I talk occasionally to college classes full of hopeful future journalists and writers. They’ll frequently ask about how to break into writing for a living. My advice for them tends to always be the same: start a blog.
Blogging doesn’t seem as in vogue these days, compared to becoming a “YouTuber” (aka vlogger) or Instagram “Influencer” or even a podcaster. But a full-blown blog—a term that goes back to the late 1990s, when “weblogs” first began—is where real writing happens.
If you’re not clear on the term, a blog is a regularly (sometimes constantly) updated website consisting of posts typically shown in reverse-chronological order, so the newest entry is the first one you see. Sometimes blogs are embedded in bigger websites. Other times the blog is the whole site. The content can be anything from diary-style personal essays to full-blown reporting and beyond. It can be entirely written by one person, or a group where individuals take turns making entries.
Blogging isn’t like what social media has become. Twitter is called a micro-blogging service, since posts there are short. Facebook’s status updates are much the same, though you can write longer pieces there. While you can (and should) have images on your blog, no one would call Instagram a blogging service, even if you do create clever hashtags galore with each post.
Blogs are first and foremost for writers who want to get info out instantly and receive instant feedback. If that’s you, but you have no idea where to start, here are the things you need to consider, and the services you may want to try to get bloggin’.
Launching a blog can be daunting. Here’s a quick list of things you should consider (with thanks to the article and infographic by Ryan Robinson at RyRob.com, which you should read).
1) What will you write? Picking a niche topic is key, unless you’re just going to make an online diary all about you, which is a legit approach. But think about it: every time you hand out advice to someone, shouldn’t you hand it out to everyone?
2) What will you call it? Catchy titles for your blog can get you noticed.
3) Will you have a domain name? The pros have a domain (you know, like PCMag.com), but that will cost a few bucks a year, and isn’t strictly required while you’re finding your way as a blogger
4) Create About pages. You’re going to need more than blog posts on your blog—like permanent bio(s), contact pages, and more depending on what you’re doing.
5) Consider your schedule. The success of a blog hinges on a lot of things like writing skills, interesting topics, and more—but regular updates are the real key. If you can’t commit to a schedule, don’t bother. Remember: the average blog post takes about 3.5 hours to create!
6) How will you build an audience? We can’t help with this one much—there are plenty of articles and advice on how you can do that. And if you want to achieve the ultimate goal—financial independence through blogging, aka making money from writing—you’ll want to consider all the options. (FYI: your chances of that are about as remote as you writing a novel and instantly getting Stephen King-level success. But you have to start somewhere.)
There are other things to consider. Will you blog with a group? If so, you need tools that allow multiple users. Will you have an audio component, such as a podcast? You’ll need a host that allows such uploads and indexes the audio with podcast syndication lists (if podcasting is the whole point, use a podcasting-specific host like SoundCloud, Buzzsprout, or Transistor).
As you can see, many decisions are impacted by what service you pick as your blog publishing tool, aka your content management system (CMS). Sometimes the CMS goes hand-in-hand with full creation of a website, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s what we’ll tackle next.
There are plenty of website builders out there, which make creating a full site a piece of cake. You go to the service online, set up an account, and build pages right in your browser. Almost all of them offer some kind of blogging option. With most, the blog is a secondary aspect of creating an overall website.
Our two Editors’ Choice website builders are currently Wix and Duda. Our analyst says Duda’s blogging feature is only “serviceable” at best, but he’s full of praise for the rich blogging at Wix (pictured above). You can schedule posts, apply tags, offer RSS feeds, get comments from Facebook or Disqus, and compose posts entirely in a dedicated blog-posting interface. (But don’t do that. Always write your blog posts out in a word processor first. Losing a long blog post in a web-based form is maddening. At least install the Typio Form Recovery Chrome extension to save almost everything you wrote in a crash.)
Wix’s blog feature lets you add photos and videos and format everything to your liking. There are plenty of pre-built templates so you don’t have to actually design anything. You can try it for free.
The rest of the website builders we have reviewed also offer blogs. There are also many web hosting services, like Bluehost and GoDaddy, that include web-builder tools and built-in bloggers. If you already have a website with one of them, adding a blog is an easy option. Most use WordPress; more on that below.
