You’re stuck in a rut working for low-paying clients at content mills.
Plenty of projects are coming your way, but you’re working all the hours under the sun to complete them—not to mention edit them, again and again.
This leaves you with zero time to develop your personal brand or seek better opportunities.
Most low-paid articles are ghostwritten, meaning your byline isn’t attached to them. Instead, the company you’re working for takes the credit and you have no portfolio to impress future clients with—even though you’ve been writing for years.
Sound familiar? Don’t worry, this is a well-trodden path many freelancers have ventured down before growing successful businesses. Everyone starts somewhere.
But now, the biggest question: how can you escape the content mill?
What is a content mill?
A content mill is also known as a content farm or writers’ mill. Freelance marketplaces including Fiverr, PeoplePerHour, and Freelancer.com can all be described as content mills. Their focus is to generate a huge output of content for clients, who want their articles and web pages to rank well in search engines.
Content mills rely on a high turnover of freelance writers to produce these large batches of content quickly and for low pay rates.
A typical ad at a content mill will look like the below PeoplePerHour job, where freelancers outbid each other to snap up a low-paying project that will take hours and hours of time for little financial reward.
In return for their hard work, the freelancer hopes to earn a positive review to build their rating and accept more low-paying projects on the platform.
Why do writers start at content mills?
If you’re new to writing and have bills to pay, content mills are an obvious place to start, as there are:
- No barriers to entry
- No portfolio needed to find your first writing job
- Quick payouts for the work you produce
The problem with working at a content mill is while it can provide you with those initial jobs, it won’t take long before you’re stuck in a rut. You may attract a large client base and even see your platform rating go up, increasing the chances of receiving regular work.
But with a low ceiling on the money you can earn and without any portfolio to take with you, it’s easy to burn out with little to show for your hard work.
If you’re already working at a content mill, there’s no shame in this. Remember, each job you take in your early freelance writing career teaches you something, even if it’s the type of low-paying clients you want to avoid to find success in the future.
How much do content mills pay?
The short answer: just a few cents per word. Some projects might be priced per project or hour, but regardless of how the work is priced, you’re likely to receive a poor salary.
The example below is an ad posted on Freelancer.com. The client is looking for an expert native content writer but is only willing to pay $2 to $8 per hour. For reference, the federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour.
The global Payoneer 2022 Freelancer Income Report reveals content writers earn an average of $24 per hour. Some 71% of this survey’s respondents found freelance work through online marketplaces, including Fiverr, PeoplePerHour, and Upwork.
Digging into Upwork’s Freelance Forward finds similar figures, with the median rate for freelancers on their platform standing at $20 per hour. If you’re a beginner, this might sound reasonable. But remember, there will be a lot of writers earning less than the median, particularly when they’re trying to build their profiles.
By comparison, our Freelance Writing Rates Report found $250 to $399 is the most popular rate charged for a 1,500-word blog post. It’s fair to say most writers need to escape working for content mills and find new clients to hit this rate.
Why do freelancers hate content mills?
A lot of people will have dipped their toes in the water of a freelance marketplace at some point. But some common themes crop up when we discuss Upwork (formerly Elance and oDesk) and Fiverr within the freelance community.
There’s high competition on content mills. Sites like PeoplePerHour have more than 2,000 freelance writers registered, while you’ll be competing with around 1,400 article writers and 1,200 copywriters on Freelancer.com.
With a crowd of rivals to stand out from, you’re constantly in sales mode and slashing your prices to win work.
“It’s a first-come, first-serve model. After a client posts a gig, they have tons of requests. They get overwhelmed and tend to only focus on the first 10-20 leads. It means you’re always online. Always clicking ‘refresh.’ Not fun.”Alice Lemée, freelance writer
If you’re charging by the hour on Upwork, the platform uses a desktop app to provide evidence to your client that you’re not swindling them.
Freelance health and medical copywriter Louise Shanahan explains, “I only used Upwork a couple of times. I couldn’t get over how low-trust it was. Even the clients thought it was wild. The UW app would automatically take screenshot(s) every 10 mins to prove to the client you were actually working.”
It’s hard to scale
You’ll find making six figures as a freelancer hard to achieve if you’re working at content mills. Even if you’re doing 40 hours a week, you’ll find there’s a price ceiling for this type of low-brow writing work and you’d need to add extra hours to earn more.
Your best bet is to escape the content mill cycle and find clients who will pay higher rates for quality work you’re proud to put your name to.
