The Missing Skill Freelance Writers Need to Land the Good-Paying Gigs

Carol Tice

Do you know why it’s hard for so many new writers to get good-paying gigs?

It has to do with how the bottom rung of the freelance-writing ladder has changed.

Often, writers are missing a step.

For most of the past century, writers who wanted to get started earning money with their scribblings broke into the business one of three ways:

  1. Go to journalism school.
  2. Snag an entry-level post at a newspaper and learn on the job.
  3. Figure it out yourself.

We started at a low rung — an internship or cub-reporter gig at a small daily paper or (in my case) occasional assignments for the local free weekly. From there, we worked our way up to bigger, better-paying places.

There was a basic set of skills to learn — how to report all sides of a story, do interviews, find credible statistics, and weave it all into something compelling to read.

The entry-level writing we did was essentially the same type of writing that the bigger publications wanted, too. So it was fairly easy to move up the ladder over time.

Then came content mills

For the past decade, tens of thousands of aspiring writers have considered mills their training ground.

But now, mill assignments are drying up. With Google’s changes, it’s unclear whether mills will continue to be a viable writing market in future.

And there’s one big problem with writing for mills: The kind of writing you do doesn’t give you the skills you need to move up to better-paying writing.

You don’t find story ideas or do interviews

When you’re pulling headlines from a mill dashboard that some algorithm robot has decided would draw traffic on a topic, and then writing a short piece off a little quick Internet research and your own knowledge, you don’t learn how to develop your own story ideas.

That makes it hard to get an assignment from any newspaper or magazine. Those editors look at your mill clips and don’t think you’ve got what it takes to write for them. They think you haven’t done any interviewing.

They’re not sure you can execute the type of articles they want. So they move on and choose another writer.

There are a few exceptions. Some mill work has ended up in USA Today, for instance. That gives your credibility a boost.

But for the most part, mill work just leads to more mill work.

You’re trapped.

This all came to mind this past week when I was posting a blogging gig I was passing on in the Den. (I do that fairly often, by the way.)

They wanted to pay $100 a post for a business and education writer. What were they looking for?

“Journalism chops required”

And there it was again. That divide. People with journalism training have a shot at the better gigs — even online — and those without have a real hard time.

Funnily, enough, journalism skills also help you break into commercial writing. Do you know what impressed my first business clients?

My reporting experience.

Good reporting shows you can gather information, organize it, and tell a great story. Often, that’s just what businesses want you to do for them.

I’ve learned about the divide between journalism and mill experience firsthand in Freelance Writers Den‘s forums. Writers ask so many questions on journalism basics — how to find people to interview, what to ask them, how to use quotes properly, how to find story ideas, how to structure a reported article.

I’ve also heard lots of questions about journalism ethics issues — whether you can write an article for a magazine about your copywriting client, for instance.

Reporting knowledge is missing

Now I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t have time nor $30,000 to go to Columbia right now, thanks.”

Of course you don’t.

The good news is, now you don’t have to.

Linda Formichelli from the Renegade Writer and I are creating a journalism crash-course that will give you the chops you need to write reported stories in a month flat.

It’s going to cost way less than a year or two at J-school, too.

We’re calling it 4-Week J-School. Because, well, it’s a month long. And it’s designed to give you the journalism knowledge and skills you need to leave $10 blog posts behind and start earning real money.

We’re working on the course materials now, boiling down everything you’d learn in a 2-year journalism program to the vital nuts and bolts you’ve just got to know.

In this class, we’ll throw you into the pool and get you reporting and writing stories, so you leave with at least one sample article in your portfolio.

We’re also gathering information from writers so we can make sure the class delivers exactly what you need.

UPDATE: Since we launched this class, more than 200 writers have benefited from this journalism crash course. If you’re interested in 4-Week J-School, I recommend you get on the J-School waiting list to find out when we’ll offer it again.

What’s the writing skill you’d most like to learn? You can leave a comment and tell us more about it, too.


  1. Julie

    This article is fabulous. And so was yesterday’s. You have an uncanny ability to nail the topics that hold me back — and I keep falling into paying writing jobs! I can only imagine how I would “up the ante” if I took your coursework and DID THE WORK! You are a smart, hard-working writer — and I appreciate all that you have posted. Even from my “easy chair approach” I find myself gleaning fabulous and enriching advice here. I look forward to getting more serious and (hopefully) gaining more skills by working with you in the future.


