So You Want to Start a Blog

Amy Sundberg is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and YA. Her short fiction has appeared in places such as Redstone Science Fiction and Daily Science Fiction. She blogs regularly at The Practical Free Spirit and is currently working on a book about social media strategy for fiction writers. She lives in California with her husband and a ridiculously cute little dog. You can follow her on twitter @amysundberg.

Maybe your agent (or editor, or writer’s group) has been pressuring you to start a blog, or maybe you’ve seen what other writers are doing with their blogs and become intrigued. Maybe you’re interested in building community or connecting with your readers in a closer way. Or maybe you already have a blog, but it collects dust most of the year or could use a reboot.

Here’s what you need to consider before getting started:

1. Commit. Decide up front on a period of time to really devote energy to getting your blog started. You won’t attract readers overnight, and if you’re revamping your blog, it takes time to feel comfortable with the change. It also can take time for you to find your own unique voice for the blog. I recommend committing to at least six months.

2. Assess your time and energy. Are you willing to devote the time and energy necessary to maintain a blog? Because if you absolutely hate the idea, you might be better off putting the majority of your online time into other social media platforms. Readers can tell if you’re dialing it in on a blog, at which point it might not be worth the time grudgingly invested.

3. Choose a platform. The two main blogging platforms right now are WordPress and Blogger. Many writers use because it can be incorporated directly into their author webpage. If you want to try blogging out and don’t already have a blog-enabled webpage, you can start out with and port all that content over to a future website that uses when and if you need something fancier. Blogger is a bit simpler to get started on, if you find the technical aspects of beginning a blog to be intimidating.

4. Decide on a schedule. How often are you going to post? It doesn’t have to be every day, but you need to think of an ideal posting schedule before you get started. Be ready to adapt that schedule if it doesn’t work with the rest of your life, but otherwise, make your best effort to stick with the plan. When starting a new blog, it is often better to post at least once per week; two to three times a week is fabulous. More than once a day can be a bit much for some readers. When you have an already established blog with a loyal audience, you can dial back the frequency.

5. Keep a balance between promotional content and the main focus of your blog. It’s fine if you want to use your blog to promote your work: letting people know about your published stories, upcoming novels, exciting reviews, guest posts elsewhere, and scheduled appearances. However, if you are only ever talking about you, you, you, and buy, buy, buy. that can be a real turn-off to prospective readers. So keep a careful eye on how much time you’re talking about promotion vs. how much time you’re running other content that will interest (and maybe even captivate) your readers.

6. Let people know about your blog. It is okay to promote your blog. Otherwise, how will people know to read it? Make sure you include an easy-to-locate place on your blog where people can sign up to receive your posts via email and via an RSS feed. Let your Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ followers know when you have a new post. You don’t want to be obnoxious about it and post the same link several times, but one time (or two times on Twitter–some people like to tweet their blog post once in the morning and once at night) is perfectly okay.

7. Decide on your content strategy. This is one of the most critical steps in blog creation. Think about who your desired audience is, and then figure out ways in which you can add value to their lives. If you already have an established fan base for your work, your strategy will be different than if you’re a new writer just starting out. You also want to think about how you can make your blog original, the blog that only you could possibly write. For example, many writer blogs out there have very similar and repetitive content about writing. It’s important to either find a niche for yourself within the writing blogs if your desired audience is other writers instead of readers (see Chuck Wendig‘s or Juliette Wade‘s blogs) or figure out what you can blog about that is not exclusively writing. (If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around this idea, here is a primer to get you started.) Finally you want to consider what you’re comfortable talking about, what you’d prefer to keep private, and what tone you’d like to set in terms of appropriate behavior in the comments section (or if you even want comments).

We’ve only just begun the conversation about blogging, and about content strategy in particular. Blogging does require a certain commitment of time, energy, and willingness to experiment. But at its best, it can be quite a fulfilling and impactful experience.

You Need a Website

It’s true—you do need a website. We can debate what form the site takes—a static site, a blog, something else—but you need a presence on the web where people can find more information about you and your work.

If I can’t find them online, my gut reaction is that they’re not really professionals yet. This doesn’t mean you need to blog all the time…but you should at least have an online presence with a little bio and links to your published works. You can make one for free, and it’ll take you an hour. This is 2012. Get a damn website.”

~James Sutter, 9 Ways to Piss Off an Editor

And if you have a site, it should be professional. It only benefits you to make it so.

What do we mean by professional?

