Why Writing For Free is Better Than Writing for $20

Carol Tice

Business man refusing money offeredRecently, I took on 200 new members of Freelance Writers Den. It’s always interesting to hear the stories of members and why they join.

One tale I hear from many of the writers. The details vary, but the basic drift goes like this:

“I’ve been making $8 an article on [insert name of your favorite content mill or bid site here].

Now I’m broke and never have time to figure out how to earn any more money. I’m burned out from having to write hundreds of articles quickly to make even grocery money.

Can you help?”

Yes, I can. I’m going to tell you to do something that may sound crazy, but trust me, it’s going to pay off big in the end.

Stop writing for peanuts.

I know. That sounds terrifying. But if you’re serious about building a lucrative freelance writing career, it’s really what you should do.

Why? When you write for a pittance, bad things happen.

What should you do instead? Write a few projects for quality clients for free.

How is writing for free a faster road to great freelance earnings than writing for cheap?

Let me tell you what you get when you do free-sample work instead of being underpaid and overworked by a bid site or content mill:


When you write for free, there’s never a confusion that this particular writing activity could turn into a living somehow, if you could just figure out how to crank out six or ten articles per hour, eight hours a day. With free writing, you know it won’t ever pay your bills.

You’re clear on why you’re doing this writing — because you love writing short stories, you need a writing sample for your portfolio, or you love the charity whose newsletter you volunteer to create.

It’s a step on the road to where you want to go. And because it pays nothing, it’s not a step you’ll be tempted to linger on. Instead, you’ll want to quickly move forward from your pro bono work to paying gigs.


There’s something about writing for laughably low rates that kills writers’ souls.

You start thinking somewhere deep down that $8 is all you deserve. That your writing must not really be very good. When in fact mill pay is low because their business model is broken. It’s nothing to do with you.

The way writers are treated on content mills can be unpleasant, too, along with the low pay.

Pretty soon, you feel scared to even pitch anywhere better.

Every time I see a writer comment on a forum that “content mills are a great place to get started,” I just cringe.

Honestly, I have to say I don’t think it they are, if your dream is to pay serious bills from your craft and not just earn a little date-night money.

If you simply need to get a few samples and do some practice writing, start your own blog. That way you’ll have control over what gets published, and be creating a site you could build and monetize if you want, and you’ll keep the rights to all your posts.

When you do a volunteer project for a local business, small-town newspaper, or local charity, you have the pride of knowing you wrote for a real-world client and pleased them. That work can get you noticed and often lead to the next client, too.

You’ve proven you can write professionally, and it feels good. That helps you pitch paying clients with confidence.


Besides the skinny paychecks, cheapo articles for content mills often don’t produce any viable clips for your portfolio. Maybe you get lucky here and your Demand article ends up in USA Today online or something…but those breaks seem to be rare.

We all know many editors throw queries right in the trash when the writer’s bio line reveals their whole experience is writing for Textbroker or Demand Studios. This is another reason writing for mills is a trap…you often don’t get any clips that help you move up.

When you do pro bono work for legit companies or nonprofits, you end up with real samples that can impress prospects and get you hired for real-pay gigs.


When you write for $8 — or $15, or whatever the pittance is — you never have time to market your business and find better clients. You’re trapped in a gerbil-wheel cycle of having to write every waking moment just to keep the lights on.

When you let that go and focus on the long-term goal of finding real paying clients, you realize there’s only one way to get them.

You’re going to have to aggressively market your business. So that’s what you do.

Because you’re hungry. And you want to find those clients fast, so you can make real money and avoid having to crawl back to a cubicle job.


It’s impossible to get a raise from super-low rates to anything reasonable. Raises are usually incremental, but getting a 10 percent raise on $8 isn’t going to change your life. You’d have to get a tenfold raise for the pay to start to amount to anything, and that just ain’t gonna happen.

And you can’t get that raise anyway, because mills almost never raise their rates. These are clients whose pay won’t ever change, so you’ll never move up.

To create a freelance business where pay will steadily grow, you have to find a different kind of client — the kind where after six months or a year, you could get more money.


If you’re too broke to quit writing for cheap right now, come up with a savings plan now that could free up a few weeks of your time to try the free-writing strategy for building your freelance writing business.

Then challenge yourself to stay away from Craigslist ads, content mills and the like for just 30 days. Nobody I know who’s tried this has ever had to go back to writing for peanuts.

