So you want to start a blog…

Your 7-step guide to setting up your own blog and writing for an online audience

A traveling musician friend recently asked me for advice on how to create a blog. She’s just starting out in her career, leads an interesting life, and would like a dedicated online space to share her thoughts and experiences with a larger audience.

Here’s what I told her. If you’re just starting out online – or you know someone who is – you may find this helpful:

1. Decide if you want to go the quick & dirty free route or if you’re willing to spend a bare minimum of $150-$200

If this project is something you’re exploring just to see if you actually enjoy blogging, then you may as well start a free blog. You can always transfer your content over to a more professional-looking website later on.

If, on the other hand, you know for sure that you are going to want to use your site to promote your music and/or yoga classes, then you might want to do the bare minimum of buying your own domain and hosting for extra credibility.

Here are the advantages of hosting your own blog:

  • You can send people to yourname.com instead of something like yourname.wordpress.com – makes you seem more legit
  • If you choose to use a website builder such as WordPress, there are 1,000s more themes available for wordpress.org sites (aka ones that you have total control over) vs. wordpress.com sites (the ones that are hosted on WordPress servers). The former allow you far more in the way of customization, in terms of what the site looks like and functions
  • You can add more functionality (interactive event calendars, photo sliders, formatted pull quotes etc.) to a paid site vs. a free wordpress.com one

If these factors aren’t important to you right now, go for the free version.

2. Buy your domain and hosting (if you choose to go that route)

If you do decide to host your site on your own domain (yourname.com), I recommend you buy your domain from 1and1.com:

1and1screenshot

I always use them because they’re cheap and easy and I’ve never had a problem with their service. There are probably better ones out there but I’m lazy and prefer to stick to what I know. 😉

You can check out 1and1.com here.

In terms of hosting packages, I recommend you check out bluehost.com:

bluehost

They’re relatively inexpensive ($3.95/month) and I’ve never had a problem with them. Prompt customer service, very little downtime, easy WordPress set up, etc.

You can check out Bluehost here.

If you choose to use these options, here’s a tutorial that tells you how to connect your 1and1.com with your website hosted via Bluehost:

Use Your Own Name Server for a 1&1 Domain

(Note: the name servers you will need to use in Step 5 are: ns1.BlueHost.com ns2.BlueHost.com.)

And here’s a tutorial that tells you how to set up a WordPress site via Bluehost:

How to Install WordPress on your Bluehost site

Finally, here’s a handy guide on how to choose a great domain name for your blog, in case you prefer not to brand it under your own name:

How to Choose the Right Domain Name

2. Choose the website builder you will use

There are a bunch of different website builders out there – WordPress, Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, The Grid, etc. etc. I recommend you choose WordPress because it’s by far the most popular – which means there are way more designers who work with the WordPress platform and developers creating apps for it.

Not only does this mean more choice and functionality, it also means that it’s easy to find someone to help you when things go wrong. If someone comes to me saying, “Help! I need someone to fix a problem with my WordPress site!” I can immediately think of six or seven people I can point her toward. If she says, “Help! My Weebly or Squarespace or Grid site isn’t working!” there’s not much I can do beyond offer sympathy.

3. Decide what theme you want to use

The theme is the basic design and structure of your website. Some themes are far more customizable than others.

Going the free route?

Assuming you’re using WordPress, your options are limited to the themes available for wordpress.com sites. You’ll find them here: WORDPRESS.COM THEMES.

A few you might want to check out are:

1. Saga


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This is a nicely laid out, easily readable blog that does a good job of showcasing writing and images. You can add extra pages that appear on the menu in the upper right corner – e.g., an About page as well as maybe pages for Music, Video, Upcoming Shows, and/or Yoga?

You can check it out here: https://theme.wordpress.com/themes/saga/

2. Nucleare

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Another clean, very readable blog. This one has the menu items running along the top of the page, which will likely generate more clicks compared to the discreet red “menu” button in the Sage theme above.