It should be appealing.
Perhaps even better stated: don’t turn off your visitor. Too often sites are built without any real considerations for the viewer—there’s no sense of a color scheme, of how graphics should be implemented, how to properly handle graphics, where to place content and navigation…it’s just a mess (and sometimes makes our eyes bleed). First impressions do matter. You will lose most of your viewers within a few seconds if your site looks horrible.

It should be easy to read.
Not all sites are about textual content, but as is focused on writers we will assume your site is (we’ll tackle online portfolios and art driven sites in a later article). As such, you want people to read what you’ve written—that should be the goal of any writer—and you can help your chances by making this easy. Font choices, font sizing, color, contrast, and clarity all come into play here. If in doubt, stick to the basics: darker text on a lighter background, away from graphics, and using standard “reading” fonts—no script type, no comic sans, nothing too big or too small.

It should be easy to navigate.
If you’ve managed to get a visitor to your site you probably would like to keep them there for a while. This is where navigation comes into play—it’s what we all use to move from page to page, from one bit of content to another. Make sure your navigation is logical, well organized, and not overloaded to the point your visitor does not know where to begin.

It should look modern.
This one is a bit tricky and not one to over-stress about. You don’t have to chase after trends (rounded corners or square, drop-shadows or not) but you should keep in mind that tastes (as well as technology) change and it doesn’t take too many years before a website can look dated. Plan on refreshing your site every few years or so.

It should be modern—code wise.
As stated before technology changes and your site should reflect this. There’s a wide range of browsers out there, running on a wide range of devices, and your site should function on as many places as possible. If you put your site up when Internet Explorer 6 was all the rage, your website is a dinosaur.

We recently redesigned the site and took all of these into consideration. Of course we wanted to rebrand the site, to put our own mark on it (while retaining a few design elements that tied back to what it was), but more importantly we wanted the site to be useable. This means high readability, navigation that’s easy to find and click-through, and taking advantage of the latest in webdev technology—all while making the site visually appealing.

Plus we had a fun time doing it.

Your website is an indispensable tool and it should be given the same amount of attention you wish from your visitors. We custom-designed our site because we have that capability, but you don’t have to—there are a myriad of solutions at your disposal, many of which are easy and accessible. Over the coming months we will revisit this topic in greater detail, as well as discussing other options you may encounter: static sites versus CMS-driven, custom design versus themes, self-built or ready-made, using friends or family versus hiring a designer/developer, search engine optimization and how to get more visitors. We won’t help you learn HTML or become a web designer, but we will provide guidance to these and other considerations—no matter your skill or experience level.

Note: both Galen Dara and Bear Weiter contributed to this article.

You Are Not a Gadget…Or, at Least, You Shouldn’t Be

One of Matt Staggs’ links last week was to a New York Times Book Review piece on Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. I haven’t read the book, but the description of its main points really resonated with me, especially because I’m currently taking a break from Facebook and my personal blog.

This part of the review made perfect sense to me:

Mr. Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, is hardly a Luddite, as some of his critics have suggested. Rather he is a digital-world insider who wants to make the case for “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions, which he says fundamentally shape users’ behavior, become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” Just as decisions about the dimensions of railroad tracks determined the size and velocity of trains for decades to come, he argues, so choices made about software design now may yield “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come.

This argument and others from his book mirror my own concerns about new media. Even as I’ve embraced much of what new/social media has to offer, I also strongly recommend, in Booklife and in my lecture for MIT, thinking about what you’re doing and remembering the importance of balance. In particular, these points:

(1) New media tools like Facebook and Twitter are exactly that—tools. They are not strategies. Just getting on Facebook, creating a blog is not a strategy or a plan. I can’t repeat that enough.

(2) It’s when you mistake the tools for a strategy that you begin to not only become tactical and reactive but also limited in your thinking because of the limitations of the tools.

(3) The most successful writers in the future will be the ones that stop responding in Pavlovian fashion to our current need for that little food pellet in the form of a response to a Blog entry, Twitter line or a Facebook status message.

(4) Further, the tools which you help realize both a creative project and create interest for it are constantly changing. Thus a focus on the tools is a focus on what will all too soon be the past.

(5) A focus on tools thus also means that you are in some ways limiting your options by letting the limitations of the tool and the preconceptions the tool engenders shape your project. Don’t let your imagination become a lackey to a new media tool. If a tool controls your actions, it to some extent controls your imagination.

Lanier’s book also seems to make strong arguments about not supporting mob behavior on the internet, something that we’ve seen too often—in which sheer force of numbers seems to win an argument, even when there hasn’t been true or logical discussion of the issues. Nuance suffers and the facts tend to become distorted.

Food for thought–and a book I’ll be picking up shortly. Amazon has an interesting interview with the author here.