Get Started Guide: Blogging for Writers

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This post is for writers totally new to blogging, about to start a blog, and/or feeling dissatisfied with their current blog.

Questions to Ask Before You Start

  • What will distinguish your blog? What’s your unique angle? Most successful blogs have a very specific angle, topic, or audience. This makes it easier to attract attention and build a community around common interests or perspectives.
  • Your blog is a body of work, like anything else you might create. And here, I’m going to steal questions right from a talk that Dan Blank gave at the Writer’s Digest Conference. Don’t think: “I’m going to create blog (a thing).” Ask: What is my purpose? What are my goals?
  • The more time you spend blogging, the more value you build for readers over time and the more they find you. Your efforts will snowball. The only problem: You have to be patient. Are you willing to commit to blogging for more than a year? (It took me about 18 months before my blog was really going somewhere. It took that long to find my voice and the niche that I felt most strongly about, where I believed I had a unique contribution to make.)
  • Ideally, before you start a blog, you think about who’ll send you traffic. Identify the notable community players, the people who you’ll build relationships with.

Key Components of Your Blog

Aside from the blog posts themselves, you should also have the following:

  • Header/banner + tagline. It should be clear to new visitors what your blog is about and what they’re going to get from it.
  • About page or bio. If your blog does its job, people want to know more about the person behind the writing. Don’t make them search for this. I recommend creating a separate and detailed page that also includes contact information.
  • Calendar or archive. People new to your blog may want to dig around in your older posts. Make it easy for them to do so. Sometimes it’s helpful to create a sidebar that tells readers what your most popular posts are.
  • Comment functionality. Your blog will grow, and you’ll build relationships, through an easy-to-use comment system. Most major blog platforms (like WordPress) can help you streamline your comment system to automatically eliminate spam activity. (I recommend a combination of Disqus and Akismet if you’re hosting your own site.)
  • Sharing functionality. Make it easy for people to share your posts on Facebook, Twitter (or just about anywhere else) through plug-ins like AddThis.
  • Readability. If your blog or site is meant to primarily be read, then don’t hamper readability by making the text too small, too tight or (worst of the worst) white type on a black background. Be aware that a lot of pop-ups, ads, or bad layout can also hamper readability and drive readers elsewhere.

For Each Post: Go Through This Checklist

  • Improve your headline. If people saw ONLY the headline (like on Twitter), would they feel compelled to click on it? Is it specific? Is it intriguing or provocative? Does it offer a benefit? Is it timely or relevant? Why will people click on the headline? Remember, that’s often the only thing people see when they’re surfing online and looking at search results.
  • Improve your readability. Consider adding more paragraph breaks (one-line paragraphs are acceptable), bulleted lists or numbered lists, images, subheads, quotes—whatever it takes to make your posts more scannable. Reading online is not the same as reading offline. If your post is very long, consider breaking it up into a series. Or, make it simple for people to save the post, print the post, or otherwise consume it offline. [This “rule” gets broken all the time successfully, but it requires the right readership and great content, among other things.]
  • Improve discoverability. Make sure each post is categorized and tagged, at minimum. If your blog platform allows for it, adjust what title, description, and keywords are attached to your post for search engine optimization (SEO).

To Grow Your Readership

  • Update consistently and on a regular schedule.
  • Frequently link to relevant blogs, resources, and sites.
  • Try out a series or weekly feature.
  • Interview people who interest you. Run Q&As.
  • Comment on blogs/sites that have some relevance to your own blog.
  • Allow readers to sign up for e-mail or RSS delivery of your posts. (Try Feedburner if this functionality is not already baked into your site.)
  • Always post links to each new post on your Facebook page, Twitter, etc.
  • Offer to guest blog for others. Provide them with even better content than usual.
  • Be patient.

The No. 1 Rule to Grow Readership

Offer great content. Period. Check this post for a wake-up call on all the advice I’ve just offered you: Are Blog Best Practices Bullshit?

Where You Can Start a Blog for Free

  • My top recommendation: WordPress. You can use WordPress.com (with limited functionality) for free. When you’re ready to have your own URL/site, you can install the WordPress content management system onto your site, and seamlessly import your WordPress.com content.
  • Tumblr. Great for curating stuff from elsewhere online. Excellent for visuals and multimedia. Here’s my Tumblr blog.
  • Blogger. Owned by Google and still very popular.

If You’re Starting With WordPress

Here are my technical tutorials on starting a WordPress.com blog. It is a VERY basic, step-by-step instruction process for people who are completely unfamiliar with WordPress. I created this step-by-step for my university students, who sometimes have trouble figuring out how to change key settings in WordPress.