You can check it out here: https://theme.wordpress.com/themes/nucleare/

3. Ecto

 

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As you can see, this one has a huge image at the top of the page, which could be fun to play with. Decent fonts, really readable. A discreet menu button at the top – maybe too discreet? I suspect that hidden menus such as this one discourage clicks on the other pages – which is good if you want people to be primarily focused on the page you send them to, but not so good if you’re hoping they check out your other pages while they’re on your site.

You can check it out here: https://theme.wordpress.com/themes/ecto/

You can find a lot more themes for a free wordpress.com site at: WORDPRESS.COM THEMES. Note that some of them cost money – search out the free ones.

As you explore the options, look for themes that emphasize readability – e.g., have a decent-sized font such as the examples above, have black text against a white background, allow you to post big, beautiful photos that look great etc.

Hosting your site on your own domain?

If you choose to host your own site at yourname.com, you’ll have MANY more theme options to choose from. And you’ll be able to customize them a lot more as well. Many of the best themes for your own hosted WordPress.org sites cost money but you can find a pretty decent one for anywhere from $50 to $120 dollars.

Here are some you might want to check out:

1. Lovecraft

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You can customize the title & sub-title at the top and insert your image to go across the top of your page.

You see the menu above the picture, with the links, “Above Lovecraft,” “Page Templates,” “Dropdown?” Those are all separate pages that you can customize if you want to have any easy-to-find stand-alone content that stands apart from your blog. For example, you could have an About Chloe page, an Events page, a photo gallery, a page with all your videos – whatever you most want to share. Then you could have your blog posts going down your homepage, most recent first.

All of the content in the right sidebar is totally customizable as well. Ditto with the content in the footer at the bottom of the page.

You can check out Lovecraft here: http://www.andersnoren.se/themes/lovecraft/

2. Radcliffe

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This theme takes a more image-driven approach to the homepage, where each blog post entry appears as a large picture that takes up the full width of the page with a title over top. As you mouse over the title, the bar goes dark and the title goes red, as you can see on the top post in the image above.

When you click on the title you get taken to the actual post, which has a larger version of the picture and the blog post underneath it. Nice fonts, very readable.

You can check it out here: http://www.andersnoren.se/themes/radcliffe/

3. DW Timeline

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This one’s interesting. It starts off with a large image up top that you can customize and then shows the blog posts as little text & image boxes arranged on a visual timeline, like so:

Without images:

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With images:

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This could be a fun format to play with… my one criticism is that I’m not a super huge fan of the paragraph font they’re using on the actual blog pages. Hopefully that’s customizable.

You can check it out here: http://demo.designwall.com/dw-timeline/

So that’s just a small sampling of the different themes that are out there. (And those are just for WordPress!)

If you’d like to check out some more, google search terms such as “best free wordpress themes 2015” then explore the results you get.

(It’s a good idea to include the year to ensure you get the most up-to-date results.)

Things to watch out for:

  • A highly readable font – you want your paragraph font to be a good size (e.g., at least 16 point) and nothing too cartoonish or fancy. If it’s too small or stylized, it will be harder for people to read, which means fewer people will read more than a paragraph or two.
  • Paragraph font is black or VERY dark gray against a white background. Anything else is roughly a gazillion times harder to read. That’s okay for extremely small amounts of copy, but not for anything longer than a paragraph or two.
  • Paragraph lines don’t stretch alllll the way across a verrrrry wide page (unless the font is freaking HUGE). The human eye can only track so far horizontally before needing to drop down to the next line and start again from the left like an old typewriter. I see too many sites that use, say, a 12-point font with lines that are 900 pixels wide and that makes me weep tears of sadness. The ideal proportion is more like 16 pt font for a 650 pixel wide line.
  • Site menu is obvious and easy to find. You’ll no doubt eventually want to have pages on your website that promote your music, videos, events, yoga classes, etc. and it’s best to have a separate page for each. By making the menu easy to notice, you increase the chances people check out what else you have to offer.
  • Responsive design. Your theme should look great on screens of any size – e.g., smart phones and tablets as well as computers. More people than ever use phones to access the Internet, so your site looks awesome and is easy to read for them. Especially since your audience will no doubt skew younger and will be more likely to visit your site on their phones.

