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Friday, December 19, 2014

So You Want to Start Your Own Blog (Part 2: Prep)

Return to Part 1

Part two in our series of advice to would be bloggers. Because people keep asking me for advice about how they should blog. And they keep not believing that I know jack shit. So here is another installment of the sum and substance of my meager (and I do mean meager) wisdom.

Remember I'm not the right person to ask about SEO optimization, self promotion strategies, "getting the most from your blog" tweaks, how to scale your actionable synergy, or bleeding edge branding strategies. I'm just a writer, and if any of that shit looks like it's going to take too much time and energy away from writing, I don't bother with it. So what I can tell is what's easy to do, leaves you time to focus on your art, but still works.

OKAY....so...you've definitely thought about whether or not you even want to blog, and you're sure you want to take the plunge into the ocean of pain, suffering, and regular updates whether you "feel inspired" or not. I like your style, masochist. But let's not fire up that first post just yet. (Don't worry, you'll feel like you've been doing this like Sisyphus in no time.) Trust me though, that you're going to appreciate taking a moment to think a few things through before you start punching keys.

Part 2 PREPARATION 

Before you dig into the seedy, underpaid, unglamorous, unglorious, and woefully un-groupie-threesomed world of blogging, you might want to do a little bit of preparation to get yourself ready to rock. Yes, you could dive right in like that idiot Chris did, but if there's one fucking thing I learned looking back, it's that I wish someone had told me this shit instead of all that mind numbing fecal explosion about "search engine optimization" and domain names.


Try your hand at some serious guest blogging. Seriously, I can't stress this enough.

Traveling through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops boy. Writing a blog isn't exactly the same as journaling or even whipping up six college essays a semester. You may have a few good ideas in your head and you want to write about them, but do you really have hundreds? Thousands? Enough to keep writing at a regular pace for years? The expectation that one will simply sit down, fire off those good ideas that have been marinating for years, and the accolades will start rolling in is seductive.

And bullshit.

Seductive bullshit. A huge pile of it. And if you've ever woken up next to a pile of bullshit that successfully seduced you, you know that it's not your proudest moment.

It also won't respect you in the morning.

Yes, you will come up with new ideas, but you'll be shocked at how fast the exciting "new-relationship-energy" of blogging will wear off and it will be an obligation that you don't always look forward to like a puppy to its human coming home with a ball. It's good to get a realistic sense of how much of a drag "Crap, I have to write an article for tomorrow" can be. Once the glitter and the excitement has worn off, are you still going to want to be doing this, or are you going to be sitting there with a blog that has eight entries, trying not to feel like a failure.

It's a really good idea to do some guest blogging before you jump in the water. I know you'll probably feel like you're giving all your best ideas away to some other website, but I promise you that 1) you'll come up with new ideas, 2) you'll be able to retool the ideas you use into new articles that have a fresh (and better) take on the subject, and 3) you will value the experience of the cold, hard reality more than the few ideas you give up.

Finding a blog to write for is easy. Just find one that is writing about a subject you want to tackle and send them an e-mail. Most blogs are always looking for guest bloggers (Writer's note: yes, even W.A.W.) They would love the chance to have a day off or to be noticed by a few of your friends. And you will be noticed by their readers. (Then you have the added benefit of being able to poach a few initial readers when you start your own blog.) Just keep in mind that unless you're writing for a major news media blog, you will almost certainly have to settle for the experience, the exposure, and maybe the promise of being bought a drink someday. (W.A.W. promises to share the proceeds if there are any, but it would take a very popular article to reach that point.)

If you are thinking to yourself "the promise of 'exposure' is total bullshit" you're right....if someone approaches YOU to write for THEM.  But it's a sad reality of guest blogging--especially if you're unknown. A single article would have to get tens of thousands of clicks to even cover the postage of sending you a check (or the Paypal service fee). So unless you go uberviral, there's not much chance of you making enough money from a single entry for the blog to matter.


What kind of blog do you want to write?

Blog about something. The worst answer you could give is "I dunno....whatever."

For starters, you have robots crawling your site looking for how to put it on search engines. The more topics you cover, the more those robots won't know what the hell to do with you. But more than that, it's about who comes to your site. Who stays. And who becomes a fan.

Basically, unless you're famous, blogs are not journals. You can get your friends interested in your journal....maybe. Although we may have jumped the shark on social media journalling altogether. I definitely remember about ten years ago when most people were introduced to me by their Livejournal handles. (Hi, I'm Dicedork! This is Flimontheflam.) However most of us seem to have culturally moved on. Not that there aren't still some journalers out there entertaining their friends (even on LJ), but you would probably have to be outrageously funny, endlessly fascinating, or already famous for people to tune in to your blog about....whatever.

The best blogs are about something. Politics. Skepticism. Religion. Science. Cooking. Writing. SOMETHING. You might think that you can broaden your audience by broadening your topic base, but it actually will work just the opposite. The more topics you try to cover, the fewer people are going to be interested in most of them.

