Have you ever thought, while reading one of your favorite blogs, “I bet I could write something like that” or “How did this blogger get started and become so big?”
It’s actually not that hard to start a blog. You don’t even need a website -- you could simply share your thoughts on a platform like Medium, or LinkedIn, or Quora.
But if you want to get a little more serious about blogging, there are a number of techniques and strategies that will help you succeed. And of course there are a few pitfalls that you’ll want to avoid.
I’ve been blogging since I achieved FIRE (Financial Independence / Retiring Early) at the beginning of 2015. I started with a blog devoted to travel, adventure, and life experiences called Experiencify. That site is still live, but I’ve since moved my focus to writing about personal finance and early retirement on Retire By 45.
I’m not one of those really prolific bloggers that pumps out a post a day. I probably average one new post every 2 weeks. Mainly because I only spend about 20 - 25 hours per week on my site, and a lot of that time is devoted to non-writing activities (social media, email, designing courses and pages for the site, etc).
But when I do sit down to write, I try to write about things that I’m passionate about, have a decent knowledge of, and would be excited to read if I were the reader. It can be challenging at times, but it’s also rewarding and enjoyable (I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t).
Why Become a Blogger?
If you’re not sure if blogging is for you, here are a few reasons you might want to give it a try:
1. It’s a great mental exercise
Simply put, writing works your creative muscles and makes you think! You have to decide on a topic, put together a cohesive structure, and make it interesting and enjoyable for your readers.
2. You’ll learn new skills
Believe it or not, blogging isn’t just about writing. If you start getting serious about blogging, you’ll learn a variety of new skills: web design, editing, social media, marketing, and running a small business.
3. You might make money
Perhaps you just want to blog for fun as a hobby. But you can also make money blogging - either as a part-time gig or as a full-time endeavor. Some bloggers make 6 figures in annual income! It’s not easy, but it’s certainly possible to earn extra cash writing. I’ll show you how to monetize your blog in a bit.
If that gets your creative juices flowing, then let’s jump in and get your blog started!...
What’s Your Big Idea?
First, you need to come up with a theme for your blog. What do you want to write about? What are you passionate about? What is your perspective and how do you add value to the space?
There are blogs about all kinds of hobbies, interests, and various niches. You could write about fashion, travel, personal finance, entrepreneurship, motorcycles, pets, etc.
Still not sure? Here are a few things to consider when deciding your topic:
Find a niche that’s not too wide or too narrow. For example, Retire By 45 is more specialized/specific than a site that’s just about finance. But it’s also broader than a site about saving for retirement. My “niche” is in between -- I write about personal finance matters specifically related to becoming financially independent and retiring early.
Find the intersection of 3 circles. The 3 circles are: 1) what you’re passionate about, 2) what you have personal knowledge & experience with, and 3) what others would actually be interested and excited to read about.
Get inspiration from other top bloggers. If you want to be a successful blogger, I highly recommend finding and reading other prolific bloggers. Here are some of the blogs & bloggers I personally enjoy reading:
Finance / FIRE:
Mr Money Mustache -- Probably the biggest name in the FIRE world
Marketwatch -- I read this site daily for news on the financial markets
Making Sense of Cents -- Has some fascinating articles on RV living
Penny Hoarder -- There are lots of articles about frugal living
Retire by 40 -- He beat me by 5 years, but I like his style
Marketing / Entrepreneurship:
Pat Flynn -- Writes about making passive income & documents all his earnings
Neil Patel -- A master at all aspects of online marketing
Ryan Robinson -- A personal friend who is a natural born entrepreneur
James Altucher -- One of the most unique (& controversial) bloggers out there
Tim Ferriss -- The godfather of the “life hack” to improve all areas
Thought Catalog -- Not the most intellectual site but fun (I’ve contributed)
Wait But Why -- Has some of the longest & most thought provoking posts online
Elephant Journal -- Mainly for the New Age, yoga, neo-hippie scene (I’ve contributed)
Getting Set Up
If you want your own blog (and not just post articles on a platform like Medium), then you’ll need a website. It doesn’t have to be super complicated. You’re not trying to create the next Amazon or Facebook. You just need a domain name, a web development tool, and a web hosting company.
The domain is the URL of your site, like RetireBy45.com or Experiencify.com. You can register and purchase your domain from a domain name registrar like GoDaddy or Namecheap, or from a hosting company like Bluehost (see below).
