The Rat Trap by Rebecca Lee


I work for a content mill. In 30 minutes I can write 500 words for $7. When I look at a single roll of toilet paper, I can tell how many words it’s worth. 7 minutes for a Snickers. 400 words for a bottle of laundry detergent.

I log on to a website where clients from all different businesses in all different countries post what type of article, blog post, or web copy they need written. The content mill website works as a third party where only they interact with both client and writer. When a client pays the content mill, I am given a small percentage. I do not know these clients. I only know their companies.

Cosmetic dental offices, construction warehouses, private practices, manicurists, law firms, and exterminators are just a few of the businesses I write about. The only glimpse of the client is in their briefing.

Please write 300 words about our gas trap. Should include efficiency and ease of the trap itself. Do not mention the word “death” or “kill”. You may use the word “rat”, but please refrain from “mouse”. 

I was sitting on the Victorian couch I bought for $50 (3,500 words) on Craigslist when I picked up the order. I couldn’t believe my luck. This company produced the same rat trap my boyfriend set up in the space between my drop ceiling and the upstairs tenant’s floor. The diagram had a picture of a dead rat and then another rat stepping on top of it to reach a piece of bait. The dead rat was dead because it had two gray x’s where its eyes were supposed to be. The other rat was poised, just about to eat the cheese. 

“Doesn’t he notice his buddy is dead?” I asked. 

Who would draw such a diagram? We didn’t know.

Now, scanning through the content brief, I had an idea. Maybe it was the guy who was using me to write for his website. Or, conversely, maybe he had hired someone just like me to draw the diagram. 

I started writing for content mills because there was plenty of work. Before the mills, I made $50 writing 500-word articles for a popular psychology site. When more companies started using interns or writers who were just happy to publish, many paid writers turned to freelancing sites. Unable to sustain my work with higher-paying publications, I also looked for an alternative. 

Freelancing usually involves direct contact with the client. Since they pay a higher rate than content mills, if they don’t like what’s written, multiple revisions can be expected. Competition between freelancers is often fierce and there is no guarantee of steady work. 

I decided to try it.

I wrote a blog for a psychologist in Arizona with an online ad that sounded homemade.  She was looking for someone who was interested in “just a side gig.” She included her pay with the number of children she had.

At eleven at night, I found myself answering her calls. She went over every line of my “Do you have crippling anxiety?” post in painstaking detail. She had just moved to Arizona. It was for her husband’s job, she said. 

If I didn’t answer my phone, she sent emails.

Content mills are easy to deal with. The distance between writer and client is as wide as the world’s web. Not only am I invisible to the client but sometimes I can’t even recognize myself.

Once, when searching for an authentic crystal-energy healer, I came across my own unautographed web copy. This type of spiritual guidance involves more than just listening to your mind and body. It includes a gentle blend of minerals and acupuncture to relax the chakras. I paused, hovering over the main page while staring at the hyperlink “chakra.” Immediately I closed the window.

The Rat Trap Guy (a man, I presumed) was probably pretty rich. The gas trap was a simple mechanism, but lethal in its perfection. I imagined hardware stores all over the country selling dozens of his traps. The little diagram shoved deep inside would explain what the box couldn’t. For under twenty dollars, at least one rat could disappear. 

People who create rat traps can’t be born rich. Nobody who grows up with a lot of money would want to be in the extermination category of a content mill. I decided his name was Stu and that he lived in Queens with a terrible accent he was happily oblivious of. In the evenings, when Stu was still little, he caught rats and slipped them under his sister’s pillow.

I took my time writing for Stu. I texted my boyfriend to tell him about Rat Trap Guy as soon as I accepted the order. Why, he wondered, wouldn’t I want to compete for regular freelancing gigs or work for a marketing company? 

Writing for a content mill blends both fiction and nonfiction. When I wrote for individuals, I might have been paid to research different yoga poses and write about the health benefits of each one. While writing for a content mill, I can potentially write about the same health benefits of yoga, but with the added bonus of a backstory.

My clients can be anyone. If they need to get in touch, the content mill will simply send me their instructions. I never even know their name. 

Instead, I try to figure out their story. I want to know why they are in the business they chose and who they think they’re helping. Because I’ll never meet them, I’m free to write for whomever I choose.

Sometimes I see if they’re paying attention. Before starting each article, I pick a random word from any book to try and stick inside. Sometimes I know the word and sometimes I don’t. Choosing phrases from Urban Dictionary is both the most challenging and rewarding.

Antique lamps are the perfect Christmas gift for those who like to read on a dark and snowy night. Not only are they practical but nobody can throw shade at a lamp this stylish!

Their feedback is minimal. 

I was determined to write a serious but faintly humorous blog post for Rat Trap Guy. In sticking with the template guidelines, I wrote the title and then a list of several benefits.

A Humane Rat Trap

Metal bars that can cause violent suffering are no longer necessary to remove wildlife from the indoors. With this new take on a classic invention, there are several benefits to enjoy.

  1. No-mess clean up. By using gas, unwanted pests can be fully intact when discarding. This makes for a sanitary disposal system that won’t leave potentially harmful remnants behind. 
  2. Easy to understand directions. With in-depth diagrams drawn to exact precision, there is little effort necessary when putting together your trap. Simply follow the steps and enjoy the rest of your day.
  3. Highly effective. Diseased rodents are attracted to the flavorful fumes of our quality gas. After setting your bait of choice, once gas is released, other varmints won’t even know it’s toxic. If you have FOMO about the newest technology advances, our trap is a must.

It was a $3 post, but I spent an hour on it. I pictured Stu, probably working from a 70s warehouse despite his millions of dollars, waiting for me. After proofreading it a couple times, I sent the copy back to the content mill so they could pass it along. 

Once a client approves the content, the mill sends me an email to confirm my payment. Law firms usually approve in four days. Health shops and beauty salons approve in two. Exterminators, plumbers, roofing companies, and electricians typically approve in ten minutes.

I waited an entire day before I got the email. My client was not accepting the post. There was no explanation. I wrote the content mill administration to see if they knew why, but their response was also minimal. Instead, they sent more articles.

A dental office, medical billing company, and a local florist needed posts. Stu had vanished into the air. I wondered if he hired a different writer or if he used another mill. I almost see the other writer, staring at her diagram, unaware of exactly how it works.


Rebecca Lee is a writer in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work can be seen in Adbusters, The Virginian Pilot, Existere Journal and other publications.  Find her on Twitter at @alicealgood.