A while back I wrote an introductory article about travel photography, and some time after that it occurred to me that I’d never done something similar for blogging. I get questions often enough from readers wondering how I started IO, so for those who are interested, here’s my advice.
First off, let me start by saying that I have very little expertise at website creation. I’ve only done it once in my life, and it’s just not something I have much interest in. The best advice I can give you here is to get online and do some research. Just like I blog about going RVing, there are people out there who blog about web design, and you’ll get much better information from those people who are experts in their field than me who learned only as much as I needed to get IO off the ground and then promptly forgot.
As I recall, it took me about two-three days all told to get the back end part of my site purchased and/or downloaded and then set up, and that was with step-by-step directions I’d gotten from my own research at the time (sadly the e-book I purchased with those step-by-step direction is no longer around, it became outdated).
Now, initial set up doesn’t need to be as complicated as it was for me. If you’re getting free hosting through Blogger for instance, there isn’t as much work you need to do on your end, but you’ll find you have less flexibility in how the blog works. Which is better? It depends on what kind of blog you want to start.
I always knew that I wanted IO to be a resource blog. I wanted it to look professional and respectable, and I knew eventually I wanted to write a book and sell it through my blog, and these things required the flexibility of paid blog hosting. If you’re just looking for a way to keep in touch with friends and family while you travel though, you probably don’t need to put as much effort (and money) in as I did.
With that said, here is what I use. This was all new and shiny in 2011 and may not be the best option now, so again, do your research.
Bluehost is the company I used to purchase my domain name (that’s the actual interstellarorchard.com link) and host this blog. I pay them $26 a year for the domain name and privacy service, and $263.76 every other year for the hosting. (So IO costs me about $13.16 a month.)
WordPress is the platform I use, and it was a free download. Now, last I checked, there were two different versions of WordPress, and mine is the self-hosted kind. You could also have a WordPress blog that is hosted by WordPress, but there were limitations with that, so I chose to pay Bluehost to host it for me.
Woothemes is where I purchased the Canvas theme for a one time fee of $70, and this step is where I most recommend you look for something newer. I like the way Canvas looks and it’s been pretty easy to work with, but it will not translate into a mobile version for those reading my blog on their smartphones, and starting this year search engine ratings are influenced by whether they’re mobile friendly or not.
Plugins and Widgets. These aren’t strictly necessary, but I’ve downloaded several add-ons to make IO function better. Some of these change things in the background that readers would never notice, for instance the “Google XML Sitemaps” plugin allows search engines like Google and Bing to “find” IO easier, the “ZenCache” plugin makes IO load faster. And some of these are very visible, for instance when you make a comment on IO, you’ve probably noticed the “Comment Luv” thing that lets you link back to your own website, that’s a plugin. The box at the top of the website where users can sign up for the IO mailing list is a widget I downloaded. Here’s a list of the rest of the plugins and widgets I use (you can search for them right from your blog Dashboard to download):
- All In One SEO Pack
- All Related Posts
- Delightful Downloads
- Digg Digg
- EZPZ One Click Backup
- Subscribe to Comments Reloaded
After that I spent several days on the front end of the blog, fiddling with colors, fonts, layout, and graphics. It probably wouldn’t have strictly taken that much time, but the graphic side of web building interests me more, and so I spent more time on it. Like with all the travel photography I do, I used Photoshop to make the blog header, and the lined background.
Now’s where we get to the part of blogging that I have more experience in. The writing side!
When most people think about travel blogging, they think about journal posts. For friends and family, journal style posts of “today I went here and did this” will keep everyone up to date, but it won’t be very interesting for those who don’t know you very well.
Unless you turn it into a story. You’ll notice when I write my travelogue style posts, I explain not only where I went and what I did, but how I felt, and I write about the hardships as well as the good. This approach draws readers in, and makes them feel like they’re having the adventure right alongside me.
Not everyone’s writing style lends itself well to storytelling though, and not everyone has the ability to travel enough to fill a blog with journal posts (myself included). But there are other ways to build a following.
Be informative. There are a lot of wannabe RVers out there, looking for information on how to get on the road, and a lot of people already on the road looking for fixes to problems or tips on how to do things better.
A great number of my posts are “how-to” in nature, ranging in scope from RV maintenance to setting up domicile to organizing a small RV to health insurance and taxes. Chances are, you know how to do something that someone else would be interested in learning. Even if you’re not on the road yet yourself, you can write about how you’re preparing to go – I was actively blogging at IO for 10 months before I became a full-timer myself.
Be inspirational. Informational posts are good, but if you can manage to make them inspirational too, it’s like a two for one special. I think of this kind of as combining the first two categories: knowledge with a story. Don’t just tell people how to do something, give them the behind the scenes of how you learned this knowledge, or how it has helped you in other parts of your life.
People who read your travel blog are going to wish they were you. You’re an inspiring figure because you’re living the kind of life they wish they could live. So pass your good fortune along, and empower them to make changes to better their own lives.