Have you written for free, or for cheap? Leave a comment and tell us what you do and why.


  1. Anneke

    Hi there

    Thank you for the great post! It’s something I need to hear again and again. I tend to focus on higher paying clients until I become desperate for money. I need to think long term, the problem for me is just securing long term clients that pay well. Can you suggest job boards or places to search that will open up a new world to me? I keep an eye on problogger, freelancewritinggigs, bloggingpro and writeinfo but I don’t know of many others.

    Do you think it is better to contact potential clients directly and focus on blog posts until they request your service?

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Anneke —

      I get that question a lot — “Where is the one magical online job board that has the great clients?”

      I believe it doesn’t exist…unless it’s the Junk Free Job Board I run inside Freelance Writers Den. But that’s different because quite a few of the listings are referrals direct from me, and we cull from some subscription sources as well as the best of many other places.

      I know a lot of Denizens have gotten some good gigs off our board. But the problem with most is you’re always going to be competing with a million others, so by definition it’s not a high-pay environment.

      The best clients are going to be the ones you go out and find, as you’ve guessed. I don’t know about the “focus on blog posts until they request your service” side of it… having a blog as a sample is good, but be proactively marketing all you can. It’s a numbers game — the more marketing you do, the more likely you are to find better clients, and to have more nibbles from which to choose.

      • Anneke

        Hi Carol

        Thank you for the reply! Yes, I was hoping for a magical job board, but I guess I have to do more from my side to get my name out there. I will be keeping an eye on your website’s content- I find it very informative.


  2. Kevin Carlton

    Yep, Carol, I’ve written loads of stuff for cheap – albeit not on the slave-labour scale of content mills and Craigslist clients.

    But what I’ve done is to keep this work down to no more than 10-15 hours per week. That way, you get a bit of pocket money to tick along while you spend the rest of your time building a long-term sustainable business.

    Also agree 100% with your point about clips: Even an average piece of writing published in a recognised magazine or on a popular website looks better in your portfolio than your best piece ever written for a client with no kudos whatsoever.

    I think Copyblogger once stated in a post that if you want your content to look like a king it needs to be dressed like a king.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, I like that analogy! Real testimonials from real clients impress other good clients. It’s just that simple. And mill clips impress nobody.

      I like your focus on keeping a sharp eye on how much lower-paid work you’ve got to avoid letting it take over your schedule…good way to go. We’ve all taken gigs that were low because of a specific situation – loved what the client was doing, had free time to fill, needed some extra cash, etc. But do that too much and you’ll end up having to get a day job because you’ve gone broke!

  3. Mridu Khullar Relph

    Fantastic post, Carol. I never wrote for free but three years into my writing career, I intentionally let go of a few low-paying clients even though I had no other work to fill up that time. So, with that panic that comes with having let go of part of my income and the free time to pitch higher-paying markets, I made an effort to aim bigger and higher. And of course, it worked.

  4. Elizabeth

    This post really got me thinking Carol. I do get paid a fairly decent fee for most of my writing. Recently, a big website posted a call on HARO for submissions to a guidebook they are producing. I submitted my pitch, they accepted. But there was no pay. They wanted 1000 words by the end of the month as a draft to see if it would make the cut for their guidebook (employee communications). I checked out their site, they have sold similar guidebooks for $399, but were not paying contributors for this project. I called and asked about compensation and they said this was more like a “journal.” I declined the project. Would this have been a good opportunity to write for free or not? Wondering if I made the right decision!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Elizabeth —

      These free essay book compilations aren’t something I’ve participated in, though I’m in quite a few compiled ebooks like this.

      Whether it’s worth your time really depends on your goals for your writing career. What would it mean to your portfolio to be able to say, “My essay is included in X book”? That’s the question you have to answer. If that helps build it in a direction you want to go, and you’ve got the time to do it, maybe it’s worth your while.

      But that’s a real high price for a guidebook! You’d think they could pay authors at those rates. I feel like most of these compilations are either free or in the under-$20 category.

