Confessions of a pop culture content mill writer

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Today I want to take a break from writing about pop culture itself. Instead, I want to write about writing about pop culture. See, earlier this month I pulled the pin on a weekly freelance regime that saw we write for likes of Screen Rant, CBR and Taste of Cinema – drawing to a close almost three years of regular paid blogging – to shift my focus back towards working on my creative writing and art portfolios.

So, while I’ll continue to post semi-regular updates here, and might even pitch the odd article for other sites when inspiration strikes, my time as a “content mill” contributor penning never-ending listicles is official over. Perhaps inevitably, this has led me to reflect on my experiences, which in turn has spurred me to share my thoughts on what it’s like to write for a pop culture content mill and, more importantly, discuss whether or not I’d recommend aspiring freelancers pursue similar gigs.

But first: a caveat or two

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Before we go any further, I’d like to make it clear that my content mill experience over the last few years has been an overwhelmingly positive one. Without exception, all my clients were a pleasure to work with; indeed, Screen Rant and CBR (both owned by the same parent company) were particularly fantastic – the editorial staff were accommodating, talented, approachable and supportive (thanks gang!).

I should also point out that I wasn’t really freelance writing for the money – especially as my primary career in digital marketing progressed – which undoubtedly colours my opinion. After all, when your freelance writing assignments are more of a lucrative side hustle than your main meal ticket, you’re inclined to view them more favourably than you otherwise might.

So, with both of those caveats out of the way, let’s crack on and consider the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of freelancing for a content mill.

Writing for a content mill – the pros

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There are a lot of good reasons you should write for a content mill – particularly if you’re a rookie freelancer looking to establish yourself. For starters, it’s terrific practice – think of a the training montage in the Rocky franchise, only on steroids (err…more steroids). True, content mills don’t expect you to compose particularly brilliant content (I certainly wouldn’t claim everything I ever wrote was) but the schedule of daily writing you’re required to follow should hopefully grant your work a base level of quality that you’re continually able to hit.

Admittedly, it might seem strange to be focusing on the craft side of writing when discussing listicles, with their clickbait titles and subject matter. But honestly, there’s nothing to say that this format is inherently less worthy than any other, and I’m genuinely proud of several of the listicles I’ve posted over the years.  And it’s not just your core writing skillset that will improve, either: depending on the site you write for, you’ll develop a knack for article concept ideation and the basics of pitching, as well.

From a broader perspective, freelancing for a content mill will also teach you how to research (and you should always research) and write articles quickly, which is handy. What’s more, if you don’t come from a digital marketing background like I do, what you pick up about writing in an established tone of voice, adhering to set style guidelines and uploading articles to platforms like WordPress will be invaluable as your career progresses.

Lastly, writing for a content mill is a quick way to build an online portfolio of work that you can rely on when promoting your services, although as we’ll cover next, there’s a downside to that, too…

Writing for content mills – the cons

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…and that downside is the threat of being pigeonholed as “just a listicle writer”. Think about it: if your published portfolio of paid work is comprised entirely of listicles – which as we’ve already touched on, isn’t always the most well-regarded format – it’s not ideal if prospective clients start to view you as only being capable of writing this kind of material.

That’s looking at it from an external, client-based perspective, but freelance writing for a content mill also has its drawbacks for you, the writer. Like Maverick in Top Gun, content mills feel the need for speed – after all their whole business model is built on how frequently they can upload new listicles. As one of their freelancers, you’ll be expected to crank out several posts a week – sticking to the exact same specs, without any real room to mix things up – to meet this demand, which gets a little repetitive.

It’s not only the format and frequency that begin to grow stale, though; you’re limited in the topics you can write about, too. Film, TV, comics and videos games may seem like an inexhaustible source of inspiration for listicle subject matter, but most content mills will tend to steer away from any topics without mass appeal. In practice, this means that you’ll end up pitching listicles that offer increasingly strained “new” angles on the same handful of mainstream properties, and before too long, fatigue starts to set in.

But for me, fatigue and repetition weren’t the biggest disadvantages of freelancing for a pop culture content mill – instead, that dubious honour goes to the neverending grind of it all.

Yes, all freelancers need to be prepared to work hard; it’s the trade-off when ditching the constraints of a regular desk job. However, the pace at which you’re expected to work really is gruelling – multiple short-term deadlines every week, pretty much all year round – with greater financial incentives available to those who can pump out more material.

Now, some people will manage this without really breaking a sweat. However, if you’re working a day job or studying intensively, the demands of content mill freelancing can start to take their toll – especially when you toss in socialising, exercise, travel, hobbies, and any other projects you’re looking to get off the ground.

So yeah, it’s exciting to be paid to write about the things you’re passionate about, but between the repetition, fatigue and grind that go hand-in-hand with content mills, that novelty eventually wears off. And when it does? It all starts to become a chore…

So, should you write for a content mill?

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If it sounds like my key takeaway here is “Don’t write for a pop culture content mill”, it really isn’t. On the contrary, I’d encourage anyone who’s just starting out as a freelancer to sign-up for one of these gigs as soon as they think they’re ready for it…but with two key conditions tacked on.

One: unless you’re desperate for a regular pay cheque, I’d recommend submitting articles to websites like Cracked, which pay better than most and allow you to submit articles on a more ad hoc basis. Indispensable freelance blogging resource Be A Freelance Blogger has a freely available list of the better paying regular freelance gigs out there, so peruse that when rounding up potential jobs to apply for.

Two: get out quick! The minute you’ve banked enough articles to fill a portfolio, start looking further afield for more varied writing assignments (or even pitch some of your own!). Don’t wind up like Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy: too deeply embedded in your current career – in this case content mill freelancing, not running an underworld empire – that there’s no chance for you to switch things up.

Of course, you may sign-on to freelance for a pop culture content mill and never want to move on – and more power to you if you do. Like I said at the beginning of this post, this is just my own personal take, backed by three years of experience. But at the very least, please bear in mind what I’ve said you join the freelance content mill grind; in the immortal words of Jerry Maguire: “Help me… help you!”

That’s it from me for now – if you have any questions about freelance gigs (or anything else at all), leave a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter or Facebook!

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