Years ago, someone asked me the tired but inevitable question, “what do you do?” and when I replied, “I’m a freelance writer,” a cheeky friend butted in, “She’s mostly a blogger.”
At the time, I was insulted (and I’m pretty sure it was meant to be an insult). I felt the need to defend my medium and what I did for a living. Things have changed quite a bit, though. Years later, I get emails from people asking, How did you become a blogger? How can I become a blogger? These days, “blogger” carries a wider range of impression.
Some of the best writing I’ve recently read has been blog writing. And some blog writing is so good, those blogs go on to become wildly popular books (Okay, I Can Haz Cheeseburger isn’t the best example, but think I Will Teach You to Be Rich). Blogging has become a practical, promising platform for creatives, freelancers, and solo entrepreneurs. You might consider starting a blog because:
- You want to build your brand or business
- You’re trying to break into freelance writing and you need a portfolio
- You want to improve your writing skills and gain some experience
- You have something important to say and you want a place to say it
If you’re thinking about it, I say jump in. And here are six steps to help you get started.
Step One: Pick a Name
Sometimes your domain name–the title of your blog and presumably your URL–will be straightforward. For example, if you’re a freelance writer trying to get your name out there, it makes sense to pick, well, your name.
If you’re trying to start a brand or blog that’s separate from your online identity, the way I did with Brokepedia a few years ago, you want to give it a bit more thought. Writer and coach Emilie Wapnick has some great insight on how to pick a name, which she breaks down in the e-book, Renaissance Business (a recommended from a friend and I loved it). If you don’t feel like shelling out the cash, though, it boils down to figuring out your mission statement. Here’s how Wapnick puts it:
What do You Stand For? What is your mission statement, theme, or overarching philosophy? Your business needs to resonate with and inspire people. This is the most vital step for any business. Know what you stand for and the rest is easy, but launch a product or service without a clear mission statement and you’re just another widget in the marketplace.
Ideally, your name should reflect that overarching philosophy. That’s one of the reasons I decided to rebrand Brokepedia. I felt like the name was holding me back from my own overarching philosophy, which is essentially to live an adventurous life. In most cases, you want your brand name to describe what you do or what experience you’re sharing.
Step Two: Choose a Site Hosting Provider
Once you have your mission in place, it’s time for the technical stuff.
First, pick a provider to buy and host your domain. Buying the domain simply means you own the actual URL, like www.brokepedia.com. Hosting is sort of like renting out your space on the Internet: all of the files, code, and media it takes to make your domain an actual website.
I’ve used a handful of different providers over the years, and Bluehost is among them. Full disclosure: they emailed me and asked me to become an affiliate, so yes, I do get a commission if you sign up for their services through this link. However, I’ve used them before, and I genuinely think their service is affordable and intuitive. I only write about services I think are awesome, whether they’re an affiliate or not.
Whichever provider you choose, the sign-up process is pretty standard. You pick a plan, enter your account info, then select your domain URL.
As far as plans go, most are priced monthly, but they typically average out to about $75-$100 a year. Bluehost’s most basic 12-month plan is about $71 for the year. You can pick add-on options, too: privacy protection, backup services, search engine help, and so on. I’d seriously consider domain privacy because it keeps your personal info safe.
Once you sign up with a service provider and pay, you get a username and password to log in to your cpanel: your dashboard, basically. This is the place where you can access your files, upgrade your plan, and manage your site in general.
WordPress is probably the most popular platform for blogging, and it’s the one I’m going to cover here, since I’m highly familiar with it. Most providers, including Bluehost, have a one-click install for WordPress straight from your cpanel. You can see it in the below screenshot:
When you click install, Bluehost guides you through the process, which is three basic steps: click install, select which domain you want to install WordPress, and enter your login information (site title, tagline, username, password, etc.). From there, you officially have a WordPress website. It’s time to turn it into a customized blog.
Step Three: Set Up Your WordPress Blog
Once WordPress is installed on your site, you can log in by navigating to: www.yoursite.com/wp-login.php. Log in with the credentials you created in the previous step, and you’ll see your dashboard. It will look a lot like this:
Most of the tabs you see on the left are self-explanatory, but here’s a quick breakdown of everything:
- Posts: Your blog posts
- Media: The photos, uploaded videos, PDF files, etc. you’ve uploaded to posts or pages
- Pages: Like blog posts, but usually linked to your menu. Your “About” page, for instance
- Plugins: The fancy tools you can install to help pimp out your page
- Appearance: From this tab, you can browse or upload themes to customize the look of your site
WordPress is very straightforward, but if you need help, here’s a beginner’s guide to help you navigate each area. Once you poke around each tab, you’ll see how things are organized and you’ll see how you can customize your site to your liking.
Step Four: Get a Basic Design
In the Appearance tab, you can browse or upload a theme for your site. This is just a basic design you can customize: add a background image, decide where you want your menu, pick some colors, that sort of thing. You have a few options when it comes to installing a theme:
Hire someone to do it for you: Find an awesome designer to build you what you want. You could go with a seasoned pro who will work with you throughout the process or find someone on Fiverr who offers a more affordable, but more basic service.
Pick a pre-made theme: If you head to Appearance > Themes > Add New in your WordPress dashboard, you can browse tons of pre-made themes, many of which are free. Some site designers also offer their own pre-made themes that cost a little more (usually between $50-$100), but typically allow for more customization and look a little less like a template.
