I Am A Fugitive From A Content Mill

garment factory workersI blundered into writing for content mills after studiously avoiding it for years. Being a successful freelancer, after all, means steering away from any employer who presents their work as if it were a favor he was doing for you, and believe me such offers are plentiful. Content mills do pay, albeit next to nothing. I’ve been broke for a while now, which made the promise of regular work more seductive than the payout, so I joined.

The application process was simple, and seems to be roughly the same from one company to the next: Take a grammar test, submit a writing sample or two, wait to hear back. It’s embarrassing to admit that with over twenty years experience under my belt in this field of endeavor, I was still delighted to learn I’d passed the middle-school-level grammar quiz and flattered that they found my samples easy to read.

They did not pay me for my samples. Other content farms will allow you to submit a published sample, but the Clam Shack wanted new writing on a topic of their choosing, which they then pledged not to use elsewhere. This struck me as wasteful, but I complied. Once that hurdle was cleared I’d be turning in real work, having it edited, and clocking a whole penny per word! My employer, which even at home I call the Clam Shack — “Shuck for us and earn a few clams,” is exactly what the job feels like to me — then turned me loose to pull a few jobs from a labyrinthine trainee document.

I took it seriously. One of the biggest psychic drains on a freelancer are the fallow times between gigs. Pitching, researching and writing are the lifeblood of the job, but if you’re in a rut where none of those things are happening it can begin to feel like an unbreakable curse. Assuming all went well and I had access to regular work here, I could theoretically start living my Dream Schedule: send out pitches or edit anything outstanding, run morning errands on foot for some exercise, then write short SEO pieces while periodically checking email to see what new work comes in. It would keep my head in the game and my focus more directly on the job, and my efforts would continuously generate income.

No two writing gigs are alike, but there are enough similarities between them to make some general assumptions. I pitch an editor on an article idea, or an editor reaches out to me with a story idea or book for review; sometimes there’s a list of books or story themes to choose from. People say yes or no, terms are established, and the work commences. When one magazine I regularly wrote for introduced an electronic submissions manager, I tried very hard to log in and submit work, but the system was so buggy — never taking my login ID, bouncing my completed assignments, and, crucially, not letting me claim new ones — I ended up quitting, no longer able to balance the time the actual work took against the time wasted trying to submit it and come out ahead.

If getting my work through to that mag was like a level-three sudoku, claiming and submitting an assignment to this place was something on the order of quantum physics, and that posed a problem.

Content writing isn’t fun per se, but it is kind of fun for people like me, who enjoy using their creativity to make dull topics engaging. And it’s not the kind of writing you take a day job to support; this is the day job I would do to support my passion for pan flautery, if I had one. I sincerely love it. So the assignment itself is never at issue. You want 300 words on bathroom sink stoppers? A blog post on exfoliation? Something pithy about work overalls? I am SO THERE FOR YOU. I’ll do it well and turn it in quickly. Or I would, if doing so wasn’t akin to medieval torture.

To take on an assignment, first I had to log into a spreadsheet so vast only about 15% was visible on my laptop screen. I needed to scroll, up, down, and from side to side, past over a thousand assignments that were already spoken for before finding a few that were up for grabs, and to claim one had to complete two or three more on the same theme. Once I filled in my name, a deadline would appear, usually requiring a brisk two-day turnaround. Then it was on to the specific submission guidelines for these pieces, which were several page-views away.

Getting this far felt like a big job.

Generally speaking, the more guidelines I have going into a piece the easier it is to fulfill the assignment, but these were punishing. Considering that there needs to be editorial oversight to ensure any piece is acceptable to the client, why not let the editors do their job and set me free to do mine? I have no quarrel with using a keyword the right number of times in a piece — that’s often the heart of these assignments — but expecting me to parse every comma and focus on accuracy as if my life depended on it contradicted the company’s own training materials, which claimed these pieces involve no research and should take no time at all to write.

What takes no time at all to write is shitty copy. It actually does take time to meet client specs, no matter how simple the task, because to do so you need to pay attention. Adding in these arcane particulars only increased the time needed to get the work done.

Once the four blog posts or whatever were written, they had to be saved a specific way and submitted, sometimes in duplicate, sometimes not, and occasionally in duplicate and then to a third party submissions manager, where they must be copied and pasted into a form one paragraph at a time. By the end of this ordeal I’m frustrated and exhausted, having spent an hour and a half on the writing but an additional hour and fifteen minutes on the needless rigamarole involved to accept and deliver the work. If it’s accepted, though, I’ll be looking at a cool ten dollars and fifty cents for those 1050 words, so it’s all good, right?

Yeah, not so much. A colleague I know through an online writing group claimed to work her way up from around $5 an hour while learning the ropes to making $25 at this kind of work. One manager at the Clam Shack echoed these figures, and that kind of money would be life-changing to me right now. But the math is hard to pin down.

The Clam Shack sells my work to their clients as high-quality prose designed to move their customer base to action. This is sales writing and PR, nothing more or less. Those clients are clearly paying more than a penny per word for my output, yet that’s the rate at which my work –in ADVERTISING — is valued. Somewhere a big clam is laughing all the way to the bank, while I am opening e-mails telling me I placed a hyphen incorrectly when I labeled an attachment, and breathless ads for a brief rate hike of a fraction of a penny to encourage us to finish up some lingering assignments.

It’s hard to feel good about any of this. In trying to simply survive, it feels like I’m contributing to the demise of my own profession.

When Taylor Swift called out Apple for using artists work without permission, it was abundantly clear that rather than “exposure,” she was demanding compensation. Swift is tall, blonde and attractive; she also has name recognition for days. It’s not as though using her work without paying was doing her any favors. Despite the fact that we are often anonymous, it is much the same for writers. Our work not only has value, it creates value for our clients. Without writing you have no publication and no readers, which really cuts down on advertiser interest. So how is this continual devaluing of the stuff that makes the whole machine run acceptable? How did I become part of the problem?

From the need to stay busy, among other things. Structuring my day to meet a minimum clam-shucking requirement has made my remaining time more precious. I’m prioritizing more clearly and moving higher-paid work to the top of that list, and I am actually landing more of it as a result. It feels awful and it feels good. I think many freelancers can probably relate.

Content mill writing isn’t something I’ll be able to stick with unless the secret of making it pay well is revealed soon. But despite the abundance of down-sides, I’m glad I did it. I write faster now, can stick with it for longer stretches, and am quick to pitch places I once considered out of my league. After all, if I can satisfy these bosses with their fine-tuned demands, the folks at The New Yorker should be no trouble at all.

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