The Newbie’s Guide to Blogging

We live in a blogging world. Whether you’re a business startup, an established business, a freelancer, an intern, a musician, or anyone else, blogging can help you:

  • Make your name or brand visible
  • Connect with others in your business or interest
  • Reach out to the public about issues you’re passionate about
  • Express yourself
  • Update clients or an audience about projects you’re working on
  • Share your knowledge
  • Learn to write better
  • Share your life with people important to you
  • Connect with your fans or customers
  • Make money

When I started blogging in 2000, it was virtually unheard of, and there were almost no tools to make it easier. I literally hand-coded every page of my blog — including monthly archive pages, “older posts” pages, and so on. Needless to say, I wasn’t a very prolific blogger the first couple of years!

Today, just about anyone can get up and running in a few minutes using free services that make adding a post as easy as writing email. Knowing how to get your content out there is no longer a barrier — if you have something to say, saying it is easy.

Getting Started

There are several services that offer free blogs to anyone who wants one. The most popular services are WordPress.com and Blogger, although a Google search for “free blog” turns up over 145 million sites — surely there’s one that meets whatever crazy needs or desires you have. I prefer WordPress.com, mainly because I’m familiar with the industry-standard WordPress software that’s used on most of the sites I write for. WordPress.com offers built-in spam protection, a selection of really nice themes, a word processor-like text entry system (no coding necessary), nice stats (to see how much attention your site’s getting), and a lot more. (Note: I don’t work for them or anything, I just like them).

To get started:

  1. Sign up for an account at WordPress.com. Your blog will be at username.wordpress.com
  2. Select a template. There are lots of great ones to choose from. Or you can go with the default.
  3. Start posting.

Have a look at the site I whipped up in just under 5 minutes: dwax.wordpress.com.

On Being a Blogger

OK, now you have a blog. What are you going to do with it?

The stereotype of bloggers is that we post about our cats and what we had for lunch, but the reality is that there’s bloggers out there writing about every conceivable topic. The two sites I just linked to, for example, are incredibly popular sites about feminism (the one with the cats; they post about dogs, too!) and making money online (the one with the food).

Your blog is only limited by your passions — what do you have to say? Think about what purpose you want your blog to serve — do you want a record of your daily life, or maybe a way to keep your friends and family up-to-date while you’re traveling? Or maybe you want a place to promote your writing, music, or artwork and to keep in touch with your fans? Maybe you want a channel to communicate with your customers — and where they can communicate with you? Perhaps you want to share your insights on politics, freelancing, soccer coaching, high school teaching, or fishing with the world?

There are a few things you should know about writing a blog, though. While there are examples of every conceivable style of writing on blogs across the Web, there are a few qualities which blog writing tends to share:

  • It’s short: Reading on the screen isn’t as enjoyable as reading on paper, so people tend to shy away from really long pieces. 2,000 words is long for a blog post; 1,000 words is a pretty good goal; short pieces of 300 words or so are perfectly acceptable.
  • Paragraphs are shorter: Because you have to scroll a lot when reading on a screen, paragraphs tend to be shorter so a whole thought can fit in a browser window.
  • Important points are highlighted: Online readers tend to skim through pieces, so web writers often put key points in bold type so their readers can easily pick out the crucial stuff.
  • Bulleted lists are common: Bulleted lists are another way that skimmers are accommodated, making all the main points easily available.
  • It contains links to other sites: Blogging tends to take advantage of the ability to link to toher work, either to offer up references (e.g. a link to a definition of a difficult word or concept on Wikipedia) or to continue conversations started elsewhere (e.g. a link to a post on another blog which you’re responding to).
  • It’s conversational in tone: Blog writing tends to be a little more personal than most writing. What readers tend to respond to is the writer’s unique voice, their personality as expressed through their writing. That means you can use “I” and “you”, you can use slang, you can even swear if it fits your site’s purpose.

All of these “rules” are, of course, broken repeatedly.

Keeping it going

There are millions of blogs on the Internet, but only a tiny fraction of them are active. There are a number of reasons why blogs “die” — people run out of things to say, they get busy, or worst of all, they feel like they’re talking to themselves. Here are a few tips to help you keep your blog up and read:

  • Create a posting schedule: When you start your blog, commit to posting once a week, or once every two weeks, and block out some time in your schedule to do that. Start with a low posting rate — if you find you have enough time to post more, it will be a pleasant surprise for your readers (as opposed to the disappointment of readers used to seeing you post every day when you start posting every two weeks).
  • Brainstorm a hundred post ideas: Sit down with a notebook and write out a hundred (or 50, or 200, or whatever you can — but set the bar high) topics you could write about. Even better, create 100 titles of forthcoming posts. You can even go another step and write quick outlines of how the post might look, When you are stuck for something to write about, pull out your notebook and write one ff your list.
  • Write posts in advance: Build up a backlog of three or four (or more) posts. This gives you a cushion in case you find yourself stuck for a topic down the road, and you can also use the post scheduling feature sevveral blogs have (WordPress.com and Blogger both allow this) to set up posts for the future if you are going to go on vacation or something.
  • Tell people your address: Let people know you have a blog. Put the URL on your business cards, add it to your email signatures, put it in your profile on social networking sites, include it when you post to forums, and so on.
  • Comment on other people’s blogs: Be an active part of the blogging community. People will see your comments and clock the link to find out more about you. Plus, you’ll make friends in your area of interest.
  • Link to other blogs: When other bloggers see you’ve linked to them, they’ll check you out — and may link back to return the favor.
  • Write a guest post: Lots of high-profile blogs will publish guest posts from other bloggers to help them get some attention. Check your favorite blogs and see if they have information about contributing — if you can’t find anything, email the blogger and ask.
  • Write great content: I’ve saved the most important thing for last. Nobody will read your site if you write poorly, or if it’s boring. Nobody will publish your guest posts, and nobody will link to you. You won’t feel motivated to write, because you’ll feel like nobody is reading you, and because you feel unsatisfied with the quality of the work. You don’t have to be Hemingway, but you do have to develop an authentic, engaging voice.

Making small talk

Don’t feel like committing yourself to all that just to express your random thoughts? Try “micro-blogging”, blog-like systems specially designed for short posts on whatever’s on your mind at the moment. The two best known are tumblr and Twitter, both of which allow you to easily post little bits of content — for example, by text messaging a thought, or sending a photo from your mobile phone, or grabbing a video from YouTube.

These services aren’t just for sharing with friends, either. Lots of businesses are starting to recognize the value in having their own Twitter feeds or tumblr blogs, to quickly issue updates and “thoughts of the day” and other stuff intended to put a human face on their company.

Ready, set, blog!

In the time it’s taken you to read this post, you could have set up a blog and published three 300-word posts already. It’s easy, it’s fun, and if you play your cards right, it could make you some money. Not just because you can put ads up or sell products using a blog (though you can do both of those things), but because a blog gives potential employers, clients, and customers a way to find out more about you and to build a relationship with you or your company that’s more human (and humanizing) that the simple exchange of dollars for products. Whatever your line of business, you or your company will be looked up on the Web, and if they don’t find your site, they’ll find other people’s sites about you — or nothing at all. Much better, I think, to take control of your online self, and a blog is an easy and cheap way to get started.

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