The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Starting A Blog

Pre-S: Interested in sharing your writing on the web but don’t know where to start? I am thinking about creating a 6 module video e-course filled with information about building a Better Blog — from choosing a topic, to blogging best practices, all the way to growing your audience. If you’d be interested in this $30 self-paced e-course, enter your email here and I’ll notify you when it launches.

 

In 2014, I started a blog. A little late to the game, I know. But it felt good to have a little slice of the Internet I could call my own.

The blog was nothing fancy. It was hosted on Tumblr, had a .tumblr.com URL address, and was rocking an ugly, free theme (that I thought looked good at the time). But none of that was important. All that mattered was that I had a platform where I could freely express my thoughts and opinions. Where I could share my point of view and get credit for it.

Looking back on two years of blogging, I’ll admit that I made some mistakes…a lot of them. My first few posts are cringe-worthy. But just getting started — as clumsy as my initial attempts were — was enough.

In just two years, I was able to grow a sizable audience from zero, publish a book, and land two new jobs, simply because I started writing on the web.

***

I realize it’s 2016. Blogs are out, podcasts are in. “No one reads anymore.” They’re too busy Snapping and Instagramming.So they say…

But 30 million people visit Medium — the world’s most popular blogging site — every single day. 73% of Internet users read blogs (source). Every week, someone sends me a message asking if I have any advice for starting a blog.

Blogs aren’t going anywhere.

And if you’re still not convinced, consider that you’re reading my blog right now…

george costonza on starting a blog

Words are incredibly powerful. Blogging gives you the freedom to share your unique point of view, and it doesn’t cost you anything but your time.

But despite the fact that it’s easier than ever to get started, dozens of would-be blogs never get off the ground. Why is that?

My best guess — decision paralysis.

With so many different platforms and so much competing advice out there, what begins as a fun project to share your writing can quickly turn into a confusing mess that doesn’t seem worth the time. After all, what writer wants to figure out the difference between WordPress and Squarespace, or worry about SEO or hosting?

That’s exactly how I felt two years ago. Overwhelmed and unsure of myself. It was hard enough to get the confidence to share my work. I didn’t want the added stress of figuring out how to run my own site too.

Maybe you feel a bit like I did right now? Like you know you have something to say, but you just aren’t sure where to start?

The more I reflect on the last two years, the more I wish I had known what I do now. Sure, I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way, but maybe if I had a road map, I would have achieved the same success in half the time?

That’s why I wanted to create an easy-to-follow, nuts and bolts guide to starting a blog in 2016. I wanted to simplify the annoying technical aspects  so you could focus on the important part — sharing your writing with the world.

So let’s get started.

Part 1: Choosing Your Focus

In the early days, a blog was nothing more than a personal journal repurposed for the web. But that was the old days. Now, every large, popular blog occupies a specific niche. That focus can be as broad as digital marketing or as narrow as mating habits of African elephants.

Of course, there are no laws against writing about whatever you want — a visit with your grandparents this week, #Trump2016 next week —but  the less narrow your topic(s), the harder it’s going to be to build and keep an audience.

Readers want to know what they can expect week after week, and when the topic’s always switching, they switch blogs.

Once you’ve solidified your main focus, it’s time to start thinking about specific post subjects and posting frequency.

I keep a running Evernote file filled with a long list of potential topics (but you can use any note taking app). That way, if there isn’t something burning a hole in my brain, I can dig through my list and quickly choose something of interest when I sit down to write each week.

Part 2: The Anatomy of a Blog Post

I’m not that creative. I’m not ashamed to admit that I steal like an artist.

So when it comes to writing a blog post, I try to follow a rough format I’ve stolen from some of the best storytellers in the world — Ted Talkers.

That means each and every article (including this one, if you paid attention) starts with a compelling personal story to engage readers, moves into my own personal perspective on an issue, and leaves readers with one to four key takeaways.

I also try to keep a few best practices in mind

  • Bigger is better. With so much content available online, readers are beginning to seek out longer-form content (1200 words) that can explore an idea more fully than the formally popular 600-word post.
  • Visuals matter. No one wants to read a huge wall o’ text. Break up your content with images, section headers, short paragraphs, bullets and pull quotes.
  • KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. Write like you talk. Don’t use big, fancy words. Keep sentences short. Clarity is more impressive than complexity.

