How to Tell the Difference Between Content Mills and Legitimate Writing Sites

When you want to write articles on a regular basis, one of your most basic jobs is to figure out which platform(s) to publish or find clients with. And within this, it’s critical to be able to spot the difference between content mills and legitimate sites that can help you generate real reputation and income.

Content mills

Content mills generally have the following traits:

  • Require fast turnaround of articles, often 24 hours
  • Will quickly reassign articles that are not completed by the deadline, often without pay to the first writer
  • May send out requests in batches
  • Typically do not allow writers to know who the client is or to contact the client directly
  • Generally offer rates well below minimum wage or fair practice for the writing industry ($1-10 per 500 to 1,500 words)
  • Does not list contact information, or provides only a postal address with no email, chat support or phone number
  • Frequently provide templates for writers that prevent assignments from veering away from a predictable pattern

An easy-to-spot clue you’re working with a content mill is the initial “test” period. The mill will ask that you submit a piece of writing based on a client request, supposedly to assess your writing ability. But the mill will not pay you for this work. It is merely a way to get a free article out of you, regardless of whether the mill grants you future privileges on the site.

An example of a content mill you can explore is Demand Studios. This company, once insanely valuable, basically imploded and no longer functions.

Legitimate writing sites

Legitimate writing sites have the following characteristics:

  • Allow clients to set the deadline for their articles based on the complexity involved in the research and writing process
  • Often allow the clients to screen, contact and select writers directly based on profiles and resumes provided, rather than assigning articles to writers on the client’s behalf, OR allow pre-approved writers to select projects clients post
  • Allow clients and writers to provide feedback for each other
  • Might identify large batch projects, but do not require writers to take those projects; allow writers to do as many or as few pieces as desired
  • Allow clients and writers to interact directly
  • Might offer some kind of payment guarantee or protection along with a means of tracking hours, although arrangements might be made on a fixed-price basis
  • Pays competitively based on client budget (often $20-25 per hour or $0.10 per word)
  • Clearly lists contact and support information
  • Does not work based on templates, instead allowing clients to specify the tone and requirements for the content

Like content mills, legitimate sites might ask that you submit sample work. Unlike content mills, however, the sites often allow you to submit previously published works or portfolio samples. If they do want you to submit a test piece to make sure you can meet their specifications and processes, they will pay you for it.

A good example here is UpWork. Although this site allows freelancers from many industries to connect with employers, it’s a popular way for writers to find on-demand work.

The middle ground

Of course, some sites don’t fit neatly into these main categories. For example, Constant Content does a fantastic job of allowing writers to post whatever content they like, whenever they have time. Buyers can browse the writer’s catalog and buy whatever articles catches their eye. Writers have full control of pricing, and each piece goes through an editorial screening by Constant Content staff to ensure quality to clients. BUT it can be difficult to get a response from the editorial staff, and the cut the company takes is a hefty one at 35 percent of the article price (e.g., if you price your piece at $100, you actually only get $65).

There also are sites like Verblio. This site allows writers to pick whatever projects look good when they want. Writers also are paid for their test work. BUT the site forces writers to work their way up the pay scale. Even if you have years of experience, you have to start out on the lowest tier. And while compensation gets better, those initial tiers are below the minimum wage in many states.

In my view, these sites aren’t doing anything fishy, per se. If you sell enough work, they can be a good way to pad your income or make up for gaps in other regular jobs. They also can let you consistently practice your writing with a real professional eye and purpose–it’s more serious than an everyday blog you do for fun. But they all operate on the principle of ghostwriting. So they will do nothing to get you out of the rut, since you will not be able to get any bylines from the work and build a resume. And since sales either aren’t guaranteed or pay can be lower than what you’d otherwise get in a day job, they aren’t necessarily going to be enough to pay your rent and all your other expenses. Don’t expect them to make you financially self-sufficient or put you on a white sand beach sipping a margarita.

Final recommendations

Generally speaking, even though there certainly still are mills operating, there’s been a huge shift away from the quantity mindset among publishers and independent clients. Now, the emphasis is on quality. And if you really want to get into serious article writing offers both pay and a byline, there’s no substitute for good old fashioned querying. Traditional magazines either have sister websites or have gone online completely, and thousands of publications started out digital to begin with. So there is still a great demand for good writing. Study sites that interest you and find ones that actually allow freelance submissions, and that pay fairly. Then send tailored pitches to the publications’ editors and do the footwork necessary to establish real relationships that can yield ongoing future assignments or even a column–a throw-everything-at-the-wall approach simply will not work. You can use legitimate or middle ground content sites to earn some cash as you build your portfolio, but don’t touch mills with a ten foot pole.

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Published by

Wanda Thibodeaux

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux is a freelance writer based in Eagan, MN. Since 2006, she has worked with a full range of clients (e.g., Prudential, Duda Mobile) to create website landing pages, product descriptions, articles, professional letters, and other content. She also served as a daily columnist at Inc.com for three years (250,000-300,000 monthly page views), where she specialized in content on business leadership, psychology, neuroscience, and behavior. Currently, Thibodeaux accepts clients through her website, Takingdictation.com. She is especially interested in motivational psychology, self-development, and mental health. She is also the host of Faithful on the Clock, a podcast designed to help Christian professionals get their faith and work aligned.

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