  1. Sign up for a WordPress.com blog
  2. Change basic settings
  3. Change the appearance (themes)
  4. Make your first post
  5. Add widgets to your sidebar

Additional Advice & Resources That I Love

If you’d like an extended version of the advice in this post (plus elaboration on how to create a self-hosted WordPress site), then download my PDF handout, Blogging 101.

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Master the Principles of Social Media Without Feeling Like a Marketer

Jane's newest online course focuses on how to take a holistic and strategic approach to social media that’s based on long-term reader growth and sound principles of online marketing. You won’t find gimmicks or short-term approaches here. Rather, my philosophy is that (1) your work—your writing—is always central, and (2) you have to enjoy what you’re doing on social media for it to be sustainable and eventually become a meaningful part of your author platform.

A big challenge for authors is deciding what types of marketing will work for them strategically, and figuring out what will be effective in cutting through the noise without consuming huge amounts of time. Over the course of 12 weeks, our goal will be to answer this question for you, eliminate as much guesswork as possible, and retain your authentic voice regardless of your strategy.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
Posted in Digital Media, Worksheets & Handouts, Writing Advice.

91 Comments

  1. Great piece, Jane, and no surprise from such an experienced hand at this as you, thanks.

    I’d like to add clarity of byline as something that’s far more important than many bloggers realize.

    A blogger wants her or his work spread around the communities, per your smart comments above about sharing functionality and improving discoverability. But that blogger also deserves credit for that content. Some of us, in fact, work very hard to #CreditWriters (a Twitter hashtag), even in the tight confines of tweets, to be sure our authors get the recognition they deserve.

    When you’re blogging, burying your identity in an “About” section is a mistake.

    And making us search Twitter or click over to Twitter’s page on you simply to get your @Twitter handle (your @name in the code-language of Twitter) is also a mistake.

    The smartest efforts I’ve seen so far, create a byline–always at the top of a post–that includes both the author’s name and @Twitter handle.  This gives “feeders” (people who use social media to move good content around) an immediate chance to credit a writer without wasting time digging around.

    Some good examples of different name + @Twitter handle bylines:
    http://ow.ly/i/e184
    http://ow.ly/i/e188
    http://ow.ly/i/e18b 
    http://ow.ly/i/e18c
    http://ow.ly/i/eovq
    http://ow.ly/i/eouR

    Professional journalists live by their bylines and they know how important it is to own their work, right up top, on every piece. Good bylines aren’t about bragging. They’re common courtesy and pragmatic communication. When you meet someone, you tell him or her your name, right? And in a world in which your Twitter presence is important, you offer your @Twitter handle, as well. Many of us add our @Twitter handles to our business cards. Bloggers, many of whom have no background in formal journalism, can miss out on recognition, distribution, and visibility on the assumption that “everybody knows who I am, it’s my blog.”

    Awful lot of blogs. Awful lot of posts. The world really doesn’t know one from another, and we’re all busy. Bloggers who help us get their names and @Twitter handles at “electric speed” show us that they get what’s going on in the world of fast-twitch distribution, game on.

    Thanks again-

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  3. This is great. What I wish I’d had when I was starting out. I’ll spread the word.
    Thanks, Porter for the great idea of putting your twitter handle front and center on the blog!

  4. Totally loved this post, Jane. I agree with Porter that one of the worst things a blogger can do is hide his/her identity and handles on other social networks. That’s why I always suggest using your name as a handle on other social networks (if not taken). In fact, I use you as THE example for why folks need to act now on claiming their name online.

    • Robert: Would you mind helping a fellow blogger? When I clicked on my name in my comment, instead of going to my blog, which for me is the point of having a profile, it took me to something called Yahoo Plus, which is less than useless for me. It gave my full name, my age and what state I live in, which I don’t want people to know, but didn’t go to the blog, which I did. When I clicked on your name, it went directly to your blog the way it’s suppose to. (By the way, it’s  a cool blog.) How do I get mine to do the same thing?

      • You can change these settings when you make the comment. There are all kinds of options for this “profile” info—e.g., you can offer just your name & URL, or use an established profile. In this case, it appears you chose the Yahoo-based profile (whether consciously or not).

    • Thanks, Robert — couldn’t agree more about the importance of using your name as your social-media handle (rather than blog title, etc.), if for no other reason so that you get continuity of community from one project to the next. I love how when we arrive at Jane’s page here, what’s right up top is JANE FRIEDMAN. Her wonderful McLuhan-powered “electric speed” line is the tag, not the center of her universe, which is excellent. I use her as my best example for folks, too. :)

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  6. Thank you for these great tips! My regret is that when I started my blog, I didn’t use my name. I’d change that if I could do it over again.