  5. Ashley

    I just started writing for free. I am just starting out here; the only other writing work I’ve really done is for internships, which were also free! The site I just started working for is a recent start-up, and is centered around music, which is what I love. They give me the freedom to write in my style and go where my heart takes me, and I really enjoy doing it. Sure, I’m not getting paid, but they were upfront about that. They’re nice people who are willing to publish and promote my work, and who knows where that could go in the future!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Ashley —

      Sounds like a good free sample situation…just keep the project short, don’t let it go on and on…and remember to get a testimonial! That’s really what you’re in it for, the samples and the testimonial.

      I recently had a writer come to me all excited because she was doing a pro bono project she thought would be a good sample…blogging three times a week for three months! That’s way too much free stuff.

      With a small amount of free, you build the portfolio that gets you good pay…but it’s important that the free-samples period in your life be brief if you want to stay afloat. πŸ˜‰

  6. Mishael Austin Witty

    I’ve written for cheap. …And I’ve stopped writing for cheap because it does absolutely destroy your soul (not to mention your love of writing). Most of the time, I know nothing (and can’t stand writing) about what I have to write for those content mills, and it takes time away from the writing that I would really rather be doing (and that I think I SHOULD be doing).

    Surprisingly, once I STOPPED writing for cheap and STARTED writing more for FREE (not even related to any particular job I was trying to get), the better money started rolling in (and I started to feel better about my writing too).

    I think you’re absolutely right. For me (and for most other writers, I’m sure), it’s just not worth it!

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks for sharing this great story of how the free rather than cheap approach works out better, Mishael!

  7. Sophie Lizard

    Great timing, Carol–I just accepted a gig that only pays roughly 10% of my usual rate! Before you decide I’ve lost my mind, here are my reasons:
    – I love this blog’s topic and its high standards for writers
    – I would’ve gladly blogged there for free to earn a backlink and an “As seen on…” for my business website
    – At one to two posts per week, it won’t interfere with other projects
    – The small amount of pay will keep me stocked up with lip balm and hot chocolate every week πŸ™‚

    I think the only reason to take a low-paying gig is if you’re interested in something other than the money; content mills remove all the non-monetary benefits of freelance writing and then make the pay laughably small as a final warning to stay away!

    • Kevin Carlton

      Sophie, I love those ‘As seen on …’ logos in the sidebar of blogs too (such as here on Carol’s blog).

      As long as I didn’t make a regular habit of writing stuff for nothing or next to nothing, I’d be happy to do just the same.

      • Carol Tice

        That “social proof” bar gives your blog a real boost, I’m told by the conversion experts. There are places it’s well worthwhile to write a thing or two for at no charge. I can’t even tell you all the connections and opportunities that came my way from guesting free on Copyblogger alone.

        As you say, though…don’t make too much of a habit of the free stuff.

        The point of writing for free instead of $20 is that you will more quickly move up and onward to professional rates. That’s why I advise it over the cheap rates…because I believe it tends to get you to a real living faster.

    • Carol Tice

      Good point, Sophie — often, we have other goals for our writing besides pay. Does this give you a new specialty area? Get you connected to someone influential you want to get in the door with? Do you just love this topic?

      We have to weigh all the reasons we’re writing and stay focused on our goals when we evalute a pay rate.

      • Sophie Lizard

        That’s right–it’s a topic I’m keen to write on more often. I’m using my interest in neuroscience to write for a life hacking blog. Hopefully with lots of paying, productivity-and-self-development-obsessed clients to come!

    • Katharine Paljug

      Really good point… I’m always shocked by writers who say they’d “never write for exposure” but then turn around and spend hours slaving for content mills. Good exposure will get you further than dozens of awful “clips”!

      • Carol Tice

        One of the biggest things I deal with in the Den is writers who’ve been writing for mills for years and don’t have one clip they feel they can put on their writer website. They feel ashamed of every word of it! And know that editors will look down on them.

        Don’t waste time on writing that doesn’t build your career, if you’re looking to pay the bills with writing, I say.

  8. Rob

    I was the King of Cheap for longer than I care to remember and you’re right, it’s soul destroying. I’ve also written tons of stuff for free, including entire websites. Doing that is life-affirming and joyous. A side benefit has been that one of my blogs has started netting me paying clients.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s great to hear, Rob! Sometimes putting a little more effort into your own blog makes it the great sample that gets you hired…and in the meanwhile, you’re enjoying building your own blog, which is nice. Can be an ideal situation.

