Stories

How I Left the Dreaded Content Farm for Good

By Nicholas Pell March 25th, 2015

In 2009, I abandoned a lucrative career making change at a porn store for the exciting world of content farming.

Some of you might remember the days when every Tom, Dick, and Harry who claimed to have a college degree could make a whopping $15 a page filling the Internet with what is euphemistically called “content.” With some quick math, I figured five articles a day would keep me in the luxurious lifestyle to which I had become accustomed.

You see, I had always been a writer. I’d even had a few paid print gigs. But, short of writing a killer novel, it never occurred to me I could actually write full time and not starve to death. So when the opportunity arose in the form of content farms, I jumped at the chance to write pieces like “Florida Laws for Buying a Time Share,” “What Is a Pell Grant Refund,” and “How to Write a General Interest Cover Letter.”

Well, lo and behold, here I am years later, making way more money as a writer than I ever did at the content farms. I have a healthy balance of alt weekly, finance, men’s lifestyle, and small business journalism, alongside a couple of corporate communications anchor clients. I’ll probably be a writer for the duration of my life for the simple reason that I’m in too deep. I can’t do much of anything else, at least not anything people will actually pay me for. It’s this or barber college, and I’m just not any good at small talk.

For all of the underpaid writers wondering if there’s a way out of the content farm industrial complex, know that there’s a way out. And few things feel better than waking up in the morning to a full day of well-paid work knowing you’ll get to write about topics you’re actually interested in.

To all you young kids languishing on the farms, here’s a quick guide for how to make more money and hate what you do less.

Treat every project like it’s important

Roger Corman, who produced some of the best low-budget films in American history, mentored young directors like Ron Howard, Martin Scorcese, and James Cameron.

I once read this bit about him that suggested he always knew who would make it in the long-run based on how serious and motivated they would be to make a women-in-prison flick. The guys who had potential would aim to make the best women-in-prison flick ever. The ones who weren’t going to make it would phone it in. The sentiment being that you can show ability and bring skill to any project, regardless of how you felt about the subject matter.

I took this advice to heart. I wanted to be a writer. I couldn’t turn in crap, even at $15 per piece. And I knew that to write pieces that actually interested me, I had to dominate my work.

So I threw myself into every assignment. For the first two years I was working 14-hour days to earn what I made at the porn store. I wanted to cry any time I even began to think about what my hourly rate was. But it was good training. I got a lot quicker at cranking out each piece, and tackling the workload helped me establish good time-management habits that have stuck with me to this day.

Hustle every day

At some point, I formalized a schedule. This schedule included four hours every day spent perfecting pitches, sending them to editors, and trying to wrangle new clients. Sometimes it was about the higher price point. Other times, I wanted to write something interesting that wouldn’t pay as well. But I knew two things: First, the content farms were not what I wanted to be doing with my life. Second, they weren’t going to last—I wasn’t up for filling out a Starbucks application.

My hustle paid off. While I was on the content farm I was able to pick up work from other farms that paid better. I wrote blog entries on intellectual property and product descriptions for a sex shop. I turned a knack for avoiding bill collectors into a lucrative revenue stream writing about personal finance. Eventually, a men’s website editor who recognized my hustle responded to my pitches, and I got my foot in the door. I now had “real” clips that weren’t going to get me laughed out of the galaxy.

Unless your days are bursting at the seams with high-paying work about subjects that fascinate you, you need to hustle more. Block out time to do it every day. Take it seriously. In my mind, it might be the most important part of the job.

Learn to write about anything

I’ve always been good at research; working for content farms made me a master. I figured out what stories editors would refuse immediately; I learned how to Boolean search the right websites; and I learned that I can write about anything.

Writers who are hyper-specialized, or claim they can only write when the spirit moves them, have always irked me. I never had that luxury. I was competing with stay-at-home moms from Tallahassee to Tacoma for jewels like “South African Army Jobs.” So I had to get really good at becoming an instant expert on any topic. A lot of the articles I wrote as I clawed my way out of the content farm weren’t terribly sexy. Still, they paid better and gave me the security to climb the freelance ladder.

Working as a generalist also helped me learn about what I’m good at and what interests me, both of which are crucial for all writers. Specialties are important as you establish yourself, but experimenting with different topics early on was one of the most useful career opportunities I had.

Take jobs no one else will

Ever go through a bunch of hoops for a potential client only to find out you’ll only get paid a whopping $35 for 1,200 words? You wonder “who takes these assignments?” Well, that used to be me. Now I don’t get out of bed for significantly higher sums. At the time, though, I wasn’t so picky.

When you’re just starting out, it doesn’t matter if you’re not taking the most glamorous gigs in the world. Recapping entire seasons of The Bachelor (I did this) wasn’t my idea of a dream job. But it was better than the porn store, kept the lights on, and gave me something marginally more impressive to flog than content farm clips.

Finally, some words of encouragement. My father is an ironworker. I graduated from UMass. I didn’t build a writing career based on Daddy’s connections, an impressive education, or (ahem) good manners. I built it mostly on working hard, and maybe some talent. Being able to type at Yngwie Malmsteem-level shred speeds may have helped as well.

But mostly I got out by grinding it out, day after day. And since I stopped making ends meet as a content sharecropper, I’ve done everything in my power to make sure I stay off the farm for good.

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