How a Writer Can Move Up From Content Mills — Mailbag

Carol Tice

Escape From Content Mill HellOn this edition of Mailbag, we tackle a question I get a lot: How can a freelance writer kick the content-mill habit and move up to better-paying clients?

On the recent post about Demand Studios’ IPO, reader Mike Biscoe was concerned about the revelation that DS doesn’t make a profit, which puts them at risk for going bust. An excerpt of his comments and questions:

I’ve been working for Demand Studios since 2009. Almost exclusively. I live in Thailand and because the cost of living where I am is cheap, I can pay the bills simply by writing DS articles. My only other income comes from occasionally writing articles for similar content mills that pay half of what DS does. Prior to 2009, I have no experience in writing anything other than regular letters to my grandma.

I am here on a tourist visa and therefore can’t legally work. If the [DS] job goes, I go. Since I am newish to writing I can’t say I know that much about what a logical next step would entail. Though I don’t think DS is going out of business tomorrow, it reminds me that I must look ahead.

I want to begin formulating a plan for more meaningful mid- and long-term goals.

Do I carry a scarlet letter for the rest of my life for writing eHow, Trails and Livestrong articles?

In spite of what good DS might do for me, there have been times when I’ve been so frustrated by the process that I’ve imagined jettisoning my laptop right through the window and listening with satisfaction as it crashes on the rooftop five stories below. In other words, I don’t want to believe that DS is my only hope for employment as a new writer.

Thanks for the information and clear-headed advice.

To get the easy stuff out of the way first: You’ll only be branded a mill writer forever if you put DS on your resume. Leave it off, and no one will know. End of stigma.

Here’s the nut of my answer to your main question about kicking mills and getting paid more: To move up, you’ll need to actively market your writing business. That’s the gist of it. Getting better pay involves getting off your tushy, and looking for better clients.

There are some basic ways to do that — plus one I’ll throw in that’s unique to your being an expat living in an exotic locale. Here are seven ways to break in to better markets:

  1. Create a writer Web site and SEO it. If you don’t have a site that promotes your writing, create one as soon as possible. Make sure you use key words about the types of writing you want to do in your header and home-page copy. Put up some clips — yes, for now they’ll be from DS sites, but replace those as soon as you can with others. This will allow some prospective clients to find you. So once you’ve done the active work of creating and properly optimizing your site, you can passively snag clients with it. I’d put in “American expat in Thailand” somewhere, if I were you.
  2. Create a personal blog. You can make a strong audition piece — especially if you’d like to blog for pay for others — by starting your own blog on your writer site. Don’t doodle on there — write each entry as if your career depended on it. It does. This technique paid off for me huge, and now some months I make half or more of my income from paid blogging.
  3. Direct-mail or email prospects. Identify a type of publication or business where you know something about their subject matter, and then do some online research. Create a list of prospective publications or companies. Contact their editor, marketing manager, communications director or other likely target. Since you’re overseas I’m betting mail or email will be the way to go rather than cold-calling on the phone. Introduce yourself in your mail or email piece and simply ask if they use freelance writers. This has a low response rate, but you will usually get some clients, as Chris Bibey recently testified over on All Freelance Writing.
  4. Seek out guest-post opportunities. If you’ve written for DS, there are probably blogs where you could guest post. Subscribe to Blogger Linkup and respond to sites seeking guest bloggers. Yes, it’s usually for free, but it’s a valuable form of marketing for you. Being seen on high-traffic blogs can get you clients — and it gets you clips from places that aren’t from DS sites. Try to spend some time on these guest posts and really make them strong. You’re auditioning for better-paying clients. The bigger-viewership site you can appear on, the better.
  5. Network online. I’d ordinarily recommend getting out to some in-person networking events, but since you’re in Thailand, it’s probably hard to drop by a big-American-city Chamber of Commerce networking event. But you can meet and connect with lots of people on LinkedIn groups, and networking sites such as Biznik. The latter is another good place to create strong articles that could serve as example clips.
  6. Leverage your locale. OMG,  you’re living in Thailand! I bet you’ve visited plenty of interesting tourist spots there. You could write a query letter to all sorts of travel magazines offering to share those. You could also hit all the simple-living mags and Web sites with your “how to live in Thailand on $1 a day” ideas. You’ll need to learn to write query letters, but it’s not that hard, and well worth it for the money you could make. You can read a book about querying if you need to learn more. You can resell your Thailand-travel story angles umpty-dozen times. You might start with tourism companies that need brochure copy or marketing letters, and work your way up to calling on airlines that fly to Thailand and pitching their in-flight magazines (these are usually top payers). Find editors online or in the Writer’s Market.
  7. Apply for jobs you see online. Start diversifying where you write for — even if it’s at DS rates — by answering online job ads. You should be able to gradually increase your rates as you acquire non-mill clients. Problogger often runs ads for bloggers at rates at or a little more than what you’re making, and the work may make for stronger clips for moving up.

