How to Blog (Better): Getting Started
Over the last few months, I've had several calls and emails from people who were interested in starting their own blogs, asking me if I had any tips for someone who was just starting out. Most recently, a friend asked me for some advice via email, and two days ago, I sent a horrifyingly long (and very likely incredibly overwhelming) tome in response, containing my initial thoughts on things to consider when starting a blog.
It is entirely possible that I'm a little too passionate about blogging.
Anyway, on the off-chance some of you out there are toying with the idea of starting your own blog, I thought I'd share my thoughts here. Incidentally, while I certainly don't begrudge anyone who wants to make money on their blogs (because, well, I do), the advice I give here is intended for someone who is starting a blog because they feel they have something to say that they want a wider audience to read. Obviously, there are private blogs out there, or blogs intended for only immediate family and friends; but this advice is for someone who has a passion around a certain subject and loves to write. The monetization/branding thing is a whole separate topic, I think, and not one that I intend to address in any way here.
So! On with the show.
First of all, consider your purpose. From my perspective, I think the best blogs are written by people who have a distinct purpose for writing their blogs. For example, if you're thinking about starting a food blog, it makes sense to flesh out the type of food blog you're thinking about writing: do you want this to just be a personal archive of your favorite recipes? Do you want to make this a place merely for friends and family? Do you want this to be a huge blog that has lots of followers? Will you do restaurant reviews? Will you feature gourmet food? Ethnic food? Good home cooking? Similarly, if you intend to merely blog about your life, you can dig a little deeper: will it be an advice blog for people who are similarly situated? Will it be a humor blog, where you wryly note the funny things that happen in your life? A spiritual blog? A photo blog?
In other words, it can be good to have an idea of where you'd like this blogging venture to go from the start -- although, to be perfectly frank, the way I blog now is far different from how I started, as a new mom blogger. In any event, while chances are likely that your blog will morph and evolve over time, it sometimes helps to have an overall vision in mind that you can tweak as you go along.
Ultimately, however, it's a good idea to write about something you're passionate about, as opposed to something you just think "the world needs." Like, you might think that there aren't enough blogs out there talking about natural hair dyes (as a completely random example), but unless you're really passionate about natural hair dyes, I'd recommend thinking about another subject. The best blogs to read are the ones written by people who you can tell loved writing every word -- and if you're not passionate about your subject (or you don't love to write, for that matter), your blog will fall by the wayside, anyway.
Secondly, on considering blogging platforms: There are lots of different "platforms," or online blogging applications out there that are really awesome. For the very simple and very clean (but really allow for limited customization), there's Posterous.com and Tumblr.com -- these are quick-and-dirty platforms that are free, very easy to use, but allow for very limited customization of design. I actually use Posterous as a place to dump the photographs with my iPhone -- you can see it here.
For more in-depth and customizable ones, you might want to consider Typepad.com, Blogger.com, Wordpress.com (and lately, Wordpress seems to be getting a lot of ... well, press). In order to customize them, you may have to pay a fee -- but they are surprisingly inexpensive, and generally very easy to use -- if you can use Microsoft Word and most email applications, you can use these blogging platforms. I started with Typepad, and it was very good; as I said, Wordpress is starting to get some serious buzz, and I've seen some really beautiful blogs that use them.
All that said, nowadays I use Squarespace.com -- which I absolutely love. The customer service is nothing short of amazing, and the ability to customize it I find spectacular. A caveat: it might be more blogging platform than you need starting out. But make no mistake: it's lovely to use, and they do great work. I can't imagine using any other platform.
Third, on naming your blog: Here's where things can get a bit tricky. Some thoughts:
a) Don't make the name too long -- You want something that can be easy to remember and easy to type. Also, at some point, if you find that you're really enjoying blogging, you're probably going to want to have your own URL (when you use a blogging platform, at first your blog will include the platform's name, like "www.blogname.squarespace.com," and eventually, you might want to have just your own URL, like "www.blogname.com"). So "EatAroundTheWorldWithMe.com" is probably a bit long, but "LocalGrub.com" is quick and memorable, for example.
b) Make the name unique -- Even though you may not be planning on purchasing your own URL anytime soon, again, one day you may want to, so do a little research to see if the name you'd like to pick hasn't been taken by anyone else. A nice easy way to find out if a blog name is taken is to put what you'd like to call your blog in the field here: https://www.pairnic.com/index.html -- it will tell you if the name's available, or if it's already taken. Again, I'm not suggesting you buy the URL outright (although you certainly can, and some might argue that you should, if only to save the name), but it can be good to know if there's going to be a likelihood of confusion between your site and someone else's.
c) Don't pick a name that you might outgrow -- A lot of times the tempation is to name the blog around something that's very exciting in your life right now ("newmommy.com" or "lovinglondonfood.com") -- but in the case of the "newmommy" name, your kid is going to grow up; in the case of "lovinglondon," you might move, or worse, start to dislike the city. Something to think about.
In my case, I was a new mom, and I'm from Trinidad, so I wanted a name for my blog that reflected that (because I was going to write about my daughter). I chose "Chookooloonks" because it's a word we Trinis use to mean "sweetheart," particularly when talking about a child.
I was lucky -- even though I outgrew the new mom thing, and in fact, I hardly ever blog about parenting anymore, since most people don't know the significance of "Chookooloonks," the name managed to grow with me (since "mommy" or "mom" aren't in the title). Because it's a fun word to say, and it's so unique, it was easy for me to purchase chookooloonks.com as a URL. The down side? Most people have a hard time pronouncing it at first, much less spelling it -- and a small part of me wishes I'd picked something easier to spell. No worries, though -- it's sort of become my brand, and it works for me.
Finally, on writing your blog: The trick is to be casual and warm, without sacrificing good grammar and spelling. People will not come back if it's tough to read. When I write my blog, I sort of try to write it like I would write to a favorite former professor or boss -- proper grammar, proper spelling, but not so formal as to be alienating, you know? And definitely let your personality show in your blog -- in my experience, I've always loved blogs that made me feel like I was getting to know the author. That said, guard your privacy, and don't say anything about anyone on your blog that you wouldn't say to their face in a crowded room. Because trust me, even if they don't read your blog? One day they will read your blog.
As far as frequency -- the more frequently you blog, the more traffic to your site you will tend to earn and sustain. That said, you don't want to get burned out, either. I'd say aim for twice a week, I suppose, at first? And then tweak it up or down depending on how you feel. In my case, I make a concerted effort to blog 5 days a week, and it's pretty time consuming -- but I consider my blog an integral part of how I make my living, and after almost 7 years of blogging, I feel like I've developed a strong relationship with my readers, so I think it's important for me to have a consistent, frequent schedule. Besides, I'm passionate about what I blog about, so it's all good.
And that's it! For those of you who are seasoned bloggers, please feel to leave your own advice and tips in the comments section, below. Also, just because we can all do with some inspiration, bloggers or not, I thought I'd share my favourite blog "muses" (affectionately called my "Chookoolinks") -- these are some really, really good sites. Please check them out.
And happy blogging!
Karen Walrond is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. Her first book, The Beauty of Different, is now available for preorder from Bright Sky Press and Amazon. Read/See more of her life at www.chookooloonks.com