Jane Friedman

How to Start Blogging: A Definitive Guide for Authors

Photo credit: M i x y via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

This post was originally published in 2011 and has been extensively updated.


This will be a strange way to begin a guide to blogging, but I want to save you time, trouble, and heartache: The average author does not benefit much from blogging.

Yet blogging is still recommended to authors as a way to market and promote. Why? Because blogging does work, if certain conditions are met. The problem is that few authors meet those conditions. This post will delve into what it means to blog successfully and in a meaningful way for an author’s long-term platform and book marketing efforts.

What it takes to become an effective blogger

First things first: I define “blogging” as publishing material to a site that you own and control—such as your author website. Blogging is sometimes conflated with online writing for other websites or blogs, but that’s not what’s being discussed in this post.

Blogging is an art form

If you approach blogging as something “lesser than” your other writing, you’re more likely to fail at it. While blogging can be less formal, less researched, and more geared for online reading or social sharing, to do it well requires the same kind of practice and skill as crafting a novel. You get better at it the more you do it, but I see many authors give up before they’ve put in enough hours to understand the medium. Furthermore, to stick with blogging for long enough for it to pay off, you have to actually enjoy what it means to blog, and how online writing can be different from print.

The good news is that if you treat blogging seriously, all the writing or content that you generate for your blog can have another life, in another format or within another publication. For example, the best of my blog content over the past 8 years is condensed into a book, Publishing 101. That required a lot of editing and reformulation (online writing can’t be dumped into print without a lot of revision), but it reflects the value and depth of what appears on my blog.

Blogging is often straightforward for nonfiction writers, less so for novelists

Nonfiction how-to authors have it the easiest of all, because likely your subject matter lends itself to blogging, especially if you’re teaching workshops or regularly interacting with your target audience. You probably know off the top of your head the questions that get asked most frequently, the topics that are most popular, and the problems that surface again and again. This is invaluable starting fodder for a successful blog.

However, with a little creativity and imagination, fiction writers can have successful blogs as well. In the literary community, there’s a concept known as literary citizenship, which I like to describe as marketing and promotion “lite.” It involves talking about books, writers, and things that surround the literary community that you want to see flourish. It could mean interviewing other authors, reviewing or talking about books that you’ve read lately, or otherwise featuring or focusing on other people in the community.

Consistency is critical—you need to make a commitment

There are two types of consistency: frequency and subject matter.

Frequency: To gain any kind of momentum, you should commit to two posts a week. Some people may be able to get by on one post a week, but you’ll struggle to gain traction. Ideally, starting out, you should post 3-5x per week. The longer you blog, and the more of an audience you build up, the more you can ease back on frequency.

Subject matter: Think about this in terms of your headlines for your blog posts. If you look at a month’s worth of your blog headlines, they should convey a strong message about what you cover on your blog and who it’s for. A potential reader should be able to easily tell if they’re going to benefit from reading your posts on an ongoing basis. Authors can have trouble staying focused and disciplined on one topic or subject matter, often because they get bored or they think readers will get bored. But again, it’s hard to gain traction if you’re switching it up all the time and not consistent in your coverage.

If you’re interested in blogging, but worry about the time commitment, then consider creating a multi-contributor blog, where several authors in the same genre (or targeting similar audiences) band together. That helps reduce the burden as well as increase the size of your audience starting out—since more people will be marketing and promoting the blog.

It takes patience to build a readership unless you’re already well-known

People may have to see links to your blog posts for months before they actually click through to read one—or before they even become aware that your blog exists. This isn’t necessarily through any fault of your own; there’s an incredible amount of noise around us, and enormous demands on everybody’s attention. If you make a continual series of impressions over a long period of time on the same topic, then it starts to click: “Oh, this person is blogging, and they’re regularly covering this topic.” Some writers assume “Oh, everybody knows I’m blogging because I posted about it,” but no. That’s not the case, and that’s why consistency is so important.

The more time you spend blogging, the more value you build for readers over time and the more they find you. Your efforts will snowball.

