The Complete Writer: The Art of Blogging

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 19. Ars Bloggiendi: The Art of Blogging

The Complete Writer
Part III: Blogging

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19
Ars Bloggiendi

As a blogger since 2007, I’m always surprised at the number of would-be writers who say they don’t blog and don’t see why they should. And yet you meet them all the time, at every writer’s group, face-to-face and every online chatfest..

The blog genre started as a kind of online diary or journal: hence the name, web log. An early form of social media, for a time blogging was wildly popular among the techie set. It evolved from a first-person ramble composed of periodic posts to a magazine-like affair dispensing how-to advice, opinion, or information specific to a topic (personal finance blogs, for example, or “mommy blogs” or product reviews) and even to a journalistic genre. Many people monetize their blogs and some have had success in that (Get Rich Slowly and The Simple Dollar much enriched their founders).

There are two reasons writers find blogs attractive:

  1. The blog represents an easy five-finger exercise, a writer’s journal open to readers. As such, it not only helps you to improve your writing skills, it gathers readers.
  2. And, when you have a following, you have.a marketing device.

An active blog allows you to hold forth on subjects related to your scribbling, and it also helps you to build a mailing list. Many writers will tell you their most effective marketing tool is their marketing list. Also in the marketing and publicity department, you can post links to your blog on yeastier social media: Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, FaceBook, LinkedIn, or whatever else is in vogue as you read this. That will call readers to your site, where you can pitch your writings to them.

We’re told the blog is on its way out—maybe it has already been hit in the butt by the door—because humanity so captivates itself with 140-character bursts of “content.” Personally, I like writing blog posts and I like reading them. It’s a lot like writing a Pepysian journal, only with an audience that can talk back.

There’s more to blogging than blurbing. The blog is a perfect platform for various kinds of long-form writing—not only journal-like or epistolary entries,[1] but reportage,[2] investigative journalism,[3] serious essays,[4] even stretches of fiction[5] or poetry.[6] None of these (except possibly haiku) are accomplished in 140 characters.

As for monetizing a website—trying to make it provide a side stream of income or maybe even quitting your day job to become a full-time online writer—that’s questionable and in my opinion largely beside the point. Some people do make a living wage at blogging (or they claim to), but they appear to be the exceptions. For quite a while I sold ad space and affiliate links at my site, Funny about Money.[7] I found that affiliate links for Amazon rarely earned enough to elicit a paycheck—Amazon will not remit payment until you’ve accumulated at least $10, which tells you about how much you earn by peddling Amazon’s products on your website.

Google AdSense did provide a small return—but certainly not enough to quit the day job. Nor, in my opinion, was a hundred bucks a month (when the site was on a roll) worth the amount of effort entailed in setting up AdSense, riding herd on it, and junking up the site with tacky ads. I made a great deal more on Funny by selling handmade jewelry off the site than by letting huge, profitable corporations further enrich themselves by exploiting my readership.

When I say that making money off your blog is beside the point, I mean that the point of writing a blog is to engage your readers in ongoing conversation about something that interests them and to persuade them that what you have to say is worth reading.

From there, it’s a fairly easy leap to persuade them to buy your books.

Funny about Money started as a personal finance blog. At one point, if you believe Alexa,[8] it ranked among the top 100 personal finance blogs in the English language. After a time, it occurred to me that there are only so many ways you can say “get an education or vocational training, get a job, live below your means, get out of debt and stay out of debt, and stash every spare penny into savings.” So, though the site still has a personal finance spin and I do belong to an international group of bloggers on the subject, at this point Funny is largely a lifestyle blog.

My main marketing blog, Plain & Simple Press News,[9] holds forth on topics that range from writing tips to recipes to higher education as I try to sell my literary wares. This site is optimized for Pinterest, under the direction of a marketing specialist[10] who has found that Pinterest is the most effective of the social media at driving traffic toward a blog. Once readers arrive there, of course, they see ads for my products . . . not Amazon’s or Google customers’. And certainly not ads from Scandinavian ladies looking for American “husbands.”

How to start a blog?

The simplest way is to go to one of the blogging platforms such as WordPress.com or Blogger.com. These are free, in exchange for a modicum of advertising, sometimes. I personally prefer WordPress, mostly because if and when you move to a private server, WordPress’s blog templates are readily available or easy to transfer. If you start out at WordPress.com, you get the benefit of WordPress’s Help service and a knowledgeable blogging community. With this assistance, you quickly learn how to use the basic software.

Buy your own domain name. The easiest way to do this is through GoDaddy[11] (again: in my opinion!). There are cheaper services, but GoDaddy has live human beings answering the phone, and if you have a question, these customer service reps are always helpful.

When you’re starting out, owning your site’s domain name makes it possible for you to create a URL that reads

http://yoursitename.com

rather than something like

http://yoursitename.wordpress.com.

The effect is much more professional.

WordPress.com provides a choice of several easy-to-use blog templates. Pick a simple one to get started—bearing in mind that you can easily switch to a new template later on. At WordPress.org, you can download any number of other free and premium templates, some of which are very swell.

