Need help with your blog? What are you waiting for?

I am LOVING blog coaching. Loving it!

Here’s how this developed: I enjoyed helping friends who were new to blogging — showing them how to set up a blog, brainstorming what to write about and figuring out how to build a readership. And now I’m including that service as part of Socialexis! It’s so great to hear the excitement in my client’s voices when they see their blog coming together, especially newbies who felt shaky about their technical skills to begin with.

I teach on both WordPress.com and Blogger, platforms that look professional yet are fairly intuitive and easy to learn. Through the magic of the Internet, I hook up my computer to each client’s computer so we can work together on one screen. And then I literally walk clients through whatever they want to learn.

So far I’ve mostly worked with writers who are starting from scratch, but I’m also up for helping folks who are already blogging but can’t quite figure out how to add certain features or get readers. Because if you’re going to put in all that effort, you want someone to read your blog, right?

Yeah, I’m having way too much fun with this.

Contact me if you need help! I promise to make it fun for you, too.

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Blogging Part III: A 5-step guide to getting started

You’ve thought about whether you should start blogging, and decided the answer is yes. You’ve seriously considered your content, pondering what makes a blog successful.

Now you ask: How do I get started?

1. Pick a platform. If you’re a newbie, you’ll probably want a hosted platform, one that’s easy to use. They’re also free. Here’s a list of the most popular hosted platforms.

I’m also including a few examples — pulled straight from my Google Reader — so you can see what blogs hosted with each platform look like. I’m only picking blogs I think the blogger created themselves, without help from a designer.

  • WordPress. I’m partial to WordPress.com because that’s what I use. I think it looks more professional than other platforms. It offers lots of templates (aka designs) to choose from and has more built-in options than Blogger. But there is a learning curve; it took me a while to figure everything out. Look at the difference between my first blog — my travel blog — and this blog. Big difference, right? To get a sense for WordPress.com, check out blogs by Steve Buttry, Lisa McKay and Simone Gorrindo.
  • Blogger. If you’re not comfortable with the Web, you might choose Blogger. Blogging with Blogger is as easy as it gets — easier than WordPress. You can’t do quite as much with it, but if you’re a newbie that might not matter. I haven’t looked for statistics on this, but I believe Blogger is the most popular platform. Here’s what a Blogger blog looks like: The Intern, BookEnds, Mary Carroll Moore and Peggy Frezon. (I coached Peggy on her blog.)
  • Typepad. While I’ve blogged with WordPress and helped friends use Blogger, I don’t have personal experience with Typepad. Can any readers vouch for it? TypePad blogs: Sarah Fain and Chip MacGregor.
  • Tumblr. This platform is meant for short blog posts, even micro-blogging. But plenty of folks use it as their primary blog. I keep track of my reads on Tumblr, but I put no effort whatsoever into that design, so don’t look to me as an example. Instead, check out Julie Kraut‘s blog.

One last word on this: If you’re Web-savvy or have someone who is to help you, think about using WordPress.org. It’s self-hosted, which basically means more complicated, and not as easy to set up. But while I usually recommend bloggers start out with WordPress.com (that’s right — there’s a WordPress.ORG and a WordPress.COM. COM is easier), bloggers often make the switch to WordPress.org once they’ve learned the ropes. If you can start with WordPress.org, you’ll save yourself the trouble of eventually making that switch.

If there’s one regret I have about blogging, it’s that I didn’t start out on WordPress.org. Because now I want to switch to WordPress.org, but that would require changing my blog URL, and you all already know to find me here. Sigh.

Examples of WordPress.ORG blogs: Marian Schembari, Todd’s Wanderings and In Search of Squid.

Want more pros and cons of each platform to figure out which is right for you? Check out this Blogging Basics 101 post.