It’s pretty straightforward -- you search for an available URL, pick an extension (like .com, .org, etc), and decide how long you want to lock it in (you get a price break for buying for more than a year).
How to pick a domain name? There are different strategies here. I recommend finding something that’s easy to understand and spell, so you don’t have to constantly explain or spell it to people. Ideally, it also relates strongly to your topic and uses real words. Some bloggers just use their own name.
Remember, your domain will essentially be your brand and/or company name, so it’s pretty important to pick a good one. One of my former bosses and mentors, James Currier, has a great post on Medium about the importance of your company name and how to choose it.
Choosing a web development tool:
By far, the largest and most popular tool for bloggers to build their site and publish their content is WordPress. It powers over 20% of all sites, including many large websites, it’s super easy to use, and best of all it’s FREE!
You can use WordPress just as a blogging tool, or you can create a full-blown website with elements like an About page, resources, headers, footers, menus, widgets, videos, and plugins. And no, you don’t have to be a software engineer to do any of it (I’m certainly not!).
Selecting a host:
The next step is selecting a host (or a web hosting company), which is the service that stores your site’s files and makes them available to be seen on the World Wide Web.
There are a number of hosting companies, including the aforementioned GoDaddy. I personally use Bluehost, and highly recommend them. When I started Experiencify at the beginning of 2015, I researched a number of options, and all my research eventually led me to Bluehost.
(NOTE: If you use my Bluehost affiliate link, you can get a nice package deal for WordPress users offering a super low intro rate and a free domain).
The main reason I use Bluehost (other than making sure my site is always live) is that Bluehost has excellent customer service. I’ve had to call them a few times over the years when my site went down, because of a bad plugin (more on those later), and even once when a hacker attacked my site. Each time, I was able to get a fast and professional solution to my issue.
Setting Up Your Site
Once you have your domain, host, and web content tool, you’ll want to select your site’s theme. The theme is the look and feel of the site -- from the header and footer, to the menu options, to the color schemes.
WordPress offers a wide selection of free and paid themes. If you just want something super basic, go for a free theme. But if you want to create something a little more interesting and robust, opt for lower end paid theme. It’s really a matter of personal taste, but I personally use the Virtue Premium theme from Kadence Themes.
With a paid theme, you get customer service for any issues, more features, and a cooler looking design. I’ve contacted Kadence a couple of times with issues (mainly from bad plugins), and they’ve been great about helping me resolve those problems.
WordPress gives you access to a vast array of plugins that provide additional features and functionality for your site (e.g. SEO, site security, affiliate linking, etc). Most of the plugins are free, but some have upgraded versions for a small fee.
PRO TIP -- don’t go overboard on plugins. When I first started using WordPress, I thought, “Oh wow, I love all these plugins!” and I loaded up the Experiencify site with plugins. Unfortunately, too many plugins will slow down your site, and even more importantly, they can take your whole site down. Many plugins are either not updated regularly, or they’re not compatible with your site’s theme. After I had several plugins make my site go down, I decided to keep my plugins to just the ones I really like and need.
Some of the ones I personally use and recommend are Yoast (for Search Engine Optimization, aka “SEO”), Duplicate Post (makes it so much easier to create new pages), Broken Link Checker, Pretty Links (to create clean affiliate URLs), and Wordfence (for site security and spam). I occasionally experiment with others, but I’m quick to disable any that have any issues or don’t add a lot of value.
I also recommend getting your site set up with Google Analytics (GA), so you can see where traffic/visitors are coming from (SEO, social media, etc), where they’re going (your top pages and posts), and what they’re doing (how much time on site, which pages they exit from). Here’s how to wire up GA on WordPress (I recommend NOT using a plugin if possible).
The Nitty Gritty -- Writing & Posting!
Find your writing zone:
When you do your writing, you want to put yourself in the best possible environment to be creative and productive. Ask yourself what time of day are you most energetic (early morning, late afternoon, evening)? Where do you produce your best work (home office, cafe, etc)?
I like writing in the afternoon, because I have fewer distractions (I’ve checked the day’s email, social media, and news), and I feel good mentally and physically after eating lunch and exercising. I like to have a strong cup of coffee, because the caffeine keeps my mind focused and sharp. And I like listening to kirtan music on my headphones, since it has such a melodic and soothing rhythm and beat.
