Last August, after nearly two decades spent managing digital marketing campaigns from my home office, I realized I didn’t like my job anymore. At the age of 47, I made the decision to shift the focus of my work. I wanted to be a freelance writer, so I updated my resume and my website to focus on the paid writing work I’d done. At that point, there wasn’t much of it.
I spoke to my clients — most of whom were agencies — and told them about my decision, asking if they had writing work I could do. And I looked for new clients, leaning on my 16 years’ of experience as a freelancer and business owner to secure my first paid writing gigs.
The impetus behind the decision was more than simply boredom or burnout from doing the same kind of work for so long. Two big changes converged in my life which forced me to take a hard look at the kind of work I was doing, versus what I really wanted to do.
First, I lost my daughter in 2017 after a nearly five-year battle with cancer. Even before Ana died, I’d been struggling with finding meaning in my work. I’m the primary breadwinner for my family and for many years that was motivation enough to keep doing the same thing year after year. I started my business when Ana was one. It enabled me to be present for her and my younger daughter when they were little. Then, when Ana got sick, my work enabled me enough flexibility to care for her while still making money to support my family.
I also liked what I was doing (specifically, search marketing), but as a new generation of digital marketers began entering the industry — and my kids got older — my enthusiasm waned.
Entering middle age was the second big change. I felt like a relic. The work had become rote. I was bored. As each year passed, it became harder and harder to stay motivated. When Ana died, it became impossible.
I didn’t want to admit that I was done with search marketing — not to myself or my clients. So, each morning, I’d trudge upstairs to my office, sit down at my desk, and go through the motions of working. I couldn’t bear it for more than an hour or two, often gazing out the window or distracting myself on social media, rather than focusing on the various nuances and tasks involved with doing my job.
The only thing I didn’t have to force myself to focus on was writing. By mid 2018, I began to seriously consider phasing out my search marketing work in favor of more writing projects.
Writing, at this point, was only about 10% of my income. The rest came from my digital marketing clients. At first it seemed like I had a choice to make — keep doing what I’d been doing and stick to writing on the side or change the nature of my work entirely. But, it wasn’t really a choice. By August of 2018, I realized that the work that had been paying my bills for nearly two decades had become impossible for me to keep doing.
After updating my website, LinkedIn profile, and resume, I started looking — in earnest — for writing gigs. That’s when I encountered the murky world of content mills (also called content farms) which are organizations that provide cheap, search engine-optimized content to their clients. The companies that deliver this type of content typically hire large fleets of writers at a disgracefully low rate.
These kinds of writing jobs seemed suspect, even to a newbie like me, but it wasn’t always easy to tell when the job was bad. One stellar example of this is a company that positioned itself as a white label SEO service offering “wholesale” prices (I should’ve known then…) Since I had a search marketing background, the job sounded perfect for me (too perfect). I submitted my resume, cover letter, and a few writing samples and was delighted when they reached out to me. But the follow-up email stopped me cold.
It was filled with next steps and requirements. First, they wanted me to write a test article of 500 words. They did offer to compensate me for the sample, but did not quote a price for this.
The business model was fairly typical for a content mill, though I didn’t know it at the time. Basically, if they hired me, they’d assign topics for me to cover and from there I would write pieces from 500 words up to 2000 words focused on the assigned topic/customer niche. After reading through this explanation (with growing skepticism), there was a list of articles that I was required to read as well as thirteen videos about the company that I was required to watch. Remember, this is before they’d agreed to hire me.
At this point, I was cursing at my screen, but I kept reading. The hiring manager assured me that this was all routine and that I’d start pumping out “awesome content” in no time. Then, she listed the rates per piece. Here they are, exactly as listed in the email:
- 500 words = $16 (.03/word)
- 1000 words = $28 (.02/word)
- 1500 words = $38 (.02/word)
- 2000 words = $50 (.02/word)
The per word price was not in the email, so unless you do the math, it’s impossible to know that the longer pieces actually pay less per word.
I personally can’t write 500 words about a random topic without doing some research. Even a piece that short would take me at least an hour, likely more, which drives my hourly rate down to something that’s not livable for me. I’m 48. I’ve got a mortgage. I’m the primary breadwinner for my family.
What really bothered me (on top of all the requirements and the insulting cost per word), was how the gig was pitched. There was a separate bulleted section in the email listing the “benefits” of the position. These included working from home, working from anywhere, setting my own hours, and the dubious promise of getting recognition and a promotion from within (with no further specifics). This line was listed as a benefit (I’m paraphrasing): “If you help make us profitable, we’ll be really nice to you!”
While this onboarding email was particularly obnoxious, it’s not unusual in the content mill business. They lure young, inexperienced, or desperate writers into low-paying work and have them churn out content until they burn out.
Paying writers .03/word (or less) is not a living wage. It’s unfair to writers and unfair to the clients who I can say with absolute confidence are getting subpar work from an exploited labor force.
Also — and this is a huge point of contention for me — working from home is not a benefit and it’s insulting (or naive) to suggest that it is. Health insurance, paid vacation days, and sick time are benefits. I’ve been working from home since 2002, setting my own hours, and helping my clients’ businesses grow all at a fair living wage for nearly twenty years. The main product that content mills sell is…content. They need to pay their writers more money because without writers, they don’t have anything to sell.
Finally — and most maddening of all — is the open-ended promises that are essentially meaningless (e.g., “If you help make the company profitable, we’ll be really nice to you.”) This is a carrot on a stick. I’m betting that every single writer who works for this company is making them money.
I didn’t give up on my goal of writing for a living, but I stopped combing job boards for writing projects. Instead, I reached out to agencies and other digital marketing companies in a quest for new business. I began pitching publications as well, which is how I became a regular contributing writer for ClickZ, a digital marketing website, covering marketing technology and digital trends.
I also began writing on Medium so I could explore personal topics that I care about. Full disclosure: since I’m publishing my own work and building an audience, I don’t worry so much about my per-word rate on this platform.
Writing comprises about 75% of my income these days, although, admittedly, my income has dropped by about 25%. But I feel hopeful about the future for the first time in a long time. I don’t mind sitting down to work in the morning. I have an editorial calendar filled with writing projects for paying clients that appreciate my work and are happy to pay me a fair wage for it.
My portfolio has grown into something I’m proud of and this has given me the confidence to continue seeking new work. The content mills are still out there, still luring unsuspecting writers into work that is surely a fast track to burnout.
I know to avoid them, but I worry about the people who don’t. I’m here to tell you that your writing is worth more than three cents a word. Look for better paying jobs, build your portfolio, and keep at it. Believe me, there are people willing to pay for high quality content. It may take some time to find them, but it’s worth it.