2. Choose a URL. Try to make your URL your name. You can also make it match your blog title — if you’re absolutely sure you’ll stick with it — but your name is best for the purposes of personal branding. Maybe you don’t care about branding yourself now, but you might later. And while Blogger allows you to change your URL, WordPress doesn’t; to change a WordPress.com URL, you have to start from scratch and build a new blog. So choose wisely.

If you really want to get fancy, you can buy yourname.com at GoDaddy.com (usually costs about $10/year) and point that URL to your blog. For example, way back when, I set up alexisgrant.com to reroute to my travel blog. I say this is fancy, but it’s actually fairly easy to set up. And it’s good to have yourname.com anyhow.

3. Find your template. Your design says a lot about you and your blog, so choose one that looks professional. This is where WordPress has far more options than Blogger.

Whenever I’m looking for a new template, I always narrow the selection down in two ways: designs with two or three columns, and ones with customizable headers. A customizable header allows you to download a photo for the top of your blog (this is easy, I promise). With so many people using these platforms, a customizable header is an easy way to make your blog look unique.

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Blogging 101, Part II: What makes an awesome blog?

Welcome back!

We’ve already talked about why you should have a blog and whether you’re ready to start one. Up today: What makes an awesome blog?

There are as many ways to produce a good blog as there are bloggers. But when you’re new to the blogosphere, you need concrete goals, right? So here are a few things you can focus on to make your blog successful.

Offer value. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many blogs fail to offer some sort of value to their readers. (Those blogs tend to be lacking readership.) What’s value? In my mind, a valuable blog is either useful or entertaining. Readers return to blogs because they get something from being there. They learn something. Or they laugh. So before starting a blog, ask yourself: What value will my blog offer to readers? Why would a reader not only visit my blog, but come back the next day?

These are questions you can use not only to evaluate an entire blog, but also to make sure each and every post is worth publishing. If a post isn’t useful or doesn’t make me feel some sort of emotion — laugh or cry — re-think it. Maybe it simply needs to be rewritten. Maybe the topic isn’t worth writing about on your blog.

I’m totally down with being proven wrong on this — Does anyone disagree that most quality blogs are useful or entertaining? Can you point us to one that’s not? As one reader brought up in the comments on Part I of this series, the best blogs tend to break rules. So maybe this is a rule that’s waiting to be broken.

Look good. Yes, I’m talking about your blog’s appearance. I only read blogs that are easy to look at — and I’m not alone. Make sure your blog doesn’t look cluttered. Avoid black backgrounds with white or light-colored type. Post photos in appropriate sizes, ones that complement your text, not huge images that take over the entire page. Also don’t have a text-heavy page (hmm… like this one); include images and color to balance out links and copy. And here’s the big one: break your text into easy-to-read, short paragraphs with white space between them. Readers like white space!

The most important part of your blog is your content. But it will be a lot easier to convince people to read that content if your space looks clean and well put-together.

Use awesome titles for posts. This ties into the value and purpose of your blog. When you create a title, let your readers know what they’ll gain from the post. Like newspaper headlines, blog post titles are the reader’s first hint about whether they should read the post. So make them good.

In my experience, titles that show the post is a how-to or a list tend to get lots of clicks. Examples: “How to use social media to look for a job” or “Five reasons you should buy Lexi’s book.” Okay, so that last one isn’t a post yet. But it will be someday.

Well-written titles also help with SEO, for those of you who know what that is. If you don’t, well, that’s for another day.

Get personal. Readers return to blogs not only for the value they offer, but because they feel a personal connection to the blogger. Let readers connect with you. Give them something to grasp.

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Blogging 101: Do you have what it takes to start a blog?

A handful of writers have approached me recently asking for help with their blogs. Some are trying to decide whether they should start a blog and how to go about it. Others want to improve an existing blog. So this week I’m running a series that will address three questions: Should I start a blog? What makes a blog successful? And how do I get started blogging?

Part I: Should you start a blog?

This isn’t about why you should blog. I think most writers — and everyone else who wants to promote themselves or their services — realize it’s an essential tool for building a platform, networking, etc. I want to help you think through whether you’ve got what it takes to start one.

