By: Sarah Stone
I am the managing editor for a few websites that see 90,000+ unique visitors each month, and that publish new articles every day. I wake up to dozens of pitches each morning, and—depending on the site—we publish about 10% of them. The ones we skip fall into two categories: obvious spam and content mill trash. We delete the first set—these emails say “Dear Editor, I was Googling [topic] and was very impressed with your website [pasted link] and want to send unique content to you.”
The second camp is annoying not because the pitch is purely for link building—that’s something everybody does—but content mill trash is recognizable from a mile away, and it’s a horrible pit that far too many aspiring writers fall into. It’s absurdly easy to get a job pumping out keyword-stuffed, 500-word articles for companies that pay pennies, don’t challenge you to improve in any way, and contribute to the Pacific garbage patch that is “guest posting” across the internet.
From an editor’s viewpoint, if you want to forge a path doing what you love, a good way to ensure we ignore your pitch is to write as though you’ve EVER worked for one of these platforms. Here are a few habits we see from content farm contributors, and that you should avoid when striking out on your own:
1: Keyword stuffing
Write for humans, not robots. You don’t need five variations of the same phrase over one 120-word paragraph even if you think Google will love it. You know what Google loves? Articles and websites that people visit over and over, spend time reading, and share with their networks.
Don’t do this (not an exaggeration; I consistently deal with keyword-stuffed articles that read like this): The pisco sour is Peru’s signature drink. If you have never had a pisco sour, here is what you should know. The pisco sour is a mix of sweet and tangy, and the pisco sour’s texture changes from foam to liquid while you drink it. The pisco sour’s foam is made from raw egg whites.
Do this: Peru’s signature drink, the famous Pisco Sour has a taste quite unlike any other. It’s a curious mix of sharp tang and sweet, and its texture changes from cloudlike foam to icy cold in the time it takes for the liquid to break through its wall of raw egg white.
2: Starting sentences with coordinating and subordinating conjunctions
And, but, or, nor, for, so, yet…although, unless, though. If half of your paragraphs start with a conjunction, it’s a trash article that reeks of content mill. Sometimes they’re relevant and help with flow, but overusing them is amateurish.
Don’t do this: But, what are the best restaurants in Miami?
Do this: What are the best restaurants in Miami?
3: Using filler phrases (and more unnecessary conjunctions!)
If you can cut out a word or phrase from the middle of your sentence without changing context, get rid of it. A few examples:
- “in order to”
- “you need to”
- “so that you can”
Don’t do this: Before traveling, make sure to check for visa requirements of your destination country. This is important in order to understand if you can enter the country.
Do this: Before traveling, make sure to check for your destination country’s visa requirements. You may need to apply for one in advance, and the best place to find out is your embassy’s website.
4: Not using singular possessive enough
If you want to convey authority in your article, stop being so passive! This includes possessive cases. Using the example from #3 above, there’s no reason to say “the visa requirements of your destination country” when “your destination country’s visa requirements” works just as well, and serves as a stronger declaration.
5: Using indirect speech
Following the thread here, say what you mean and be direct. Most articles sound just fine when you use the shortest path—that is, cutting out words and avoiding indirect speech.
Don’t do this: There was the one who had told us the Palace had been closed and walked the whole way there with us when we didn’t believe him. There was the one who had raced his friend while we had been in the backseat, the city rushing by in flashes of color and Khmer trash talking.
Do this: There was the one who told us the Palace was closed and walked the whole way there with us when we didn’t believe him. There was the one who raced his friend while we were in the backseat, the city rushing by in flashes of color and Khmer trash talking.
6: Overusing vague words and terms
You would think “generally,” “usually,” “probably,” and “often” are keywords based on the number of times they pop up in crappy content mill articles. You don’t need to skip them entirely, but before submitting your post for review, check through it to see if you can remove any instances of vague words like these—while it’s important to qualify your statement, there may be better ways to do it.
Don’t do this: The metro generally operates between 6:00am and 11:00pm.
“Generally” covers your bases, but in the weakest possible way. It doesn’t serve a specific purpose, and gives the reader a good reason to leave your article and look up what makes the metro operating schedule unreliable—if you want to be helpful, this sentence is doing the opposite of what you intend it to.
Do this: The metro operates between 6:00am and 11:00pm, with exceptions for holidays.
7: First, middle, last structuring
Don’t write like you never got past 6th grade composition. If your article isn’t a step-by-step piece, there’s no reason to say “first, then, after that, finally.”
If you have a list in your article—as in, there are actual numbers people can follow, like this:
- Another point
- Follow-up point
…There is absolutely no reason to say “First, then, after that” and so on because your readers can see the numbers right there on their screen.
8: (Bonus!) “According to Dictionary.com…”
I don’t know why this is so common, but half of the low-quality content mill articles I receive have some variation of this in their introduction! It’s bonkers to expect to publish an authoritative piece and start out with a dictionary definition of the keyword.