  9. Janeen Johnson

    I queried an online magazine recently and they were so quick to draft up a contract for regular contributions . I then asked what is the rate and they said it’s a “volunteer” position. I can’t imagine committing to weekly articles for free for somewhere that perhaps won’t get me anymore attention than my blog , I just told them I have a lot of deadlines I will think about it and get back to them . I just started seriously pursuing a freelance career, a month ago and I am doing it part time but it’s hard to write for cheap when I have been paid more than a 100 pounds for an article in the past. I will do free writing if it will get me clients but I am chasing medium to high paying markets for my work. Carol your newsletter is such an inspiration to me.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Janeen — As I noted above, free gigs have to be limited…definitely not regular weekly articles for an indefinite period! One or two to get samples is swell…but pretty brassy of that publication to think they can sign you on to write endlessly without pay.

      Bet they’re one of those ads you see constantly advertising that they “need good writers to start right away” — yeah, I’ll just bet you do, buddy! They could try paying if they’d like to stop that revolving door…

      • Janeen Johnson

        You guessed right Carol. They had a big glossy sign saying contributors wanted so that is why I was curious about the dinero.

  10. Matt G Dawson

    I’ve been working hard to build up my writing portfolio with quality articles. I’ve written for low pay but I think it’s time to target better clients. I’ve avoided content mills so far. I never thought about writing for free, so I’m going to give this a go. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Carol Tice

      If you find a great quality client you can do the free stuff for, that can position you so well to get a great-paying client.

      And remember, that next client never has to know the previous work was unpaid.

  11. Daryl

    My name is Daryl, and I’ve written for cheap.

    The worse was a toss up between writing 10 500+ word reviews for $3 a pop, and writing a 2000+ word article for a TOTAL of $9.

    I wrote mainly to get good reviews on the particular bid site I was on – the better the reviews, the more likely clients are to hire you.

    This was when I was starting out, and wasn’t aware of how destructive and soul crushing low paying writing could be.

    I’m currently working with a client that pays $30 per article – which although isn’t that much, is FAR better than the work I was doing before. Not to mention, it’s in a field that I’m qualified to write in and I genuinely enjoy writing about it.

    Client selection is EXTREMELY important – those who pinch pennies and can only afford to pay .01 cents per word are NOT who you want to be writing for.

    If you’re going to write for FREE, it’s much better that you do so in a local newspaper or magazine than xyz.com that’s probably going to go out of business in the next two weeks. At least then, you have a byline in a reputable source that you can refer further clients to.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Daryl. (I feel like I’m at a 12-step meeting with your opening there!)

      I so agree with your last comment there – there are a LOT of flaky startup websites out there, and you’re not going to impress prospects with free content for them the way something in print would do, or for a name nonprofit or business.

  12. Morgan

    Thank you so much for all your great advice Carol. You have been a practical source of hope that my dream is actually possible. πŸ™‚

    Content mills have discouraged me for years. I actually thought that was what all writers were paid. They make working in fast food look more appealing. At least you don’t have to beg for your job every half hour.

    I love the idea of doing writing for free on topics you believe in. Not only does it restore your integrity, self-respect, and love on the craft, but it lets you contribute to the world and get better gigs. I will make a list of possibles and start offering my services. Then I’ll come back here and read more.

    • Carol Tice

      Wow, thanks — could I use those first 2 lines on the About page here?

      I’ve run into SO many writers who had no idea other paid writing existed beyond content mills! Which is really why I started this blog in the first place…to help get out the word that that is the UNDERWORLD of freelance writing, not the whole picture.

      After you get your free samples and use them to get paying clients, come back and tell us how it worked out, Morgan…would love to hear.

  13. LB Thapa

    Thank you Carol for writing such a wonderful piece of write-up. In the recent past I did write articles for free to some magazines. I claimed no remuneration. I knew they won’t pay either, but I wrote them regularly. Later I was benefited as the editors of other magazines happily accepted my articles and paid me well.

    I fully agree with you that we can rather write free than accepting a small sum which does not justify our hard work.
    LB Thapa
    Freelance writer

  14. Jawad Khan

    Hey Carol,

    Great post!

    I’ve never worked for content mills precisely for the reasons you’ve mentioned in your post. You just cant make a full time career out of it. And even if you do, theres no quality in what you write.

    Instead, I started out writing guest posts for free for a few blogs and that brought me a few god contacts.