I’ve heard people suggest that new bloggers get started as soon as possible, even if they’re still figuring out their focus, format and logistics. I advise the opposite. Everything you publish on the Web is out there for the whole world to read. Forever. So you want to get it right the first time. That means having a well thought-out plan and a good-looking site before you launch. Or at least before you tell anyone about it. Sure, your focus, style and approach will morph as you get the hang of blogging. But you want to look and sound professional from the get-go.

If you’re considering starting a blog, here’s what you should ask yourself:

What do I have to offer? Blogs have a bad rap because too many people use them as personal diaries. Please, for your sake and ours, do not make this mistake. Have a clear vision of what you hope to offer your readers. Not thoughts about your annoying neighbor or ramblings on your dog’s favorite toys. What’s your focus? (More on picking your subject in Part II.)

What are my goals? You know you should have a blog to “build your platform,” but that in itself isn’t a good enough reason to start one. In fact, that term makes me want to gag, partly because it’s so vague. What exactly are you hoping to accomplish through blogging?

Maybe it’s networking — I love connecting with other writers, especially people writing memoir. Maybe you’ll stir up interest in your soon-to-be published book.

Or maybe blogging will help you think through whatever you’re blogging about, help you come up with ideas or do your job better. This is a benefit bloggers often overlook. Writing here forces me to flesh out my ideas and express them in a cogent way instead of letting them mull around in my brain. It forces me to come up with conclusions. It helps me document my writing process so I won’t make the same mistakes the next time I write a book. I’m not only sharing with you here — I’m helping myself by keeping track of what I’ve learned and improving my own process. This blog helps me brainstorm and learn.

Am I okay with my posts being in the blogosphere forever? When you write something on the Internet, it stays there forever. Even after you erase it. Google saves everything.

I think about this a lot. Even though I’m not working as a journalist now, I might in the near future, which means I can’t express my opinions about certain issues. So while I try to reveal pieces of my personality on this blog, I’m careful about every single word I write, making sure I don’t say anything that might jeopardize my career.

What are your considerations when it comes to telling the world your story? I wouldn’t worry too much about privacy — it’s your blog, so you get to decide what to share and what to keep to yourself. But if you’re the type of person who over-shares, maybe you should consider a diary instead.

On the bright side, this lives-on-forever aspect is also what makes the Internet so valuable to us. It’s what allows that popular post you wrote a year ago to remain at the top of Google’s search results, making you findable to people who care about your subject. So embrace it. Leave your permanent footprint. Just make sure it’s a good one.

Do I have time? In my mind, this is the most important consideration, and it’s what I’ve been bringing up with my (small business) clients when we talk about whether they should start a blog. None of us really have time for a blog, but lots of us make time. Are you willing to make that time? Because blogging — I’ve gotta be honest here — is super time-consuming. It’s also rewarding. But every minute spent blogging means less time for writing or building your business or whatever’s your main focus.

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Why writers should have a blog (and my first real rejection)

It was nearly a year ago that I was first approached by a literary agent.

I hadn’t sent out any queries. I hadn’t attended a conference and pitched agents in person. I hadn’t even tried to get in touch with agents, because I wanted to write my manuscript first. So how, you ask, did this agent find me?

Through my blog.

That’s right. I’d written here about one of her clients, and the agent happened to see the post, then clicked around my site reading more about me and my project.

Apparently I looked interesting, because she e-mailed me asking to see a proposal — if I had one — and sample chapters. And though the e-mail was a complete surprise, I already knew who this woman was. She was on my list of agents to query! She’d represented the author of a travel memoir I’d enjoyed, so I’d already researched her, knew about her experience and books she’d sold. Needless to say, I was excited.

My proposal wasn’t quite ready, so I finished that and my chapters during my residency at The Hambidge Center. Upon my return home, I sent The Agent my work. And then, every time I sat down to work on my manuscript during the next month, I nervously wondered whether she was reading it.

