This is a review of text-focused writing tools for people who want to write and share their writing. If you want a quick table comparison of blogging solutions, a quick Google search will give you results. The purpose of this piece is to walk through the thought process behind available writing solutions today and the needs they aim to solve (from in-bound content marketing as a job to updates for family and friends).
TL;DR: If you just want to write and read comfortably, use Medium (free) or Svbtle (US$6/month). If you want to reach readers via a newsletter, try Substack (free and charges only when you do). If you want customization and integrations, virtually all solutions will cost money (either your own hosting or a paid plan). Maximum integrations is still Wordpress.org (with paid hosting like BlueHost). Most elegant solution is Ghost (paid, or you self-host). Don’t underestimate LinkedIn and Tumblr. Site builders don’t make great writing platforms.
Putting a UX hat on
A way to think about whether a product is right for you isn’t just to look for a checklist of features, or select the one with the most features. Instead, you could imagine yourself in the mind of the makers — what is their approach to the solving the problem of writing for the web? For them to start building, they have to be clear on what you, as a user, might want. Do you, as a user, know? Below are some questions you could ask yourself to get started:
Are you looking to create a website, or just focus on writing? If you want to build a website, like a personal portfolio, then what you might need is a website builder. Wordpress does this, and a blog. Nicer website builders that have more minimal blog functionality are Squarespace and Wix.
If you want to do a diary, that you might share once in a while, maybe consider note-taking apps such as Bear (paid, iOS/Mac), Dropbox Paper (free), maybe Quip (free), and Evernote, HackMD (free, webapp), Google Docs (free), Quiver (one-time payment), GoodNotes (paid, iOS only). Majority of notetaking apps today are cloud-hosted, meaning you can sync and share a link to your doc.
Who are you writing for? Assuming you’re writing (not site building), it mainly for yourself, friends and family, or the general public. These are not exclusionary, but the priority should largely influence your decision.
What does writing address or solve for you? Are you building a personal brand, keeping a public diary, or reaching followers from other platforms like Instagram? If you’ve never written before, it’s fine to not be sure. One thing to be honest about is whether readership matters to you (if it does, you will need to do marketing otherwise you will stop, and if not, then choosing a solution that you enjoy writing with).
What feature would make you super happy in a writing app? Mine is Markdown support because it allows me to forget I have a mouse, or hands for that matter, become one with my keyboard and just type. I am pedantic about typography and white space. It’s the reason I prefer Dropbox Paper over Quip. I also have a preference for developer-designed editors like HackMD or Quiver over Evernote. I am also particular about tagging logic, which is why I switched from the powerful Ulysses after a year to a more simple Bear. Note that all of these are note-taking apps that I use before copying the final text to the blogging platform.
What are missing features that would be deal breakers? When I’m blogging, I care about typography and responsive design, which is why I resort to Medium. For posts, I care about SEO functions, while for newsletters I care about writer/reader experience (hence Buttondown and Substack).
In summary, have a list of things you care about most, such as: easy to write with / looks good / supports media / feature rich / customizable / easy to migrate. Every platform will tell you they’re all the above, but it depends on how you like to do things.
I will split my recommendations into:
- Coding required
- Theme customization: Can you choose different themes
- Post formatting: Can you do alignments, resize photos?
- Post features: Can it integrate charts, videos, take notation like MarkDown?
- SEO features: Tagging, categories, alt-tagging for images, meta info
- Performance: Site speed, mobile responsiveness, design suitability*
Most solutions below address all of these points, but to different degrees. How they do so will affect what you can do. For example, all the solutions below to my knowledge have meta tags for social sharing, but some may not let you customize your post title or add “Alt tags” to images that could be important if you are a marketer. Rather than read a long review of every solution, the best way to get a feel for performance is always to test. Test your experience writing and test how the posts are displayed (in some cases, they aren’t!), paying special attention to performance on mobile versus desktop, site speed, or browsers (Internet Explorer is the canary in the coal mine).
Full-featured solutions roughly translates to ones that can “build a website”. This would mean that the solution enables you to create pages as well as blog posts, add app integrations (essential these days for everything from social media and newsletters to payment providers). All the solutions listed below have SEO features essential to inbound marketing (meta tags for titles, descriptions, and a featured image). However, not all the solutions enable the same site performance, such as theme customization or site speed. It’s beyond the scope of this piece to discuss UX from a technical perspective, but try to keep that in mind when you are testing. I encourage you to test posting both pages and blog posts on all these platforms using a trial to get a sense of how they perform differently.