Also realize that only about 10% of your readers (or even fewer) will make themselves known to you or engage with you on your blog, so it takes a while before you reach a tipping point, where there’s a concrete indication of growing activity or interest.

What should you blog about?

If you’re at a complete loss when faced with this question, maybe you shouldn’t blog; I discuss why here. Sometimes I’ve told authors that the best bloggers are those who weren’t told to go do it. This is a little harsh—I think people can learn to love it—but blogging isn’t an activity authors should be dragged into, kicking and screaming. Nor should you feel like it’s a burden to come up with ideas; ideally, your problem is too many ideas.

However, it is important to think through how can you bring your own voice or perspective to a topic, theme, or subject matter without repeating what’s already out there. This is easier said than done. It took me 18 months to find the right angle—to realize I do best when I focus on publishing industry trends and digital media topics for authors.

The most successful blogs have a very focused angle and appeal to a very specific audience. This makes it easier to attract attention and build a community around common interests or perspectives.

No one should blog in a vacuum

Before you start a blog, it’s best to identify the other key people already blogging in your area—the influencers. Start reading and sharing their content, and comment at their blog. Eventually, if possible, you should guest blog for them. See the other bloggers not as competitors, but as community members who may eventually become supporters of your work. If your blog is high-quality, and generates conversation, they’ll be likely to recommend you or send you traffic. So identify the notable community players, or the people who you’ll want to build relationships with over time.

Choose the right blogging platform

The best platform to use is whatever you use for your author website—do not be tempted to build your blog somewhere else. You want everything under the same umbrella for search engine optimization and long-term marketing strategy. So, for example, if you have an author website on SquareSpace, then start your blog there; don’t start one over at WordPress or Blogspot.

If your website platform does not support blogging, then it may be time to switch platforms. I talk about the basics of author websites here.

If you don’t have an author website, or if you’re doing a multi-contributor blog, then I recommend using WordPress. It’s well-supported, continually developed, and runs on about 20% of all websites today. Here’s my step-by-step guide to hosting your own website or blog, which doesn’t take longer than 10-15 minutes.

Before you launch the blog

Before you start, consider the following.

How to craft quality posts that get read and shared

Quality can be a squishy term; much depends on what your audience or readership considers “quality” or what kind of content is engaging to them. The better you know your audience, the better your posts will be.

However, there are some principles that will help ensure that your posts are more likely to be engaged with and shared.

Your post headlines are critical

If people saw only your post headline (e.g., on Twitter), would they feel compelled to click on it? Remember, the headline is often the only thing people see when they’re surfing online and looking at search results, so it’s one of the biggest factors in whether your post gets read. Here are a few considerations:

Here are some actual blog post headlines that I helped an author improve, to be more specific and attuned to keyword search.

Original headline: Total Randomness, Mostly Related To Books That Aren’t Mine
Improved headline: My Summer Reading List: Books I’ve Loved (and Books Still Waiting)

Original headline: Turn, Turn, Turn
Improved headline: What If You’re Dreading the Change of Seasons?

Original headline: Wanna Have Coffee?
Improved headlnie: Overcoming the Obstacles That Prevent You From Meditating

Consider how to create cornerstone content

Cornerstone content refers to any article, post, or page at your site that draws new readers to your blog consistently, usually through search or by referral from other sites. Cornerstone content often is a comprehensive, definitive piece that tackles a frequently asked question, issue, or problem—or features a very popular author or thing in popular culture that is searched for often.

The cornerstone content on this blog can be seen right under “Most Popular Posts”—each one points to my 101 posts on how to get published.

Sometimes, cornerstone content might be a manifesto or download in PDF form. Chris Guillebeau is well-known for 279 Days to Overnight Success that drew thousands (if not millions) to learn about his blog and his message. Michael Ellsberg distributed a manifesto called What Would It Mean That Your Life Is Perfect?

Having even one piece of cornerstone content greatly reduces your burden to attract readers to your site through brand-new content. If it does its job, the cornerstone piece will bring a steady stream of new readers over a period of weeks and months, some of whom will become loyal followers.

If you’re very serious and strategic about this, I recommend reading How to Increase Website Traffic.

