I’m always surprised by how many emails I still receive today from people—Baby Boomers, college undergrads, mid-30s DINKs like myself—who are wanting to get into blogging. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” they start. “How do I do it? Where do I buy a URL? How do I even know what to write?”
Well, if you can’t answer that last question on your own, I probably can’t help you, but today is Camels & Chocolate’s ninth(!) birthday—before I know it, my blog will be going to middle school and kissing boys in dark movie theaters and sneaking out the back window after I go to sleep—so I figured it’s as good a time as any to give you the lay of the land, even though blogging is hardly in its infancy and, some people say, a dying medium (your blogger-in-residence here couldn’t disagree more).
Let’s Get Started!
First things first. Come up with a name that’s both memorable and something that you won’t tire of in a year or two. Next, sign up for a WordPress account (it’s free), register for hosting (it’s not; I swear by WPEngine), purchase your own URL (they’re cheap). Spend some time playing around on the back end; WordPress is pretty intuitive once you get the basics down, but can intimidate at first. It’s multi-faceted because it’s so customizable, which is why hardcore developers and designers prefer it over, say, SquareSpace, Tumblr or Wix. So click around a bit, then play with different post and page layouts to get started, before you go any further. Got it? Now, you’re ready to move on.
Design for all mankind. If you’re a total newbie, you’re probably not going to want to invest a lot in your site, but the good news is that WordPress has plenty of themes that will do the hard work for you. You can peruse them and even see how they look skinned to your site before you commit (and you can also change them at any time, too). You want something that’s clean, not too busy, but striking and draws the reader in. If you don’t find anything you like in the library of freebies, there are (literally) thousands of paid themes out there, both on WP’s backend and on sites like StudioPress. If you want to invest in a site and are longing for something super-custom like my site you’re seeing right here, you’d be best off contacting my killer team of web ninjas at Further Bound.
It’s in the details. People ask all the time how I get the map on my Places page? There’s an app for that. Well, technically it’s called a plugin. Plugins are a blogger’s best friend, but also their arch nemesis the second you fall in love with one and its developer discontinues it or it’s no longer compatible with the latest edition of WordPress (new versions come out every couple months, and you’re going to want to keep your site as updated as possible). What I’m saying is this: Choose your plugins wisely (i.e. ones with a lot of reviews), and don’t go overboard (I use around seven). Some crucial ones for me are an editorial calendar, social shares and comment reply functionality, but each blogger has different needs. (Warning: You could while away hours of your life searching the bottomless plugin archives just to see what’s out there. Pack snacks.)
Write what you know. My early days of blogging, much of which has been scrubbed from this site due to pure embarrassment (did I really need to write about my first bikini wax?), recounted my tales as a twentysomething in New York City. No, I wasn’t trying to be a Carrie Bradshaw, but I’d written a newspaper column for a couple years on my life as a young journalist traipsing around Manhattan and Europe, and that theme seemed to naturally carry over when I started my blog. These days, a lot of what I write is road trips I’m taking with SVV or friends, city highlights from destinations weddings I’m attending and plenty about the South, my home, which I know better than anywhere. If you want to start a travel blog—or any blog really—you always begin with writing what you know. News alert: No one is going to pay you to take a trip (you’d be surprised how much of my travels I self-fund), so don’t sit back and wait for that to happen; go out and do.
Add visuals. Design elements whether infographics or splashy, colorful photography are great at breaking up the monotony and giving your blog some pizzazz. I use photos (clearly), but if that’s not your thing, figure out what works for you. If you do decide to go the photo route, invest in a good camera or rent from BorrowLenses like we do when you need a specialized lens or product, make sure your images are crisp, in focus and take up the width of the blog column. If you upload your image large enough, you can always tweak the size in the WordPress editor.
Write, write and write some more. This is my motto as a journalist, as a content creator and as an aspiring novelist. I write upward of 10,000 words a day, some days more, many of which never get read because I trash them or put them in a folder on my Dropbox to float away into an endless abyss of Word docs. It doesn’t really matter if they get published or not. Whatever kind of writing you do, the only way you’re going to get better is by writing some more. Do you think Serena Williams won 22 Grand Slam singles titles by saying “my backhand is perfect, I don’t need to hit another?” Hell, no. And James Patterson doesn’t put out a dozen thrillers a year by sitting on his iPhone and playing Pokémon GO all day long either. Perfection is an insurmountable oasis that none of us will never reach, but we should all continue to attempt to summit anyway.
OK … So Now What?
Let people know you’re there. I remember when my father-in-law started a very short-lived political blog and was stumped why he wasn’t immediately Internet famous overnight. He asked SVV, “so why is no one commenting on it?” Welllll, no one is going to know you have a website unless you tell them about it, am I right? Once your site is ready to unveil to the world, add the link to every one of your profiles, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Instagram. Cross-promote every time you add a new post. The more places your URL appears, the more likely it is going to cut through the clutter of your friends’ feeds and grab their attention.
Comment, comment, comment. When I started blogging nearly a decade ago, there were far fewer blogs, and it was much easier to find your online tribe (back in the day, I used the BlogHer network for this). Nowadays, it can be really hard to find quality blogs with so many crap ones out there, though I have found quite a few Facebook groups that fill the void BlogHer left behind. So my advice is this: Find a few that you do like to read—you can even start right here with me! *high-five*—and make an effort to leave a comment when you can and then hope it will be reciprocated or seen by other readers of that blog. I do all my blog reading on a set day every week, but I try to visit every single blogger back who has taken the time to leave me a comment, and I know many others who abide by the same quid pro quo philosophy.
Don’t be spammy. Please don’t be that person who leaves their link at the end of every comment in a blog; most bloggers have a plugin called Comment Luv that will pull your most recent link. Also, don’t be that blogger who has auto-responses on Twitter (or other social media networks) that say, “thanks for the follow! Please check me out here and here and here and here and, while you’re at it, here and here and here.” Ugh, I just detest that kind of spammy behavior, don’t you? At the same time, include your social profiles in a header that’s visible on your blog so people can easily follow you elsewhere should they choose to do so.
Connect through other means beyond the blog. So many of my blog friends were people I originally discovered via Twitter or Instagram or another platform outside of their actual website. Connect with people’s content who you enjoy on various networks, build a relationship there and, eventually, they may start following you back/reading your blog, too.
Show Me the Money
I’m going to be honest with you, if you’re starting a blog to make money, you’re doing it wrong. I didn’t bother to sell an ad or sponsored post until well into my fourth year of blogging. Not only was this initially meant as solely a creative outlet for me, but you need to build up a healthy stock of content—plus, the most important thing, a devout audience—before you try to monetize a thing.
when if you get to that point, don’t be glamored by the money. We get approached by dozens of potential partners daily who want me to write about their product or service, and nine times out of 10, they simply aren’t a good fit for this space or my interests. So I turn them down. And while, sure, it can be hard to say no to a healthy paycheck when you’re a freelancer, I’d say one of the reasons I’m successful as a blogger is because I don’t let advertisers (or SEO) dictate my content. I write about what I want to write about when I want to write it. People respond more favorably to that kind of philosophy, too, I’d venture to say. Still, you’ve got to test out the waters and see—maybe affiliate programs are your bread-and-butter instead of sponsored posts, or perhaps you can carve your niche through paid but unbiased product reviews.
Follow FTC guidelines. Be ethical, be transparent, disclose paid partnerships. It’s the law, y’all.