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

windmill content mill writing

Want to be an article writer? You’ll need to figure out which platform(s) to publish or find clients with. 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
  • Might 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 below minimum wage or fair practice for the writing industry (e.g., $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. They tell you they need the piece 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. Even after submitting a sample, the mill might not grant 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 the projects that clients post
  • Allow clients and writers to provide feedback to 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; arrangements might be made on a fixed-price basis
  • Pays competitively based on client budget (often no less than $20-25 per hour or $0.10 per word)
  • Clearly lists contact and support information
  • Does not work based on templates and instead allows 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. You still can find bad content requests there because of the way people and companies can post independently. Due diligence in client screening thus is a must. But the site allows freelancers from many industries to connect with employers. It’s a popular platform for writers to find on-demand work.

The middle ground between content mills and legitimate writing sites

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 catch their eye. Writers have full control of pricing. Each piece also 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. 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 these sites still can operate on the principle of ghostwriting. They might get you out of the rut, because 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

Traditional magazines typically have a digital side to their publications, and thousands of publications started out digital. Independent clients also realize the value of the Internet. They are hiring writers for everything from website copy to ebooks and social media posts. In this environment, there’s a high demand for content every single day. But there still are many content mills out there. You’ll find plenty of people who crow about making thousands of dollars publishing independently on sites like Medium, too. To be successful, you have to establish clear project standards for yourself and not get sucked into the make-it-overnight mentality.

If you really want to get into serious article writing that offers both pay and a byline, start with networking. Find people who are connected to the editors or other professionals you want to work with. Then get those people to introduce you. Cold querying always has been tough. It’s even tougher now that technology makes it so easy for anyone and their brother to submit work. Editors and editorial assistants are overwhelmed by the number of inquiries they get. The load at many companies is getting worse for them as publications downsize. So having someone to testify for you makes all the difference. A throw-everything-at-the-wall or hamster wheel 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.