There’s more about how to market your writing here and here.

How would you advise Mike to move on beyond content mills? Feel free to add more tips in the comments below.

Photo via Flickr user extranoise


  1. A Non Eye Mouse

    I disagree that you need to leave content mills off your resume. I have a writer's foot in many worlds (content mills, traditional print magazines, newspapers, academic publishing, SEO corporate ghostwriting, etc.). I recently used my success at a well-known rev share content mill as leverage – along with a much broader set of skills and experiences – to get a writing position with, a New York Times-owned company. Pay is fine. If I didn't have the success at the rev share content mill, I don't think I'd have gotten in the door – my 3 prior applications failed, but for my 4th I mentioned specific numbers (i.e. "I earn X more than average per article") and listed specific kw phrases I'd used for articles that *beat* writers on the same topic.

    Without that experience, I don't think I'd have gotten into training at About.

    • TiceWrites

      Um…well… is sort of not that far away from mill writing. As I understand it you blog your A*#! off and make like $500 a month. It used to be $800, but recently I gather it's been reduced. And you still have to promote the heck out of it to make anything more, sort of like some of the revshare sites.

      About is definitely a good move-up role from writing for mills, and I gather a good platform for spinning off to your own popular blog, once you've built an audience on About.

      If a few hundred a month for writing is "fine" pay for you, then awesome. Maybe that would work for Mike in Thailand, too, since his cost of living is very low. Possibly a good move-up strategy for him.

      Most of the writers I know need to find more time-efficient ways to earn at a higher hourly rate. I often make more than $500 for one article, and have blog clients that pay more than About's per-blog rate would work out to, too. Those are the kind of gigs I was thinking about for Mike's pitching, where I'd recommend he leave off the mill work.

      And my point in the story is if you want to pitch a national magazine, saying you've written for Suite101 or Demand something is not a good idea. I have yet to hear from an editor in traditional publishing who has a positive reaction to mill credits, and I have heard MANY "I toss immediately" reactions to reading mill credits.

      But maybe a reader will have a success story there? Maybe if you write really amazing, fully reported mill stories to create the clips, you could still use them to successfully query major magazines or trade publications? If someone has background to share on that, I'd love to hear it.

  2. Angela

    This is interesting – I am at a point in my life where I am interested in breaking into the writing world beyond the content mills and I am glad that you posted this. I have been working hard at promoting myself and starting to explore the freelance writing community. I think I will try some of these ideas to see if they work.

    My recent post Learning to Keep a Writing Schedule

    • TiceWrites

      If you do get a win off some of the strategies I've mentioned, please come on back and tell us your success story. Love to hear about wins!

  3. admin

    Hi Carol, you do such a good job explaining exactly what to do! I really appreciate your honest and practical advice. 🙂 I'm hoping I can have some wins getting out there and marketing myself.