Design it yourself: Of course, if you speak the language and can code a website on your own, you’re probably ten steps ahead of this and can just build your own design. Personally, I only have a basic understanding of code, so I use Thesis, which is a theme that lets you more or less design your website from scratch. It says you don’t need to get your hands messy with code, but its CSS editor begs to differ. It’s a pretty awesome tool if you’re vaguely familiar with HTML and CSS.
Whatever option you choose, don’t get too hung up on design. Launching your blog is a lot like investing. You learn a lot as you go, so don’t worry about it being perfect–just get started. There’s no point in designing the perfect album cover when you haven’t written any music.
Step Five: Write Like a Blogger
In addition to blog posts, I’ve written magazine articles, short stories, scripts, and web copy, and every single platform is different. I’m a long-winded writer who likes to describe things, and many of those mediums don’t lend themselves well to that–including blogging. If readers see a giant wall of text, they’ll bounce. It took me a while to get used to writing like a blogger, and I’m still learning, really, but it comes down to a few important factors.
Package Your Content Well
People complain that the Internet turned readers into skimmers, but there’s nothing new about skimming. Sidebars break up text in long magazine or newspaper articles. Headlines were designed to be “clickable” long before computer mouses were even a thing. That said, there’s a lot more content out there these days, and you want to make sure yours isn’t overlooked. That means packaging your content well.
For starters, that means organizing your actual blog post. Break it up into sections, add bullet points when fitting. Show people what you’re trying to tell them. ←see what I did there?
Your ideas should flow from one section to another. You also need a powerful headline. Some of my least favorite headlines are, “5 Ways to Write an Awesome Headline.” They’re played out, but they work. Truth be told, writing headlines is probably my biggest weakness as a writer, but editors have given me some solid advice. Make sure it’s strong, descriptive and gets to the point. To achieve all three of those things, you need small words that say big things.
For example, “How to Start a Blog” was the original title of this post, which isn’t strong at all. “Start-to-finish guide” is a bit more descriptive. In a few short words, it tells I’m going to walk you through this. It tells you this is a larger resource chock-full of information. It says, “grab a cup of coffee, my friends, it’s going to be a long one.”
Here are some great resources for headline writing:
Find Your Voice
Just about any kind of writing needs a voice, but again, it’s especially important with blogging simply because there are so many blogs out there.
Your tone doesn’t have to be personal, but it should be strong and compelling. If you’ve ever read Ramit Sethi’s blog, his tone is sarcastic and irreverent. Paula Pant at Afford Anything has an inspiring, often funny voice. My editors have described my voice as “folksy.”
Writing is a skill that can be learned, but I think there’s a tone that comes naturally for many of us. It doesn’t necessarily have to match your real-life tone, either. I am not folksy in person. If you’re not sure what your tone is, try a freewriting exercise. Write about what you did yesterday and how you feel about those tasks, then show that writing exercise to a friend. Ask your friend what kind of tone you have–sarcastic, inspirational, dark?
Offer a Unique Perspective
Beyond your packaging and your tone, you have to consider your subject matter. It seems like pretty much every topic has been covered, but you can at least offer your own unique take on that topic. Even if that’s been done, too, at least it’s been done less, and chances are, you have more to say about the matter.
For example, one of the more successful recent posts I’ve written was about buying a home vs. renting. A new topic? Hell no. Not by a long shot. But I took a contrarian view on it, pointing out that the debate is completely pointless and kind of silly. Debunking or contrarian posts like this often do well. They suggest that the reader’s knowledge about the topic is outdated. No one wants to be outdated.
Step Six: Plan, Plan, Plan
Once your site is set up and you start writing, you want to come up with a system to organize the whole process.
I use the WordPress Editorial Calendar plugin to keep track of my posts. You can just as easily create your own calendar of posts, but this plugin links directly to each post from the calendar, and you can easily move things around.
I spend a couple of hours a month brainstorming and scheduling ideas for the next four weeks. Some writers are awesome at cranking out their posts weeks in advance. I am not one of those writers. I typically write posts the week they go up, if not the day before. Here’s my workflow:
Outline the Post
I start by freewriting all of the points I want to hit on in the post. For example, in that Rent vs. Buy post, I wanted to point out:
- The major arguments on both sides
- The individual factors that go into the decision
- Renting isn’t fundamentally good or bad
- A home is more of a purchase than an investment
- People overestimate how much homes statistically appreciate
From there, I organized all of those points into headings and grouped similar points. Point #1 and point #3 could go together. Point #4 and #5 go together.
Write a Shitty First Draft
Once I have my outline, I start writing my “shitty first draft.” I write that draft like no one will ever read it. I write just to get words on the page, even if those words are poorly picked or indelicate. Don’t write and edit at the same time. Those are two very different processes and when you do both at once, you’re probably not doing either very well, and it will ultimately take you longer.
Work in Focused Increments
I also take it one section at a time. I use the Pomodoro Technique to stay focused, otherwise, I get very overwhelmed with the fact that I have to write 1500+ words. I work 25 minutes, then take a 10-minute break. Repeat until I’m done with my shitty first draft.
Edit Your Shitty First Draft
Once my draft is complete, it’s easy enough to go back and edit. I also read it out loud (or use my computer’s text-to-speech function) to make sure it flows well.
There’s quite a bit more that goes into blog writing, but, hopefully, these steps will at least put you in the right direction. If you’re thinking about starting a blog, you’ll learn a lot just by jumping in and getting started. Ultimately, it comes down to figuring out your mission, setting up the technical stuff, and learning how to write solid content.
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