  2. Linda H


    This is so spot-on. So many people need to learn that there’s more to writing than content mills and they can (and many need to!) develop their skills to advance into the more professional ranks. It was a conversation of topic this morning in a business forum meeting I attended.

    You hit the nail on the head about interviewing skills and how to ask those probing questions that provide the facts, quotes and meat to any story. Once you have that, combined with a few research facts, a good writer learns the sky’s the limit in some cases.

    Many learn the hard way that good writing can be hard work, although the professionals like you and Linda F. make it look easy because you’re Pros. Honing your craft to ‘be like Carol’ or ‘be like Linda’ moves you up in rank as a freelance writer and opens so many opportunities.

    Thanks for always providing great blog topics chocked full of great information, tidbits, and encouragement that there is a way to make a living writing. It helps to make many writers stand out from the old-mill crowd and shine brightly for hungry readers hoping to find a great read.

  3. T.W. Anderson

    I paid off all my debt with content mills by the time I was 29.

    I traveled the world while working at content mills for four years; it not only paid for my travel, but my cost of living AND savings.

    I saved up enough money to pay for a three bedroom house here in Cancun, in cash, with my money from content mills. I was retired at the age of 31 after only only working online as a writer for four years.

    I’ve landed some of my best long-term clients, all of whom pay on the Euro and allow me to average around $80 to $100 per hour in USD, from my content mill gigs. Just last week, for example, one of my writing managers from a mill I worked for in Germany in 2009 sent me a private client who needed a bulk project and was paying my rates; rather than farm it out to the little fish he sent it to me because of the quality and quantity of what I had done with their mill in the past (where I was averaging around €40 per hour, or around $50 per hour) when I worked with them.

    I made over $50 an hour on average while writing for the best content mills (only one of which was American; I also worked with several European content mills who paid me in the Euro, as well a couple of South American gigs). My last stint writing for them was in late 2011, when there was a good 4 month run at DMS where I cleared $18,000 just from DMS alone when they cleared out their home improvement cache and averaged $60 per hour (all of which was documented through tens of hours of video footage using Camtasia showing people how to work with dictation software and maximize profits via content mills; it’s all publicly available on YouTube); that’s not counting the money I brought in from private gigs. Then in January of 2012 I did a fact-finding contract with them for the Dremel website and averaged around $76 per hour doing editing and fact-checking…made a quick $2,500 right off the bat in just a few short days, and averaged $8,000 for January overall for a mere part-time job of working a mere few hours a day.

    So remember…just because content mills don’t work for you personally, and you think they don’t work for everyone….remember that there are people out there who not only made content mills work for them, but also used it to make a lot of money in a very short amount of time.

    Now what I’m doing is I’m actually in the process of building six new websites using all of my old content mill material. I’m paying someone to spin all of the content that I wrote for the mills over the years (somewhere around 3 million words of content over 4 years; I’ve had 5 million words published since I started in 2008 and about 60% of it, give or take, was content mills) and I’m using it to build niche sites. I’ve already built two niche sites which are bringing me a tidy profit using my content mill work, which means I got paid twice; once by the content mill and then once again when I published it independently.

    High paying gigs are available everywhere, and there’s many different ways to skin a cat.

    And while you might think that people working for content mills tend not to learn anything, it’s entirely dependent on the person. I might not be the best writer out there, but I cut my teeth on content mills and made damn good money doing it 🙂 Enough to pay for my life of continual travel AND save up enough cash to pay for a house, in full, and be completely retired at the age of 32 in a beach resort.

    Of course, now I don’t write for content mills anymore, so one could say they are just a stepping stone 🙂 But it depends on the person. If I didn’t have other goals I would still be working with them, because I don’t consider $60 an hour to be a wage to sneeze at. Now yes, I do make more money with my private clients when you factor in the long-term benefits, but if you just need to make an hourly wage to put food on the table and live live, content mills have a lot of good benefits to them.

