How to write a blog
You’re thinking about writing a blog. Here’s what you should consider before going ahead. Be warned, this is a long read, a full tutorial. But I think you’ll find it useful.
We’ll look at:
- Expectations — what do you hope to get out of a blog?
- Why do you want to write a blog? What about? Do you know?
- Is a blog what you need or is some other format better for you, e.g. vlogging?
- Technical choices — where and how to create your blog
- Choosing a name for your blog
- Choosing a language for your blog
- Finding your rhythm an the importance of having one
- The criticality of social media shares for your posts
- How should a blog post look like?
- The emotional side of writing a blog
- Experimentation as a key part of your success
We’re discussing about a scenario where you’re an amateur blogger that wants to share something you find useful and are passionate about and you don’t have money to invest in quickly building an audience or marketing experts to help you do it.
In this case, you need patience. Unless you ge really lucky, you will slowly build an audience and in a couple of years, with hard work and discipline, you may average a few hundred unique readers per post. Maybe even a few thousands, with some decent luck thrown into the mix.
Just to be clear: you won’t make money from your blog. Unless you’re already famous or have some kind of special advantage others don’t, if you expect to build a large audience, run ads and make money off them, I have the following suggestion for you: got to the shitty area of your city right now and start collecting scrap iron. Per hour invested, that will be immensely more profitable than trying to make money from a blog by gathering a huge audience and then running ads.
Some have done it, yes. But it’s like winning the lottery. Some have won it, and if you do too, great for you, you lucky bastard. But betting your future on it, not smart. There is no series of steps to follow to get a hugely successful blog. Anyone who sells you something like that is lying. There’s too much uncertainty, too much change and too much depends on dumb luck.
Why do you want to write a blog?
What is the blog for?
Do you have something you want to share because you think it may help others and are ok to start small and slowly build a little audience for yourself? That’s one scenario where you mostly need some passion for the topic, discipline, time and a lot of patience.
Do you want to use your blog to sell something or as content marketing for your business? This is a very different scenario and you should get ready for a lot more work and money spent on “buying” an audience (e.g. through paid ads for your blog).
This tutorial is for the first scenario. Some ideas will apply to both, but as a whole, I’m talking to those of you that want to start a personal blog which is just a side thing for you, it’s not your job or your business, and you’re not expecting to make money off it.
What do you want to talk about on your blog?
Unless you’re already famous, I advise against starting a blog without a clear focus. People don’t care what your “random thoughts” are. If you want to write about cooking today, about biking tomorrow and about Game of Thrones the day after, unless you’re really really fucking charming, you’re very likely to confuse and bore your readers, and quickly lose them.
The blog should, at least at first, not be about you, but about something. About a topic. And that topic should be as narrow and specific as possible in order to differentiate. If you‘re gonna have a restaurant review blog, you’ll be one out of hundreds in your area alone. If you’re gonna have a “Best burger on a Sunday morning after a run” blog where you run every Sunday morning and then eat and review a burger, that is instantly memorable and unique.
In time, if you became popular and your blog really picks up, you can consider diversification and expansion into other topics. But avoid it at first.
You should also be ready for change. Youtube started as a dating site where you could introduce yourself to potential partners through a video you uploaded. They very quickly saw that people really liked putting videos online that had nothing to do with dating, so they changed their whole business from a dating site to an online user uploaded video site. Your blog may go through similar changes. You may start with a bike review blog where you review bikes but may soon discover that both you and your audience are more interested in good bike trails around your city, rather than the bikes themselves. This kind of change is fine, natural, and it may very well happen more than once.
Is a blog really what you need?
So you have an idea about what you’d like to say, to whom, and what kind of audience you hope to attract; is a blog the best way to do it?
A blog is a relatively long format. Even when it’s not as long as this post, a blog is best suited for posts that have at least a couple hundred words, accompanied by some images, maybe a video. If this is not the general shape of what you’re gong to share, you should also consider one of the following:
- Video blogging, or vlogging, like what these guys are doing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gezxng-x91g, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGAJjk1jb2k, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWTbsvPxuhI
- Doing something while filming yourself and commentating on it. This is similar to vlogging but not quite the same. The focus is much more on the activity that you’re doing in itself, rather than your commentary. For example, playing computer games or product reviews: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7Cyq2oUF20, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0n2zT9xBdM
- Microblogging, for example on tumblr
- Just Facebook stuff directly
- Or Instagram
- Or Twitter
Each of these platforms has different strengths and weaknesses. Think about which suits you and your content best. Some things are very visual in nature, for example nature oriented content is very well suited to video. More theoretical, business oriented context may benefit from the clarity of text.
Some choices also have a geographical dimension. For example, in Romania, where I’m from, almost nobody uses Twitter so that’s not really an option if you’re after a Romanian audience.