Be funny. Humor is a great way to engage readers. You’ll probably collect some silly stories to share while you’re traveling, even events that don’t seem funny at the time may turn out to be humorous when you look back at them, of if you present them in a certain light.
Think about related topics. It’s hard to write about travel and RVing all the time, luckily there are many other subjects out there related to travel that your readers might be interested in. I’ve written about outdoor activities, photography, living simply, budgeting, and many other topics, including a lot of philosophy posts that I put under the heading of “deliberate living”.
Once your new blog is set up and your first post is written, you might think you’re all ready to go. If you’re just intending to blog for your friends and family, you probably are ready to go and you can skip down to the next section.
But if you’re looking to blog for a wider audience, you’re not there yet.
First impressions are absolutely critical, whether you’re meeting that person face to face or online. Someone landing on your blog for the first time on average is only going to spend a few seconds glancing at your blog to see if it’s worth the time to read, so you need to capture their interest quickly to convert them to a reader.
The first thing they’re going to wonder is what the website is about. If your blog title doesn’t make it clear, you’ll want a good tagline that explains it. “Interstellar Orchard” could mean anything, I chose it for a title because I wanted it to stand out, but viewers landing on my blog for the first time aren’t going to know what I’m all about just from that, so you’ll notice right under my title I have the tagline: “Lessons on the full-time RVing journey”. That makes it clear that my blog is about full-time RVing.
The second thing you’ll want is something interesting for them to read. You don’t want to “launch” a blog with just one post up, what if that post is about something the viewer isn’t particularly interested in? They won’t come back if there’s nothing that holds their attention on the first visit.
I read somewhere that a person should have five to ten blog posts published before they launch, and it worked well for me. If you look back in my post archives, you’ll notice I had six posts with a publish date of 11/14/11, that was the day I launched IO. Three days after that The Good Luck Duck found me through a RV forum and mentioned me on their RVing blog, saying I was a young prospective full-time that had my head on straight. I don’t think Roxi would have been as impressed if I’d only had one blog post up at the time, I had 307 hits that day.
Once viewers have read through a blog post or two, the next thing they’ll look for is more information about you and your site, so you’ll want an About page to fill that need. A tip: Strangers aren’t going to be interested in your life story, they don’t know you yet and so they don’t really care. When writing your About page, make it less about you, and more about what your site can do for them, the viewer. You’ll notice on my About page, the top is about how IO helps pre-retirement folks go full-time RVing, only at the bottom do I give more information about myself, and even then it’s brief. I do recommend putting a picture of you in your About page though, because it’s easier for people to connect to a blog when they can put a face to the narrative they’re reading.
The last thing to think about for launching is social media. Once you’ve converted a first time viewer into a reader, you’re going to want ways to keep them coming back. There are a lot of demands on our time these days, and not everyone is going to remember to click back to your blog to keep up to date.
I set up the Facebook page for IO, my Twitter handle, the feed for the blog through Feedburner, and the mailing list through MailChimp before I launched so that new readers would have several ways to keep in touch and I could start building a following right from the start.
Alright, with all that in place you’re now ready to launch your blog!
Keeping it going
Starting a blog is one thing, but the thought of keeping up with it, of finding things to write about on a regular basis for years to come, can be daunting. Here are some tips for keeping a blog going.
Establish a schedule for posting, and hold yourself to it. I decided right away that I was going to update IO twice a week. My initial posting schedule was Mondays and Thursdays, but for some of my seasonal jobs Tuesday and Friday has worked better. Having a schedule makes writing a habit, and it’s hard to break a habit. You’ll notice I put this blog post under the “work” category, and that’s because I treat IO as seriously as a second job.
Write your posts in advance. I like to write my posts up at least one day before they’re due to go up. That way there’s no rush, and if I’m having a low inspiration day, I have a little wiggle room to work with.
Whenever you think up something to write about, make a note of it. I started IO with a big list of topics I could write about, so that if nothing interesting happened during the that half of the week, I had ideas to fall back on. I carry my phone with me everywhere and when inspiration strikes when I’m away from my computer, I write a note down so that I can add it to that list later. This post in fact was on that list for weeks, just waiting for the right time to be written out.
Have a couple pre-written posts on standby for hard days. When you find yourself with a little extra time, write up an extra post, and keep it on standby for those days when you don’t have time to write, or aren’t feeling inspired.
Feeling stuck? Writing is a creative endeavor, and creativity isn’t always available on demand. Sometimes when you’re feeling stuck, you just need to slog through it even if you don’t particularly feel like writing. Even the best writers have days where it doesn’t seem fun or interesting. Sometimes though, when you’re stuck a break away from writing can do a world of good. There is no one size fits all and the longer you blog, the better a feel you’ll get for which kind of stuck you are.
* * *
And that covers it! I hope you wannabe bloggers out there find this article useful, happy writing.
For part 2 of this article, click here
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