Updated January 24th, 2020.
You know you want to.
You’ve considered doing it for a while now, but something always stops you. Maybe you’ve already done it once or twice, but it didn’t feel right, so you swore you’d never do it again. It made you feel uncomfortable. Or worse, it turned you into a slave and you couldn’t handle it. All your friends do it, and they look at you funny when you say “I’m not judging, but I just don’t get it.” You’re tempted, but a trusted friend, teacher, or family member advised against it, and their words were powerful.
No, I’m not talking about doing drugs. I’m talking about you wanting to start a blog!
You’re right to hesitate. Blogging isn’t something you should plunge into blindly. But if you approach it professionally and systematically, and you do the necessary preparation work, you can and will be successful at it.
You may have already read my article on platform building (and/or my lessons-learned article where I discuss the importance of platform). In those articles, I mention how important it is to be a content provider. Your content is going to be at the core of your writer’s platform, and your platform is going to be the perpetual motion machine that drives your book sales. But don’t confuse content with blog. Content is the useful information/product you’re offering to the public. Blog, on the other hand, is nothing more than the medium by which you convey that information/product to the public.
First, let me tell you what I’m not going to do in this article. I’m not going to try to sell you on the idea of blogging. I’m going to assume that if you’re here, you’ve already decided blogging is of interest to you.
What else am I not going to do? I’m not going to give you a technical walk-through of the various blogging platforms out there. There are a metric buttload of them, and I could write a series with each article dedicated to a single platform. It’s just too much info. I will mention the two largest platforms later in the article (WordPress and Blogger), because I have hands-on experience with them.
But above all else, what I hope to accomplish here is helping you start out on the right foot and set you up for success.
And it all begins with…
Follow Your Passion
There are many things to write about on a semi-regular basis, so make sure the topic you choose is one you’re passionate about! There are going to be many days when you just don’t want to write another article. You’ll sit at the keyboard and think “I just don’t have it in me.” You’ll feel as if you’re wasting time, and it won’t be much of a leap to decide this whole blogging idea was a lousy one! Passion is what’s going to keep you coming back to the keyboard. Passion is what’s going to take a ho-hum article about whatever subject you’ve chosen and turn it up a notch. Passion is what’s going to build your audience (a process that is very slow, by the way. I’ll discuss it later.) More importantly, your readers will sense the moment your passion ebbs.
Writer’s take note: Nowhere in this section did I say you have to blog about writing. It’s about passion, even if that passion is bird-watching.
You know that saying “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”? Well it’s every bit as true for non-fiction as it is for fiction.
Pick A Schedule
You have to know up front what your publication schedule is going to be like. I suspect your choice of topic is going to drive this. If you’re blogging about the latest movie or music releases, that’s going to require a much different schedule than if you’re blogging about the craft of writing. The former changes almost daily (or at least weekly), while the latter changes…well…on occasion. As a general rule-of-thumb, the more frequently you blog, the faster your audience will grow. Also, search engines tend to prefer fresh content. But don’t try to shoe-horn your topic into a daily event when it’s not. Be true to the topic you’ve chosen, because the most important consideration is that the information you provide (or the attitude, or the entertainment, or the product, or…or…or…) is quality information.
This blog, for example, is a “lessons learned” blog wherein I try to help up-and-coming writers avoid common pitfalls. They say you learn something new every day. Well, that sounds nice, but it’s not entirely true when you confine it to a single subject. I just don’t have enough quality information to put out an article every day, so I don’t. Sometimes I write one article per month. But whatever I write, I try to always make sure it’s helping people in some way, because mentoring is one of my passions. And remember what I said about passion? Passion is the lifeblood of whatever article you decide to write.
Keep Track Of Article Ideas
Those of you who write for a living or hobby are already familiar with this. Ideas come to us in the most unlikely of places and inconvenient of times. We can’t always drop what we’re doing and write an article! (“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. Smith. Your wife was a wonderful…oh damn…do you have a laptop I can borrow for a few minutes? Your suit just gave me an idea: Grammar is the New Black. Great title, am I right or am I right?”)
I’m not allowed at funerals anymore.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about how I track article ideas. Oh crap…that’s about me.