Wordpress feels like a dinosaur (along with its contemporary rival TypePad), but it won’t die because Wordpress.org (the opensource CMS) powers much of the web. Wordpress is built on PHP and a pain to work with because it hails from a bygone internet age where it wasn’t easy create an interface that enabled people to create content (your posts) and design (make frontend modifications). Yet, Wordpress endures and has users like me because it is:
- super fast to set up with hosting partners like Namecheap and Bluehost (both with awful hosting interfaces and questionable security, but that’s another topic),
- easy to type up a post on,
- has the largest integration ecosystem, and
- adaptable to your design dreams, if you pay Wordpress developers.
The best way to try is to download a theme and try to customize the home page. It almost never looks like the demo site and requires lots of setups.
Wordpress.org vs Wordpress.com
Wordpress.com is the paid hosting service that is like most of the other solutions listed below. Wordpress Basic is enough if all you want is to write, but if you want themes or app integrations, you’ll need to upgrade, and it will be no cheaper than Ghost. Wordpress.org allows anyone to download the Wordpress CMS and blogging interface and make code-level customizations, which can pull off some gorgeous web magic.
So why isn’t everyone using Ghost? Firstly, managed hosting, Ghost right out of the box for immediate use after registration, seems costly (US$25/month compared to US$8/month for Wordpress). Secondly, the self-hosted free version does require some technical knowledge to set up your own hosting.
Craft CMS deserves special mention. As a simple overview, it is similar to Ghost in that it provides content creators with an updated content management system and control panel that’s visually easy to use and generates content in a way that’s better adjusted to Web 2.0/Web 3.0. This would be called a “headless CMS” which means that the system that manages your files (blog posts, pages, etc.) is separated from the front-end design.
Craft CMS Solo (individual) is free, however it does require to get your own web server and hosting (check these recommended providers). With the hosting, Craft CMS would is priced roughly the same as Svbtle (covered in this piece’s “Lightweight” section), but is far more powerful with integrations and front-end modifications. As you might expect, the Solo version does require a little bit of configuration after you download the package. To a developer, this isn’t coding. If you do not code, fiddling with the Terminal might be scary. You will also need to set up your own web server. But it’s worth a try and the one-off set up will be rewarding.
Website builders with blogging functions
You might be wondering where Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly fit because they are also popular “for building websites”. That is also the reason they are a footnote: a website builder does not a blogging solution make. Squarespace leads the way for contemporary what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) site building interface, mobile-responsive themes that are spacious and elegant. However, it’s design-led approach leads to some technical issues, such as slower website load times, fewer integrations, less customization for themes and templates. If you want a blog featuring large images, and small text, it will serve you fine.
I have used Wix for a client in the past, and the functionality is limited to mostly text, links, and images, not much else. In addition, I found it had issues with SEO and link visibility to Google. Weebly to me feels mostly like Wix — a user-friendly interface for creating your own site. Both Wix and Weebly effectively keep your blog content on their platform, which means it’s difficult to bulk extract your pieces if you ever wanted to migrate.
Lightweight solutions allow you to blog with limited features, but a better experience for your main goal. If you know what your main goal is, then each of these solutions below will allow you, in theory, to just write.
Tumblr for fun uploads
Tumblr isn’t where you’d look for serious stuff, but rather as the birth-site (excuse the pun) of memes (The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens in The New Republic is an epic cultural read) that is buried under its internet copycat spawns. Tumblr is the social media-diary hyphenate — an orphaned carryover from the MySpace era that has a loyal fanbase comprised of… fandoms.
Tumblr is perhaps the only two-faced blogging platform. On your account, you see your Tumblr feed, almost as if it was Facebook. The account website, however, can be a gorgeous showcase for creatives, complete with tags for discoverability. If your posts are meant to be quick missives, linked to an image or video, Tumblr really might be your channel to reach the right communities with tags. Plus, if you are looking for a way to play get your toes wet in posting, Tumblr has some elegant, minimal text themes out of the box that make perfectly respectable displays for thoughtful, long-form pieces.
LinkedIn for professional branding
Medium for the masses
Medium (this platform) was founded on the simple premise of obsessively providing minimalist and comfortable writing and reading experience. In recent years, Medium’s quest to monetize their years of cash burning is to be a go-to media platform for user-generated content, which is why it has created pay walls.
Medium’s writing interface has not changed much in the past five years. It is clean to type on, simple to use, and comfortable to read. With Medium, you don’t have to think about design because it’s done for you. You can’t go wrong, but you can still choose your image sizes, add captions, embed videos, and have titles. It’s still a great place to type and know that exactly what you see is what your readers will see. Additionally, Medium has features such as publications, which you can submit to or even create yourself and invite other writers to contribute to.
The negative? As a long-time user, the sad thing is that Medium has been co-opted for content marketing by people like me. In its early founding days, it was a place for more thoughtful reflection with unique voices.
