Why should you start a blog? In a recent blog post I stated that "some of you really need to make a New Year’s resolution to start blogging yourself." I like the way Dave, a young blogger who frequents my blog, puts it – "Just a few centuries ago, people were fortunate to be able to express their thoughts openly to others in their tiny hamlets and villages. Everyone today should at least pause and consider how incredible it is that an affordable, convenient and readily-accessible tool such as blogging exists. One person can potentially be heard by millions who are not bound by geography or time. It's all quite unbelievable to me."
(Just so you regular readers know up front – this post is rather lengthy and basically devoid of humor, but if you do not have a fundamental knowledge of what goes into blogging, you may find it an interesting read that will make you more appreciative of what bloggers have done to make their material available to you.)
On the upside, blogging gives you a forum for sharing what's on your mind, insights from your area of expertise, events big or small in your life, or whatever you want to – it's your blog, after all. Blogging is a great way to meet people outside your locale and to have mutually enriching communication on topics of interest to you. To me one of the huge benefits of blogging is that it allows me to communicate with many people I'd love to have the time to communicate with individually. A passion for communicating is not only helpful in blogging, but also essential.
On the downside, blogging comes with some costs – costs that may make you decide why you should not start a blog. Depending on the platform you use to have your blog on the Internet, there can be minor monetary expense involved (addressed later in this post). There are definitely personal costs – time, effort, vulnerability, and accountability. Good blog posts require planning, writing, and editing. That all takes time and effort, but you will find that it is worth it.
Vulnerability and accountability are the inevitable consequences of sharing personal information on the Internet. Not everyone will agree with you or even like you and your views. Can you handle that? Unless your posts are password protected and blocked from search engines (administrative settings to do that are available in many blogging platforms), whatever you post to the Internet is available to the world at large. And for that, you are personally accountable. In addition to that, you are also accountable to your family, your friends, your pastor, your neighbors, ad infinitum. It's like those sound bites we hear from public figures who didn't know they were near an open microphone — once it's "out there," it's out there!
What you post is accessible not only to your friends and family, but also to your current and future employers. Some bloggers have lost their jobs over derogatory or sensitive information they had posted. Many employers now avail themselves of information about you that can be brought up by search engines. Young people today do not seem to realize this consequence of posting things about themselves on blogs and social networks. Let the writer beware! Blogging anonymously is an option some have chosen by giving the blog a personality of its own. But ultimately, if what's published can be traced to you, it's your responsibility.
As you can see, there are great personal benefits to having a blog, but also there are personal costs to be considered. If you still want to start a blog, here are some tips to get you going:
Tips on starting a blog
As I go into this portion of this post, I hasten to say that I am not trying reinvent the wheel here. As I did research for this post, I found that there are already many good articles out there on various facets of what I'm presenting today. In many cases it was far more efficient to put links to those posts rather than giving synopses here. Linking to sites of people I don't know is a bit risky since the posts turned up in web searches and I did not/could not take the time to explore entire sites where I found the good articles. That said, here goes....
Before setting anything up online, you need to do the following:
1. Decide on your special niche. It could be unique to you or something that many others are writing on, but to which you think your blog could add a fresh perspective. The History Bluff advises, "Be patient with finding a niche. Rushing this step will lead to a disjointed theme and confused readers."
You need to decide what you have a personal passion for — something that you would love to write about. Your blog can become a means whereby you can connect with others who share your passion or who might catch your passion. I found a good article on how to find your niche that could help you with this important decision.
2. Once you've decided on your niche, you need to decide on a name for your blog. Betty over at Dappled Things strongly recommends that you do a web search for what you are considering naming your blog. She told me that after her blog was already well under way, she learned there's an extremely popular blog out there with the same name. At that point she was not willing to change the name of her blog and just decided to live with it.
Choosing a name is important as well as you try to make your eventual URL as close to the blog name as possible. Doing that helps readers remember better how to get to you. There's a good article about blog naming on performancing.com
3. Having chosen a name for your blog, you will have to decide whether to blog through one of the free platforms like blogger.com or wordpress.com, for a small fee through a platform like typepad.com, or by setting up your own domain. Since I have never used any of the free platforms available, maybe readers who have blogs using them can give their input in the comments. When I searched for comparisons of the platforms, I found that the users preferred the platform on which their review was published, citing what they had found unsatisfactory about the other platforms.
I had my own domain – ivman.com – before I started blogging. Adding the blog to my domain was easy since a young geek friend led and talked me through the process. (Thanks, Jared!) If you decide to have your own domain and aren't especially tech-savvy, I would recommend finding a young geek to help you. My webhost for these five and a half years is Brent at webnet77.com. I have found his prices reasonable and his customer service outstanding. The blogging platform I'm using is WordPress – a free download from WordPress.org. To understand the distinction between wordpress.com and wordpress.org you can check out this clear explanation.
4. You are now ready to choose how your blog will look. At this point it would be a good idea to visit a number of blogs you've never been to, with an eye towards the layout and design. Jot down what is helpful as you try to find things on the site and what you find distracting or perplexing. The theme or template that you choose should be not only eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing, but also make it easy for a first-time visitor to see what you've got to offer. Most people have limited time for surfing the web and will not stick around on a site that's annoying to look at or confusing to navigate. Among the many free themes for WordPress that are available online, you can find some attractive, easily-navigable blog themes from Sadish Bala or from freewpthemes.net.
