked, Cila!

      Here’s how it’s going to work — on Thursdays we’ll email you the training for the coming week. You’ve got until the following Monday at 12 PST to view it, whenever you have time, and be ready to ask your questions on the live Q&A call.

      The first training recording goes out Thursday 11/15, which is when we will close registration and consider the course officially under way. Then the first live Q&A call is the following Monday, 11/19.

      • Cila

        Cheers Carol. In that case I have no reason to not join!

        • Carol Tice

          Cool — see you in there! I’m excited about this big change to the format, where everyone can view the training modules on their own. We’re hoping that gives writers more flexibility and makes it possible for more to participate in this edition of J-School.

  2. Lisa

    I love that you used my quote on the landing page (I’m the one who said that J-school “changed my life,”) — and it’s so true. I’m constantly realizing how much more true it is. That first lesson about generating salable ideas is really worth its weight in gold. I’m using it for so much more than querying: it’s helped me refine too-broad article assignments, come up with blog post ideas (for myself and for clients), and even plan an ebook. As you say in the course, ideas are the “coin of the realm” for writers. Before I took J-school, I couldn’t recognize a good idea if it punched me. Now I have more ideas than I could write in a lifetime.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s so awesome, Lisa! That’s totally the boat I’m in…got ideas and ideas and ideas. Lists and lists of ’em.

      You just earn so much more once you understand the need to be an idea generator and how to create a salable idea.

      One of my favorite moments like that was the one time an editor came to me and said, “We need a package of 4 short stories about taxes for the April issue…do you have any ideas?” I quickly rattled off several, and as I recall ended up getting $2K or more to write the whole section.

      So often an editor responds to a query with, “We’ve already got a piece like that in the works…what else have you got?” And if you’re not ready with several other ideas to pitch, the opportunity is lost.

      So thrilled that J-School helped you turn it around!

  3. Sherel Purcell

    Hi Carol,
    Here sre a few questions I have:
    Are there assignments? Will these be reviewed with feedback etc? Is it possible to submit questions ahead of the phone in for those who are not available at that time? Can we get feedback on our websites?

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Sherel —

      Good questions!

      There is homework each week, and you post and get it reviewed in a special forum we’ve got in the Den just for J-school students.

      We are happy to take questions before or after sessions on the Den forums, too.

      Website feedback isn’t part of this course, but as a Den member you can request a website review from me – usually takes 2-3 weeks for me to get to you, as it’s one of our most popular Den features!

      Let me know if I can answer anything else —

  4. Anne Galivan

    Before I get into my questions, I’d like to give you a little background about myself. I am not a “newbie” writer, or even a young one! I’m a 50-year old mother of four. I’ve been full-time at home for 28 years (though I did spend almost 20 of those years doing the bookkeeping for my husband’s contracting company). I’ve been homeschooling for 22+ years. I’ve graduated my oldest three kids (two have college degrees, one is in college). I’m homeschooling my 10-year old still (and love it!)

    I am in the middle of getting a divorce after 30 years in an abusive marriage. I’m planning on continuing to stay home and my husband will still be providing, but I would like to start developing a career as a free-lance writer. Something to not only make some money now, but also so that once my youngest is on his own I’ll already have a foundation built.

    I have my own homeschooling website (launched in 2010). I’ve written dozens of posts there, and I get contacted from people all over world wanting help with their own educational goals. The little money I make from my website, at this point, doesn’t even cover my costs (though it’s getting closer). But the purpose of my website is not to make money, it’s to help other homeschoolers, plain and simple.

    However, I also now see my website as a platform for me as a writer. In addition to writing on my site, I’ve written numerous guest posts (for free) and I’ve been published on the New York Times online op-ed page (at their request). It’s been 20 years, but I was published in a notable homeschooling magazine as well (and I actually got paid!)