    • TiceWrites

      Thanks Lindsay! Really, that's why Anne and I wanted to put on the 40 Ways to Market Your Writing Webinar — because there are SO many ways to market yourself. And in there somewhere are a few strategies that will work for you, no matter what your writing background. Can't wait to share all the info with people next Tuesday!

  4. Susanna Perkins

    Carol, it's not a paying gig, but if Mike is interested in doing a guest post on my Future Expats blog, I'd love to hear from him. I feature occasional posts from expatriates who share some aspect of their overseas experience. It would get him some non-mill exposure that he could link to.
    My recent post Learn a New Language Online — Before Your Overseas Move

    • TiceWrites

      Seems like an offer Mike should take advantage of — I've been trying to get him to weigh in here. Mike?

      I personally have guested for Copyblogger and a couple other busy sites. I'm going to explore in detail in an upcoming post whether guest posting is a worthwhile strategy to do these days…some say no. So far, I'm still finding it valuable in exposing me to new readers.

  5. Perry

    Along with contacting the, God knows how many magazines out there, there are also a slew of newspapers to contact.

    Look into possibly being a syndicated writer.

    Newspapers do not pay as much as magazines, but you can more easily sell your same article over and over again without being tied to an exclusive clause, although that clause may last only a few months or so.

    I sometimes wonder why the subject of being a "syndicated writer," especially for newspapers is rarely brought up.

  6. Tammy

    I think #1 is essential. In this time and age, you simply can't expect to land any good gigs without a website.

  7. Sam

    Just a little insight. I work for a rather well-known magazine, where I'm in charge of reading unsolicited queries that come in. The ones I consider promising, I can then pass on to the chief editor, who makes the final decision on whether to assign an article or not.

    However, I've been instructed to automatically reject any queries where no website is mentioned. As the editor sees it, if you're too lazy to set up your own website, you're not professional enough to work with the magazine. I'm not sure I agree 100% (it seems a bit extreme), but I do agree that there's no reason for a writer not to have a website nowadays. You can buy a domain name for as little as $10 and websites such as yola or weebly offer free hosting (really good hosting, by the way). So if you don't have a website, my editor is right that you're just too lazy to bother.

    • TiceWrites

      VERY interesting, Sam! But what if the writer says "Look at my site — on Associated Content, or Demand Studios?" Would that work for your editor?

      Any writer who doesn't have a Web site should check out my recent post on how to get a writer Web site up tomorrow for $99 that comes with hosting, and a range of support for your writing career, too.

      • Sam

        No, it wouldn't. He doesn't even like free websites like He says that since you can have a website for $10, it just screams "amateur!" if you insist on setting up a free one. However, he would consider assigning an article to somebody who only has DS or AC clips, as long as they're really good and are hosted or linked from the writer's website. To the editor, the website is your "face" — Just as you wouldn't land a job if you show up to an interview looking like a mess, you won't land an assignment with us if you don't have a professional website.

        • TiceWrites

          Well, I'm fascinated. I've always felt that at this point it's really helpful to have a writer Web site, but I hadn't thought of it as a dealbreaker. Apparently for some, it is. And I could see why — who's got a site and who doesn't is definitely a dividing line right now in terms of how seriously a freelance writer takes themselves.

          • Sam

            He might be a bit extreme in his position about websites, but he's at least partly right. And it's got me wondering just how many editors out there think something similar but don't talk about it.

          • TiceWrites

            EXACTLY. But interesting to hear that despite this picky attitude, the content-mill clips would work for this editor.

          • Sam

            Ah, but only if they're really, really good, which is somewhat difficult to achieve. Most people who write for content mills (I did it myself when I was just starting) don't put a lot of energy into their articles. They pay so little that it just isn't worth it to spend too much time on them. But if you have a few that are particularly good and really showcase your writing style, then the editor probably won't care where they're coming from. I'm thinking this only applies for some time, though, and you should replace those clips with better ones as soon as you can.

          • TiceWrites

            Oh, definitely. As you go, keep swapping out older articles for newer ones from hopefully better outlets.

