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Content Mills: Set Phasers on Kill


We writers have a collective problem. Perhaps a few collective problems, but in the case of content mills, we have collective issues that are allowing media giants to make millions of dollars.

We are too fucking nice.

Yes, I used a curse word. If only to emphasize that we are not just nice, we are extremely nice. We are mostly very good people and willing to help everyone out. The problem is, the people who own the content mills have tapped into this collective good nature and our eagerness to please and are exploiting us.

They have convinced those of us with low enough self-esteem that we can’t possibly make it as writers in the “real world”, so we may as well write for them. They have convinced professional writers to jump on board in order to promote their brand, all the while making far more money for the mill than the writer will ever hope to realize in ancillary profits. Their sneakiness and willingness to exploit the insecurities and hopes of writers have officially pissed me off. I’m not the only one either.

The gloves are coming off. From this point on, look for a post a week on a particular content mill, a particular contributor or set of contributors, and generally just anything anti-content mill that I can scare up. They’ve enjoyed good publicity and happy PR Kool-Aid for far too long; time to slip some reality into the punchbowl.

If you have a story about writing for any content mill or operation, I want to hear from you. I will need your name to verify that you are a real person; I won’t accept anonymous contributions, period. If you have a positive story about working for a content mill, that’s nice, but I still think you are being taken advantage of. Tell their PR department; don’t tell me.

Gender Roles as Writers: Why Tits Really Don’t Matter

When I first found out about James Chartrand’s mythical gender in the Copyblogger post, I was transported to a bit of a dark place. I wrote a post with the title “Why Tits Still Matter” and was generally gobsmacked by the revelation that Chartrand earned more money as a male than as a female writer.

Some time has passed and I have mulled the issue over for a while now. What I came out with on the other side is something very different. I believe it was the experience and confidence, and not the gender, that got the gigs. While I don’t want to argue with James’ assertions, I do believe that experience and voice had a lot to do with her uptick in business.

When I first began freelancing full-time, I had been writing website copy for ten years as a side dish to the many duties of a web designer. I had been formally educated in Creative Writing at a University, even though I did not graduate my near completion of the program at three years gave me a solid grounding in grammar, theory, and how to write clearly for your audience. While both of those things gave me a good start, I was still a babe in the woods when I began my career. In many ways, I still am and probably will be for the next decade or so.

It took me a good couple of years to make the mistakes and garner the experience that it takes to really hit your stride as a copywriter. I would argue that even six months of experience at it full-time will make more of a difference than even four years at an institute of higher education.

Generally if you are a woman, you think that a male voice is a voice of experience, confidence, and authority. I am aware that this is a generalization, and some women may think a male voice is a plaintive baritone that wonders where it put its keys. In any case, if you start writing in the authoritative voice, you are bound to get gigs.

I recently landed a gig writing for a traditionally male market, but a market that I’ve been an active participant in for most of my life. If Chartrand’s object lesson was 100% correct, there would have been no way that I would have landed it. I did, and I have to take it as evidence that women can succeed as female copywriters regardless of market. They just need some experience in that market, and a pair of figurative cojones that allow them to speak decisively about their chosen subject.

Another thing I was doing in my early career was using a passive voice. Self-editing my writing for its use has led to an overall uptick in the quality of my writing. I believe that if you write from a place of lower self-esteem, which you will as a beginner, you are more likely to default to the passive voice. Writing in a “male” voice guarantees that the passive voice will not be used.

Chartrand also mentioned in a CBC interview that she grew up in Quebec, where people who were English were perceived to be more successful than those who were French at the time. She is used to these skewed views on who you are based on the language that you speak, so why not take the logical step to gender? It made sense. It also made me smile because my upbringing in Ottawa made me think that as an Anglophone with just a basic grasp of French that there was no way I could ever work in my home city, an assertion which led me to choose school and permanent residence in Southern Ontario. In effect, I had been brought up with the opposite view and had the poo end of the stick.

In the end, my belief is that you have to have faith in the inherent goodness of the human race. This goodness will nip sexist, racist, or otherwise unpleasant thoughts in the bud and allow talent and not gender to shine through. The final object lesson for me in the whole thing is to write aggressively, write often, and write well. I wish you every success as you try to do the same and thank Chartrand for the opportunity to reflect on some very important questions.

It’s On: Website Launches To Combat Transcontinental Contract and Others

Below, I will be reprinting the text of the press release. I’d like to state why I’m posting it on here.

