What Writers Need to Know About Freelancing for Content Mills, Business Websites, and Information Portals

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by Sonia Belviso | via Flickr

Note from Jane: This post is an excerpt from Digital Writer Success: How to Make a Living Blogging, Freelance Writing, & Publishing Online by writer and entrepreneur Leslie Truex (@DWSWriteOnline).

There are tons of writing jobs available online, which tremendously vary in quality and pay. Some are short-term projects, while others are ongoing. Some allow you to write as much or as little as you want, while others require a set number of articles per week. Here are some common sources of writing work found online.

Content Mills

You’ll find differing opinions about whether you should write for content mills. Part of the issue is their history: most content mills started out needing keyword-rich (SEO) articles to fill sites, get good search engine ranking, drive lots of traffic, and ultimately make money. At the time, most of the mills weren’t too picky about the quality of writing. As a result, most of the content was poorly written and not viewed as quality or real writing.

Although many content mills have more stringent writing quality controls now, they are still perceived negatively. In fact, you’re often better off saying you have no clips than offering clips written for a content mill.

The other issue is low pay. Many writing experts say that if you want to be a professional writer, you should command a professional-level fee. Professional writers usually try to earn at least 50 cents or $1 per word, although some breaking into the field may write for 10, 15 or 20 cents a word to build a portfolio and command higher fees.

Most content mills offer a flat rate, usually only $5 to $15 per article, with a few, like Demand Media, paying $20 to $35 or more for specialty articles. That comes down to as low as 1 cent a word or less. Some mills pay through ad revenue, which is essentially working for free and hoping people will read your article and click on an ad. I don’t recommend that option.

Finally, the biggest reason to not write for content mills is that once you’re in and counting on it for income, it can be hard to get out. If you want to move on to higher paying markets, you’ll have to cut back on your content mill writing, which can reduce your income. Plus, since many media sources don’t consider clips from content mills, you have to start from scratch if you want to expand to higher profile publications.

With that said, there are reasons that a content mill might work for you. If you’ve never made a living writing, they can be a great place to get your feet wet and decide if writing is for you. Because working for content mills requires a lot of writing to make a living, you get practice, and when it comes to writing, the more you do it, the better you get. Many content sites require articles with references and resources, so you’ll increase your knowledge of how to research and find valuable information. Finally, the content mills that pay a flat fee often pay weekly or even twice a week, so it can be a quick source of income.

If you want prestige, don’t write for content mills, or at least don’t use content mill writing on your résumé. But if you want to make several hundred dollars a week cranking out articles, then a content mill might be for you. Here are some tips on writing for a content mill:

  1. Choose mills that pay at least $15 to $30 or more per 400-word article (that’s 3.75 cents to 7.5 cents per word). Because articles for content mills can be written quickly and are usually 400 words, you can crank out several a day. There are people writing five articles (usually in five hours or less) and earning $100 to $150 or more per day. Some are writing ten articles a day, making $150 to $300 per day. Never go with ad revenue as a source of payment.
  2. Make your submission the best it can be the first time around. Many content mills have editors that will kick back an article if they don’t think it’s ready to publish. You maximize your time and income by avoiding edits. Some content mills will increase your fee based on the quality of writing, which is another reason to submit the best writing you can.
  3. Write on a variety topics to avoid getting bored. The highest paying content mills have a database of articles from which to choose. While writing on the same topics means faster writing (but don’t plagiarize yourself), it also means tedium and boredom.
  4. Plan your exit from the beginning. If you’re writing for content mills just to get practice, make sure you plan a way to move on. That might mean spending part of your day writing for a mill and another part of the day pitching online resources so you can expand your career.

Business Websites and Blogs

Many businesses hire writers to create compelling articles to draw in consumers. The amount of work, pay, and prestige varies depending on who you work for. For example, you can get hired by a realtor to post five blog posts a week at $20 per post. I once worked for Internet Brands on a short-term project writing articles related to anxiety. I was paid $40 to $45 per article until the project was over. Later, I wrote one article a week for WAHM.com, also a part of Internet Brands, for which I was paid $25 per piece.

Writing for businesses can offer a little more pay than content mills, especially if you write in a market that requires specific knowledge, such as law, medicine, or real estate. Plus, writing content for businesses offers more prestige and a source of clips to use for future writing jobs or pitching ideas to publications.

However, writing for businesses usually requires writing for more than one company to meet your income goals. This is a good thing, because the other disadvantage is that the work can dry up in an instant. The more places you write for, the less impact there will be on your income if one writing job goes away. Here are some tips on writing for businesses:

  1. Know the business and the market it caters to. Each business will operate differently in terms of what you write. Some will give you a list of article titles, and others will want you to come up with ideas. Regardless of how work is assigned, to make the client happy, research the business. What does it market? What is its brand (value to the consumer)? What is the style and tone of the website? Who makes up the market (demographics)?
  2. Deliver well-written articles on time. Businesses outsource writing to save time and money. If they’re unable to publish because you haven’t delivered the material or if your work needs a great deal of editing (not all businesses have editors), you risk getting fired.
  3. Keep a calendar and develop good time management. Working for multiple clients can be a little like plate spinning. I have a calendar on which I use color coding to mark days and titles I need to deliver. Further, if you’re the one who develops the article ideas, keep an ongoing list and schedule them in advance. Writing is hard enough, but it’s nearly impossible if you have an article due, but don’t know what to write about.
  4. Monitor payments. Each business will pay on a different schedule and method. Some pay weekly, while others pay every thirty days. Some will direct deposit, others will pay by PayPal, and still others will send a check. Keep track of the articles you’ve submitted, when payment is due, and when payment was received. I’ve never not been paid, but that doesn’t it mean it can’t happen.

Information Portals

Information portals are one-stop websites with tons of information, such as About.com or HowStuffWorks.com. Each information portal operates differently. About.com hires experts who focus on a single topic area. HowStuffWorks.com takes on generalist or specialist writers, assigning work when available on a project-by-project basis.

Because information portals are built around delivering information, a strong background either through education or experience is required. What’s most fun about information portals is the vast and interesting number of topic areas. About.com has topic areas in soap operas, board games, crafts, travel, and more.

Information portals vary in requirements. While some simply want articles, others are looking for someone to write and maintain a portal topic. For example, the portal may want blog posts, newsletters, and discussion board moderation, as well as articles.

Information portals vary in how they pay. About.com has base requirements that, if met, can garner several hundred dollars a month, with bonuses that can bump up earnings even more. Other portals will pay per published piece. Here are some tips on working for an information portal:

  1. Know the topic inside and out. These writing jobs tend to be competitive, so the more you know, the better your chances.
  2. Be a good writer and self-editor. Not all portals have editors to check your work.
  3. Be able to make a commitment. Portals that ask you to be the resident expert will have expectations that need to be met.
  4. Study the style and tone of the site to get an idea of what is expected from writers. Some portals have a training program to help with this, but the better your application fits the needs of the site, the better the chance you have to get hired.
  5. Cover for Digital Writer SuccessGet a basic knowledge of Internet content platforms. Most portals will ask that you publish the article in their system, which means you need to add the bullets, bold formatting, and hyperlinks. Most have easy-to-use interfaces that don’t require knowledge of HTML. But you should be comfortable using online publishing systems.

For more information about making a living with online writing and publishing, check out Digital Writer Success (Koehler Books) or visit Leslie at DigitalWriterSuccess.com.

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