It's not that you can't have an off-topic post once in a while or shoehorn some really interesting thing that happened to you into the container of writing (~cough~), but you mostly want to stay on topic--and on a narrow topic.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but the tighter the subject focus of your blog, the more people are probably going to subscribe. It might be a little harder to find them if your topic is really esoteric, but you will be their one-stop "Esotericsubject"shop. Once people know what to expect, they are more likely to be interested. I swear to god some of the most popular blogs out there are these bizarrely specific topics like "Doctor Who Memes and Cooking on a Five Dollar Budget" or "Social Justice in Metropolitan Parks." It's because people will always know what they're getting when they visit these blogs. One of the most successful bloggers I know writes ONLY about Warhammer 50k miniatures strategy games. That's it. If it's not a report of a convention game, an evaluation of a unit, a preview of an upcoming expansion, or whatever, he doesn't write about it. He has ten times the traffic I do right now.

Here's why this works even though it seems like it shouldn't: if you're the only vegan, gluten free, sugar free, ethnic cookies recipe blogger out there, you will get every single person interested in vegan, gluten free, sugar free, ethnic cookies subscribed to your blog. They know that EVERY SINGLE entry you write is going to be something they're interested in. If you write for a blog that writes about anything that fits vaguely under the umbrella of "Geek Culture" you're up against about fifty million other blogs that do the same thing in addition to ones that focus on video games or movies or whatever.

And before you ask, there are a metric shitton of writing blogs out there, and even several that are deliciously snarky and drop the f-bomb several times per entry. Even though almost none that have a cheese guy living on the second floor of their compound, this is why I live on diet of Raman and shame.

Can you blog about nothing? Or broad topics? Of course. Do what you love. There's no reason to be writing anyway. But if you want to find your niche audience, the trick is to go narrow.


Decide how often you want to post. Or more accurately, how often you can afford to post.

One of the biggest factors in how quickly your blog will grow is the consistency with which you write. If you just fire off an entry when you are motivated and the spirit moves you and there's no more Orange is the New Black on Netflix and you're not doing a Dominion tournament with your friends that night, and, and, and......not too many people will likely subscribe to your blog's updates. They'll just click through when you pique their interest. And that means they won't even know you've posted if they're not in a place you can market to.

What will get people to subscribe is the anxiety that they might miss something awesome if they don't. If they know you're writing every day, and they really like your work, they will subscribe (or follow you on various social media). If they know you only write infrequently, you won't give them that "gotta catch em' all" anxiety.

You want your posting schedule to remain relatively consistent. You can fiddle with the knobs once you're up and running and it won't bother too many people, but if you make broad, sweeping changes to the entire fundamental structure of your blog in mid-stream, you're going to lose some readers. People like the comfort of their routines. A blog that suddenly goes from a monthly post to daily posting will be seen as suddenly becoming overwhelming (even by people who gladly read daily blogs). A blog that does the reverse will be seen as having been abandoned (even by people who gladly read monthly blogs).

I logged back in after a month and found thirty back entries.
Forget it. No one needs ethnic cookies THAT badly.

One last thing to keep in mind here is that this will relate directly to how quickly your blog will grow. I know bloggers who have been at it for two (and in one case almost three) times longer than me, many of whom are terribly jealous of my numbers–which are still quite modest. Every time they wonder what my secret is, I find out that they're writing one post a week or a couple of times a month. I write a post every day, including weekends, and even do some funky jazz hands posts when I'm on vacation. I'm like a sweatshop worker in a southeast Asian country--that's the only reason I have the (modest) numbers I do. The more you write, the faster you will grow.


Check the regular advice. 

There's some stuff I can't tell you because I don't care.

Seriously, I understand it's a thing, but I couldn't give a shit. I'm interested in philosophical questions about blogging vs. writing and the "real cost" of self-promotion vs. art. I don't particularly care about whether or not I have my own domain name. I figure most people who want to find me will find me no matter what my blog's domain name is. I already spend too much time on social media (and not writing), so I'm not going to work any harder to develop the ultimate self promotion plan. I couldn't care less that I'm using one of Blogger's pre-generated templates.

So there's all this bullshit out there that isn't writing. It's more like webpage design, search engine optimization, and social media integration. It gives me a headache, and I would rather write.

But you have to decide for yourself how important that stuff is to you. I could give fuck all, but you might want to really focus on that stuff. And if you Google "How to start a blog" or something similar, you will discover that 99% of the advice you're going to find is about this stuff. They won't tell you to guest blog or how important it is to establish a posting schedule or a topic. They're going to talk about how to get your own domain name and where to post your articles to get the most hits.

Yawn.

I don't care for that stuff, but you might. So I would at least give yourself a few hours of reading the "typical" advice, so you can come to your own conclusions about how much you want to be a writer vs. how much you want to mess with being a webmaster.


Blogger or Wordpress? Or.....are you going rogue? 