Discover your voice:
This will take a little time and practice, but eventually you’ll find your voice, or your writing style. It may be humorous, detailed and technical, casual, intellectual, or combinations of these and other styles. You may find you like to inspire with famous quotes, or you like to outline concepts with charts and graphs, or you like telling stories from your own life.
I use a variety of these techniques, and it also varies on the topic of that particular blog post. If it’s more technical in nature, then I’ll be more analytical in my approach. If it’s about a life lesson, then I’ll try to incorporate more personal stories.
Create an outline:
You want to make sure your blog post makes sense and flows well. It helps to put together an outline before you start writing. The outline could start with the title (which you can tweak as you go), the main subject matter (typically 1-2 sentences), an introduction, 3-5 main body topics, and a conclusion.
Here's my outline for this blog post (if you can decipher my chicken scratch):
Writing and editing:
I write my posts in Google Docs (I’m doing it right now!), which is great because it’s a free tool, it’s easy to use, and it’s shareable. The shareability is important, so you can have another person look over and edit your work. Editing is just as, if not more, important than the actual writing. Find someone you trust to edit your work and give you feedback.
I like to share my posts with my wife Allison (my Editor-in-Chief) for her feedback. Allison has an amazing grasp of the English language, she has a great sense of humor (if there’s something funny in one of my posts, she probably added it), and she has a phenomenal eye for detail.
(Fun fact: Allison sharpened her creative writing skills in high school as a top student of Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt).
Here are some of the actual edits from Allison for this post:
No matter how captivating your writing is, nobody will want to read it if it’s presented in a boring and unflattering format. Have you ever encountered a post that was like a big “brick wall” of words with no paragraphs, headers, bullet points, etc? I rarely read those -- they’re too hard on the eyes and just difficult for the brain to digest.
To create a really compelling blog post, make sure to use these elements generously: paragraph breaks, headers and subheaders, different size fonts, bolded or italicized words for emphasis, photographs (your own or free stock photos), quotations from notable sources, and links to relevant and/or supporting details.
Monetizing your blog
As I mentioned earlier, many bloggers earn money from their blogs, and you certainly can too. Need some inspiration? Get a load some of these numbers:
According to The New Yorker, Mr Money Mustache earns around $400k per year!
Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income made over $2 million in 2017!
And Michelle Schroeder-Gardner of Making Sense of Cents made over $240k in March of 2018!
Now obviously these are the cream of the crop and not your average everyday bloggers. But if they can do it, that means others can do it as well. Heck, even if you only make a fraction of what they’re making, that could go a long way to helping you achieve FIRE.
So, how exactly do you monetize your blog? There are three main categories of blog income: affiliate commissions, advertising sales, and product sales.
Many companies have affiliate programs (sometimes called partner programs or referral programs) that will pay you a commission for any sales or leads that come from your site. For example, my link above for Bluehost is an affiliate link. If you go through that link and sign up for Bluehost, then I’ll get a commission.
While some companies run their affiliate programs inhouse, others use affiliate networks. Some of the top networks include Commission Junction, FlexOffers, PeerFly, and ShareASale.
If you set up affiliate links on your site, it’s important to be transparent and let your readers know (typically as a disclaimer at the top or bottom of the page). Also, if you’re recommending a product or service as an affiliate, be sure that you actually believe in the product and aren’t only promoting it for the commission.
You can make money by putting ads on your website. There are a number of ad networks that offer ads, but I use Adsense, which is Google’s online advertising platform.
The ads are easy to implement. You can use a plugin, but I recommend just getting the code and adding it yourself (as a widget on your side bar). Just be careful not to put too many ads on your site, as they can be distracting and annoying to your readers.
This involves creating your own product to sell. It might be a digital product like an ebook or online course, or it could be a physical item like a t-shirt or coffee mug. You might also write and sell a physical book (as opposed to an ebook).
I personally like the idea of having my own product to sell (we created online courses to teach people about money), because we own the product and can do whatever we want with it. We can makes changes or updated as needed, we can experiment with pricing, and we can offer whatever special promotions we want.
If you’d like to try selling your own online courses, I recommend both Teachable and Udemy. The main differences are around pricing, fees, and control. Teachable allows you to build your courses with their platform, and you own the traffic. Udemy is a large network of other teachers and courses. With Udemy, you get traffic from their network, but you don’t have as much control of the users.