But when she finally got back to me, it wasn’t with good news. She was passing on the manuscript, she wrote. My first rejection!

For a day or so I felt defeated, disappointed that it hadn’t worked out. Months later I’d wonder whether I should have waited to share my work, until I’d finished my entire manuscript. After all, what I have now is completely different than what I gave her a year ago. In retrospect, the work I sent her wasn’t polished. But that’s how we learn, right? By making mistakes. I learned then that even when I think my writing is at its best, it’s probably not. Because we don’t know what we don’t know.

I also learned another important lesson: that it was essential that I do a fabulous job with my blog. Because someone important might read it. Producing an awesome blog is part of making my own luck.

There are a zillion reasons why writers should make time to produce a quality blog. Simply having one isn’t enough; it does you no good — and can actually do you harm — unless you do it well. But for those of you who are looking to get published, this one reason should be enough to get you on the blogwagon: a literary agent, or another important, career-changing connection, could find you through your blog.

A handful of writers have approached me recently asking for help with their blogs, which is why I’m now offering blog coaching — help with everything from setting up a new blog to improving an existing one — as part of my social media consulting gig. But The Traveling Writer is all about free advice. So over the next two weeks, I’ll address three questions:

  • Part II: What makes a blog successful?
  • Part III: How do you get started blogging?

If you’ve ever considered starting a blog or are looking for ways to improve one you’ve already created, I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Some things are better left unblogged

When I was querying literary agents, I grappled with whether to blog about it. The whole purpose of this blog is to help you learn from my experiences (and to help me grow), and I kinda felt like I was leaving you out in the cold by not sharing exactly what was going on. Several people wrote to me asking, what’s the latest with your manuscript?

But while I’m a supporter of honest blogging, I also felt like blogging about querying might hurt my chances of landing a great agent. I wanted agents to come to my blog and see the community I’ve built here, not read about how I wanted to pull my hair out while waiting for them to get back to me.

In the end, some things are better left unblogged. And for me, the details of my agent search fell into that category — at least while I was in the middle of it.

But now that I’m represented by Rachelle Gardner, I want to share my query experience with you. In my next few posts, I’ll write about what I learned from querying, as well as how I went about it. I’m also planning to post my query so you can see what worked for me. Is there anything in particular you’d like to know? Any details that might help you query when it comes to your own agent hunt?

For those of you who are querying now, do you blog about it? What other parts of a writer’s life might be better left unblogged?

As for where I’m at now with the manuscript: I’m revising. Again. And I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

Finding my voice through blogging

Literary agent Nathan Bransford had a great post recently on finding your literary voice.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I dig into another revision of my travel memoir. One of the elements I’m focusing on is my voice. Rachelle says my voice is still too journalistic, not memoir-y enough. I know she’s right. This is something I’ve struggled with from the beginning, since my writing experience is mostly in news.

No matter what I do, my style will probably always be slightly journalistic, since I’m a journalist. That’s okay. Some of my favorite memoirs have journalistic voices, including Helene Cooper’s The House at Sugar Beach. (My sister tells me Roxana Saberi’s Between Two Worlds does too, though it’s still in my to-read pile, or as an agent at the conference this weekend called it, Guilt Mountain.) But even with that journalistic undertone, I need to let the reader in. I need to help the reader get to know me, to hear my personality in my words.

So whenever I find myself writing stiffly, I remind myself to create like I do on this blog. To write casually. To string words together like I would in a conversation, not like I would for a news story. On this blog, I’ve developed a conversational tone, one that really sounds like me. (Agree? Feel free to shoot me down!) Little bits of my humor come through here. A taste of my personality. Yes, in some ways I still write like a journalist, but on this blog I feel like I’ve found my unique voice.

That’s what needs to come across in my manuscript. Perhaps, during this revision, I should pretend I’m blogging.