It isn’t necessary to be a member of any of the associations that have banded together to fight bad treatment of writers in Canada through abusive contracts to do something about it. You may be a new writer that can’t quite justify the cost of membership, or an old one that feels that an association is unnecessary for you given your burgeoning portfolio. Whoever you are, if you work in any way with the written word, get involved in whatever way you can in order to support your fellow writers and their refusal to keep on working for less than they made in the 1980’s. Thanks!


Canadian Writers Launch to Educate Writers and Public About Unfair Transcontinental Media contract

(November 4, 2009) A coalition of more than a dozen Canadian writers’ organizations today launched a new website,, to raise awareness about the unfair and damaging freelance contract from Transcontinental Media. This follows a September 30 announcement by the coalition that called on Canadian writers to not write for Transcontinental publications. offers the latest news and information about the campaign against Transcontinental Media, one of the country’s largest publishers of magazines and newspapers. The website provides:

  • A clear dissection of the Transcontinental contract, outlining why it’s a bad deal for writers.
  • A list of Transcontinental publications to avoid, as well as access to a free, confidential consultation service for writers. Anyone considering pitching a Transcontinental publication can visit the website and contact an industry expert who will help suggest alternative markets for their story.
  • A page that fact checks statements made by Transcontinental executives.
  • A list of ways for writers and members of the public to get involved and show their support for a compromise solution to this dispute.
  • A regularly-updated blog.

The website is being launched in conjunction with a Facebook group ( and Twitter account ( to help spread information and awareness about Transcontinental’s contract, and the company’s refusal to engage in negotiation with writers.

Background: A Refusal to Negotiate

Earlier this summer, Transcontinental Media began sending a new freelance contract – which it calls a “Master Author Agreement” – to the many writers who contribute to its stable of publications, including Canadian Living, More, Elle Canada, Homemakers, and Vancouver Magazine.

In June, the country’s largest writing organizations, in cooperation with major literary agencies, approached Transcontinental in the hope of reaching a compromise. The coalition raised four primary concerns with the contract:

1. Transcontinental’s new contract was muddying the copyright waters. The Master Author Agreement grants copyright of each work to the author but then undercuts this copyright by licensing the following extraordinary rights: “The ongoing non-exclusive right to do in respect of the Work any other act that is subject to copyright protection under the Canadian Copyright Act (including, without limitation, the right to produce and reproduce, translate, develop ancillary products, perform in public, adapt and communicate the Work, in any form or medium) as well as to authorize others to do so on behalf of or in association with the Publisher.”

2. The agreement is permanent. Once signed, it covers all future work for Transcontinental publications.

3. Transcontinental has no intention of compensating freelancers for the many additional uses of their work. In essence, the company wants to continue paying what it’s been paying for decades for basic first publication rights but now get unlimited rights to writers’ work.

4. The Master Agreement is one-sided. It makes no mention of payment terms, kill fees, provisions for libel suits, and other important issues that are part of any balanced contributor’s agreement.

Since meeting with representatives from the coalition, the company has stated that it has no intention of altering the contract. It has also instructed its editors to not offer any assignments unless a writer has signed the controversial contract.

An Unprecedented Coalition

The coalition consists of 14 groups, which together represent thousands of Canadian writers:

  • Anne McDermid & Associates
  • Association des journalistes indépendants du Québec
  • Canadian Authors Association
  • Canadian Freelance Union
  • Canadian Writers Group
  • The Cooke Agency
  • Federation of BC Writers
  • Professional Writers Association of Canada
  • Quebec Writers Federation
  • Saskatchewan Writers Guild
  • Toronto Writers’ Centre
  • Westwood Creative Artists
  • Writers Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador
  • The Writers’ Union of Canada

For Additional Information

Derek Finkle
Canadian Writers Group

Tanya Gulliver

President, Professional Writers Association of Canada


Transitioning from Journalist to Web Writer; A Few Tips To Get You Started

I have met people through this site and offline who are trying to transition from the world of print journalism to the world of online media. Here are a few tips to get started.

1. Let Go of Your Inhibitions

Writing for the web is not a magic skill. Good web writing, like all good writing, takes time to perfect, but it isn’t a scary monster that you are incapable of. You are already an excellent writer; you just need to step out of your comfort zone to learn this new medium.

2. You are More Technically Inclined Than You Think

If you are a journalist, you are probably already skilled with FTP software and content management systems. If not, my advice would be to sign up with a course at a local college or university that offers an introduction to newer communications tools, or asking a friend or family member to just sit down with you for a few hours and help you figure it out.