While the blogosphere isn’t what it used to be, there are still sites and services that cater to those who’d like to build a blog and not much else. These are more for tech-savvy types who can work their way around HTML and script problems sometimes, depending on the service.
Let’s talk again about WordPress.com. We include it in our roundup of website builders because it does exactly that; it’s more than a blog tool. Don’t confuse it with the free, open-source CMS software you can get from WordPress.org, which can be installed on almost any web hosting service’s server, even by you. WordPress is famed for supporting plug-ins that expand its functionality far beyond the basics, adding everything from e-commerce to photography galleries.
You can find WordPress pre-installed with many web hosts. These hosts sometimes throw in extras like data backups. However, you’re unlikely to find it easier to use than at WordPress’s own commercial hosting endeavor: WordPress.com. At the same time, WordPress.com is much more limited in extras. It’s complicated. For a complete breakdown, read How to Get Started with WordPress.
An estimated 35 percent of the internet is run on WordPress software, so learning it is an excellent skill to have as a budding professional blogger. Plus, it’s one of the few tools that makes it somewhat painless to transfer your blog to a new service should you want to do that in the future.
There are other blog-specific platforms. Google-owned Blogger is free and all the sites there are name.blogspot.com domains unless you buy a domain, and you can use Google tools to add advertising and (hopefully) make money. TypePad offers a 14-day free trial before you start paying $8.95 per month to start, but that includes a mapped domain name and unlimited storage. There’s even Postach.io, which lets you create a blog out of notebook full of stuff stored on Evernote.
Ghost bills itself as a “professional publishing platform” and got its start on Kickstarter. It has plans that power individual bloggers (starting at $348 per year) as well as full teams, if you want Ghost to host the site. You have the option to get the Ghost software and install it on your own web host servers. This is the CMS you probably want for a minimalist group blog that may be going places, especially if you consider WordPress too busy and complicated, and don’t need the extras WordPress can offer, like e-commerce.
There are also several very high-end CMSes, such as Joomla, and Drupal, that will provide blogging capabilities and a lot more. Always keep in mind that working with these tools is going to be more work, but if you’re a control freak someone who likes everything “just so,” they’re probably the way to go.
If you have the developer chops, there are other tools you can install to create lightweight, distraction-free writing-oriented blogs, like Anchor, Bolt, Pen.io, and Svbtle.
Some people subscribe to the process of “lazy blogging”—writing up your thoughts in Google Docs or whatever cloud-based word processor you prefer, then sharing the doc with your friends. Their opinion is all you probably want, anyway, and it’s less public than doing a note on Facebook. Naturally, this could also work in an email.
If you want to have a blog-like journal that’s only for you—a true online diary—but want it stored entirely online for access anywhere, check out Penzu. It’s free, unless you want multiple journals or extra security beyond the password access. The Pro version is $19.99 per year.
When you use a third-party publishing service, you’re limiting yourself to being a small fish in a larger bowl. The upside is that you become part of a site that has a built-in audience already—people that might clamor for your writing if you market it right. The biggest plus is that you can concentrate mainly on the writing itself and not worry about the site maintenance.
The poster-child for this is Medium. If you’re a reader, it has more content you could ever consume, especially if you’re into social justice. But you’ll be annoyed fast by the requests for $5 a month to read it all, even if you can open an Incognito-mode window to get to it. As a writer, Medium is the best option for simple writing; its minimalist interface generates easy-to-read, beautiful posts. Which makes sense, since Twitter and Blogger co-founder Evan Williams essentially founded Medium as the anti-Twitter. You don’t even need a password to get a Medium account.
Any online search about blogging using Medium will bring up as many posts telling you why it’s a bad idea (you don’t have full control, promotion is hard, limited features) as they will recommending the site (simplicity, analytics, built-in audience, partner program for making money). Some (like us) only use Medium to reprint their own work, to help drive traffic to their main site.
Then there’s Tumblr. The service has gone through a lot of turmoil in the last few years: bought by Yahoo for $1.1 billion and then taken over by Verizon, which banned porno posts and killed its traffic. But Tumblr is still here and still incredibly easy to use, though it emphasizes video, animated GIFs, and photos over writing. You can use built-in themes or customize them as much as your skills allow. If someone follows your Tumblr, your posts show up in their feeds much like on Facebook or Twitter. Best of all, it’s entirely free.