About six months ago, my wife proposed that she and I both re-design our blogs: amongst other things, that we should leave WordPress.com in favour of a self-hosted WordPress.org site.
She said that there were a whole suite of professional blogging tools available to self-hosted sites, tools that could help us take our blogs — her food blog and my writing one — to a fuller, more elevated level.
(A quick explainer, in case these terms are unfamiliar: WordPress is the technology framework, a blogging tool and content management system, that perhaps a quarter of the sites on the Internet use. It has two branches, both initially free for the basic version — firstly, an open source blog framework, .org, which you can install on a host of your choice, and customise how you wish, paying for the monthly hosting and the paid plug ins and themes you deploy, and a free-to-start web service, and secondly, .com, where they host your blog for you, and sell you optional upgrades like the removal of ads or a premium theme. This blog, The Incompetent Writer, has always been on WordPress.com.)
At the time, I was skeptical of her idea. I liked WordPress.com. I didn’t want to lose the seven thousand WordPress.com followers I had built up, and I didn’t think there was much advantage in self-hosting. Self-hosting meant just the chance to add a bunch of garish, cheap-looking ads, I assumed: ads that wouldn’t bring in much revenue anyway, given my usual traffic.
That summer, I was also exhausted, having just finished my PhD, and so I didn’t read many of the links she sent over. And then, in late August, our son arrived, and he imperiously put everything else on hold, as babies do, exerting his dominion over every hour.
However, Jeni kept sending me links and podcast recommendations, and slowly I began to understand what she had in mind.
Self-hosting, I discovered, was not just about adding ads. It’s possible to do a lot more with a blog than I had understood.
Firstly, there are some remarkable things that can be done with email. One of my old concerns about my blog is that different readers want different things, and my posts on teaching, for instance, may not interest the readers of my essays on iOS blogging. The archives of this site are quite difficult to navigate, too.
I’ve been exploring how an email service can help introduce new visitors to the blog’s highlights, through a planned sequence of welcome messages; I could also send out specific emails to readers interested in a specific topic. It’s also possible to add extra materials to a post, like a pdf of related writing prompts or exercises, and send those out to interested readers by email, automatically.
Additionally, there are some great paid themes out there, designs which help create a more unified landing page. As I move away from using this blog as a public journal, and treat it more like a place to host sequences and series of essays, the current (free, and excellent) theme (Syntax) starts to seem too simple.
Thirdly, there are some great software platforms that help a blogger use social media and figure out what is working and not working with online promotion, and while I think it’s more important to produce good writing than to produce popular writing, in the abstract, it is, at the same time, annoying to produce what I think is good writing that few people get to read.
This seems like a waste.
Better to be good and popular than merely good alone.
Some of these conclusions came home to me a few weeks ago, when I looked at my all-time stats on WordPress.com. WordPress breaks this down for blogs, showing the accumulated hits for every post and page, every visit recorded since the first day of the blog.
For me, looking at these stats made me feel grateful, proud, and disorientated.
Over the several years of this blog, a few of my posts have acquired over fifty thousand views each; several more have been visited several thousand times. Thank you, readers. I’m so grateful.
A great many posts, however, have accumulated less than two hundred views apiece. And many of these (largely forgotten) posts were ones I liked. Many were written during periods when I had a lot of time and focus, when I could post on this blog every day, or close to it. I was working hard and regularly and yet was not reaching many new readers.
In other words, posting more, and posting “better,” in the most general sense of the word, seemed not to be helping new people discover my blog. This was frustrating, and it’s spurred me to do a lot of research into how to blog better and how to spread the word better.
Maybe it’s possible to blog smarter and in a more cohesive, holistic fashion, and thus get more satisfying results.
Fourthly — and this is the bit that’s a little awkward to discuss — I would like to develop some (paid) online writing courses which a self-hosted blog could be integrated with and link to.
All along, my first idea to make a living has been to write successful novels, but as I have continued to see friends with excellent, well-read novels struggle to make ends meet, I always knew I needed a plan B. I needed a more regular, dependable source of income.
For a long time, that had been University teaching. And I love teaching writing. Standing in front of a class feels like the perfect counterpoint to a morning spent in isolation, working on words.
Even teaching the four classes on my docket this semester doesn’t feel like hard work.
However, I don’t think it is a controversial topic to say that over the last several years, the field, at least in the US, has been shrinking, faltering. The prospects for a new professor seem more troubled than they were a decade ago, and more and more college teaching jobs resemble adjunct or semi-adjunct work, uncertain over the long term, whether the position is renewed every semester or every year, with high teaching loads and perhaps not the best wages.
I think I’m a very good teacher. I would be overjoyed to get a permanent position. And yet it has been surreal to repeatedly go from helping private clients with their writing — editing and advising, for very good pay, published authors and highly successful professionals — and then to return to a University system where I can barely sustain employment.
I want to develop some video and audio courses, perhaps a related ebook. I think they are going to be pretty awesome, actually.
If you would like to hear more, and stay in touch as I re-design this site, and every two weeks or so receive a newsletter about writing and reading, please sign up to my mailing list.
(I loathe spam, too, and will never sell, share, or misuse your email address. And you can unsubscribe permanently and easily whenever you like.)
I would love the chance to get to know you better, and I hope that this re-design can help to make this happen.