Svbtle for writing Zen
Svbtle is either Ghost-light or Medium’s younger cousin — likely both. At $6/month, it is an affordable and elegant editor interface and polished, subtle — invisible — design revealed to those who read Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. You don’t get to do much to your Svbtle blog in the way of design, but the creators have built a clean digital workspace for you to write to your heart’s content on a blank slate. The reason I like it is because of the attention to a smooth UI and the Markdown syntax support that enables me to just type. Unlike Medium, which has gone in the direction of a user-generated media platform, Svbtle appeals to the original users of Medium who just want a place to house their thoughts without the risk of commercialisation, pay walls, or future deletion.
Substack for conversations in writing
Substack is a newsletter-cum-blog with an interface that looks like Medium, and Markdown support like Ghost and Svbtle. Your publication automatically has a Substack domain and what you publish automatically becomes a post (which you can hide). When you write a post, you can automatically send it as an e-mail to your subscribers (separated into free and paid if you like). Alternatively, you could publish it as just a post without distributing it. In addition, you can also create discussion threads and host your podcast. Substack’s product thesis has inverted the blog-then-distribute marketing approach. Instead, Substack’s thesis is that people want high-quality, long-form content and have designed an interface that connects writers and their subscribers more directly. As a final detail, of the three newsletter options, Substack has the best analytics.
Two final, tiny solutions: e-mail
Finally, if you are writing to reach your audience directly, then one thing to consider is two minimalist e-mail solutions. TinyLetter was created by Mailchimp and does feel like a stripped down text editor for that service. It was the first lightweight newsletter service I used, but I quickly moved on because it uses Richtext (MS Word, Google Docs). If you like Evernote, you will probably like TinyLetter.
My personal e-mail is the esoteric solution built by one person: Buttondown. By now, you may have noticed a trend in my writing preferences: Markdown on one side and the preview on the other. Apart from this, it is essentially a limited version of Substack that doesn’t host images (you have to link to images hosted elsehwere); the readership analytics are not as good, the interface feels a bit more basic. One feature it has over Substack is the ability to create custom tags for your subscribers, but this is a manual process. If you wonder why I continue to use it, I’m with you. I cannot explain why I do, other than it is the one publishing tool that lets me forget my self-consciousness and just share directly with my friends.
Mailchimp is not my cup of tea, which is the arbitrary reason it is at the bottom. The logic of the product (campaigns nested in an audience, for example) does not come intuitively to me. Every time I want to get somewhere, say to a make a landing page, the trial-and-error clicking is a humbling reminder that UX is not universal. Mailchimp is designed for small businesses and people who do not live on the internet, helping people build landing pages, upload images, and connect to communities. I love what the company stands for and applaud what they do. I continue to hate their editor blocks and and fume at all the styling errors when I send out a test e-mail. Should you use Mailchimp? Yes, if it works for you.
This last collection of recommendations may not be new, but building your own blog is a good first project of the web. It’s the first one I have gotten up and running. In this case, there are about two types of “coding” levels. One is actual coding to set up. The other one, is more about installing and deploying.
Setting up your own self-hosted solution
The Ghost headless CMS is free if you do your own self-hosting. It runs on Node.JS and can be paired with a variety of front-end frameworks, such as Vue.JS. If you have a little bit of coding, then you can download a free theme package and following the docs to host your own Ghost blog. Wordpress.org operates the same way and if you buy a hosting package from a partner like BlueHost, then deploying a new blog is just the click of a button.
Github Pages is a simple solution with a a quick setup. The one catch is that as its own site, it doesn’t quite have SEO yet. To add the blogging features, you will need to configure Jekyll (static site generator that takes MarkDown).
Dupral is a grandfather CMS from another internet era, beloved to developers because it is an opensource CMS, enabling full customization to build custom websites. Think of this as the full-featured solution. It is likely a bit overkill for a simple blog.
Static Site Generators (SSG)
Static site generators are now a popular solution for developers because it enables them to just type out their thoughts, maybe locally on a Markdown file on any editor, and have the page automatically be generated as a new post.
Jekyll is a static site generator built with Ruby, perhaps one of the oldest popular solutions. Jekyll has free hosting on Github Pages. This also means that you can set up and host your blog for free, pretty sweet!
Hugo, built with Go, touts itself as the world’s fastest site builder, and it is if you know a little bit of coding. Even if you don’t know Go, the principles for deploying this site are about the same as other static site generators.
And if you are a Python developer, then perhaps Pelican is the answer for you.
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I currently use Wordpress.com, Wordpress.org, Medium, Substack, Buttondown, LinkedIn, and GitHub Pages (Jekyll). I have an account on Tumblr as well as tested Ghost, Ghost + Eleventy on Netifly, Svbtle, Wix, and Squarespace in previous years, which means they may have additional features since my last use.