  8. Mike Biscoe

    Well I've got work to do!

    Website: For me,I need to create a site where support is offered. I've been considering as they offer a low fee (I've little extra money) and their site is simple to navigate. This will enable me to get started right away. I'm clueless about optimization however. One thing I've been unsure about is site content. Clips and a contact page certainly. But what about a resume? Since I'm a learner, I'm thinking it might be wise so potential clients can see what else I've done. Anything else? I see many writer's have a bio/about me page but I admit to slightly loathing such shameless self promotion. I did see recently a writer who filled her about me page with quotes from former clients. I like this idea but the only quote I might be able to get is from my grandma at this point. Also, I've done a lot of solo travel to odd places. So, this is an obvious niche. But as far as introducing myself on my site, I'm wondering will it be limiting to proclaim myself a travel writer. As opposed to a generalist.

    Networking: I am in California right now. Through mid-January. Do I bother trying to network locally while here?

    Comments: I would write for About. It would help in the short term. But I'm not seeing it as a long term answer. DS and About fill my need for immediate cash, but not for larger paychecks. Susanna, thank you for the offer! I think that is an idea I can not pass on.

    Thanks for the article Carol.

    • TiceWrites

      Hi Mike —

      Great to hear from you — I was getting worried there!

      By all means, network and meet everyone you can while you're in California. Check out MediaBistro and see if they have events near you, or LinkedIn. Never know who might be able to connect you with a travel magazine or Web site you could write for. You probably won't live in Thailand forever, so all the US connections you can make will help you later on, and maybe in the short-term too. Plus many markets you might want to sell to are in the US, right? So seems like a golden opportunity, especially right now and after the holidays, in January.

      On your Web site — don't worry about SEO immediately, just about getting it up. When you start, the primary use of the site will be for editors like Sam's — for you to have a place to direct prospects to look at when you pitch them. As you can see from Sam's thread, it's important to have somewhere to send them. If you want SEO, get the URL Expattravelwriter or something intuitive like that to help drive you business.

      You may shrink from the idea of an About page, Mike, but one of the first things I learned in A-List Blogger Club is that your About page is extremely important. Now that I have Google in-page Analytics on my blog site, I can tell you that is the second-most frequently visited part of my site! More than 10% of all my visitors go to the About page. I personally used to give it short shrift — for a long time, my blog About was just a link to my writer site! So we all live and learn as we go. The important thing is to get SOMETHING up, and then you improve it from there.

      One example of a writer Web site I really like — this is an experienced writer but I think her approach to her site would work really well for a new writer with few clips. Look at how my tweep Yolander Prinzel has her home page — everything's right there on a single page — a few paragraphs of About in a box, a few clips, list of clients, testimonials…I like her all-on-one-page approach for a new writer, since you don't have that much to say or a long list of clips anyway.

      Don't think of your About page as shameless self-promotion — think of it as "People want to know who I am." Tell your story. It can be three paragraphs long. But make a personal connection to who you are and what your writing skills are. Remember that people hire PEOPLE. They want to know you as a person.

      But by the way, shameless self-promotion really helps people get writing gigs… 🙂

      I like the idea of putting testimonials on your 'about' page…. could work, but sounds like that's a strategy for going forward.

      I personally have yet to meet any generalists who are earning well, so I say work your niche, and develop new niches that are a bit off the beaten trail.

  9. @JPriceWrite

    Hi Carol,

    I found something worse: a content mill that plays slightly above slave wages. By developing a really disciplined process, I was able to earn about $3k per month. It sucked up all my time and mental energy, and I knew I'd never get anywhere if I didn't do my own marketing.

    There's no elegant way to move past that small and false sense of security; it feels like stepping off a cliff. But devoting all of your focus to what you don't want will only get you more of what you don't want.

    I found your e-book, Make a Living Writing: The 21st Century Guide incredibly helpful. Looking forward to the Tuesday webinar.


    • TiceWrites

      Hi Jack –

      Glad you found the book useful, Jack.