Try to keep your sidebar as uncluttered as possible. A big offender is flashing ads. Many people find a multitude of flashing objects quite annoying – maybe so much so that they don't come back.
5. Remember that as nice as it is that your blog have an attractive appearance that doesn't drive people away, it's the content that will keep people coming back for more. Jot down ideas for future blog posts and keep some on the back burner. Dave over at The History Bluff gives some good advice on this: "Write several posts before telling friends and family about your new blog. Give first-time visitors a variety of things to look/read through. One post won't satisfy their curiosity."
6. Allow comments on your blog. Part of the fun of blogging is the communication between you and your readers. But I would strongly advise that you moderate the comments, especially if you want to maintain a certain tone and atmosphere of friendliness on your blog. Since it's your blog, feel free to edit comments or even reject them if you don't want your readers to see them. You are under no obligation to allow anything and everything to appear on your blog.
Reply to comments, either on the blog itself or by personal e-mail. If someone has taken the time to visit your blog, read what you've written, and commented on it, you should take the time to acknowledge their comment. Some of my readers avail themselves of being able to choose to be notified of follow-up comments via e-mail thanks to a WordPress plugin called subscribe to comments.
Deb over at Mountain Musings gives some good guidelines as she tells how she handles comments. "Most of my commenters are not asking questions but rather just commenting/agreeing with what I've written. I always respond to them – usually via return e-mail – to thank them for the comment. If someone has asked a question, I usually respond within the comment section or write a separate post (if warranted) to answer the question, figuring that other people might also want to know the answer. The reason I don't comment back within the comments is that I figure my reply is being wasted if they never check back to see that I've responded to them. I read so many different blogs that I have no idea which ones I've commented on and have no time to check back to see a reply. But I do read e-mails, and I figure that's a better way to respond to them and interact."
7. If you do allow comments, make sure you have good spam filtering in place. On my blog I use a great freebie made for WordPress called WP-SpamFree and never see a spam comment.
8. Once you're ready to "go live" with your blog, start putting the URL of your blog on comments you make on other blogs. This will bring some traffic to your new blog. As you visit other blogs, Betty recommends that you "pay attention to the blogs that you like reading and emulate those. Obviously you don't want to copy to the point of plagiarizing, but there are some characteristics of good blogs that you can benefit from patterning yours after."
9. Use images. Having at least one picture per post adds more visual interest than having only big blocks of text. In that regard, keep your paragraphs short. (This blog post is by no means exemplary, but there was not much I could include pictures of.)
10. Be consistent: as much as possible, stick to the main subject you've chosen for your blog. Also tell your readers how often you will be posting, and stick to it. Long periods between posts will lose you readers. It's best to start with even just one post a week rather than one or more a day. It's very hard to keep up with a daily posts — both as the blogger and as a reader. If you see you can post more frequently than once weekly, you can do so. Just strive for consistency.
11. Include an About page. This will satisfy readers who would like to know something about the person behind the blog. Be careful about how much information you share about yourself and your family. Include some basic info, like where you live, your job title, your interests, and other relevant yet purposefully sketchy biographical information. If you've chosen to be an anonymous blogger, it's still helpful to give some general information about the blog itself.
12. Provide some means for readers to contact you offline. Based on your blogging platform, there are plugins available for a Contact page. I'm pleased with the WordPress plugin cforms II. You are inviting e-mail spam by posting your e-mail address on your blog, unless you post it in a picture rather than in text, like the picture on the right of this paragraph. The e-mail harvesting equipment that spammers use can't get an address from an image.
(added on 27 April 2009, after having my blog hacked twice:
13. Be sure to do regular back-ups of your database. As a WordPress user, I have a great plugin available to me called WordPress Database Backup. Having gone through the nightmare of having to restore my blog and my wife's blog twice in the past three weeks, I'm glad I used that plugin.
Another thing I wish I had done more consistently is to put in a folder on my computer a copy of each image exactly as it had been uploaded to my blog. I kept copies of many of them, but not all. It's been frustrating and time-consuming to try to locate the right images. There are several I haven't been able to replace at all and many others that I have had to find, resize, and rename before uploading them. It would have been so much easier if I had kept copies identical to what I had used on my blog!)
In a post like this, it's impossible to include advice about every facet of blogging. My goal was to give advice on how to get a blog off on the right foot. I was not even able to include all the advice that I had planned nor that my kind contributors sent me. What I can offer, though, is links to several excellent posts or sites on blogging. Thanks to veteran bloggers Barbara, Betty, and Deb for the links they sent to add to mine below!
For those who've made it all the way through this post, here's a bit of humor about blogging devotion to reward you for your persistence.
If you end up setting up your own blog as the result of this post, I would love to have a link to it! If any of you readers know of a blog that is particularly well done, please post a link to it in the comments.
My wife Becka has decided to be a guest writer on my blog instead of having her own blog. I told her to get her first post simmering....
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