4. Learn how to navigate around your website’s back end

Ha! That sounds kind of rude… What I’m talking about is getting to know how to use your website’s dashboard and behind-the-scenes functionality.

Here are some tutorials to get you started, if you decide to go the WordPress route:

You’ll find a whole shwack of video tutorials here: https://www.wp101.com/courses/wordpress101/

And there are some great text & graphics tutorials here: https://www.siteground.com/tutorials/wordpress/wordpress_start.htm

5. Start writing!

Now comes the super fun part – playing with words! And photos, video, audio – whatever you care to post.

In terms of your writing, the simpler and more natural sounding it is, the more engaging it will be. As with everything, the best way to improve your writing is to practice it regularly – but here are some resources that could help speed up the process:

6. Learn how to be a great editor

When it comes to good writing, 10 percent of the effort goes into the actual writing – and 90 percent into the editing.

For me, the easiest and most enjoyable way to write is to crank out a first draft in a mad rush – the ideas come pouring out of my head far more freely if I’m not worrying about word choice and grammar. Once the ideas are down on the page, that’s when it’s time to start playing with them.

Here are some resources that will help you hone your editing skills:

7. Immerse yourself in great writing

One of the best ways to become a better writer is to read great writing every day. If you’re wanting to develop your online writing skills, create a list of online writers whose work you admire then read them every week.

As you read their writing, ask yourself:

  • What specifically do I like about their writing?
  • How does the writer’s personal voice come through?
  • What aspects of content and style make this person’s writing unique?
  • What lessons can I glean from this person’s work and apply to my own writing?

In no way am I recommending you to copy another writer’s content or style. But as you read great blog posts, articles, and stories, you might see certain elements you’d like to adapt and make uniquely your own – specific topics you’d like to address, formatting elements you’d like to use, or ideas on how to inject your writing with more personality. Go for it! It’s only through practice and experimentation that you will develop your own personal style.

Final tips

Here are just a few final tips that I’d like to emphasize because I have found them hugely valuable in my own writing. I hope you find them helpful too.

1. Write to a specific person. One of the best ways to make your writing sound more natural is to imagine that you’re writing to your best friend or someone else who you love. This way, you’re more likely to write how you’d speak – and allow your own authentic voice to shine through.

2. Silence your inner critic. You know the little voice inside your head that whispers your writing isn’t any good and tries to edit the words before they’re even out of your HEAD? Tell that joker to take a hike. When you’re writing a first draft, your primary focus should be getting the ideas out of your head and down on paper.. Don’t worry about proper grammar or finding “le mot juste” until you’re in the editing process.

(That said, if you have any bursts of inspiration about particular words and phrases you might want to use, write ‘em down! Just don’t feel like you have to come up with the “perfect words” during the first go-round.)

3. Format your writing for an online audience. When it comes to online writing, your primary focus should be to make it as readable as possible. That’s because reading words on a backlit computer screen is much harder on the eyes than reading words on paper. If you want to make sure your readers actually read every blog post or article through to the end, format your words in a way that makes your writing as easily scannable as possible.

Here’s a blog post I write that tells you the basics on how to do that: White Space Is Your Friend.

4. Write with your readers’ needs in mind. By this I don’t mean to only write stuff you think will be popular or “pleasing,” but rather do your best to offer a quality reading experience.

That means being ruthless in your editing. You’ve got to be prepared to kill your darlings. No matter how much you love that word, metaphor, sentence, digression – if it doesn’t serve the purpose of the article or story, then take it out. Don’t make people read stuff that isn’t totally necessary to the purpose and meaning of what you’re trying to convey. Less is almost always better.

All right, that’s all I’ve got! I didn’t to write a freaking book, but what can you do? 😉 I hope you find all this helpful – and let me know if you have any questions!

UPDATE: If you’re looking for more tools and info to help you set up your own blog, check out the resources at firstsiteguide.com. They’ve got some free guides, video tutorials, and reviews of online services that you might find helpful.

 

 

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