Assuming you still want to make a blog, where and how do you get one?
In my view, there are two real options to consider:
- Medium (where you’re reading this)
Medium is free, very slick, very well crafted and is gaining cred amongst the hipsters, but almost no customization is possible. It is what it is, you can’t change much about it. You’ll have a blog under your name, on the medium.com website, and visually it will look pretty much like anyone else’s blog on medium. I’ve chosen medium for this blog, where I value its ease of use and good looks and I don’t need to customize it.
For some of my other blogs, I’ve chosen Wordpress. There’s two ways to use Wordpress:
- Hosted on wordpress.com
- Self hosted Wordpress installation
A Wordpress blog hosted on wordpress.com is the easiest. You quickly create a free account and in minutes you have your blog at an URL that looks like whatevernameyouchose.wordpress.com. You can chose a theme out of about 350 (139-ish are free) and then customize it even further to a degree. Then, if you want more, you can start paying for stuff: buy your own custom URL (e.g. whatevernameyouchose.com), directly from there, or from some other reseller, buy premium themes and so on.
- The pros: you need no technical skills, you don’t need to worry about servers, hosting, or anything like that. It’s all included and easy.
- The cons: the customization is limited and even if you buy the premium themes and the “custom design” package, it still only goes so far. It may very well be enough for you, then again it may not. Play around with a free version to see if you can get something that you’re happy with, and then invest in a custom domain and other packages if it makes sense for you.
If you’re starting your first blog, if you have no technical skills or nobody to help you, you should go with wordpress.com and avoid messing around with a self hosted Wordpress.
A self hosted Wordpress blog requires you to have a server (which is usually in the cloud, e.g. Amazon AWS) on which to install your Wordpress software. The installation process is relatively technical so it may not be that easy to do it yourself. While the Wordpress software itself is free, you will likely still need to pay for the server. The domain name will cost you as well and premium themes will cost too, if you need one. You can do most general blogging with a free theme but if you want to really standout in some way, you may need to pay around 50$ (the usual price) for a premium theme.
The pros of a self hosted option are a near infinite flexibility. You have thousands if not tens of thousand of themes to chose from, plugins to extend the functionality of our site, and if all else fails, you can code your own. It comes with the downside of needing to put in more work, and sometimes quite technical work. Not recommended for beginners.
I personally hosted my first blogs on wordpress.com and then moved to self hosted once I understood better what I needed and what I wanted to do and realized I need the flexibility. I also have a development background so the technical challenge of installing and configuring my own Wordpress server wasn’t hard for me. I actually went with this Amazon EC2 preconfigured Wordpress image, bought my .com domains from namecheap.com and my .ro ones from the horrible rotld.ro as I had no choice since they have a monoply on .ro domains. I have my name server services for both .com and .ro again from namecheap.
You can transfer a domain name you buy (be it .com, .ro or anything else) form wordpress.com to your own self hosted blog if you ever decide to make the move. The transfer is slightly technical but it should take less than 30 minutes for someone to do it for you if you can’t do it yourself.
Choosing a name for your blog
My strong recommendation is chose a blog name that is about the topic of your blog. Don’t name your blog johnsmith.com if your name is John Smith, because nobody cares who you are and what your name is. People may care however about the topic of your blog. So to continue the example from above, if you’re John Smith that reviews a burger every Sunday morning after a run, call your blog something like thesundayburger.com or runningburger.com or johnsburgerreviews.com or something similar that will instantly convey the main idea to anyone glancing over it.
Chosing a language for your blog
For the multi-linguals among us, how do we decide what language to write in?
For example, I’m Romanian and I speak both Romanian and English. Should I write in Romanian or in English?
First, the potential audience. Writing in English exposes me to more than a billion potential readers, while for Romanian that number is more like 10 million (once I consider demogprahics, access to internet etc in a total population of Romanian speakers of just north of 20 million).
Pulling in the opposite direction is the noise factor. Anything I choose to write about in English, more likely than not there’s at least 100 others writing about the same thing. It will be harder for me to stand out. Romanian, with its smaller audience, has much fewer blogs on any given topic and it will be eaiser for me to stand out. In fact, more than a few Romanian bloggers have found success by copying an English language idea/blog and replicating it in Romanian and adapting it to the local culture.
Last but not least is the nature of the topics you want to address. If I write about local issues in Iasi (my hometown in Romania) for example, it’s a no brainer that I should write in Romanian. 99% of the people that are likely to be interested are locals and it would be pointless to write in English.
On the other hand, I’m writing this in English because it’s something that is largely useful regardless of where you are so I want to be able to reach as many people from as many places as possible.
If I were to have a tourism blog about some region of Romania, I would have to decide if my main audience is internal or external, and chose the language accordingly. Etc. Etc.