Anyway, I’m a fan of Google Drive/Docs. I like it because I can quickly access it from any device I happen to have on me at the time. I also use a service called IFTTT (If This Then That). IFTTT is an online (free) automation tool that allows you to do…well pretty much anything…based on a trigger. Triggers can also be pretty much anything. Let me explain: I have a process that basically says “when I receive an email with a specific tag, append the body of that email to a specific Google doc.” In practice, this allows me to quickly send an email to myself that contains my article idea. IFTTT makes a pass on my inbox every 15 minutes, and when it finds that email, it adds the body text to my document that contains article ideas.
Regardless of the process you choose…choose a process.
The nice thing about this list of ideas is that when you hit the inevitable dry spell, you’ll have a list from which you can pull and develop an article idea.
Find A Community
This is often the most overlooked aspect of blogging. If you want to be a successful blogger, help other bloggers be successful! Find blogs that cover your topic area and become a community member. Follow those blogs. Get to know the blogger. Most importantly, comment on the articles and contribute (constructively). Perhaps offer a complementary viewpoint that gives readers an angle they hadn’t considered. The more you do this, the more people will discover you and visit your blog.
I’m not telling you to spam another person’s blog with links to your own. That’s a great way to get blacklisted from good blogs. People are smart. They don’t need a link to your blog in the comment body. Your profile information will contain your blog link (in most circumstances. There are exceptions, of course.) When people decide they’re interested in you, they’ll click on your profile and find your blog. And if you happen to find a case where you really do need to post a specific link, see how other people have done this on the blog in question. Maybe ask the blog owner first.
Blogger Vs. WordPress
These are currently the two blog platforms I’m most familiar with, because I’ve used both for A Writer’s Journey over the last few years. Blogger is Google’s free blogging platform. WordPress, on the other hand, comes in two flavors: Free, and a self-hosted version. For the self-hosted version, the software is free, but you’re most likely going to pay a provider to host your blog.
Which is better? That’s a religious war sort of question, so let me answer it by giving you my experience.
When I began blogging, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was still in the “I don’t know what I don’t know” phase of getting started. I tried to use WordPress and was quickly overwhelmed. I don’t say that lightly…I’m a software engineer. But maybe that’s part of it. I deal with so many technical issues at work that the last thing I want to do at home is deal with technical issues. I just wanted it to work without much technical effort on my part.
Blogger was as easy as can be. The interface was simple, and the learning curve was minimal. I was even able to purchase a domain name and direct it to my Blogger site. It worked wonderfully for more than a year, and I do recommend it as a starting point if you really don’t know what you’re doing (technically).
As A Writer’s Journey matured, and I learned enough about blogging to realize I needed more power, I switched to the self-hosted version of WordPress. WordPress drives the site you’re currently viewing, and I have a host provider that gives me wonderful technical support when I need it (DreamHost). But, there is a cost associated with it. I spend about $20/year on domain names and $10/month on hosting fees. I also sprung for a professionally developed theme (X-Theme…incredible stuff), and that ran about $80, but it was a one-time fee.
[Update, January 24, 2020: My hosting fees are $16.95/month. As the blog grew in popularity, the performance started to degrade for individual users. So, I upgraded to DreamHost’s “DreamPress” hosting solution, which is their usual stellar service but optimized specifically for WordPress. It’s worth checking out! They do everything for me to keep my site running smoothly, and their technical support is the best I’ve encountered in the industry.]
So what’s the bottom line? Well, neither Blogger nor WordPress is the only game in town! Both served me well; Blogger provided me with a wonderful starting point, and WordPress gives me the power I need now that my platform has matured. But there are other blogging solutions out there, and I recommend you do some research to find one that fits. Remember…blogging, like writing a novel, is a marathon instead of a sprint. You’re in this for the long haul, and you’re going to spend a lot of time with whichever technical solution you choose. So make sure you pick one you’re comfortable with. Your reader isn’t going care about the platform you chose.
One thing I’ll caution you about regarding any free blogging solution: read the license agreement carefully. One of the things that turned me off about Blogger was the indication that they owned my content. As a professional content provider, I can’t allow that.
Building An Audience Takes Time
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