There is one decision you have to make right away, and it will matter. You have to decide your blogging platform. Now unless you want to journal (in which case you might use Livejournal, G+, or Facebook Notes) or you want to post a LOT of GIFs and images in with your writing (in which case Tumblr or Quora), you basically have two choices. Blogger or Wordpress. There are a lot of platforms that are better for vloggers or photographers or podcasters, but I'm going to assume you're mostly going to be writing. If you want to pay money to host your blog, it opens up a few other options–like Typepad or Ghost–but these options aren't necessarily better than their free counterparts.

Your basic choice is Blogger vs. Wordpress. And this is the difference: Blogger is going to be a lot easier to use. Wordpress can do more.

Let me explain to you how I deal with computers. When my computer breaks, I stand there looking pathetic and say, "We look for things. Things that make us go." When someone who understands computers comes along, I kidnap them and hope their buddies don't have a crimson force field.

Computer people are smart. They will make our blog strong.

For me, picking Blogger was a no brainer. On a good day, I can figure out how to turn my computer ON without help. I needed the template with the plug-and-play widgets and the "Click here to host ads!" button. I needed to pick a template and have everything preset to the right geometry. I needed a program that would auto-format for mobile visitors. Even though I know that I could do more with Wordpress, for me it's a lot easier to just have the option to click a button to get what I want. (Some day, if W.A.W. is ever making pay-the-bills money, I will establish a Wordpress mirror site.) I prefer macs for the same reason, much to the chagrin of my computer science engineer roommate.

If you like configurability, have skill with HTML, or just don't mind taking a lot longer to figure out what the fuck you just did that made every letter as big as an entire screen, you might prefer Wordpress. It can do more. It can be snazzier and you have far greater options with it's tools. For example, I would love to have drop down menus on those tabs at the top of the screen. Instead each opens a page with sub directories. Drop down menus are pretty easy to whip up on Wordpress if you know what you're doing because Wordpress can do more. In Blogger they require basically recoding your entire site. I took one look at how to do it and my bowels evacuated as fight or flight set in.

You may want to consider one other thing if your writing is "fringe" subject matter (hate speech, legally questionable erotica, wildly controversial, or something). Blogger doesn't hold a copyright on your writing, but it does host your blog. So, in theory, they could just shut it down one day with no warning. Wordpress can host your website (with the same risks) or you can just use their program as your blogging tool, and host your blog yourself. Then no one can just shut you down.

Now I don't know what any of that means, but it sounds like something some writers might be paranoid about. I will say this: the last time blogger shut down a bunch of blogs in the news, it was pedophilia erotica with stock pictures of little kids as the preview image, so...I'm having a hard time whipping up even a little bit of outrage at the censorship of it all.


Give yourself a couple of days to figure out the learning curve.

When you log in, you're going to see a zillion things you don't understand. You may not even be able to figure out how to post. You won't know what the hell buttons do, or have any sense of how to go about getting what you want. You will just see this wall of strange buttons: "Labels; Schedule; Posts; Permalink; Layout; Stats; Options...." You might feel a bit overwhelmed.

It's fucking worse than Sims 3...which at least has a tutorial.

Don't run. Don't panic. Don't go tarn. Just relax and trust me that in a day you're going to understand the basics, and in a month you'll be an old pro. Give yourself an afternoon to fiddle around with the buttons and figure out how things work.


Decide if you want to make money.

Yes, do this now. Do it before you start. Decide if you are going to make money.

Pretentious? Maybe. Presumptuous? Almost certainly.

Do it anyway.

If you navigate the world of "How to start a blog" posts like I did, you're going to find very quickly that there are certain bits of advice that everybody repeats.  (Write high quality stuff, not keyword rich filler; post consistently; etc...) While four different posts might have 80% completely different advice, that 20% is something they all agree on. That's when you know it's probably good advice.

So I want you to understand the gravitas when I tell you that just about every website had this one piece of advice: "If you're going to host ads on your blog, do it RIGHT AWAY." Do it from day one, even if you only have ten readers and make a penny every two weeks.

Here's why....

I make about five dollars a day at Writing About Writing.
Selling out never felt so good.
People get really upset, on principle, if you start to make money at something you used to do for free. They'll think you're selling out. It doesn't even matter if you're charging them or not, but just the fact that you're making money will get them incensed. Study after study shows that people will totally support something that had ads from the beginning, but will abandon that same exact thing if it adds advertising later on where there wasn't any prior. Livejournal is a great example of this. Many people dealt happily with dozens of websites each day that hosted ads, but when Livejournal included ads (after years of being ad-free), people LOST. THEIR. SHIT and left in droves.

A lot of bloggers make the mistake of saying they will "go commercial" when they reach a certain point. (10,000 followers or a million page views.) The problem is that a bunch of people will leave when the blogger starts hosting ads, and so the blogger has to recoup that loss.

Let me make this clear again, these are not people who would have left anyway. These are not people who "don't read commercial blogs." They wouldn't have NOT joined if they'd showed up and seen ads to begin with. These are people who will resent the perception they have that something has changed for the worse–worse being materialism. (Because god forbid a writer make money for something they do hours a day for the entertainment of others.)

Better to just decide ahead of time and host ads if you're going to.

Part 3 Coming Soon

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