    But what would you suggest to relatively inexperienced writers who are looking to get into a long term working relationship with an established blog. How should they go about it, since that is the only way you get eventually ask for higher rates.

    • Carol Tice

      Jawad, there are lots of other ways to get paying clients besides writing a ton of free blog posts for other sites.

      I don’t know that many blogs that hire staff writers they pay, so not sure you’re aiming in the right direction with that goal of a “long-term working relationship with an established blog.”

      For instance, I tend to only take one paid guest post per person (with a few exceptions)…I like to keep a variety of fresh voices coming. There are some blogs where it can become an ongoing paid gig, but rates are still so modest, maybe $75-$150 at the good ones…it’s still one of the lowest paid forms of freelance writing. Lots more opportunity in magazines, web content, white papers, case studies, direct response copywriting, and so on.

  15. Chiara Cokieng

    Hi Carol! Wow, this totally makes sense. Now more than ever, we focus on the short-term and fail to see how what we do affect us psychologically and emotionally, and consequently the long-term.

    I think the it’s the same underlying mentality (“I’m only doing this for gain, it’s not permanent”) that lures college graduates to 9-5 jobs and gets us comfortable with just getting by. Before we know it, all our hopes and dreams are sucked out of us, we start to believe that deep down, this is all we really deserve, and that’s just the way reality works.

    Recently, I just quit my job and the reality of what I have done is clear, “Okay, now you have no choice but to succeed in that thing you claim you want to do. Now prove it.” Now I have no choice but to succeed.

    Experience from a day job is an investment in myself (it’s supposed to turn into a career) the same way writing for content mills is investment for a freelance writer. It’s not.

    And then there’s that threat of getting too comfortable, “It’s not the best situation, but it’s not that bad. You should be grateful.”

    There are better ways to invest in our potential, which is often painful in the short-run but exponentially rewarding in the long-run. At least I hope so.

    • Carol Tice

      Chiara, a while back I saw a top Examiner earner present at BlogWorld, and one of the key things he advised for others who’d like to earn six figures from one of these types of big platforms is “You should have no other way to survive. This is hard. If you have any other way to earn a living, you’ll give up and do that instead of this.”

      And I agree with him. Nothing concentrates the mind and makes you get it done like knowing you HAVE to make the writing thing work or you’re out on the street…

      For instance, I know many women whose husbands make a great income, and the writer just can’t seem to get their career off the ground. It becomes something they’re dabbling with rather than going hard at…because they don’t really have to.

      I never had that luxury so I was out marketing my butt off and making it into a living. πŸ˜‰

      • Katherine Swarts

        There’s a topic for a future post: “finding your motivation when it doesn’t automatically create itself.”

  16. Heather Villa (

    Good morning,
    When I decided that I wanted to become a freelance writer, I wrote for free for small publications that I admire. I helped the publications and I received experience. I still write for free (and I also found some regular paying gigs) for publications. Writing for β€œfree” is a way to volunteer. Plus, writing for β€œfree” is a way for me to say, β€œthank you” to publications that have personally helped me so much, but can’t afford to pay writers.
    Thanks for this post!

    • Carol Tice

      We all have those give-backs we do, where we want to help. Just have to keep them to a dull roar so we have room for paying work…

      • Heather Villa (

        That’s so true. Honestly, maybe about one out of ten pieces I write recieves no payment.
        I wish that I could write for free all day long. But I do have bills to pay. πŸ™‚

  17. Bonnie Nicholls

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been pitching colleagues on free case studies, because I think those will be a good fit for me, and I don’t have the work samples.

    • Carol Tice

      Sounds smart — pitch a free sample of the exact kind of writing you want to be well-paid for, so you get the perfect sample.

  18. peachfront

    Absolutely not. Of course not. You can’t expect people to pay when they know that you are giving your services away to others.

    I know someone who didn’t get a paid writing job for 20 years because he did a lot of pro bono work. I know someone else who has been writing for longer than that — and still never gets paid, because people know they can always get her to do it for free.

    Once you’ve “worked” for free, you have proved that you have either a soft heart or that you’re desperate to get your name out there — and that proof of your vulnerability makes you VERY exploitable.

    If you want to donate to charity, earn money and donate cash. If you want to volunteer time, donate a different service. You don’t donate the very thing you are trying to sell and then think it will somehow gain in value.