  7. Thank you Jane (and Porter for your extremely helpful addendum) this is truly blogger gold! I’ve had my blog on my website for about a year and still feel as if I’m crawling through the trenches. To say I needed this post doesn’t even begin to cover how much I NEEDED this post :-)

  8. This was a very informative post. Because I’m relatively new to blogging, I need all the help I can get and this article provided a lot of important information. Thanks, Jane!
    I’ve written two women’s mystery suspense novels and I’m in the early planning stages of a third. I’ve recently created my own writers forum, a blog for writers and avid readers. I’d like to invite everyone to visit my site.
    http://pat-writersforum.blogspot.com

  9. Hi Jane,

    This is just the kind of comprehensive information I was looking for a long time, forwarded to me by another fellow writer. I needed to learn more about WordPress, as I currently have a blog with Bloggers, and thanks to you, I can understand WordPress better now!

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. I’d agree that asking the question, “What is my purpose?” is a really good place to start, as well as, “How unique is what I’d like to share?” There has to be millions of blogs written specifically for writers, and just as many subjects those bloggers can cover. Before I started mine, http://www.awritersconundrums.blogpsot.com, I’d read Karen Wiesner’s books, “First Draft in 30 Days,”  and “From First Draft to Finished Novel,” and they helped me so much in learning not only how to outline my book idea, but also how to organize it and write it so it would be memorable, and she says, “Wonderfully cohesive.” That’s when I go the idea to blog the process of using her books to bring into being my “Daniel” book.

    I”ve somewhat already developed my “comedic tone” with my first blog, makingmywownwork.blogspot.com, and knew I wanted to write “conundrum” in the same style. One point I’d like to add, Jane, is to read a lot of other blogs to see how many other people are doing the same thing. Out of the hundreds I’ve read, I’ve never seen another who literally blogs about the process of writing their book, how they came up with the idea, developed their characters, etc. And none of them have my writing style.

    You make some very good points about paying attention to how your blog looks, but I have no technical or decorating skills at all, beyond knowing I liked the Comic Sans font in bright blue, so I have to concentrate all my efforts in to making my story telling fun to read and unique, and my posting titles interesting, and yet mysterious enough to make people curious.

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  12. Jane, or anyone else who can answer this: I’m sorry to bother again, but I just found out that Blogger.com just lost my awritersconundrums blog. There are at least four posts on it, but it says there’s nothing there. When my makingmyownwork blog was up, it quite frequently wouldn’t let me post anything on it for a week or two at a time. Since Blogger is so unreliable and there is absolutely no help available, I tried putting the “Conundrum” blog on WordPress, because I’ve heard it has great technical support, but it seems horribly complicated to me. Just picking the design was a bear, and when I copy and pasted  a post from Word, it got rid of my Comic Sans font and blue color, and I am absolutely a techy and decorating idiot, with no patience for, “GO here, go there and follow those instructions that are written for geniuses.” Just show me what to do and I’ll do it and be grateful.  Would somebody mind walking me through the process of setting up my blog on Workpress?

  13. Jane, or anyone else who can answer this: I’m sorry to bother again, but I just found out that Blogger.com just lost my awritersconundrums blog. There are at least four posts on it, but it says there’s nothing there. When my makingmyownwork blog was up, it quite frequently wouldn’t let me post anything on it for a week or two at a time. Since Blogger is so unreliable and there is absolutely no help available, I tried putting the “Conundrum” blog on WordPress, because I’ve heard it has great technical support, but it seems horribly complicated to me. Just picking the design was a bear, and when I copy and pasted  a post from Word, it got rid of my Comic Sans font and blue color, and I am absolutely a techy and decorating idiot, with no patience for, “GO here, go there and follow those instructions that are written for geniuses.” Just show me what to do and I’ll do it and be grateful.  Would somebody mind walking me through the process of setting up my blog on Workpress?

    • I don’t think I can help you with the Blogger issue, but you might try their help forums? http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/blogger

      As far as WordPress, all you need to do is watch the tutorials I’ve linked to above—they get you through the initial stages. However, I doubt you’ll be able to keep Comic Sans or blue. (And that’s a good thing.)

