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Breaking Free of Content Farms

content farmsBy Lori Widmer

When I say you can improve your earnings potential by leaving behind content-generating jobs, I hear responses like “But content mills are all I can get!”

I don’t buy it.

Or they say “But you’re always saying these are lousy jobs, but you’re not telling me how to find those other jobs!”

Then you haven’t been reading.

All a writer needs to do is conduct one simple search on any search engine to prove that something better is out there. Yes, you do have to ask for the work, but you had to ask for the work initially from that content farm, didn’t you?

Here’s a simple method of finding work. It takes no more time than it would to eat your lunch.

1. Open your browser. In your favorite search engine, type these words: “Writer’s Guidelines.”

See how many pages came up? That’s because it’s a complete falsehood that there isn’t any work out there for us writers. There’s a magazine, a price range, and a genre for nearly anyone – for free, right there in your search engine results. Go on. Look.

Those of you who think $5, $10, even $15 is all you can get without having to market heavily are missing the obvious. How long did that search take? All of what, five seconds? Well, ten if your connection is slow. Only now you have more than enough opportunity staring you in the face. These jobs pay anywhere from five cents a word to two bucks a word. Already you’re looking at much better pay rates, even at the five-cents-per rate. (If you’re writing 500 word at $10 for your content mill grind and you write the same amount for a magazine, you’ve just earned two and a half times that with a magazine. Plus now you have a published clip from a reputable place.)

2. Pick one. Scroll the list and see what appeals. This will take you three, maybe four minutes to find one that stands out. Open it. Like what you see? Then read the guidelines completely. Another three or four minutes of your time. Browse the online magazine. A few past issues. There went maybe eight to ten minutes.

3. Formulate your idea. I like to do it after I’ve familiarized myself with the publication so I don’t have to keep reworking the idea to match different styles and voices. And sometimes the ideas come from reading the guidelines or the past issues. You do it the way you prefer. This is the hardest part of the process – finding an idea you’d like to write about. This could take you two minutes, it could take you two hours. Depends on you. Can’t think of anything right now? Save this to your Favorites folder and go on to the next one that looks interesting to you.

4. Write the query email/letter. This will take you another five or ten minutes, depending on how familiar you are with writing queries.

5. Repeat. Do this once a day. Find that 20 minutes out of your day to scroll through a basic search and find new markets, better pay, more credible jobs. By the end of a typical month, you’ll have sent out 20 queries and found 20 new work possibilities.

It may take some time for you to craft queries that will land you the gig, but eventually the jobs will come. And you can put the content mills behind you and build a much more lucrative career that you can be proud of.

Lori Widmer has a long history of writing for publications that pay her what she’s worth. She blogs at Words on the Page.

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{ 49 comments… add one }
  • Cindy

    I read this article just a couple weeks ago, and it really inspired me. I’ve made the ‘searching for writer’s guidelines’ part of my daily routine. However, I had an idea to take it a step further…and I’m a bit frustrated. Any advice on this? Here’s the thing: I figured, I’ve landed gigs writing content for websites via eLance and job listings where lots of writers compete for the job, right? I started thinking about the content I’m writing, the sites I’m writing it for, and then I started looking at sites where there is similar content…thinking, hmm? Do they need more content? So, I came up with a ‘pitch’ email selling my services and listing 5 ideas (I’ve got 5 subject areas to pitch…say it’s coffee sites I’m targeting–I come up with 5 original coffee ideas…) So, then I started searching for sites that might need my services…and that’s where it gets uber-time comsuming! I googled ‘coffee product sites’ ‘coffee maker sites’ ‘articles about coffee….’ I’m trying to come up with an efficient way to quickly compile a list of places I might submit my pitch to (via their contact info), and I don’t want to put *too* much time into it…maybe 10-20 minutes a day. Ideas for finding my targets? Thanks!

    • You’re on the right track… you might add freelance writer or some other qualifier… spend 30 min a day 5 days a week for 2 weeks and see what you get… adjust from there.

  • Lori – thanks.

    This is what I needed to read today to give myself a positive plan to pull my focus out of the farms and back into a world that will value my work.

    It is easy to get stuck in a copy churning rut – especially when you NEED the money – but your plan for 20 minutes a day allows me to take a small time for myself and for my pride in my career amidst the necessities of day to day life, knowing I will be working towards a brighter future both in terms of finance and fulfillment.

    Thanks again.

    • Jenni… it’s amazing what 20 minutes a day can do…

  • I’ll add another one. Pick up the phone and start calling businesses. If they have websites, they need content, and they’re not paying $15 per article, either. More like $100 per article. (At least that’s what I get. 🙂 )
    Lee Cole recently posted..What’s Your Favorite Method of ProspectingMy Profile

  • Excellent article, Lori, duly Tweeted (as ever), and thanks for directing me to yet another website to read … and for the “writers’ guidelines” search. Am gonna be busy. :o)
    Diane Parkin recently posted..I said I wouldMy Profile

  • Matt

    Thank you for this one. As a current content farmer, I was just thinking the other day about how to break out of this junk for more serious writing work. While I’m certainly grateful for Demand Media letting me get my foot into the industry and paying me to learn new stuff, as an aspiring author I need more under my belt than how-to articles and simple lists.

