It was 2019. I was taking my first steps as a young adult. I had moved out of my parents’ house and into a new country. I settled down, and got used to being independent. Thank goodness I didn’t need to worry about a job. I had been working as writer and a translator for a while and, while I didn’t have regular clients, I had built a good reputation on several freelancing sites. My partner had a reliable job and a couple side gigs as well so were making do.
That was…until 2020. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, things got increasingly difficult. My partner lost his job, and discovered his main side gig was a scam. My gigs started drying up as well. With the cost of living rising steadily, and the impossibility of finding a job outside (this happened during the confinement), I become desperate. I applied for content mills and, as soon as one responded, I joined.
I quickly discovered this was a mistake. Almost all of my colleagues were from countries with very low pay and with minimal cost of living. The content mill paid 5 cents per 100 words. “It’s okay,” I told myself. “The content mill has tiers and that’s the pay at the basic level. My English is excellent. I can also write in Spanish and French. I’ve been writing for years. I’ll get good reviews, and rise up the ladder soon enough!” This silly optimism was my second mistake. I should have taken the loss, and left immediately but I was desperate so I didn’t.
Four months in and I was suffering from burnout and migraines from the stress this work was causing me! I was working 12 to 16 hours, 7 days a week, and barely making $400. My “writer rating” was going up, but not fast enough. Work was steady and plentiful but, most of the time boring and grueling…and not to mention terribly paid. I was earning less than minimum wage. But, no one was hiring due to COVID, the work was steady and, whenever there wasn’t good work, I could take care of the house! Shouldn’t I be happy? I told myself I was asking for too much, and trudged on.
But, this attitude didn’t last for long. I got burned out and I stopped caring. It didn’t help that the mill kept my rating artificially low, citing that “my writing wasn’t high quality.” I’m sure that the fact they offered a paid exam to help you get your rating up didn’t have anything to do with it, right? I started telling myself I was too good for this and that the pay wasn’t good enough for all the nonsense I had to take.
I stopped scratching my head over the quality of my work. I wrote fast, without thinking, and hit “send” as soon as I had a readable article within the word limit. I wasn’t paid for editing or revising so I didn’t. I chose only to write articles on topics I already knew a little about. I wasn’t paid for doing research. I memorized the names of the clients that were kind, and that tipped and, whenever they needed a big batch of articles, I tried to write as many of them as possible while producing high quality content for them. All in all, I found workarounds. I figured out how to win at a losing game…sort of.
In 2021, I was doing alright. My “don’t care” attitude was working great! No good clients? I churned out as many low-quality, reasonably paid articles as I could in the morning, and took the rest of the day off. If there were good clients, I wrote as fast as I could while still creating good content. This also improved my ratings and the mill was not holding me back anymore. I was a writer in the highest tier, and some of the articles paid 5 cents per 100 words. Most months I made $700. In good months, I made $1000 while still being able to stay home, and take care of the house.
In mid 2021, I got fired without previous warning from the mill. They said I had been communicating with clients outside of the platform. I had not. The panic was stronger than the surprise as my partner still hadn’t found a steady job and the unemployment benefits were about to run out. On top of that, after working so long for the mill, I had neglected my portfolio and I couldn’t add any of the articles I penned while in the mill as they were ghostwritten. Still, I would have rather started pitching my work again instead of trying to going back to the nightmare that is a content mill.
It’s now a brand new year and I am still trying to get back on the saddle as a professional freelance writer. I’ve done some copywriting, I’ve written some personal essays, I’ve written numerous articles for my blogs and those of my clients…but the habits I’ve developed to win at content mills still haunt me. My first instinct is always to send an article as soon as I’ve hit the minimum word count. I rarely edit and some clients have complained that I sound robotic, repetitive, too SEO-y at times. It’s difficult but workshops and help from editors and fellow writers is helping me get back that quality content I was so proud to write before things went downhill.
A word of advice to newbie writers, or those desperate enough to consider content mills: Don’t do it unless you are truly desperate. Your writing will suffer for years. If content mills are your only choice, then don’t take this work or yourself too seriously. Write fast, hit send as you are done, and never neglect your personal projects because the pay and the toll it’ll take on your mental health is not worth it!
While I am proof that it can be done, “coming back” from working in a content mill is an arduous process and you are much better off pitching your work to good publications that value and appreciate your time, rates, and skills. Content mills make their money by exploiting inexperienced, motivated writers just like you, wringing them dry, and then spitting them out. Don’t fall for that trap!
Teacher, writer and translator Ana Isabel is a multi talented individual trying to get by in the era of side gigs. A prolific writer, Ana Isabel often writes about her own personal experiences but also about topics such as spirituality or wellbeing. In her free time, Ana Isabel loves taking care of her 2 cats and enjoying Japanese culture, fashion and art. Find her portofolio here: https://clearvoice.com/cv/AnaIsabelCarballadaRivero
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