Turning the Cogs: Content Farming
Behind the Closed Doors of the Copywriting Industry
I’d like really like to know how many of us writers have turned to copywriting in order to make a living while we pursue our creative writing. It’s something that I’ve grappled with for a long time, having worked consistently over the past few years writing content for big start-up companies. While working for these companies, I have met other writers, doing the same thing as me. At one point, we had a team of nearly twenty writers churning out descriptions for an e-commerce site, while we finished our novels, our academic essays, our memoirs and our poetry.
These experiences in the world of content writing have always left me conflicted. Firstly, as a writer, it’s not often you get to work in a team, especially in a team of like-minded writers, all experiencing similar things. I loved working with these weird and wonderful people. Morning coffee runs gushing over the latest atrocity committed in Game of Thrones, having a permanent long-list of drinking buddies and sitting opposite someone who wore her ageing leopard print dressing gown as a coat, were all a beautiful part of working with a big group of writers. The writing part of the job however, was on the other side of the spectrum.
I don’t know if it’s start-up companies, internet companies or just how employers in general feel about content writing, but neither of my experiences were particularly positive. The questions and comments go like this: how much can you write? As opposed to: how well can you write? Can we outsource this to the Philippines? Can’t you be more creative? It’s a plain white cushion for God’s sake! These questions and attitudes may not seem like much, but when you combine them with a poor pay package, no job security, employers who see content writing as a ‘nice-to-have’ and colleagues who deem your job as ‘unnecessary’, it’s no wonder why a few of us are left feeling a little bitter. In my time as a copywriter, I saw writers dismissed in the tens, I saw people have meltdowns (some of us bordering on alcoholism), and I saw talented writers lose their passion for words and their determination to get their work out there. All because of the Content Farm.
As a copywriter/content writer, the expectation is not for you to write, but mechanically produce hundreds and hundreds of individual pieces of content that all have to meet specific requirements. Whether it’s the house style, SEO (search engine optimisation), product specs and selling points, you are expected to do this as though you are a machine, not a writer. In this regard, perhaps the world of content/online publishing is better termed the ‘Content Factory’, because a team of writers is certainly seen as a production line.
I read an article recently that struck a nerve. From The Writer Mag, in the US, the article informed us that:
Huffington Post publishes 1,200 pieces of new editorial content per day. In addition, 28 blog editors curate 400 blog posts in that same day. Upstart Buzzfeed.com (of list and viral nostalgia fame) pumps out an average of 373 pieces of content per day. The online sports hub Bleacher Report produces about 800 articles in 24 hours.”
It’s no wonder that companies expect writers to produce content on mass, with statistics like this. The article, which you can read in full here, suggests that writers “adapt or die” to this new wave of publication. To be honest, I found the piece slightly contradictory, because further on it states: “Just because content farms exist doesn’t mean you need to follow the herd…” While I appreciate the sentiment, it’s not always that easy – for the first two years of my copywriting career, I just gave the employers what they wanted: quantity, simply because I couldn’t afford to be one of those writers who got the boot. Hundreds of descriptions a day was my way of ‘adapting’ to the content farm. And it wasn’t good for me, or my own creative writing.
On writing for the online world, the article says “Understanding that writing for the web is a science – a unique mix of psychology, sociology and literary skill – is half the battle,” and with this, I couldn’t agree more. The fault lies with the employers, who either falsely advertise the ‘writing’ positions, or who simply have no grasp on what it means to be a writer for the web. People who view your job as “banging something out, to fill the white space” simply have no idea, and this perception is damaging because it means that the writer is expected to churn out more and more copy, which in turn, leaves their work without consideration for “psychology, sociology and literary skill”, because now, they just don’t have enough damn time. It’s a vicious cycle.
Copywriting seems like a natural step in the right direction for a creative writer, but that’s not always the case. My advice to other writers would be:
- Before accepting a position, check that the company has a reputation for treating its employees well (a low staff turnover rate is probably a good indicator).
- Make sure you get a detailed breakdown/job criteria in terms of your responsibilities in the role.
- Don’t give up your own creative writing because you’re a copywriter now. It won’t make you happy.
- Don’t settle for a poor salary. While joking about being a penniless writer can be funny after a few drinks, it won’t be when your electricity gets cut off.
After over two years in the copywriting industry, I quit. The long hours, the poor pay and the lack of creative fulfillment, just wasn’t for me anymore. Many of the other copywriters I knew have done the same, allowing us to draw the conclusion that the fault lies not with the writers, but perhaps the concepts and ideals that the industry itself projects.
Since leaving copywriting behind me, I’ve never been happier. I’ve finished the third draft of my debut novel, and I’ve found a job that allows me to do what I love most (besides writing): helping other writers. Online publishing should be a place for new talent to find a voice, not disheartening those who thought they’d found theirs.