How to escape the content mill
Turning down paid work on Upwork to progress your freelance career can be frustrating. If you spend the entire day cold pitching and don’t get paid for it, then you’ve lost a day’s income.
The truth is: every minute you invest in your future freelance writing business now will pay off in the long run.
Try to take actions like the following every day—even if it’s only half an hour of non-billable work—to escape the content mills forever.
1. Join a freelance membership community
If you’ve found freelancing to be isolating, a membership community provides access to a host of talented people to collaborate with outside of the content mills.
Peak Freelance’s active writer community regularly bounce ideas off each other in the Slack channel and during Town Hall chats.
You can expect:
- job referrals
- coffee chats
- access to content marketing experts
Join this popular community to strengthen your network and prove that life exists beyond Upwork.
2. Take your content mill clients with you
Not all clients on content mills are bad, and you might not be ready to say goodbye to regular work you enjoy.
If you want to continue your working relationship without these mills’ high fees, find a way to deal with your clients off the platform. Discuss this during a Skype or Zoom call that isn’t tracked. But be sure to check the Terms and Conditions of your content mill to understand the legal implications.
For example, PeoplePerHour’s T&Cs include this policy: “All payments for work completed must go via PPH unless PPH has given its express written permission otherwise in relation to a specific payment or invoice; attempts to pay outside of PPH will lead to sanctions not limited to immediate account suspension.”
Upwork has a different approach to this scenario and charges a 12% Upwork Conversion Fee to freelancers and clients who want to take their working relationship outside the platform framework.
Always check the terms and conditions of the individual platform you’re working on before attempting to move your client relationship away from it.
3. Build a website
Wondering if you need a freelance writer website as a promotional tool?
The answer is yes, you do. Think of it as your own personal base on the internet. From here, you can:
- Market your writer services
- Define your niche
- Grow your business
The best thing about writer websites is they don’t need to be expensive or complicated when starting out. They can be as simple as a single page with a photo, contact form, and a description of your niche and services.
Chuck in a testimonial and a couple of links to bylined articles, and this is everything a client is looking for.
Human Resources writer Rosanna Campbell has an attractive two-page site with a clean web design. It showcases the top industry clients she’s worked with, links to her articles, excellent testimonials, and her contact details.
To get started building your personal website, a domain name and hosting for a simple WordPress design typically costs less than $100 a year from a provider like Squarespace.
4. Pick a freelance writing niche
The need to pick a niche can be a bit of a head-scratcher—don’t you want to attract all the clients? But choosing a freelancing writing specialty will help you become an authority within your niche, ultimately leading to you working with the best clients.
Positioning yourself as the best writer for a specific type of business is also a highly effective way to increase your rates.
The Peak Freelance Writing Rates survey reveals the most popular niche is software, with 27% of writers working in this industry. This is followed by 14% who write for agencies and 12% working with ecommerce clients.
You can expect clients to pay higher rates when you niche down, as they’re working with an industry expert rather than a jack of all trades.
Spend time working out which niche you want to specialize in. If you’re not sure, you can start with a fairly broad niche, like writing for marketing companies, before narrowing as you progress.
5. Create writing samples
If you’ve been ghostwriting for years but have zero bylines to call your own, it’s time to get to work.
Brooklin Nash believes samples are an effective route out of working for content mills: “I think it’s much more difficult to stand out on those platforms, which makes it a race to the bottom and a losing battle. Getting bylined articles around the web seems much more worth the effort.”
When onboarding new clients, they’ll want to see samples of your blog posts, email copy, newsletters, landing pages, whitepapers, etc., before they’re willing to work with you.
Clips on a client site would be ideal, but try the following if you’re starting from scratch:
- Free guest post submissions: Type “write for us” + “your niche” in Google to seek out guest posting opportunities where you submit an article to be published on a site with a sizable audience. In many cases, you won’t be paid for the submission, but the exposure you receive from the piece can be extremely valuable. For example, Rochi Zalani’s fantastic guest post for Zapier was reshared with Morning Brew, Fast Company, and more to win her more than 10 inbound freelance opportunities.
- Submit to Medium publications: Register for a free Medium account and gain a loyal audience to interact with your content. For greater reach, submit your articles to a Medium publication like The Startup, which has 754,000 followers, or Better Marketing, with 113,000 followers.