    Thanks again for this one, Lori, I’ve already found multiple gigs to apply for, including one publication I’ve been trying to find out how to write for for the past three years. All I needed was a push in the right direction, which this article certainly provides.

  • Lori,

    Nice article and inspiration, truly. Heaven knows that many a writer has become familiar with the dreaded content mills. As somewhat disturbing as the thought is, the picture of of sheep you have is quite apropos.

    I have also been considering another avenue as well on which I have been getting feedback. Now, I am not certain what kind of reaction I will get here, but I’m going to pitch it anyway. Here it goes . . .

    I thought about writing erotica. I hear the money is very good and the subject, of course, is always popular and will NEVER go out of style. I am just not quite sure where to go or how to get started with it. I have queried a few writers who have only heard from a couple so far.

    The pros:

    1) It pays well and I get to spread my creative wings and fly. I have a few ideas AND a couple of non-sexually-oriented stories with a sexual component. This needs to be handled carefully.

    2) Creative freedom – one can delve into one’s imagination and explore what one finds there and still be right on-track.

    3) Sex is always popular and sells, so pretty much anything will be viewed (some more than others, but it’s important to find out what kind of stories are most sought and go with that).


    1) Writing erotica can hurt one’s career, although I have heard that some other famous mainstream writers have written erotica and have nevertheless become successful in non-sexually-oriented genres.

    2) The degree of sex and the way it is written can determine one’s success. This means, also, the editors involved–some want more, some want less, and some want it presented a certain way. This can possibly affect a writer’s desires and writing style to some extent. It all depends on a preferences of a particular site or publication.

    3) The possibility of offending someone, which could not only generate outrage, but also bring about possible lawsuits and a negative image of the writer and/or the site for which that writer works or is submitting her/his work. On the other hand, no matter about which subject one writes, someone is bound to get offended. One cannot please everyone, so why try? Maybe I should target European audiences–I’d probably have much greater success, hehe.

    Okay, that’s all I have thought at this point. Did I miss anything? Is anyone here familiar with this particular market and what it entails? Please let me know.

    I am trying to be careful here, as some might find this appalling, not necessarily women, but men , too. As a matter of fact, quite a number of women enjoy reading and writing as much as men do.

    In any case, I am a serious writer who has been working on a number of fiction and non-fiction projects and who would like to be taken seriously as well, and for the most part, at this point, I am, so that’s good. The flip-side is, however, that I am a human being just like everybody else and I need to eat, pay bills, live a life and earn a living. I don’t plan on staying in erotica, but it gets me into another [well-paying] genre AND it keeps me away from those dreaded content mills.

    Take care all!


    P.S. Nice post, Lori, although may I suggest expanding on it with additional and varied examples that exhibit more specifics? Other than that, I enjoyed reading.

    • Mark, having watched others struggle with this and having even considered it myself I finally decided I wasn’t willing to write anything I wasn’t willing to put my real name on.

      • Oh really? Can you tell me how others have struggled? With this? Was it moral, pay, guideline conflicts or something else?

        And, yes, I see your point. I thought about the name issue as well. That can pose problems for a lot of people, although for each writer, the circumstances will likely be different than those of anyone else.

        I am looking at magazines and journals as well, not only articles, but short stories. For the latter, I started in the smaller, local markets. That made it easy for me to break in. Then again, it all depends. Consistency is important, too, and like others have said, a little everyday would be nice, essential level of frequency.
        Mark recently posted..Research and Influence 1b- Echoes from the Past- Urban Legends Brought to LifeMy Profile

        • Mark, thanks for your post.

          I think Anne is on to something. If you’re okay with putting your name to it, it’s good choice for you. If you can’t, maybe it’s not an area you’re interested in??

          If you go this route, I’d suggest a pseudonym. Erotica is serious writing, too. It’s not always viewed as such, but that’s personal/moral choices.
          Lori recently posted..Shipping Up to BostonMy Profile

  • L

    Thanks. Looking at it like the 20 minutes it really takes is a kick in the butt that I probably need. Great advice.

  • Diana Dart

    Brilliant stuff, Lori. Getting down to business and doing this ONCE A DAY is my current hurdle. Maybe this is an over-morning-coffee routine or a end-of-the-day wind down. Whichever, I need to make it a regular occurrence – just fitting it in somewhere is not working 🙂

    Thanks for the great advice.

  • Content farms have their place, although it will certainly change as the search algorithms change. They’re only problematic when a writer, as you point out, thinks that’s the best they can do.
    PatriciaW recently posted..Teaser Tuesdays- How Sweet It IsMy Profile

    • Yep – 😉 Love your tuesday teasers!

