What to Do Instead of Writing for Content Mills

Paper and Pen

In response to my piece on shunning the content mills, someone asked this question: “Well, what do I do to break in if I don’t write for those places?” This question taps into a huge misconception: That content mills are the only path to becoming a known and valued writer. This is simply not true. In fact, content mills may work against you by showcasing less than stellar work. People became successful writers long before content mills came on the scene and they continue to do so without putting in ridiculous amounts of time for paltry pay. You just need to think beyond what seems so simple and easy.

That’s the lure of content mills. It seems so easy to become a “published” writer: Just sign up, audition, and if you’re halfway decent you’ll be published in a matter of days. Then, with your name “out there” higher paying gigs will soon follow. Content mills are the “amazing” diet pills of the publishing world: Just do this one simple thing and results will magically happen. Well, as with diet pills, the magic never happens and you’re still stuck where you were, only now you’re more frustrated.

The content mills are so full of garbage that serious publications and editors don’t give them much credence, if any, when evaluating your skills. When you’re getting started as a writer you want to showcase quality efforts, not pieces you threw together to meet some weird requirements, or which have been edited for the worse without your consent to the changes. You don’t want to waste time on things that are not going to move your career forward.

People became successful writers long before content mills came on the scene and they continue to do so without putting in ridiculous amounts of time for paltry pay.

So where do you begin? Like it or not, you have to start at the bottom. It’s been true for everyone for eons and it’s still true. There aren’t any shortcuts or miracle pills that will turn you into a high-earning freelance writer overnight. It takes work and time, but it’s well spent when it results in the career you want instead of a career spent doing nothing but working for a penny per word.

Here are some ideas and strategies that can help you get started on the path to a great career.

  1. Volunteer. Find opportunities around you and ask if you can volunteer to do some writing. Volunteer to write a piece for the tiny local newspaper or for your organization’s newsletter or blog. Ask if you can help a non-profit by creating a brochure or newsletter, or updating their blog. Lots of organizations need content but can’t afford to pay. Volunteer your time in exchange for a byline or reference.
  2. Blog. Start your own blog. Write on the subjects that you want to write about professionally and do your best work. No, it’s not a paid clip or byline that carries a ton of weight behind it, but it is work that you can show to an editor or organization. As you get more paid or volunteer clips, add them to the portfolio section of your blog so people can see your work.
  3. eBooks. The world of self-publishing is opening up every day. Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there that gives it a bad name, but you won’t write crap, right? Write solid books in your area(s) of interest and use the positive reviews and sales figures to propel yourself to higher paying and more prestigious writing gigs. Of course, if your books are really good you can just quit freelancing altogether and write books for a living.
  4. Network. You’re bound to know someone who can help you land writing gigs. Think about who you know and ask them if there’s work you can do. Maybe you know someone in HR at another company that’s struggling to produce a quality blog for her company. Maybe you know someone at another company that’s having trouble finding a decent technical writer. Ask around. You might be surprised at who is looking for writers.
  5. Use social networks wisely. This is a corollary to number four, above. If you belong to LinkedIn, you can use that to help further your networking efforts. Put yourself on Twitter and follow editors and publications that you might want to write for. They sometimes post what they’re currently seeking. Be professional on social networks. Yes, there’s room for some personal stuff, but don’t post anything you wouldn’t want a potential client to see.
  6. Look locally. Think about the businesses and organizations in your community and ask if you can offer your services. Maybe the local chamber of commerce needs some help creating tourism pieces. Maybe the local inn needs a better blog or website. Maybe the local restauranteur needs someone to write the script for his newest radio commercial. Ask around and you’ll probably find people who could use your help.
  7. Enhance your day job. Ask if there is writing you can do at your regular job. This is how I got started. I was working in marketing but when a technical writer quit, I asked if I could take on her duties, too. I worked there for a few years and when I decided to go freelance, I was already well-entrenched in the tech-writing world and had a network of contacts I could call upon for more work. Bonus: The whole time I was building myself up, I was getting paid a living wage. Ask if you can move into a writing position, or at least work on the corporate blog or newsletter.
  8. Write for quality, but lesser-known publications. You aren’t going to start out writing for The New Yorker, but you may get your start at a smaller, lesser-known, niche publication. Look for magazines, newsletters, and blogs that aren’t (yet) famous and pitch to them. They may not pay much, but neither will you have to compete with as many writers to get the job. Bonus: Sometimes the editors at these smaller publications know people at larger publications so if you do excellent work, you may be setting yourself up for a referral.
  9. Educate yourself. You say you don’t know anything about marketing your own work, pitching clients, creating a website, or querying and it’s better if someone else does all the hard work for you? Well, fix that. If you can write, you can learn how to do all of that stuff and, likely, do it better than the mills do. Get some books, ask for help, and do the research. Then you’ll know what you need to know to move your career forward.
  10. Guest post. Many bloggers offer guest posting slots on their blogs. They may not pay, but if the blog is fairly well known it can be a solid credit for you. Follow blogs in your areas of interest and pay attention if they advertise for guest posters. Even if they don’t advertise, a polite, non-pushy email with a solid idea for a post might get you in the door.
  11. Become an expert. Sure, you can write on any topic, but editors want people with expertise in a given area. Figure out what your passions are and the things you know the most about and start setting yourself up as an expert in those areas. Maybe you specialize in technical documentation for pharmaceutical companies, parenting articles, or grant writing for small non-profits.

Getting started isn’t easy, but at least when you use these strategies you’re building a career that’s solid, positive, and in your control. The content mills can’t help you create a solid foundation for your writing career. Only you can do that by putting in the work to find quality clients and build your reputation amongst industry professionals.


(Photo courtesy of JessicaGale)


3 thoughts on “What to Do Instead of Writing for Content Mills

  1. Jayne Bodell

    Very good advice here. I’m just starting out on my freelance gig and have quickly decided that my writing is worth more than those content mills. I have signed up for some daily emails that provide good writing jobs, but I’m starting locally. I plan to talk to small businesses to see what their content marketing needs are.

  2. Pingback: Why You Should Shun The Content Mills | Jennifer Derrick

  3. Chris

    I am currently doing number one and two and they allow me to have a bigger picture for my work. Thank you for sharing.


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