As your site establishes itself, you may want to buy server space from a service such as Bluehost or BigScoots, both of which have proven highly satisfactory for my sites. And as your blogging empire grows, you may also consider hiring an IT professional[12] to run the techie back-end details of keeping a larger site or set of sites up and running.

What to write?

Whatever you feel like writing. The topic of your book is a logical subject. From there you can branch out to related topics. How-to topics are perennially popular, as are inspirational subjects, anything to do with money, and specialized topics for identifiable markets—fashion, make-up and the like for young people; recipes and cooking for the gourmet set; travel adventures; pets; kids . . . whatever interests other human beings will find a readership. If you write fiction, book reviews and writing tips always sell.

When to write?

I try to post at least once a day on at least one of my sites. The more content your site has, the higher up in Google’s search ratings it rises. Content, they say, is king. By that, “they” mean that the more original, fresh content you post, the more readers you attract and the better Google’s bots regard you.

How to write?

Typically, a blog post is similar to a short feature article or brite. Some are essentially personal essays or opinion pieces. Posts are usually nonfiction, although occasionally you’ll find sites where people post fiction and poetry.

Brevity is desirable, at least so we’re told. A classic blog post runs about as long as a newspaper column—maybe 800 words, give or take.

One technicality to bear in mind while building a blog post is something called SEO: search engine optimization. There are ways to get Google to notice your posts; they’re fairly simple and fairly rigid.

Pick a key word or phrase that describes the content of your post. Put that key word in the title, and then be sure it appears in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence of your post. Hence, for a post on keeping cool on a hot summer day:

Living Life in a Hot New World

Hot where you’re at, is it? Ninety degrees and you think you’re gunna die before the sun goes down?

On the fiasco that evolved out of Costco’s decision to dump American Express in favor of Citigroup’s Visa card:

Thank You, Costco and Citigroup!

Costco’s move to annoying CitiGroup is going to cut my monthly Costco budget at least in half, and maybe by as much as three-fourths!

On an element of long-term money management:

Pay Off a Mortgage or Invest the Money Instead?

Yesterday at the weekly Scottsdale Business Association meeting, the assertion was again made that you should never pay off a mortgage in advance. If you have the money to do so, we’re told, you’ll come out ahead if you invest the money in securities and keep making those mortgage payments.

Your blogging software will ask you to enter “tags” or keywords before you publish your post. Be sure to include your keywords as “tags,” which helps to bring your post to the attention of people searching for those terms.

Any number of small programs called “plug-ins” will allow you to do various convenient things with your website.

The most indispensable of these, in my humble opinion, is Akismet, a piece of software that blocks about 98% of incoming spam comments. It comes with the package at WordPress.com; if you’re setting up a site on another server, be sure to install this program.

FeedBurner makes it easy for people to subscribe to your site. You want subscribers. A lot of subscribers.

All-in-One SEO Pack or Yoast SEO is convenient—guides you through and simplifies SEO tricks.

Any plug-in that will put links on the major social networking sites: good.

The writing part is not at all difficult. The back-end stuff is pretty simple as long as you’re hosted on WordPress.com or a similar service. If you decide you’d rather be self-hosted (i.e., have your site on a server such as Bluehost), it’s fairly easy to manage if you’re techie; if you’re not, it’s worth hiring some help at a nominal cost.

In any event, if you hope to be a Writer with a Capital W, don’t neglect blogging. It’s a key tool in your writing and your marketing.

[1] Example: Donna Freedman, “Are You Eating Your House”? Surviving and Thriving, April 2, 2015, http://donnafreedman.com/2015/04/02/are-you-eating-your-house/

[2] Kim Brooks, “What a ‘Horrible Mother’: How a How a Call from a ‘Good Samaritan’ derailed these mothers’ lives,” Salon, Aril 19, 2015. http://www.salon.com/2015/04/19/what_a_horrible_mother_moms_arrested_for_leaving_their_kids_in_the_car/

[3] Example: Center for Public Integrity, “How Kicking a Trash Can Became Criminal for a Sixth-Grader,” April 10, 2015, PRI, http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-04-10/how-kicking-trash-can-became-criminal-6th-grader?src=longreads

[4] The Big Roundtable: http://www.thebigroundtable.com/

[5] Jane Friedman, “The Best Literary Fiction Blogs and Websites,”November 22, 2011. Jane Friedman. https://janefriedman.com/best-literary-fiction-blogs-websites-2/

[6] sarahblake, “The Best Poetry Blogs in Town (We Think),” September 9, 2014, Picador, https://janefriedman.com/best-literary-fiction-blogs-websites-2/

[7] http://funny-about-money.com

[8] http://www.alexa.com/; for some idea of what it does, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexa_Internet

[9] http://www.plainandsimplepress.com/news/

[10] http://www.pinterestforbloggers.net/

[11] https://www.godaddy.com/; go here to see if the name you’d like to use for your site is available: https://www.godaddy.com/domains/domain-name-search

[12] My present Web guru is Grayson Bell at iMark Interactive
(imarkinteractive.com). Not being the techie type myself, I’ve found the savings in stress and frustration is well worth the modest cost of contracting with an expert. www.imarkinteractive.com