    Bottom line? I’ve been studying the world of “freelance writing” for the last few months. I’ve been learning about copywriting (I never even knew what copywriting was until recently). I’ve read “Writer’s Market 2012” and I’m subscribed to several freelance writing newsletters (such as this one).

    I’ve also joined a few writer’s groups on LinkedIn. The people there rave about how they have more work than they can handle, but not a one ever says how they actually GOT that work.

    At this stage, I have absorbed a ton of information, but still have no direction. I’ve wracked my brain about that and have finally come up with the key to the problem I am having. It’s summed up in one word: efficiency.

    My time and energy are limited (perhaps more than most – in addition to all I’ve detailed above, I am also recovering from mono, which I was diagnosed with in March).

    What I need is someone (or perhaps two someones: you and Linda?) who can teach me in an organized and EFFICIENT way how to make contacts, how to effectively connect with editors, in short, how to make real cash money from my hard work!

    I have tons of ideas for articles. I keep a notepad by my bed and hardly a night goes by where I don’t have a new idea for an article, a blog post, a Kindle book, a non-fiction book…I even recently started writing a fiction short story – based on a dream I had – and I don’t even write fiction!

    Ideas aren’t the problem. And I can produce content. What I don’t have time for is sending out a thousand query letters a year (which was actually recommended on LinkedIn by one full-time freelancer!) I don’t have the time to “play” at this. I want results. I want EFFICIENCY.

    I know this has been long, but I feel like if I don’t share at least a little of my journey, you will have no context.

    You and Linda sound like phenomenal people (I’m actually connected with Linda on LinkedIn) but I want to make sure if I’m going to invest money and time, I’m going to reap tangible rewards. I don’t need more information. I need practicality. I need efficiency.

    I know there’s no way I will be able to participate in the live Q&A but it sounds like you will still be available throughout the course (and after?) I have no problem with doing the “homework.” Feedback would be WONDERFUL.

    I guess the question I have is, based on what I’ve described, will your course help me? I’d love to think so. I realize you can’t make guarantees, but I’m just asking if what I’m struggling with will be addressed in this course.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Anne —

      I think you’re smart to be looking at how to build an income for yourself. Abusive ex-spouses often don’t turn out to be the most reliable payers of support.

      J-school doesn’t touch on marketing, which sounds like more what you’re looking for. It’s about article writing, from story ideas through reporting and writing and dealing with ethical issues.

      I wish I could tell you there’s one fast, magical, easy way to quickly line up a bunch of clients. (And maybe there is…you might check out Ed Gandia’s trainings — just click that big red box in the sidebar.)

      Starting a business takes a lot of marketing, and what works is pretty unique to each writer, I’ve found. That’s just a fact. I did an analysis in 2010 of what marketing got me clients, and there were 3-4 main answers for me — in-person networking, prospecting on LinkedIn, inbound marketing (people finding me through Google and LinkedIn), and sending query letters. Which together, made up a full-time living of clients I got.

      It’s hard to be efficient when you first start out. You gain efficiency after you try a lot of marketing and see what works. Then you do more of that. You also have more clients, so you have less need to do marketing.

      I think this is a trap a lot of writers fall into — they feel they don’t have time to “play” at this, so they don’t do any marketing because it’s seen as timewasting. A year later, they’re still saying, “I need to hurry up and start this writing thing!”

      The faster you start trying some marketing, the faster you’ll find out what gets you gigs. The more you write, the more efficient you’ll get at the writing process. There sort of isn’t a shortcut.

      You say you’re on LinkedIn and hanging around groups…but do you know how to prospect on there? Here’s one quick past post of mine you might want to check out:

      We have a course in Freelance Writers Den, one of our past bootcamps called the Step by Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success, which shows you how to build a portfolio from nothing and start getting paying gigs, which I think is probably the closest thing to what you’re looking for. We’re not currently open but will do one more opening week for new members before the end of the year.

      May not be the answer you’re looking for…wish I had my magic efficiency wand I could wave over you. But there’s a ramp to starting a business that involves a lot of marketing. That’s true of pretty much any kind of business.