    But I think content mills also do great things for people; they did a lot of good for me, and allowed me to be where I am today: 32 years old, retired and living in a beach resort. Now I just create immersion guides, travel the world, record stuff for my travel channel on YouTube and Vimeo, sell my guides and basically just blog for a living. Entirely self published, entirely independent, a growing leadership and now that I’ve finally implemented SEO and backlinking (which I hadn’t done for 4 years; didn’t need to when working for the mills) I’ve seen my newsletter subscribers triple, book sales double….

    The point is…I got where I am today through the benefit of content mills 🙂

    And just because Demand Studios has gone under and Google is changing their algo so often doesn’t mean content mills are dead. Being a world traveler and having a client base from around the world, and having worked with mills around the world in various languages, I can tell you that content mills are far from dead; they are just dead in the U.S. Spanish language mills as well as German, French, Russian and Mandarin mills are all THRIVING right now, and there are numerous English-speaking European mills and South American mills as well who are still thriving and have tons of work available for those who want to take the time to get out of the box a little and look for work on a global scale.

    It all depends on dedicated a person is. You are either a hobbyist, or you are a professional. The difference between the two is the former will never make any money while the latter will make money at ANY type of writing, regardless it it’s ad writing, copywriting for online businesses, short story writing, content writing for websites, content writing for content mills or any other type of writing.

    • Carol Tice

      Well, hi there, TW – long time no hear! How is Romania this time of year?

      As we’ve established in the past, you are a big exception to the ordinary mill rule. Just the fact that you can write for mills in all those other languages obviously gives you an advantage. I think most of my readers can’t do that…or write about an industry they spent years working in before they began writing.

      As I’ve said before, TW — you’re unique.

  4. edna

    Thanks for the article Carol. I also have a journalism backgound, although not a formal one. I was a stringer for a local newspaper and covered town hall meetings (boring!) and did features on the local polka dancing group and 100 year birthday celebration of Ixonia, WI. My ability to do a good interview and write a story from that interview and research the topic, got me my first magazine gig for an alternative health magazine and food-cooperative that went on for 9 years.
    Some of those skills have also translated into blogging and SEO work.

  5. Colleen Kelly Mellor

    Carol–I do have the chops and the resume (I’m published in Wall Street Journal, etc.), but here’s my question-What can I do to land todays’ good writing jobs?…I am a fish out of water in this brave new world of ‘on-line everything.’ That’s what I need the help with…how to make the leap to this computer-generated business, the one you’ve so successfully done. Specifically, how do I get writing jobs (other than the mills?) Do you offer workshop on that? I see a lot out there but I’m loath to buy because as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have your proven track record of success…Besides, what you offer appears practical and do-able…

    So, I don’t need the journallist course as much as a “journalist turned on-line writer.” What do you suggest?

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Colleen —

      I read you…I have a couple bootcamps in Freelance Writers Den that I think would be relevant — one was How to Make Good Money Writing Online and the other is How to be a Well-Paid Blogger. These are $197, 4-week courses, but I’m not currently selling them…they’re just available as part of Den membership.

      Unfortunately at the moment we’re closed, but you could get on the waiting list for first crack at getting in the door:

      I’d also just say…that loads of work is still NOT online, too.

  6. Jan

    I’ve taken the survey (back on april 25th), was given boxes to fill in to subscribe to the list, received the email confirmation that I was subscribed- BUT I never saw anything about $30 off let alone where I could sign up for the j-school. (????)

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Jan — it should have taken you to the registration page for that deal…but we found it doesn’t play well with some browsers. If you send me your email I’m happy to put you on the list.

      Oh hey — looks like you made it onto the list, Jan, I see you on there, so no worries!

  7. Rachel

    Actually, I’ve been wondering lately if news sites in particular, require any sort of writing skills, let alone journalism skills. The writing on even some of the major sites is abysmal, to the point where it’s actually painful to read the news nowadays. Some stuff wouldn’t have gotten past my fourth grade English teacher.

    Maybe this is why more people are requesting writers with journalism skills?

  8. Ron - SEO Copy-e-Writing Blog

    I have a friend who is a journalist, who says, “Journalism…the way to go!” And if we look around, journalists do tend to become good writers, though they make rather less than copywriters 🙂

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