“So, Nords, how did you start blogging?”
A friend’s e-mail inspired this post. They asked:
“How did you get started?”
“What software/host do you use?”
“Is there an understandable how-to out there for the non-technical?”
I’ve only been blogging for 18 weeks and the blog is slowly gaining traction. You readers are contributing 50-60 views per day, and the recent “Fog of Work” post hit 94. (Thanks!) Unsurprisingly, many readers come to the blog from Early-Retirement.org. However, the site must be climbing the Google ranks because a growing minority of you are finding it from searching military-retirement keywords. If you want to share how you found the blog then please leave a comment at the “comment” link or the “Leave a Reply”box at the bottom of this post.
Of course I’m blogging to market “The Military Guide”, but it’s turned out to be a multi-use tool. It’s a great way to collaborate with multiple authors or to test an idea in a different market without annoying the regular customers. The “privacy” feature of a blog also happens to be a wonderful way to vent or to archive documents or to just keep a journal.
When I started this blog I was paralyzed with the fear of making irrevocable design decisions. I was sure I’d do something that would lead up a blind alley months later, and then I’d have to scrap everything and start over. A smart IT friend (thanks, BMJ!) helped me get over that fear with this link to Brent Ozar’s “Why blog?” post. Yet even Ozar would probably agree that if his advice doesn’t resonate with you then it’s also very easy to just sign up at a blogging site, click a few buttons, and muck around. The blogging sites seem to pitch their products & support at the average high-school junior [insert joke here about junior officers or junior enlisted], and from there it’s easy to add more features as you need them.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, I started with WordPress— open-source if I need that feature later, lots of users, and well documented with huge help files and supported forums. (I’ve asked several extremely obscure and technical questions on the forums and gotten the perfect answer every time within 24 hours.) WordPress is free if you don’t mind their URL being assigned to your blog, or for $25/year (cheap!) you can register your own personal URL for them to host. Blogger (Google) and TypePad are top competitors. I don’t know much about those latter two, and so far WordPress is keeping me too happy to care about them. However, a blog’s content can be easily ported from one host/system to another– they’re all based on common codes like CSS, HTML, and PHP so that we don’t have to be experts on the technical details. Sure, it’s impressive and interesting, but I’d rather write.
Almost everything on this blog can be changed without losing the things I want to keep. These days I fearlessly tweak the settings, and if I’m not sure then I can use the “preview”, “draft”, or “privacy” settings while I’m doing it. Every week I seem to add another feature, and so far I’ve only had to throttle back on one of them. WordPress has never blown up on me and it’s been pretty easy to backtrack out of dead ends.
Another concern was the overwhelming variety of buttons, bells, & whistles. My advice is to ignore them until you want to go beyond the basics. Start simple: decide what you want to call your blog, go through WordPress’ signup menus, don’t get sucked into the upsells (unless you want to register a custom URL), pick a theme, and start writing. I’d recommend WP’s “Twenty Ten” theme— it’s their most popular theme, I’m happy with it, and it’s easy to switch to something else anytime. The text editor is visual and more powerful than discussion-board software, and there’s an HTML mode for even more formatting controls. When you want to do something more advanced like a “custom menu” or a different “column format” or a blogroll, the settings are intuitive and the help files are easily searched.
The biggest advantage of being hosted by a site like WordPress (instead of some other webhost service) is the back-office support. WordPress.COM handles all the backups, security, spam filters, and plug-in utilities. I can only use their plug-ins; I can’t add my own. Their benevolent sandbox limits have kept me out of trouble (and hacker-free). Happily their new features are coded, tested, and added far faster than I’ve been interested in using them. They show a few ads (I can’t control that but most readers use AdBlock) and I can’t earn revenue with my own ads, but when I decide to donate blog revenues to military charities then I can easily move it all to my own host and continue to use WordPress.ORG as open-source software with thousands of other plug-ins. Unfortunately earning revenue also means handling my own backups, security, spam filters, and plug-in issues. It’s not impossible but a good host is critical and it’s just one more distraction from what I really enjoy– writing.
It’s easy to get discouraged by the discipline of writing. When I look back on the last four months, I’m surprised by the number of one-time setup decisions I made on layout, links, and organization. (All those decisions can be changed but none of them have anything to do with actually writing and getting things done.) I’m surprised by how much my technique has evolved, and luckily most of it came from picking a few settings and using some boilerplate text. I’m also grateful for all the effort WP puts into entertaining its customers with tips and encouragement. For example, Scott Berkun is running a “Post a Week” challenge this year with lots of ideas to jump-start bloggers– topic suggestions, rough-draft techniques, tricks to get around writer’s block. (Scott is a prolific author & speaker with a few of his own ideas about overcoming writer’s block.) Every stray thought I have goes onto a topic list and eventually gets turned into a post. If I’m burning out then I can always tell a sea story.
I read a lot of other blogs and frequently ask “How did they do that?” If you can figure out the name of the feature then you can find it in WordPress’ help files and decide if it’s worth the effort. If you can’t figure out the feature then you can post its link in the WP forum and ask the dumb questions– there are lots of experienced moderators to guide you to the right info. I also read business blogs on the business of blogging (especially for revenue) but most of their advice is common sense… or they’re trying to sell you something.
Search-engine optimization is getting easier. Its Wild-West days are over and it’s largely been dumbed down by Google, Yahoo!, and Bing. There aren’t really any tricks or pitfalls and WordPress also does most of the SEO heavy lifting for its bloggers. I think a lot about it and about readability/marketing techniques but WordPress also has lots of staff bloggers to consult for those questions. Of course they have products that they’d love to sell you but you can do 90% of it for free.
If you’re blogging to reach a wide market of readers, then Facebook and Twitter will inevitably rear their ugly heads. Let’s just say that WordPress has integrated those websites with their blogs, and it was a lot easier than I expected. After a couple false starts I realized that I needed to install a “Twitter” application into my Facebook page (which doesn’t make a lot of semantic sense, but those are the words). Now when I put up a post the blog automatically repeats it to Facebook and tweets. That gives me more time to
go surfing write.
The best blogging advice is the simplest yet also the hardest– write at least weekly about things that interest you and provide helpful links to relevant material. Then, if you’re trying to attract an audience, it’s just a matter of pushing through the months until you’re “discovered” and hundreds of subscribers look forward to your next thoughtful post. I’m finding that I write just about as much every day as I did before the blog, but now I’m more focused on using my musings as blog fodder.
So if you want a better quality of fodder, feel free to let me know what you’d like to read.
Next up I’m drafting a post on SECDEF Gates’ recent Tricare proposals. After that I’ll go back to chapter eight of “The Military Guide”!
Writing and publishing
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