      • And that’s the crux of the problem, Patricia. Too many new or tired writers just stop there because hey, it must be good because it’s easy. Uh….no.

  • Thanks for some great advice Lori! Many of us are at a loss of where to begin, and you’ve laid it all out for us–thank you 🙂

    • It’s just one way, Jan. One thing to note – any plan of my, his, her, or your making that works for you is the one to stick with. When someone says “This is the only way to do it”, don’t buy it.

      If this helps you verbatim, great! If it helps you create your own way, even better. 🙂
      Lori recently posted..Five Stupid Freelance MovesMy Profile

    • Isn’t Lori great?!

  • Ken

    Great post with solid advice. The opportunities accessible to freelance writers today are limitless. It is only a matter of putting forth the effort to further your freelance business. Content mills serve a purpose, a starting point. From there your freelance writing career can take many paths.. ..writing for private clients, writing for magazines, building an SEO business or even an Internet marketing business.

    However before you can move forward you must take the steps. Opportunity is everywhere. The only thing holding you back from following your dream…….is you.

  • Omar

    Thanks Lori. I had it in my mind that it would be overwhelming searching for high paying jobs. Goes to show it’s only mental.

  • I’m more a proponent of query-free freelancing than using the traditional query approach, but I also find nothing “wrong” with queries. And despite our different approaches, I have to say you are dead on. If you can search, you can find better gigs. And you can pitch clients and earn more money.

    I’d even go beyond searching specifically for writers guidelines. If you’re not looking for feature writing or news writing gigs that query might not give you what you’re looking for. I’d say go out of your way to search for companies in your target market that are not openly soliciting writers. Sometimes the best gigs come from people who didn’t even know they needed a writer until you reached out to them — sales copy, brochures, articles for article marketing, press releases, white papers, editing their existing website content, blogging (or even helping them set up a new company blog), e-books, user manuals and other technical support documents. The list is pretty much endless. If you can write it, there are probably people in your target market who want or need to buy it.

    • I’m dying to see your query-free book, Jenn. 🙂 And great advice on going beyond guidelines. Absolutely perfect advice!
      Lori recently posted..Five Stupid Freelance MovesMy Profile

      • It’s getting there. Sloooooowly, but getting there. The first round of edits start this spring (shelved for 3 months to approach it with fresh eyes). Then off to a pro editor, cover designer, indexer, and all those fun folks. Expecting about a year to get through all of the necessities before releasing it.

    • Right on Jenn…

  • Very good and just what I’ve been doing the past three weeks! Well, except sending a query every day. I’m still mastering queries, sent my first out a week and a half ago. It’s gone to three magazines now, and on one the editor replied that while this article didn’t quite fit their publication, she gave me specific details and suggestions for what I could propose next. WOW! I was so excited and am now working on ideas. This mag pays .65 a word. The other two I’m still waiting to hear from.

    Yes, there are well paying markets and yes, you can get a gig with them. Study, listen to the ones who have gone before you, and go for it!

    • Fantastic, Sarah! Sounds like you’re on your way. You deserve it – remember that. 🙂
      Lori recently posted..Five Stupid Freelance MovesMy Profile

    • Way to go Sarah… when you get a personal comment like that you’re almost home. And .65 isn’t bad.

  • Take the writer’s pledge regarding income …

    Robert Moskowitz recently posted..Obama has the economy he deservesMy Profile

  • Great post — I can’t agree that it only takes 10 minutes to write a query letter. Mine certainly take longer, as I try to present study data and suggested experts I’ll talk to for a story. I find that ups my success odds.

    But right on to all the rest of it. It’s really not that hard to find other, better-paying markets, and there are millions of them out there.

    For more reasons to diversify beyond mills, you can read my latest post attached below…
    Carol Tice recently posted..Why Freelance Writers Shouldn’t Bet on Demand StudiosMy Profile

    • Hi Carol,

      Actually, that’s included in my ten minutes. I’ve been writing these things forever, so for me it’s easy to know which publications to mention, what experts will fit, so the only real homework beyond the search is another quick search for some preliminary research. The idea of the query is to not labor over it, but to spend enough time to make it tight and to the point so that the gig is secured. For some, it’s going to take longer than 10 minutes at the outset. For those of us in the biz a while, it’s become easier. The point is it doesn’t have to be a big time sink.
      Lori recently posted..Five Stupid Freelance MovesMy Profile

  • Brilliant! I tried Step 1 on a lark and found a couple online databases of writer’s guidelines (they’re among the first results). Within thirty seconds I had a lead on four publications I’ve never even heard of. Given that I write for law firms, which are a pretty niche market, that’s saying something.

    I still write the occasional content mill article just for a change of pace and when I don’t feel like breaking out my copy of the Writers Market. If finding guidelines is this easy, though, I may give up content mills for good. Thanks! 🙂
    Dani Alexis recently posted..Recent ProjectsMy Profile

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