Monday, August 29, 2011

Your Online Presence: Blogging

One of the critical components of writing is sharing that writing with an audience.  For English 101, you'll be using online resources to share your work with other members of the class and audiences from beyond Illinois State.  The first part of this involves your "base of operations," so-to-speak: the blog.

Setting Up Your Blog 




For Illinois State Students: Student Blogs through my.ilstu.edu
As an ISU student, you have quick and easy access to WordPress through the university.  I highly recommend setting up your blog here as a kind of student profile for your work here at ISU.  In addition to offering a nice platform to share your experiences with friends and family back home, this can also serve as a professional showcase for future employers.  As an added bonus, links from .edu websites tend to hold more weight with Google, so you can boost the site ranking of your other online projects with links from your student blog.

Your can take a look at my own ilstu blog, "Where Penguins Dare to Tread."  I use it to examine the grad student experience in English, kind of looking at what I've learned from day-to-day.

Building the Non-Academic Blog
Your ilstu blog is your personal space as a student - you can use it to focus on any interest you like.  However, the shortcoming is that it only offers you a single blog, and you can't customize your domain to reflect the subject you're writing about.  This is why you'll be required to set up an outside blog using either Blogger (recommended), WordPress, or another blogging platform.  (For a more complete list with pros and cons, see my Quick List of Blogging Platforms.)

Step 1: Sign Up, Create Your Profile, Write the About Page
One of common mistake among bloggers is failing to clarify the purpose of their blog.  When a reader visits your blog for the first time, you want them to be able to quickly see who you are, what you write about, and why they should care (though not necessarily in that order).

In creating your blog, you want to ensure that the tone is consistent throughout.  If you're writing a humorous blog, then you should have fun with your profile - conversely, a professional development blog would have a very serious and informational profile.
Example Profiles
Humorous: I'm Ryan. I would tell you more, but I'm being pursued by velociraptors. AGH!! That was my LEG you overgrown lizard!!!

Professional: I'm Ryan Edel, a Ph.D. Candidate at Illinois State University. I earned my MFA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins in 2010. As a graduate student and then as an adjunct, I taught Introduction to Fiction and Poetry for three years.

Subject Focused: Every year, thousands of penguins make the long trek across Antarctica to their mating grounds. As a child of Midwestern winters, I've long been fascinated by the steady determination these birds display.
In your About page, you want to cement this tone in the minds of your readers.  Generally, it's good to start with the purpose behind the blog.  Something along the lines of "I want to explore the themes of cold and darkness in poetry about penguins" or "Here I share tips learned from three years of teaching" will tell your reader whether or not this is the kind of blog he or she is interested in.

Step 2: Design Your Layout
You may be tempted to do this first.  You might be thinking "how can I write an introduction if I don't know what the blog's going to look like?"

Avoid this trap.  It can be lots of fun customizing your blog to look "just so."  It can, however, also be very time consuming.  Plus, you want to make sure the layout matches the theme.  As you're writing the About page for your blog, you should be thinking of what colors and images best reveal your theme.  For the penguin blog, I would want some images of the stark Antarctic landscape, and I might go with theme colors of black, white, and ice-blue for text and posts.

When you do work on your layout, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Left and Right Margins Work Well for Navigation: In the layout editor, you can move the list of blog posts, your profile, and other information wherever you like.  However, it's best if the reader can glance at the contents while reading the post.

The Title Should Be Decorative, Yet Clear: Again, build on your theme.  Choose a title font to match.  Script fonts are great for literary blogs, and typewriter fonts are more symbolic for publication blogs.  Though there are no hard-and-fast rules on this, you should make sure your readers can easily read your main header.

Use Contrasting Background Colors and Foreground Fonts: In general, fonts should be dark and the background colors should be light.  However, black-on-white can be hard on the eyes when you're reading on a screen for a long time, so I recommend using a pastel or earthy tone for your background and a black or other very dark color for your main font.

Background Photos Set the Mood: If you have a strong photo or design, it can evoke a real sense of purpose in the eyes of your readers.  However, be careful about overlapping any text over your photos.  Inside a blog post, the background should be solid so that your reader has no trouble reading the blog - for your title, it's okay to have some photo showing, but you have to carefully examine the letters to make sure they aren't washed-out by the background images.

Obey Copyright and Trademark Laws in All Aspects of Your Blog: It can be very tempting to download a professional photo off another website and then simply use it as the background for your blog.  Don't do this without permission.  If you don't have digital publication rights to a photo, it's actually illegal to post it online.  If you can, I recommend using photos that you yourself have taken.  However, it might be hard to get the photos you need (like that live-action shot of penguins playing soccer).  In that case, you can search for open-source photos or purchase photos from sites like freedigitalphotos.net.
Step 3: Start Blogging
This sounds so simple - and in a way it is.  If you've chosen a topic you're passionate about, you'll have ideas you want to share.  The trick, however, is to sustain your blogging over a long enough period that your website will be comprehensive, informative, and well-liked.  Here are some tips:
Share Your Passion: If you like penguins but you don't like biology, then you wouldn't want to write about the gestation stages of fetal penguins.  Instead you might write your "Ten Reasons Why Penguins Are Better Friends Than My Little Brother."

Include Helpful Links: It would be impossible for any single website to be the ultimate authority on a given subject.  Even if you were writing about just yourself, you wouldn't be able to capture every aspect of your childhood using just your own website - your readers might need to know about the town where you grew up, or even the psychological trauma experienced by children made to eat broccoli.  When you research your blog topics, be sure to include links to those outside references.  Show your readers that you are an authority on your topic by showing them the source of your knowledge.  Also, provide links between blog posts - direct your readers with where to read next.  Hold their attention for longer than it takes to read a single blog post.

Make Blogging a Long-Term Habit: This is much easier said than done.  I've maintained my creative writing blog since 2008, and I can honestly say that I don't blog every day.  Sometimes I'll write three posts in a day - sometimes I'll go for months without writing anything.  Your goal is to find a balance that works for you.  If you're actively building an audience, then you'll need to blog weekly if not daily.  If you're aim is more personal - a record of your travels for friends back home, or simply a professional showcase to share with potential employers - then the timing between blog posts can vary a great deal.

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