    If I know you have proven to be willing to perform a service for free, I’m not paying you either. Simple human nature. I will want you to explain why you are discriminating and trying to charge me for what you gave the other guy for free!

    • D Kendra Francesco

      Okay, so you’re saying that the lawyers or doctors who do pro bono work never get paid for work they do later? I think they’d be highly surprised to hear that.

      • Carol Tice

        But lawyers do X% pro bono a year, and keep a tight rein on how much of it they do…something freelance writers would be smart to copy.

    • Carol Tice

      Peachfront, the secret is not to tell anyone you did a previous client’s work for free. Part of the agreement is that they are also sworn to secrecy that you weren’t paid.

      Obviously, letting the world know you write tons for free isn’t going to help you get clients!

  19. Philippa Willitts

    Writing for free has done me much more good than writing for a small amount of money. This is because the writing I’ve done without pay has been for non-profit websites – I feel good contributing there because nobody is making a fortune off the back of my work, and it means that I can indulge the opinionated side of my writing! Plus, it has other positive effects too – I was named one of the most influential disabled people in Britain last week, mainly as a result of the writing I’ve done for some high profile websites on the topic of disability.

    Writing for small amounts of money is something I admit I tried when I was first starting out – for all the same reasons that everyone does! It got me nowhere, I probably didn’t produce my best work because I was resentful and, frankly, I didn’t have the time. Stepping away from cheap work is the best thing that any freelancer can do. It’s frightening, but absolutely necessary.

    • Carol Tice

      Well that perfectly sums it up — “frightening but absolutely necessary.”

      And it’s amazing how blogging and guest blogging can help you be viewed as an influential person, eh?

  20. Kimberly Jones

    I have donated press releases or website content to nonprofit organizations I believe in but I won’t allow anyone to make a profit on my work without a fair wage. I always tell people that if they are working for “clips” they should also be gathering karma points and the “feel good” reward of doing something for a nonprofit they are passionate about. Plus, it’s then a tax write-off.

    I also have given my writing as a gift (I wrote a comedic passage as a wedding gift for friends who then printed it in their wedding program) and a satirical news announcement on the birth of my best friend’s first child that was placed in his baby book. I also wrote an article at a reduced rate for a friend’s magazine as it was getting off the ground, to show my support and because I knew his success would end up in lots of work for me, which it did.

    There are many ways to get clips and experience without selling one’s soul to the content mill devils.

    • Carol Tice

      Great examples, Kimberly!

      Though if you’re looking to build a portfolio to get business clients, the nonprofit work may not get that done…but that’s why you do a SMALL project and they are sworn to secrecy that they didn’t pay.

  21. Bakari Chavanu

    Excellent points made here. I’ve heard that Huffington Post doesn’t pay most of its writers (is this true?), but getting published on there may garner you more links to your website.

  22. Rachel

    It is so true about low-paying work being soul-destroying!

    I started off writing articles for $3 a pop – and stopped after about a month. How much can you write about careers at McDonald’s? Or the best children’s highchair?

    Then I thought I moved up in the world, and took on a job writing content for a website. That paid $10 an hour, and since I was guaranteed a certain amount of hours per month, I thought I’d still have time to market while making some money on the side. The problem was that I had a boss who didn’t know how to write editing me, knew nothing about online writing (or writing in general), and micro-managed from Day 1.

    And, after writing for 6-8 hours a day, who had energy to write anything else, let alone market myself?

    Thanks to the Den, I took the plunge, and left that job. I was started to feel like maybe I don’t really know how to write, after being criticized so much.

    Well, I’m happy to say, about a week after I left, a blog post I wrote on authors connecting with their fans was accepted (at the rate of $105!). Believe it or not, I found out about the site through a comment left by the owner on Make a Living Writing!

    The owner said he’d had a hard time finding writers who wrote well for his site; I followed his link, took a look at his site, did some research, and voila!

    Thanks Carol, and fellow Denizens!

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks for sharing a fun success story, Rachel! There is SO much better-paying opportunity out there for those willing to look.

  23. Lin

    Thanks for this article, Carol. It really gets my mental gears turning! What’s the best way to approach nonprofits or businesses to offer pro bono work?

  24. Thomas Hill

    I have also succumbed to a blood-sucking content mill (I am tempted to give their name, but after disparaging them I don’t want to risk getting sued!), but quickly realized they were nuts, I say absolutely nuts!

