Em Burfitt is a freelance music journalist with a focus on female, queer + nonbinary artists. She's also a copywriter with two years of content writing experience. Learn more about her work at emburfitt.com.
Freelance writing and I met at a very strange time in my life.
Since kickstarting my writing career, I’ve checked it all out: gigs, data collection, transcription, content mills. I’ve also signed up to plenty of those “How to make six figures!” sites that, as much as I respect the people who run the classes, are a big part of how they’re making it.
I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s impossible to make that much as a freelance writer. After all, it’s all about how much work you do in the run-up and how committed you are to scoring those high-budget clients.
Palahniuk aside, all’s fair in love and invoices. So to speak.
And I’m a bit too lazy to go after the high-paying work. I admit it.
As much as I know I could up my income if I went out of my way to find new leads or draft cold emails, my inhuman best friend is procrastination and we go way back. I even spent half of the week I was in Paris doing cold email research for a client rather than myself.
But the key word there isn’t “research”, nor is it “client”. It’s “Paris”.
I got to work in Paris, staying in an Airbnb I rented from money I’d saved up. From writing. Not working hours and hours of shifts to make ends meet but from writing. Two years ago, I never would have believed I could earn enough to live by writing for only five hours a day. Let alone doing so from my favourite city in the world.
AND CO — also my favourite invoice program — did a study towards the beginning of 2019 on freelancers and the financial stability of remote work. Although 77% of the freelancers surveyed weren't making any more money than they had in their previous work (in fact, 43% said they were worse off), 68% of the surveyed group said their quality of life had improved since they started freelancing. Seeing that made me realise I wasn’t alone.
Granted, more money might also improve my quality of life, but did I mention already that I worked from a flat in Montmartre on my own for a while? Because I did.
And not to get too wax-y or poetic-y or film junkie-y, but nowhere in Moulin Rouge does it say that money is one of the four Bohemian ideals. It’s not money, truth, beauty, love. It’s freedom. It’s what we, as remote workers, as writers, have regardless of how much we’re raking in.
Still, if you spend as much time on writing forums and communities as I have, you'll probably see writers arguing that content mills are the devil. They're even worse for us than those "how to make six figures" courses.
And I agree, to a point.
Why work dozens of hours for a pittance while your contemporaries are seeking out repeat clients that keep on coming back?
I agree with that too, don’t get me wrong.
That said, I’ve been leaning on content mills for about four months now.
It was content mills that got me to Paris.
I just think they get a bad rap.
Some of the mills out there really do pay next-to-nothing. I feel pretty lucky that my favourite content sites pay better rates, and I hope my luck doesn’t change. For pretty easy, straightforward work, I can make a couple hundred dollars a day. Some of my friends are doing shift work for less money, and they can't work those jobs from Paris.
Now, I should probably add that I’m also a music journalist.
It’s kind of my calling.
For the most part, unless my pitches are picked up by paying publications, that work is done pro bono. It’s done pro bono by all of us. Pretty much exclusively because we love music and, for me, I’m tired of the trite music news that’s taken over the internet in recent years.
I’ve also got a client I earned via a referral from a previous client, who pays me around the same rate as I make on the “mills”. He’s a dear and we work well together. With that and any pitches I make that are picked up, it’s a little more income.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of income I make comes from these so-called “content mills”. At the moment, I’m making $50 for 1,000 words. Those 1,000 words, if the topics are good, can take me an hour to an hour-and-a-half. Tops.
Even though I’ve never been good with maths, that would be $200 in five hours.
If I decided, “I’m going to work a full 8-to-4 day today!” it might even be $400 for the workday.
Which means if I worked a standard eight-hour workday, my calculator tells me that’d be $2,000 in a working week. It also says that if I did that for a month, I’d be $8,000 better off.
I’m not, but that’s due to my attention span, or lack thereof.
That, and I value my freedom more than I value lining my pockets at the moment. On top of that, the problem with these “mills” is that the work isn’t guaranteed to be there for that month in which I could theoretically earn $8K.
I also have to factor in time for my music.
And having a life.
I want to drink with friends and discuss the existentialism of life.
I want to go for long walks with my dog whenever I feel like it.
For the moment, I can do all of these things making what I do on ContentFly and Crowd Content. I can go to Paris or Berlin or wherever I want to go. Sure, it’ll take me longer to save up than it will for those who are paid more, but I don’t mind that.
Reading about the pitfalls of content mills can be disheartening, especially when you’re just getting started. But the detractors always come across as way too harsh. While it’s true that ghostwriting content for low-paying mills should never stop you from pitching higher paying clients, for me? It works.
For now, at least.