      I haven't written for a mill, but I did have one blogging gig that I recently dropped because it was my lowest payer and as you say, was sucking all my time up. I found myself routinely working a night shift, and it was to serve that one account.

      As you say, I decided to step off the cliff, because I felt I couldn't physically continue! I was confident that if I looked around — even at my existing client roster — I could replace the income with work that would be more time efficient. As it turned out, it took about one week flat. You have to be willing to take risks to move up in freelancing, because staying in many of the low-paying gigs offered online these days takes too much time, and you can't market.

      I have a saying — that work of one kind tends to lead to…work of that same kind. Keep writing for mills, and it tends to get you more gigs of that type. Get a gig blogging for lawyers, and you'll find yourself being contacted by additional lawyers who want blogs. This is why I say writers should set their direction carefully, as it's a lot easier to keep rolling on one track then to try to switch to a new writing niche.

      It takes a concerted, strategic effort to target different types of markets to move up. But it can be done!

  10. thewordofjeff_a

    Another great post full of information for those of use seeking to improve our writing income. Thanks as well to all the commenters sharing their valuable information and experience.
    My recent post Google eBookstore Opens

  11. Jolanda Picht

    yeah whatever just go here…..

  12. Pavithra

    Hi Carol,

    I have been reading this blog of yours for the past 4 days. I must tell you that the material is very inspiring to me. The fact that there are writers out there who go through exact same stages as I have is very comforting. I have a great passion for writing and more than making money I want to belong to a writer’s community. The fact that people are reading my work and are appreciating it would give me a real high! Also after reading your posts I have realized that I am at a huge advantage. I am software engineer and by profession i design websites. I had taken this for granted until i found out it’s a limitation for many. I am highly active on Facebook and I have realized this too is an asset though not necessary. Being in India, it is very hard for me to believe that writing will pay me as much as my job does. Because you see a friend of mine is into SEO and content writing and earning money through ads by producing not so good content. He has gone on to take blogging to be a full time job. His crass marketing and really bad content has turned me off. I want my content to mean something and be good and still be able to make money. After reading this I have found that maybe I can still do it. ChilliBreeze seemed a viable place to start. Also I have started a movie review blog and Bangalore city info blog. Both are in its infancy. Also i joined bloggerlinks. This is right direction for me to start this as a career right?


    • Carol Tice

      Hi Pavithra —

      I’m not familiar with ChilliBreeze, and definitely not an expert in how to earn well from writing while based in India. I definitely hear a lot of complaints from Indian writers that it’s challenging, as you’re sort of viewed as the low-cost leaders there.

      But know that due to changes in how Google ranks websites, I think the era of junk content is drawing to a close, and better-quality content will be increasingly in demand. I think it’s going to bring more good-paying opportunities for writers in 2011.

      • Pavithra

        Yes, I have read from various sources that content writing in India is very challenging. But rather than picking up low-cost writing opportunities my aim is to create content for stuff which I wish was there when I searched for it. With google placing more importance on locale of content , I feel this might be a better strategy to follow. I’m only 22 and have just started on serious blogging. But based on the content i read on my browsing binges I believe Im a more matured writer than 50% of the people out there. Thanks to the tips in your blog, The advice you gave up on picking niche topics was the turning point for me. I will be acting on this. Will get back to you with a success story 🙂

        • Carol Tice

          I’d love that!

          If you’re able, join us at 2 pm PST today for a FREE call (hope you have Skype from there!) on The Insider’s Guide to Online Writing Success:

          • Pavithra

            Oh Sorry I missed this. It was very late by the time i recieved your reply. I’d like to join future such meetings ( Yes, we do use Skype here) Is there any way I can subscribe to these alerts?


          • Carol Tice

            If you subscribe to the blog you should have seen multiple notices about it, Pavithra, plus I had an ad on the sidebar. Doing my best to get the word out! But I do have another Webinar coming Tuesday — more info here.


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