It is very important that you establish a consistent rythim to your blog that you stick to. It is hard to overestimate how important a rythim is. It is critical in organizing your own time and making sure you do post, and it is very useful to your readers who know what to expect when and therefore are more likely to find your blog easy to understand and come back for more. A majority of blogs start strong and full of enthusiasm and then wither and die withing a few weeks, because there is no discipline behind and the authors just stop writing. Can’t find the time, can’t find the inspiration bla bla. The reality is they went in unprepared. Happened to me, happens to everyone once in a while. Rhythm is key to avoiding this. Rhythm we rigorously stick to.
Figure out what your rhythm is, as it may depend on your topic. As frequency, anything more than one post a week will require real dedication. Even a short post takes at least an hour to conceive, write and proof read, find the right picture to go along with it, not to mention any research that might be needed. In our example of reviewing one burger each Sunday morning, you obviously have to invest time (and money) in actually going out and eating the burger, on top of any time you need to write about it. That’s why it’s a good idea to blog about something you already like doing. If you’re usually having a run and a burger on most Sundays already because you like it, it will be easier to add blogging to it, compared to having to start running just for the sake of having something to blog about.
If you want to recommend a movie for the weekend, you may want to do that Thursday evening, or Friday at the latest, to give people time to read it and book a ticket, and of course, for you to be able to see the week’s premiers. You can’t do it on Monday because you haven’t yet seen the new entries and you can’t do it on Saturday afternoon cause it’s too late, people are already out, plans have been made. So apart from the general recommended timing (see below) you need to understand what timing is best for your particular blog, depending on your topic.
Social media sharing
If you just post on your blog and hope that people will google for that topic and somehow find your post, you‘re better of quitting now and save yourself the disappointment. More than 90% of your traffic will come from social media shares. You will need to share your own blog on your social media , and therefore you need to grow and maintain strong networks on those social media networks.
The specifics of how to share, where to share, when to share, and (dare I say the word, how to get viral) are a whole area in themselves which we don’t go into now. But a few basics are:
- Understand what social media networks work best in your area/target audience, use them, and cultivate your networks in there.
- Generally, share on Tuesdays, Thursdays right after work and on Friday morning. Lunch time works too.
- Avoid weekends unless your specific topic requires you to share during the weekend.
- At the minimum share with a good, catchy featured picture. Try videos once in a while. Sharing with just text is just lazy and will have a significantly smaller impact.
- Don’t be afraid to re-share. Share a post Tuesday lunch break and share it on Friday morning again, the same post. It’s not too much, especially considering the Facebook newsfeed algorithms where what you share is on average seen by somewhere between 5% and 10% of your friends.
How does an individual post look like?
As you would expect, there is no one size fits all, but consider the following:
- Size. Less is almost always more. Any post with more than 400 words is for people that are passionate about that subject. It is not for the casual reader. Understand if you’re catering to an audience of enthusiasts or casual readers. Even with enthuziasts, don’t push your luck. Over 800 words you’re really asking for a lot.
- Unless it’s tutorial, a how to guide or something not meant to be read at once. Like this one :)
- Always have at least one picture. Some kind of posts (e.g. food reviews) will usually have more. Try videos as well.
- Simplicity above anything else. A blog post is not a comprehensive manual on a topic. It’s not meant to answer all questions and to clarify all the possible scenarios. It’s supposed to convey one main idea, with some context around it, and arouse some interest and curiosity. Don’t feel the need to answer all possible questions in one blog post. You can always follow-up and detail with a further post on the topic if you see interest and you get questions in the comments.
A lot of what stops people from blogging, even though some may want to, is emotions. They feel unprepared to write public posts. We dislike and fear the act of making our thoughts public, we fear making a fool of ourselves.
I have no magical words to help you get over it. No self-help crap. You’ll just have to work through it. It will be harder at first and get easier as you keep doing it.
I offer this: with any of us, the real danger is not making fools of ourselves, but meeting our death without ever having been heard. The big enemy is not ridicule, but silence. We’re afraid of the wrong thing.
Unless you’re unbelievable lucky (or really experienced, in which case, what are you doing reading this? :), you won’t get it right the first time. You need to try different things:
- Different sizes of posts
- Different timing
- Different writing styles (casual, serious, third person, first person, second person etc)
- Different topics
- Different pictures
- Different everything
Only through trial and error will you find your true blog. But it’s hard to experiment if you’re overwhelmed with emotion and every post feels like a struggle to put out there. Experimenting with many different kind of posts is the last thing you want to do in this case. So you need to work on your emotions and get them on your side.
You may very well end up with a few different blogs, with different styles and topics. Or a blog and a vlog. Or any other combintion. Who knows ;)