      You shouldn’t have to send 1000 queries or make 1000 cold calls…I know one writer who vowed to make 500 but had to stop before then…because she was fully booked. It IS a numbers game though — you need to put a lot of lines in the water at first.

      I don’t know anything about your background or what industries you might know…but most good marketing plays to your strengths and knowledge, as your easy ‘low-hanging fruit’ places to get clients. We talk a lot about that in Step by Step.

      Let me know if you have more questions…and best of luck with it in any case.

      • Anne Galivan


        I want to sincerely thank you not only for your thorough answer, but also because you are obviously not trying to just sell me something.

        You are the first person (and believe me I’ve asked this question elsewhere) who has spelled out to me that I must do the “hard work” of marketing. I respect that. I have put out a few queries…I’ve had two “rejections” (they were fairly kind, though) and the others I just haven’t heard back from at all.

        I will check out the recommended links above. And I will look for your “Step by Step” Bootcamp. Hopefully it would work out for me to get into that.

        Thanks again for your candid response! Apparently what I need to do is focus on marketing my business, which at least gives me some place to start!

        • Carol Tice

          Hi Anne —

          Well, I’m happy to sell you something, if it’s something you actually need. 😉 But if it isn’t, I’d rather not.

          My mission is to figure out how I can help the most writers move up and earn more money, the fastest. Sometimes books or classes are that solution, but needs to be the right one for your issue.

          If you go to Freelance Writers Den and sign up on the waiting list, you’ll be first in the door when we reopen to new members.

          And don’t judge a lot from 4 queries — by the way, you can get those reviewed in the Den as well. We find most writers don’t excel at them and better ones do get better results. In the meanwhile, be sure to head over to my partner Linda Formichelli’s Renegade Writer blog and get her query letter example packet — very helpful stuff for learning that form.

          • Anne Galivan

            I will get on that waiting list. And I am already signed up for Linda’s newsletters, but I will check out her query letter packet as well.

            I want to say thanks again for your helpful response. Combined with my “aha” moment about efficiency, I have realized I need to learn to MARKET my business efficiently. In light of that, I am adding a “hire me” page to my website, and I am going to revamp my LinkedIn profile, for starters. I’ll also continue to query, but having more irons in the fire will produce more results, I believe. For the first time in months I feel like I have a plan and a direction to go in. You have no idea (or maybe you do!) how wonderful that feels.

          • Carol Tice

            A ‘hire me’ tab is a good first step — I know writers who got clients very quickly once they added that.

  5. Techboy Rocky

    Writers can only charge high price when they offer the highest quality writing service. Writers need to improve their skills and definitely the course provided by you can be very helpful for writers…

  6. Laura

    Hi Carol,

    Wasn’t sure of the best place to ask this question, but really interested in your J-School course! Just wondering whether it is open internationally (I am England based) and whether the course is catered specifically towards US writers or would be relevant for UK writers too?

    Thanks very much and love the blog! 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Laura —

      I’ve had students from all over the world — I think magazine and newsletter articles are pretty much the same everywhere!


  1. Writer Burnout Syndrome (WBS): Kick the Cheap Labor Habit - [...] Simply put, kick the cheap labor habit! I had to stop partaking in this insanity which was robbing me…

Related Posts

LinkedIn Round-Up

LinkedIn Round-Up

Successful freelancers use LinkedIn daily. After all, it's the only social media where it's socially acceptable to talk about work. In honor of our upcoming bootcamp, LinkedIn Profile Mastery, we wanted to give you a round-up of all our posts on the topic of LinkedIn....

9 Journalist Interview Tips from a Successful Freelance Writer

9 Journalist Interview Tips from a Successful Freelance Writer

Have you been struggling to interview sources for your freelance articles? Then these 9 interview tips are for you. These journalist interview tips will help boost your interviewing confidence and make you better prepared to take your freelance article to the next...