Part 3: The Process

As with any creative project, the end result reveals only a fraction of the effort invested. For instance, it takes me about four hours to write a weekly blog post. My basic process goes like this:

  • Choose a topic
  • List all points I plan to cover and order them
  • First draft (where I vomit anything and everything onto the page)
  • Second draft (where I reshape the first draft into something readable)
  • Third draft (where I clean up any grammar, spelling, and sentence level issues)
  • Thank my girlfriend for reading and providing feedback
  • Resolve all issues she raised
  • Format and publish

You certainly don’t have to copy my process — it’s just what works for me. But whatever you do, please don’t hammer out a first draft in 20 minutes and post it. Even a 400-word article requires a few hours of effort.

If you want to attract more fans and build a large audience, you have to be willing to put in the time.

Part 4: The Platform

Finally, the part everyone’s been waiting for — how do I get my site up so people can actually read the dang thing?

WordPress is still the most popular professional blogging platform out there with robust features and tons of customization options. The free version (wordpress.com) will allow you to quickly create your own site on their domain (eg yoursite.wordpress.com). The other version — the one that will allow you to use your own domain name and fancier, paid (or custom) themes —  is not beginner-friendly and requires some YouTube-ing to figure out.

Squarespace is a great middle ground. It’s easy to set up and customize, even for beginners, and most templates offer blog functionality. While it’s not as robust as WordPress, it’s all-in-one, meaning for ~$8/mo you get a good looking site, your own domain, and hosting.

Medium is a beautifully designed, up and coming blogging/social media platform. All you need to get started is an idea and a username. From there, you can use the site’s editor to create your post and publish it to a huge audience. I highly recommend Medium to bloggers new and old — it’s been my number one driver of traffic over the past three months. However, I wouldn’t recommend Medium as your only blogging platform — it’s best to publish there as well as on a site you actually own. You never know if Medium is going to go away and take all your hard work with it.

Tumblr is a micro-blogging site that allows users to quickly set up a blog and post a huge array of content types. However, the audience is on the younger side and seems to be more interested in gifs than long form writing.

Although I currently blog on a WordPress site, if I were getting started today, I would probably go with Squarespace. It’s so easy to create a good looking blog without all the headaches inherent in learning WordPress and the stress of managing and troubleshooting your site.

Part 5: Growing Your Blog

Once you start publishing, you’ll probably want people to read what you’ve written. And while there’s no quick hack for getting zillions of followers (as many internet marketers would have you believe), here are a few best practices I wish I had known on day one.

  • Create an email list. Email is the ultimate push notification. If someone joins your list, they’re raising their hand and telling you they care about what you do. Sign up for a service like Mailchimp and start collecting email addresses from day zero — it’ll help you deliver your content to your fans week after week, and it’ll allow you to tap into an interested audience if you create a product (like a book) down the road.
  • Repost on Medium.com. No matter where you host your content, you should be reposting it on Medium. The platform is home to a growing community of readers and writers actively looking to consume blog content.
  • Don’t create a Facebook page. Facebook’s algorithm benefits them, not you. They’ve rigged the system so that pages have to pay to get their posts seen. So don’t waste your time — you’ll be better off reposting articles on your personal page and driving people to Medium or your website.
  • Ask people to follow you. It’s so simple, yet so hard to do. But if you’ve created a blog you’re proud of, you should be excited to share it with friends and family. Personally ask anyone who might be interested to join your email list and follow along.

Part 6: Get Started

In the last two years, with the rise of Medium and Squarespace, it’s gotten even easier to start a blog. But with more options comes more stress and decision paralysis.

But blogging shouldn’t be stressful. It should be a fun way to hone your writing skills and share your unique perspective with the world. So stop worrying about the technical side of things and get writing.

Remember: If you want to finally start that blog but aren’t sure where to begin, then click here to be notified when the Better Blog E-Course launches.

For just $30, I’ll dive deeper into everything I’ve covered in this article and share additional best practices and growth hacks — including how to generate topics week after week, walkthroughs on all four blogging platforms I mentioned, and more on engaging and growing your audience. So leave the technical mumb0-jumbo behind and start publishing!