Friday, April 27, 2007

Blogging the Write Way - Getting Started

Part 1: The Objective and Forethought

"Blogs" are the shortened form of "weblogs," originally called "online journals." The first of these probably started as early as 1995-96. I started my own (the first of what are now many) in 1998. Originally, it just collected copied-and-pasted news stories and forum/chatroom comments related to them. Within a short time, I began using copious hyperlinks and writing in an observational style - sort of a smart-assed reporter with an attitude - as I was directly emulating my favorite website of the time, Suck (long-since defunct). Some of the links led to related topics, whereas many were ironic and/or blatantly comedic in their content and intent. Due to restrictions (TOS, or Terms Of Service), I was unable to take on sponsors and advertisers at that time, so - unlike Suck.Com - none of the links were paid advertisements.

The latest issue of Writer's Digest (WD) says that having a website is a great promotional tool - a blog, even better. They then go on to list a bunch of features and freebies you can focus on in order to draw-in your audience and keep them coming back (free chapters, contests, e-books, stories, and more). I'll go one better and say:

Every writer, regardless, should have a blog. Period. In fact, while a website is nice, a regularly updated blog is twice as good. After all, we're writers, not web designers. My "best-case scenario" suggestion is to purchase a domain name and find a host, then set up a basic webpage with a picture of you, a general link to your blog, and specific links to specific blog entries detailing your latest book and any other books you've published.

You heard me: ONE index page with a basic picture of you, and a bunch of links to specific blog posts you've made on your latest book and any and all others you've published. WordPress is particularly useful in this regard, as you can post regular blog entries, as well as free-standing "pages" which are exactly that: free-standing pages of content, separate from your blog. You can see this idea in action on my own website.

What I've done is kept the daily blog separate from the documents which I know won't change (or change rarely), will be oft-accessed by readers, and thus need to be readily-found. The siteblog is separate from the website, but pertains to it, and the individual pages are specific in their content. As well as needing to be easily-found, these pages probably won't be of any real interest to someone who just came to read the blog itself, so why interrupt their reading with them? Likewise, those who are looking for that specific information shouldn't have to wade through day after day of boring blog posts to find what they are looking for. The separate pages are also great for oft-accessed "general" information, such as your own TOS for your site, what your site is about/focuses on, and the like.

Sure, you could design individual webpages for these documents, but why go to that trouble? Likewise, you could always link directly to individual blog posts. But, by creating these individual documents and keeping them separate from the blog itself, you set a tone, mood, and cadence for your site. After all, what you're going to say here is the content, so why develop a menu and add a bunch of superfluous images to it? Further, you keep the design consistent; visitors will recognize your blog headers and layout and immediately realize they are suppose to focus on the text and not expect to see a lot of images or navigational tools. Of course, there's nothing wrong with including images and hyperlinks in your documents and blog - hell, that makes them even more interesting! But, if you are not an accomplished webdesigner or graphic artist, stick to the basics and use the tools provided with your blogging package. (Blogger, the interface I am using to create this blog, has a handy "Add Image" button at the top; I'd use it before I decided to go into any real HTML-coding - these functions aren't just for ease-of-use, they are designed to work specifically with the program you are using and eliminate common errors.)

But before you start deciding on blog packages (we'll get there), take a moment to ask yourself what it is you'll be discussing everyday. Most blogs do best with only one entry per day; any less and visitors forget to check in, any more and viewers become overwhelmed. If you enjoy the process, you'll likely find yourself coming up with tons of things to blog about in any given day, week, or month. I certainly do! It becomes very much like a diary of sorts, where you see something on TV or read something in a magazine and you feel you just have to set your thoughts down right then, otherwise you'll lose the moment. That's when blogging is the most fun.

Will you be talking about what you did that day in general? In your "real" - non-authorial life? Will you keep it directed on what you've written and are working on? Will you discuss news and current events or impart facts and information from the research you've been doing on your latest project(s)? If you're really good - and this is especially nice for established writers with established audiences - your blog might have almost nothing at all to do with your work. You could focus on one or more hobbies you enjoy. Not only would you enjoy discussing something outside of yourself (as an author) and your work, you will reach an entirely new audience which might never have wanted to read your work otherwise! Imagine if Chuck Palahniuk started a blog dedicated to gardening or Frank McCourt blogged about punk rock.

On the other side of that coin, don't let blogging become a job to you - especially not if it interferes with your other writing projects! If you feel you have to carry-on at length daily about how this chapter or that isn't working out for you, or you feel pressured to make an entry for any reason, skip it. You might make an entry that tells readers you don't feel like making an entry everyday or you're taking a break for a while, but you don't have to. I made exactly 11 posts for the entire year of 2004!

But it's important to remember that blogs - unlike our personal diaries - are public forums and you have little control over who sees what you have written, so be careful! You should read - find, then read - Diane Patterson's essay/rant, Why Web Journals Suck, as she was one of the very first bloggers. It should be somewhere in the 1996 archives. I, too, hand-coded my own blog back in The Day before it was called "blogging," and you can find some excerpts from 2003-2005 (I moved it to Blogger in 2006) on my old GeoCities site. Be forewarned, I was in the habit of archiving each year (and leaving the popular posts up) and taking them down, and I was a lot nastier than I am now, so whatever you find or don't find is to be taken at your discretion.

This has turned into something of an essay/rant, hasn't it?

Okay, I'll end it here then. I think I'm just babbling by this point anyway - but that's the great thing about blogs: there is no real "structure" to the environment, the form. Exactly like a diary, you can free-associate and just go with the flow. There's no better online promotional tool for a savvy writer than a regularly-updated blog, but if you don't have the time - or are simply not willing to take the time - to post on a regular basis, it isn't worth the hassle of setting up in the first place.

Next time, we'll discuss platforms and software.

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