    The first thing they did was give me a massive manual, 40 or 50 pages at least…..that was my first sign — what type of job gives you that big of a manual for $5 for a 500 word essay??? (Answer: a content mill looking for suckers! That’s who!)

    Anyways, I begrudgingly did it (still question why I did it, but that’s history) and I got the following response, “Tom, we loved your stories, but we need you to correct some things in our style manual.” I figured it would be minor, but, boy was I wrong!

    I Skyped the editor once and he lectured me like I was his kid and employee (both of which were wrong!) Nevermind during the Skyping, he seemed to be riding his bike in his home with these dingy, artless, off-white walls — another weird thing, right?

    I incorporated his changes and still there were outstanding issues — I was asking myself, “Come on, how crazy are these guys wasting their own time for articles they were probably making $10 off — was it even worth their time?”

    Anyways, they wanted to Skype me and I said, “Sure, we can Skype. However, I have to charge consulting fees of $30 per hour.” Boy, did they quickly not want to Skype any more.

    Long story short, they fired me because I wasn’t going to do 10 revisions based on their crazy long manual — that was continually updated

    Funny thing is, not too long after that, I found a niche-industry publication (combined with my past legal experience) where I get $300 for a 1000 – 1500 word article……the editor loves me, not literally of course. She gives me the assignment, I ask questions to clarify things and that’s it. No personal/political/illegal questions, etc. She’s great! I wish all editors kept things business (outside a friendly “Hello, how are you” of course) and stick to the task at hand.

    Do you have any tips or ideas on how to “read” people for their professionalism, especially when all you do is communicate via e-mail at first?

    Thanks for your invaluable comments, with your help I have landed a gig paying $0.35 per word and room to negotiate in the future! It’s on-going with 5 articles of 1000 to 1500 per month — I think it’s my big break!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Thomas — congrats on moving up!

      Those rates are still fairly low and there’s plenty more room to move up.

      As far as qualifying clients, what do you learn about them before you sign up? Try to find out how long the company has been around and an idea of annual revenue — sites like Manta and Hoover’s can help you figure that out.

      Do you ask for a 50% up-front deposit on the first project, before you start working? I find good clients don’t bat an eye at that, while flakes will balk, so that’s a good litmus test.

      I also like people who sign with full info — full name, address, phone, company name, etc. A lot of the losers seem to be people who sign their emails “Joe” and that’s all you’ve got.

  25. Amel

    I can see writing for free in some very limited circumstances, such as wanting to break into a particular niche and not having the opportunity to do so otherwise…but I feel that this situation only very rarely comes up. If you merely want to gain clips, there are plenty of paying publications out there, so I’d just jump in and start querying those. Lots of publications are willing to work with new writers and will not mind a lack of clips. It might be different, though, for press releases or other types of specialized writing that almost no one will hire you to do until they see samples. A magazine may also ask you to write on spec, which can be risky and potentially time-consuming, but you do get paid for the article if it is accepted. Even when writing for free, it is important to keep in mind that free does not mean automatic acceptance. Your work must be of good quality to be published – and if you are able to write quality articles that are good enough to be accepted for publication, you might as well go ahead and get paid for them, too.

  26. Wendy

    I’ve been pursuing freelance writing seriously for only two or three months now. Of course, the content mills sucked me in almost immediately because making some money seems better than making none. I felt completely degraded after completing my first couple assignments, but recently tried a different mill because I started feeling desperate again. But after reading this post I’m convinced–once I cash out my final “payments”, I’ll be canceling my accounts with all of the mills I’ve joined. Thanks for the encouragement.

  27. AM Roach

    I wish I had found this blog a year ago. After being beaten down by 2 content mills, I realized my writing quality itself had suffered. As an experienced, educated writer – how could I let myself go for .005 a word? Desperation? Curiousity? Hopes of this content thing turning into something bigger? Ugh.
    The worst part was no matter how well I thought I was crafting my work for Mill No. 2 (which paid more than .005 cents a word), they kept changing the rules from the impossible to the ridiculous to keep up with. (i.e. don’t use the word “can” or “will”—ever).
    I am even embarrassed to say that I recently sent off a resume in response to a local company looking for content writers. That resume had “Web Content Writer” listed at the top as my most recent relevant experience from “ABCOnlineWebContentMill”. You think I’ll hear back about this position?
    No, neither do I. Thanks to this blog I am now taking concrete steps forward to share my talent for what its truly worth because, gosh darnit, I have something worthwhile to say!

