Learn how to be a travel journalist — check out the curricula at MatadorU today.

FOR A YEAR AND A HALF OF MY LIFE, the majority of my income was earned through content mills. I have accounts with six of them and wrote on a regular (daily) basis for two.

Tuberculosis turned me into a freelance writer. I was in Korea, going on my second year of teaching ESL, dreaming about writing for a living but fearing the career-change plunge, when I found myself on quarantine and bedridden for months. A pile of medical bills and the prospect of surgery, combined with losing my job and my promised plane ticket home, was the kick in the ass it took for me to start writing for money.

My point: I get the allure of the content mill. When I first started freelancing, I came across warning after warning. Do NOT get sucked into mills. They pay slave wages. They don’t help you “build clips” – no legit publisher will consider your eHow article on cleaning toilet vents a valid publication credit.

Still…work hard on queries and send them out daily on the off-chance of getting a response months from now, or write the toilet vent piece for a guaranteed, immediate $15? I went the mill route. Here’s why I shouldn’t have.

Quality

Content mill articles are intended only to fit search engine algorithms and get page views. Despite many claims to the contrary, quality undeniably takes a backseat to ranking.

This is the attitude content mills foster; the idea that you have achieved success when editing isn’t required.

The better, more respected mills do claim to be sticklers for proper English and “good writing.” But the fact is, if “Make a Professional Resume” is algorithm-friendly, then you’re going to write about professional resumes, taking a couple bucks in exchange for a piece of your grammar-loving soul.

Lack of editing

Many content mills have a team of editors, all working from a vague and constantly changing style guide. In most cases, you will not be given your editor’s name, your ability to contact her/him will be restricted, and you will not establish a relationship with her/him. You’ll be asked to change “bureau” to “Bureau” one day and “Bureau” to “bureau” the next.

Churning out mind-numbing content every hour. Photo by Geograph

Content mill writers celebrate when their work passes through with no edits. Some mills offer guides on how to avoid rewrites and revisions by getting the article “right” in the first draft. This is the attitude content mills foster; the idea that you have achieved success when editing isn’t required.

Good writers welcome editing. Good writers need editing. Experience and skill have nothing to do with it; editing is about getting critical feedback from an objective party with a sharp eye. It’s not always about correcting, it’s about improving. A writer whose goal is to avoid constructive criticism is a writer in a stagnant, dead-end career.

Uncertain future

“Reliable,” “flexible,” “lifelong royalties,” “dependable” – content mill sites are covered in words like this, aimed at freelancers yearning for something steady. The truth is, content mills are no more reliable than any other type of publisher.

Google Panda is kung fu-ing these sites. The intent of the changes Google introduced to their algorithm this year was mainly to lower the rank of sites of lower-quality pages – including content produced by mills – and up the ranks of legit, high-quality pages.

Some mills have already vanished, along with the “lifelong royalties” promised to many writers. Some are frantically attempting to keep up with the changes, desperately tossing buckets of water out of the Titanic. It might float awhile longer, but I wouldn’t call it a “dependable” ship.

For example, take a peek at how Demand Media, one of the largest content mills out there, is looking on the NYSE. I’m no stock analyst, but even I know that chart ain’t pretty. (Click on “YTD” to see a year-to-date view.)

Not worthy

To settle for less is to encourage less. Companies like HuffPo convince writers to work for “exposure” and no pay, as if exposure isn’t granted when a paid piece is published. They’ll keep doing it, and content mills will keep paying $15 a pop (or less), if writers don’t place more value on their own work.

It’s hard to own the title of “writer.” I turned to content mills because they allowed me to call myself one, whereas with no credentials and no degree in English or journalism, I felt any magazine or newspaper I approached would dismiss me without a second thought.

It doesn’t matter. I have a music degree and could name off twenty degree-less musicians more talented than I without pausing for breath. If you love writing and are willing to be edited and critiqued and wish to improve and produce high-quality work, then you are a writer and should not be afraid to demand the appropriate payment for your skills.

I am a writer, and today I’m going to work on a few queries I should have written years ago.

*The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.