If you can manage typing words onto a screen and saving them in WordPress, Blogger or a similar platform, you can reasonably hack writing for the web. Once you’ve been doing it for a while, you may want to study more advanced subjects such as web design in order to improve, but you most likely have the basic tools that you need right now.

3. You Have a Portfolio; Use It

If all of your portfolio pieces are shoved into multiple filing cabinets, buy a scanner and scan them into your computer. This is fairly easy and is well worth the small investment of money and the larger investment of time. The sheer size of your portfolio as a journalist will stun anyone into hiring you. If you don’t think you can hack a scanner, scanning services are often available at your nearest office or copy services store. They will not only scan the pieces for you, but make the final product look professional and small enough to e-mail, something you may not be able to manage on your own just yet.

4. Learn Keyword Research
When writing any website copy or blog posts, you should do keyword research. This is simply accomplished by visiting Google’s Keyword tool, typing in what you think will be the best descriptive phrase, and then analyzing the results. You want to choose both short tail and long tail keywords for your copy at a keyword density of 4%, or translated into English, 1-2 times for an 800 word page of copy. A short tail keyword is a word or phrase that shows many results, while a long tail keyword shows fewer results. Why would you want fewer results? Long tail keywords usually mean a more highly focused search and consequent higher clickthrough rates to your post or page.

While there is a lot more to writing with search engine optimization in mind, this will give you a good start. The topic is quite fascinating and the best way to learn it is really to optimize your own site for the search engines, a practice that you will find highly addictive.

5. Adopt a Conversational Style

If you have been writing for a newspaper for years, you are accustomed to using a very non-involved style in order to be a professional journalist. The web is slightly different. You are having a conversation with your reader, you aren’t simply reporting the facts. This is particularly true in blog postings, but you will also want to adopt a more conversational tone for website copy.

If the above still seems like Greek to you, contact your alma mater or a local college and talk to them about courses in WordPress, search engine optimization and basic web design. A more formal setting like a night school course may help you a lot more than self-directed learning if that is the setting that you are used to. Some schools may even offer web writing courses. Whatever you do, post your success stories in our forum and let us know what worked best for you. We may even write another post about what you found helpful!

Five Clients to Avoid as a Freelance Writer

One of the best parts of working as a freelance writer is that you can choose who your boss is. While we do go to great lengths to get work, sometimes there are jobs that aren’t worth accepting. Here are a few.

1. The Vague Client

If a client can’t share the details with you about their project until after you have given them an estimate, the work is likely to be twice as much as you anticipated. Give people ballpark estimates as much as you can until they can give you enough information to make a formal quote. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

2. The Extrordinary Powers Client

A recent post on the “master agreement” with Transcontinental Media got a lot of attention. In the agreement, the large media company basically says it can use your article for anything at any time once they pay you a one-time fee. Agreements like this with large media companies are bad ideas as they repackage your content for a myriad of uses and get paid for it while you don’t get a dime. If you are writing for the web, sell one-time web rights. If you are writing for print, sell one-time print rights. Let the company know that if they want to use your content more than once, they need to pay you for all uses.

The exception I’ve made to this is for small businesses. If they want to put their newsletter content on their website, that’s fine with me. Your level of caring about this may vary.

3. The Angry Client

If a client starts off by angrily badmouthing their last writer, or getting mad because you didn’t respond to their e-mail from two hours ago, chances are good that they won’t be great to deal with on an ongoing basis. This is different from a constant client who kvetches about their troubles to you; if you have become a confidante for your clients count yourself as lucky.

4. The Time Suck Client

If a client expects you to be on-call, you should charge accordingly. If you are working to a deadline, it is pretty much a given that you should make yourself available shortly before that deadline is up. However, if your client has decided that they have to work on a weekend and they will need you for a project at 8:00 on Saturday night, the nature of which they don’t know yet, you have every right to charge a retainer to ensure your availability.

5. The “Send Me A Quote” Client
Some clients will get you to do a few quotes before they retain your services. This is normal. However, if you are on your tenth quote and they haven’t hired you yet, you are best off forwarding them a standard rate sheet to cover the umpteenth request. If they notice, you may have a chance of getting work. If not, time to move on. This client is probably using you to fill up their “get three quotes for the project” requirement and you are better off not being on that list if you aren’t getting work from them.

Got some clients you’d like to add to this list? Post them in the comments section.