    • Carol Tice

      AM, I’ve heard so many comments about the arcane and ever-changing rules and pay rates on mills. It’s sort of boggling to deal with.

      And as you discovered, it leaves you with no writing you’re proud of, that positions you to get well-paid writing work. And that’s the BIG problem…even bigger than the tiny paychecks.

  28. Sarah L. Webb

    I’ve recently been wondering this myself since I’ve let go of two clients I considered to be low paying. My thought was that I’ll have more time to market myself, but it never occurred to me that marketing myself might mean writing for free (for good clients). I see it as having to go backward in order to move forward.

  29. Ed Estlow

    I’ve been writing articles for a couple of well-known men’s blogs (not mills) and one print magazine for four or five months. The pay is low (print pays more than the blogs), but I love the product subject matter I’m writing about.

    Doing this was a strategic decision to build my portfolio in this niche and bide my time to turn this kind of writing into more lucrative copywriting in the same niche. (And frankly, it’s been darned exciting to have the recognition and exposure!) At this point I have about 30 published pieces.

    My real question is when is it reasonable to start approaching companies who make these products about doing some (hopefully more lucrative) copywriting for them, usign this portfolio? And must I stop the admittedly low paying but satisfying writing for the blogs?

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Ed —

      Nobody’s going to make you stop writing for cheap if you enjoy it, Ed!

      To answer your other question, you have plenty of clips to start pitching businesses your services.

  30. Kimberly

    I wrote a feature article for a friend who got married and offered it to their local newspaper along with a photo. It was accepted and published. It felt good.

    I wrote some organisational communications for a local government association. All were published but were unattributed. That felt good. I wrote a news article/blog article complete with photo for the same association and the Operations Manager published it attributing it to herself. That did not feel good. I felt robbed.

    I have written some free articles about local issues or events for my local newspaper but they have stolen my ideas and written their own articles attributed to other journalist. Its so cut throat.

    Shit happens I suppose lol.

    I am currently waiting to hear back from a magazine about a feature article I wrote. Fingers crossed that they LOVE IT and publish it; paid of course πŸ˜‰

    • Carol Tice

      Kimberly, try not to get a chip on your shoulder that your ideas were “stolen.”

      Ideas are not copyrightable, and often if you’re thinking of a timely story, other writers are, too. They may have just gotten there first. I personally have also seen writers utterly rip off my stuff down to using absolutely every source I interviewed! You’ve got to let this stuff go.

      Also, sounds like maybe you weren’t clear with some of those free projects that you weren’t OK with ghostwriting it. You need to have a contract that defines your expectations, and I’m going to bet you didn’t.

      And remember, you can use ghostwritten work in your portfolio. Get a testimonial if you can, but you still wrote it.

      Sounds like you have enough free samples to pitch paying clients, so hopefully you can move on from the free stuff.

      If you don’t get a bite on that article…consider writing query letters rather than sending in completed articles. It’s hard to hit exactly what an editor wants in a vacuum, without any input from them, so queries are usually a better way to go.

      Best of luck with it —

  31. AAron

    Hi I have been writing health & lifestyle articles for an online newspaper for free during the last year (2 articles a month). It was mainly just to create content and something I could add to my cv.
    I initially contacted the company to ask if i could write, they liked my style but said they didn’t have the budget for it, they said they would allow me to promote my ‘business’ which i dont have ( its just a facebook link).

    I think its about time that I start charging, but have no idea what kind of rate to ask for, i did read you mentioned no less than $100’s an article. There are example’s of my work on the website link, im just not sure what they are worth.
    Any thoughts?

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Aaron — I’m not able to do free blog reviews for the many writers who ask me each week…but yes, I do like to see at least $100 a post, especially if it’s not something you can just write off the top of your head.

      You won’t be able to charge this free site anything — they still don’t have a budget. But you can charge other clients you prospect for and find.

      It’s not a question of what they’re ‘worth’ — it’s a question of finding a client who appreciates the value of good writing and has the budget to pay well for it.

      • AAron

        Thank you very much for replying Carol, I appreciate it. Sound advice which ill use in the future.

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