Make it easy to browse and share your posts

Some blogs have such a minimal design that it’s difficult to see the bigger picture of what type of content the blog offers. Even though there are benefits to a minimalist design, I get more engagement by having a sidebar that offers tools to navigate the history of my blog and the hundreds of posts that live here.

Improve your content’s discoverability (SEO)

Search engine optimization really requires its own post. However, you’ll be doing a good job with your SEO if:

To learn more about how to create content that will attract search traffic, here is a comprehensive guide.

How to grow your readership

Here are some of the tried-and-true methods for generating traffic.

Use social media

Link to new blog posts on each social media network where you’re active. But don’t just post a link. Offer an intriguing question, lead in, excerpt, or explanation of why the post might be interesting to people on that specific social network. While it may be possible to automate postings across your social networks whenever a new blog post goes live, don’t. It’s more effective to give each post a personal touch based on what you know appeals to that particular community.

Install Google Analytics and study how people find and read your content

If your site is self-hosted, then you should have Google Analytics installed. If not, get started today—it’s a free service and easy to set up. After Google Analytics has collected at least 1 month of data, take a look at the following:

By knowing the answers to these questions, you can better decide which social media networks are worth your investment of time and energy, who else on the web might be a good partner for you (who is sending you traffic and why?), and what content on your site is worth your time to continue developing (what content will bring you visitors over the long run?).

Create free resource guides on popular topics

If you’re a nonfiction writer, then this probably comes naturally: Put together a 101 guide, FAQ, or tutorial related to your topic or expertise—something people often ask you about. (My most visited resource on this site is Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published.)

If you’re a novelist, this strategy may take some creative thinking. Consider the following:

Create lists or round-ups on a regular basis

A very popular way to make people aware of your blog is to link to others’ blogs. If you can do this in a helpful way, it’s a win for you, for your readers, and for the sites you send traffic to.

In the writing and publishing community, weekly link round-ups are very common. (See Joel Friedlander and Elizabeth Craig.) You can create such lists or round-ups on any theme or category that interests you enough to remain dedicated, enthusiastic, and consistent for the long haul—at least six months to a year, if you want to see a tangible benefit.

Run regular interviews with people who fascinate you

Believe it or not, it’s rare to come across an informed, thoughtful, and careful interviewer and interview series (or—not just someone looking to fill a slot or post generic content based on pre-fab questions).

Think about themes, hooks, or angles for an interview series on your site, and run them on a regular basis—but only as frequently as you have time to invest in a well-researched and quality interview. Such series also offer you an excellent way to build your network and community relationships, which has a way of paying off in the long run.

Be a guest blogger or interviewee on other sites

Whenever you guest or appear on other websites, that’s an opportunity to have multiple links back to your own site and social network accounts.

A meaningful guest post means pitching sites that have a bigger audience than you, but they should also have a readership that’s a good match for your work. If you need a strong introduction to guest posting how-to, visit this excellent Copyblogger post. If you’re not the type to write guest posts, then consider proactively offering yourself up to be interviewed as part of other bloggers’ interview series.

Whenever you make an appearance on another site, always promote the interview on your own social networks and create a permanent link to it from your own website.

Above all: You need patience

Here’s what my blog traffic looked like in its early years.

  1. December 2009. This is when I took the trouble to make my site something more than a feed of social media updates and started using WordPress. I posted 3-4 times per month.
  2. Mid-2010. This is when my traffic reached about 100 visits a day.
  3. January 2011: I began a weekly series at my site, unrelated to writing and publishing, that featured mother-daughter interviews.
  4. July 2011: This is when I began regularly blogging about writing and publishing at JaneFriedman.com (rather than at Writer’s Digest).

After about two years of consistency, I reached about 60,000 visits per month.

Today, I’m approaching 200,000 visits per month. Most people I meet who blog either aren’t committed, or give up too soon, before gaining momentum that builds on itself. It’s true, however, that some people should give up, because they’re not producing the right content or the best content for their audience.

To figure out whether you should start—or keep going—a good next step is to read Guillebeau’s 279 Days to Overnight Success.