- Publish on your own blog: Show potential clients you know how to write—and improve your SEO presence—by sharing content to your own blog. Bonus points if the topics you cover reflect expertise in your freelance niche.
It can take a few months to create a portfolio of work to showcase your writing skills. The sooner you get started, the better.
6. Find writing gigs through job boards
If you’ve been struggling while working for content mills, a natural step is to check out professional freelance job boards to find higher-paying work with better clients who will give you a byline.
The Peak Freelance job board is a gold mine of gems like the below, worth $1,400 per article.
In addition to the Peak Freelance job board, you can find lucrative writing gigs advertised on boards like:
But how can you identify a quality job worth the time and effort to apply for?
It’s helpful when job ads provide plenty of details, including an eye-catching headline and a full description about the niche and client you’ll be writing for.
B2B SaaS writer Jessica Perreira says, “I love when ads are straight up and say their rates off their bat, as well as how many projects they expect per month!”
But content marketer Momina Asif spots a red flag when “a job posting says their rate is low, but they have plenty of work to offer to keep you busy for the next six months.”
For writers actively seeking new clients after escaping content mills, create a pitching spreadsheet to track your success. Include the date, contact name, job board, the pay rate you quoted, and other important details.
7. Level up your freelance skills
If you’d like to raise your rates as a freelancer, leveling up your skills is an effective way to demonstrate your value to potential clients. This can mean:
- Following experts in your niche
- Listening to writing podcasts
- Investing in solutions like Grammarly for a more polished output
- Taking a writer training course or bootcamp
- Expanding your service by uploading articles to your client’s WordPress CMS
- Learning a new writer skill, like content refreshing
- Subscribing to writer or industry newsletters
You can start learning many of these skills while you’re still working at a content mill to ease the transition into landing better writing clients.
8. Warm pitch to win new clients
We’ve all heard of cold pitching as a way to position yourself in front of potential clients and let them know you’re available for hire. But the problem with cold email pitches is these are often ignored.
Warm pitching is a better strategy, as you’re effectively warming prospects up by creating a connection with them before making your move.
Example: You find a company you want to work with, locate the name of their content manager, and connect with them on LinkedIn or Twitter. You’ll then spend some time liking and commenting on their posts and forging a genuine relationship. At an appropriate time, you’ll swoop in and send them a DM pitch.
You can use this template:
Hi [Prospect Name],
It’s been great to connect with you on Twitter/LinkedIn these past couple of months! I’ve really enjoyed our chats about [X, Y, Z]. I’ve just shared [piece of content] with my audience, as I know they’d find it valuable.
I wanted to reach out and let you know a bit more about what I do as a freelance writer. I produce [X freelance writing services for Y clients] and have some availability in my schedule coming up.
Would you be up for chatting more about your brand’s content marketing plans?
Warm pitching is a long game, so start expanding your network and engaging with relevant people now.
9. Gain a social media presence
If you’ve never used social media to promote your freelance business, it can be daunting.
But 17% of writers receive work through social media, making this the second-best way to win high-paying freelance gigs once you’ve escaped the content mill’s clutches.
LinkedIn and Twitter are arguably the most popular ways to develop an online presence and attract work. Although, you may have luck in writer forums and Facebook groups, too. Start by zoning in on just one social platform and make your mark there before tackling another.
Kaleigh Moore is a high-profile freelance writer and content marketer with almost 50,000 Twitter followers. She says, “What I’m seeing so many other people do these days on Twitter is really focus on a specific area of expertise. Keep it super focused and really lean into one area.”
She adds that she tries to position herself as the go-to source for one thing: “So in my case, it’s talking about how to write well, talking about running a freelance writing business, and also just a little bit about retail and ecommerce work. For the most part, I’m going to Twitter and teaching. So, I’m sharing what I know, giving people free tips, free advice.”
Her additional suggestions for using Twitter include:
- Find your clique of relevant people within your industry
- Be strategic with who you choose to follow (not following everyone who follows you)
- Use hashtags to find conversations to join
- Employ Twitter lists to stay organized
A word of warning: Freelance writers can easily become sidetracked on social media by only connecting with fellow freelancers rather than seeking out potential clients.
We recommend a 70/30 approach to using social media—spend 70% of your time interacting with editors, content managers, and other professionals working for companies you would like to write for. The remaining 30% can be spent making friends and connecting with freelance colleagues.
10. Find a freelance writing mentor
There’s a lot of advice in the freelance writing industry, but who are the real leaders you can rely on to share their wisdom?