      • Jane: Thanks so much for taking the time to help me; I know you’re a busy woman. Unfortunately, I have dial-up so cannot watch videos, but I did manage to get the blog going, and have posted three of the entries that Blogger lost.  Also found a cool home page face of old book covers I thought was somewhat appropriate for a writer’s blog. I’ve found that WordPress is nowhere near as easy to design and get around as Blogger was, and I still have a lot of things to figure out,  but I’m hoping it does prove to be more reliable. I’m putting the address  at the bottom of this comment, just in case I still have the Yahoo Plus problem. Again, thanks much for the help.
        http://awritersconundrums.wordpress.com

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  28. Hi Jane. I see your main website is self-hosted through WordPress.org. I built a website with a connecting blog on WordPress.com. Would it be wise to take the plunge and self-host now while my site is still young? Also, I know how important it is to start collecting visitor’s email addresses. How do I add a subscription box (such as Mail Champ) to my website’s home page for newsletters, etc.? The answer to this second question probably depends on your answer to the first.

    • The earlier you self-host, the better. I believe in “owning” your traffic as early as possible and understanding your site analytics—not to mention the added power of the plug-ins and customizations that come with a self-hosted site.

      For e-mail subscription (via MailChimp or others), you can do it in one of two ways (or both):

      1. Hot-link to your sign-up form (this is what I do on my site)
      2. Use MailChimp’s widget generator to create code that you drop into your site (either into a widget or on a page).

      Either method works fine, and you can still use MailChimp in conjunction with WordPress.com sites.

  29. Dear Jane, this is wonderful. As a new writer, (first book just self-published, been writing for 10 years), this is just what I need. I’ll be staring a blog in the next month or so your advice is just what I need, and I notice your site came up on top in my Google search so your keywords/meta tags must be spot on.
    You write very clearly, thank you.

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  31. From what I can gather from your article when one starts a blog, the true niche where one succeeds will be a changing work in progress for quite some time. It doesn’t happen right away when someone decides to start blogging. Would that be a fair assumption?

    I have decided to try my hand at blogging in the political arena and know there is tons of competition. I think where I may initially begin may be totally different once I find a good niche….maybe 6, 12 or even 18 months down the road. The same would could be said for a commercial web site that would sell widgets, hammers, or what ever…..things will probably morph into something totally different.

    GREAT ADVISE! Makes sense to me.

      • Thanks Jane! That makes me feel better about things and not all is lost in the first few months. I plan to begin working on my blog and see where it goes. I realize keywords are crucial and research needs to be performed. And keywords should be revisited often to see what changes have taken place. I found in some instances where I had a good keywords with good demand and low competition when I first started using them, then I later found out things had changed substantially with either lower demand or substantially increase competition.. Consequently traffic dropped off quite a bit. So the morphing into something different may be an on going process through the entire life of the blog.

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  34. I have so much to learn. I have been reading a lot about creating a self-hosted WordPress site. I am a new author. My publisher created a WordPress site for me, but I want to create a self-hosted site. The current website domain contains the publisher’s name. Though I appreciate their efforts, I feel stuck with it. I feel the need to build my own brand. :-) I hope I can do this on my own, using your handout. Thank you.

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  39. Thanks Jane for sharing such great ideas. I really liked your article on blogging.
    The best point I liked reading here is about the going through the checklist. Specially in improving the readability of the blog by adding it into paragraphs, numbered lists and the images.

  40. I was apprehensive about blogging but now I’m excited to get started. Thank you so much for taking the time to create a step by step guide for beginners.

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  44. This website is incredible Jane! I’ve just seen it in a recommended link and want to read everything!! So much knowledge and interesting info, all backed up with stats and with lots of links to other interesting content! I love it! Thank you.

  45. Hi Jane, I’m new to the blogging world. I have enjoyed reading your blogging pointers and will be implementing them.

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  47. This post has opened my eyes to blogging as it is something I have recently started doing as an author. The step by step process and the way everything is labelled and the advice for how authors should start blogging and getting their writing recognized is superb! I’m grateful for all of the resources provided and would love to continue reading your next posts to find out more.

    I personally found the list of how to grow readership the most helpful as this is something I struggle with everyday. It makes me get stuck between whether I should continue publicizing 1 novel or to just move on to making the next one that has a different angle and is in a different genre that might be more appealing. I’ve also done screenwriting on the side and it’s been doing me some good. Hopefully, I can get my work produced in the long run.

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  52. This post has so much “meat.” I know I’m not the only one who’s grateful, but I really appreciate the tips and techniques you have listed above.

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  56. Hey Jane, you are wealth of information. Every time I visit your blog, it feels as though I find the subject matter that I am in immediate need of. Just wanted to let you know I am so fortunate to have stumbled across your blog.

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