Nut and Bolt

Chances are, if you’re a blogger, you’ve heard about Microsoft’s free blogging tool, Windows Live Writer (WLW). In case you haven’t heard about it, WLW is an offline WYSIWIG (What You See Is What You Get) blogging tool that integrates very nicely with most blogging platforms, allowing you to create and edit blog posts from your desktop. Although it is usually great fun to mock Microsoft’s efforts, as it happens WLW is really very cool. If you regularly write for several different sites, it can really help to simplify your blogging life!

Unlike a lot of Microsoft products, WLW makes a strong effort to work with a variety of non-Microsoft services and products. So while it gives Microsoft’s own “Live Spaces” service pride of place in the setup dialog, WLW works well with a variety of blogging platforms, from hosted services like Google’s Blogger and WordPress.com to WordPress and other blogging programs hosted on your own servers — it even works with non-mainstream platforms like Drupal, albeit minus a few of the bells and whistles.

Setup is pretty easy, as WLW works hard to auto-detect your website’s settings. You might need to tell WLW where the interface is on your host — it’s usually a file called “xmlrpc.php”, and I’ve found that if I just assume it’s at “www.[domain name].com/xmlrpc.php”, it usually works. Once you’re set up, WLW will download the stylesheet and post template, so as you write your posts you can see exactly how it will look when it’s posted.

WLW is pretty straightforward, but here’s a few pointers to some of the intermediate and advanced features that WLW offers:

  1. Categories: WLW reads the categories from your site, so click “categories” at the bottom of the post window and check off whatever categories you want your post to go in. If you use tags as categories, a list of all your previously-used tags will come up — useful if you want to avoid using multiple variations of the same idea (e.g. “e-book”, “ebooks”, and “e-books”).
  2. Set Publish Date: If your blogging software allows you to schedule posts to go “live” in the future, you’ll find a drop-down calendar at the bottom next to the categories field.
  3. Tagging: Hit the double up-arrow at the bottom of the post window (or press “F2″) and a range of other options will open up, including a tagging field. List your tags just like you would if you were editing online.
  4. The “Read More” tag: For blogs like WordPress, where you use the <!–more–> tag to mark the end of the excerpt you want on the front page of your blog, the same thing is accomplished by placing your cursor where you want the “Read More” tag and selecting “Split Post” from the “Format” menu.
  5. Remind yourself: If you’re the kid of person who forgets to add categories, tags, and titles to your posts, open the “Options” (in the “Tools” menu) and under “Preferences” check off “Remind me to specify a title before publishing”, “Remind me to add categories before publishing”, and “Remind me to add tags before publishing”. When you go to publish or save a draft to your site, WLW will check that all these are present and, if not, ask you to add them.While you’re in the “Options”, go to “Spelling” and check “Check spelling before publishing”, too — this will launch the spell-checker automatically when you go to publish your post.
  6. Use templates: If you use snippets of text, code, or other mterial regularly, you can use a plugin to save and insert templates. I use Joe Cheng’s Dynamic Template Plugin, which is the most flexible: you can create templates with several fields and containing any kind of text or code you want, even interactive fields (though I admit I’m not enough of a programmer to understand how this works, but watch the demo on the site). Then you select “Insert Template” from the “Insert” menu (or the sidebar) and select whichever template you want to use. Boom! Instant text.
  7. Insert pictures: You can use the built-in “Insert Picture” dialog to add images from your hard drive, but you can also use a variety of plugins to add images from services like Picasa and Flickr.
  8. Round-up links from del.icio.us: The del.icio.us bookmark plugin will collect your links from del.icio.us, convert them into HTML, and insert them into your post. Coupled with the template plugin above, this s a pretty handy way to do almost instant daily or weekly round-ups of links you want to tell you readers about
  9. Blog This: “Blog This” plugins are available for both IE and Firefox users, allowing you to highlight some text on a webpage, hit the “Blog This” button, and open a new post with your elected text already inserted in WLW. If you’re using IE, you can add the ‘blog it!” button to Windows Live Toolbar; Firefox users use the Firefox plugin.

I have a few minor quibbles with WLW, like the fact that I can change the date a post will be published but not the time — which forces me to use the “Post Draft and Edit Online” feature instead of just publishing directly. But by and large, WLW works the way I blog, and because it integrates into so many services I can a single tool on my desktop instead of logging in to half a dozen separate websites and using half a dozen different interfaces.

Do you have any tips to offer WLW users? Or is there another tool you prefer to use — any why? Tell us in the comments.

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