Try following successful freelance writers like Elise Dopson, Michael Keenan, Ashley Cummings, and Kat Boogaard on social media. Sign up for their newsletters to expand your knowledge and learn new tricks of the trade.
Go one step further and find a mentor to support your business growth. Some mentors might be willing to work with you for free, whereas others—like Emma Siemasko—can be hired as a freelance business coach.
A committed mentor can keep you accountable and give you a little inspiration as you grow your business. They can also make introductions to expand your network.
Be careful to choose the right coach, though, as a mentor-mentee mismatch could be counterproductive for your success. If you’re paying for their time but don’t feel motivated to do the homework and get results, this can quickly eat into your profits.
11. Collect client testimonials
If you’re finding it hard to win work, you can easily persuade potential clients to hire you with a bit of social proof.
SaaS and ecommerce writer Alex Boswell recommends you “use the reviews you get from Fiverr or Upwork on your website to help you build social proof at the beginning (the reviews are in [the] public domain anyway, so you shouldn’t need to ask permission to use them).”
As a result of using these positive testimonials, plus joining Peak Freelance and networking on Twitter, Alex says, “I now earn more than double my 9-5 salary, spending less than half the time working.”
Dig through your content mill testimonials and take screenshots of the most flattering feedback to take with you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to existing clients and ask for a new or updated review. You can suggest points to include—for example, to mention the niche you’ve written for or provide stats on a high-performing article.
12. Believe in yourself
Freelancing can be lonely when you’re getting started, and it feels like no one is rooting for you, so you’ll need to be your own biggest cheerleader. Know your value proposition and that you’re worth more than the content mill rates you’ve been earning.
To determine your unique value, ask yourself questions like:
- What makes me different from other freelancers?
- What results have I achieved for past clients?
- What extra value adds can I bring to the table? (i.e. niche expertise, SEO knowledge, tech skills like knowing your way around WordPress.)
Once you’ve answered these questions, trust in yourself and the new rates you’re charging.
Successful B2B writer and editor Afoma Umesi describes the mental shift she made to move on from Upwork after working there for four years. She pivoted to writing for high-paying B2B clients and hasn’t looked back.
“If you’re getting to work with clients and getting great bylines in industries you like from Upwork and co., you do you, boo. But if you want more/something different, the first and most important shift is mindset. You have to know and believe that more is possible.
“Follow other freelancers who are finding work outside of Upwork and Fiverr. Start thinking of freelancing as a business. You’ll need to create your own invoices, determine your price (for you, not based on what the client wants), set your own deadlines,” she says.
Move on from content mills
If you want to escape content mill work, know that it is possible to find much better clients outside of bidding sites like Upwork.
By changing your mindset about how you make a living writing, you’ll build a rewarding and thriving freelance business. Start networking and getting your name out there today.
Content mill FAQs
Are content mills legit?
Yes, content mills are legit in that you get paid money to write, making this a legal transaction.
However, the pay rates are often 1-3 cents per word, with unlimited revisions expected and no bylines for the work produced. This means that many writers working for legitimate content mills earn less than minimum wage.
Should I write for a content mill?
Writing for a content mill allows new freelancers to test the waters and see if this could be an enjoyable career. But writing for a content mill isn’t a solid long-term plan. It’s easy to burn out producing a high volume of writing work for low pay. You’re more likely to achieve freelance writing success when you escape content mills and find your own clients.
Can you make a living on content mills?
Yes, you can make a living on content mills, but expect to work extremely hard to make ends meet. Content mills benefit clients who outsource their content at a low cost, but this angle doesn’t favor the freelancer looking to be paid for high-quality writing work. Although there are success stories, many writers struggle when they put all their eggs in the content mill basket, particularly if they’ve found it hard to gain visibility on these platforms.
How do I avoid fees on Fiverr?
Fiverr takes 20% of the sellers’ fee, so if you sell a $50 service, $10 will go straight into Fiverr’s pocket. You’ll also lose payment transfer fees out of your earnings. The only way to cut their fee is to work with your clients off the platform, which is strictly against the marketplace rules.
How do I quit Upwork?
If you use Upwork as a part-time gig rather than a source of full-time freelance work, you might be tempted to go cold turkey and just quit. Alternatively, if you rely on the income, you can take a more measured approach to finding work outside of Upwork before leaving the marketplace behind entirely.