My blogging toolkit

toolkit

Every once in a while I get a question about how to get started in blogging. While there’s lots to say about the writing side, something I don’t want to ignore is the blogger’s toolkit. The tools we choose—from our platform to where we source images—play a huge role in a reader’s experience. So what do I use?

Here’s a look at my current toolkit:

1. WordPress. While there are a lot of great blogging platforms out there, I’m a big, big fan of WordPress. I started out on WordPress.com and moved to a self-hosted platform in 2010. I love using WordPress because it has all the functionality I need and then some. Although I didn’t find it terribly appealing back in WP’s early days (back when they hadn’t made it for “normal” people to use) it has grown into a powerful content management system and (finally!) has a lovely and functional interface. (For those curious, if I were to ever leave WP, I’d probably consider Ghost. Here’s a good write-up on the differences between the two.)

2. StudioPress. I’ve tried a lot of different themes over the last few years, and only three have ever been seen publicly. For years, I used the now defunct Standard Theme. About eight months ago, I switched to StudioPress.com‘ Sixteen-Nine theme. It’s elegant, simple and keeps the focus on content—and the Genesis Framework keeps everything running beautifully. I’ll definitely be continuing to use StudioPress for the foreseeable future as I continue to improve the look and feel of this website.

3. Disqus. Although WordPress’ native commenting system has improved greatly in the last couple years, I absolutely love Disqus, which is a powerful and effective comment management platform.

4. Mailchimp. Initially, I didn’t really manage my mailing list. And then I smartened up and switched to Mailchimp. It’s easy to use, it’s interface is super-attractive, great analytics and a ton of great templates for emails.

5. Wufoo. There are a lot of great survey and form tools out there (including Survey Monkey), but these days I’m really enjoying Wufoo. Like Mailchimp. it’s interface is pretty easy to use, it has great reporting tools and you can do a fair bit with no or little money.

6. Photo Pin. Photo Pin offers up a wide variety of images (of varying levels of quality) from Flickr for bloggers to use for free, provided they include the proper attribution. I find a lot of what I need here, and I’m almost always happy with it. Except…

7. LightStock. This is a paid service which offers high-quality stock images ideal for faith-based organizations and content. When I’m looking for a really specific image, this is the place I go. (They also have a free photo of the week available to anyone with an account, which isn’t too shabby at all.)

8. Canva. Although I do use PhotoShop for a lot of work, these days I’m using a new addition to my toolkit for social media graphics and simple items on the blog: Canva. I absolutely love this tool because it allows anyone who’s willing to put in a bit of time to have beautifully designed images to share online.

What I learned in the 2014 readers survey

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A few weeks ago, I asked you to participate in my first-ever readers survey. The survey was intended to help me learn a little bit more about you and how I can better serve you through this blog. Here are a few of the key content-related findings:

Post frequency: The vast majority (88.8 per cent) think the amount of content is just right.

Why it matters: This is helpful to know since it apparently means I’m not overwhelming the majority of you with daily posts. A few people suggested an increase in frequency, which I found fascinating, but because I need to sleep sometimes, I’m going to have to say no.


Most and least enjoyed content: Of the content you most enjoy, theology and Christian living articles tend to be the favorites, followed closely by “links I like” and book reviews. Of the content least enjoyed, only a handful of people responded, but of that handful, most are not fans of family-related articles and quotes.

Why it matters: This is helpful because it means that, more or less, I’m on the right track with producing content you actually want to read. That said, I do want to take seriously the “least enjoyed” responses, which is why you’ve probably noticed that I’ve reduced the number of posts sharing quotes on the weekend.


On the change I’m considering: Regarding the big change I’m considering—that is, the addition of sponsored posts—you’re overwhelmingly (76 per cent) neutral or (15 per cent) warm to the idea. But for both positions, there is a directive from you: sponsored posts need to add value and not be giant commercials.

Why it matters: I’m still mulling over the idea of sponsored posts, and I believe it is something I’d like to introduce at some point in the near future. I’ll continue to investigate what this could look like, and when I’m ready to make a decision, I’ll make an announcement.

Thanks very much to all who participated in this first survey. I’m looking forward to doing it again next year and seeing what more I can learn from you so I can better serve you. (And if you haven’t participated, you still can: the more responses I have, the better my information will be.)


Photo credit: hfabulous via photopin cc

Three books to read and a final encouragement on writing better

All this week, I’ve been writing on writing—specifically sharing what advice I can to help you grow as a writer. Today, I’d like to wrap up recommending a few books on writing that are well worth your time, as well as a final encouragement:

Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson. Wilson’s writing is not for everyone (I know some who downright hate reading him), but the advice he gives in this book is some of the best you’re going to get anywhere. Seriously.

How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark. Clark’s advice is practical, helpful and geared to writing in an age of short-attention spans: “We need more good short writing—the kind that makes us stop, read, and think—in an accelerating world. A time-starved culture bloated with information hungers for the lean, clean, simple, and direct. Such is our appetite for short writing that not only do our long stories seem long, but our short stories feel too long as well.” Well worth checking out.

On Writing by Stephen King. There are few authors as prolific as King, and even fewer who’ve made the impact on popular culture he has. Although I’ve personally not been a fan of his work, On Writing is wonderfully helpful and full of tough love for aspiring authors.

Now, for the encouragement: The last bit of advice I’ve got for any aspiring writers is pretty simple: just write. 

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This isn’t mind-blowing by any means, but it’s so necessary. If you want to be a writer, you’ve got to write. Don’t write for an audience “out there,” write for you. Write what you enjoy. Write what makes you smile. Write what makes you feel something. Be really comfortable with stinking for a good long while. Don’t worry about how to get published. Don’t worry about how many people are or aren’t reading your blog. But do write. And the more you write, the more you learn from your mistakes, the more you are willing to be coached, if you truly do have a gift for the craft, the better you will become.

Write more better: learn to play!

All this week, I’ve been sharing advice on how to improve as a writer. Among other things, writers need to embrace simplicity, be coachable, and read a lot. But one of the worst things a writer can do is play it safe. I don’t mean intentionally trying to be controversial or anything like that. I mean never try anything different. They stick to their strengths continually, and never attempt to develop in any areas of weakness.

Tip 4: learn to play.

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For a writer to grow, he or she needs to be willing to try new things. Here are a couple of key things I’d suggest:

Play with genres. If you write children’s stories, try writing a non-fiction article. If you write on theology, write a poem. These never have to see the light of day, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth trying. One of the best I know in this regard is Stephen Altrogge, who regularly releases short stories, collections of essays, and serial novels through Amazon. This is also why I’m glad my work requires me to write differently than I would here. I write fundraising material during the day (when I write anything). I write about theology and books here. You can’t think about these the same way. And this is a really good thing for me because it makes me a more nimble writer.

Engage in word play. There’s a reason I called this series “Write more better,” and it’s not because my grammar is terrible. It’s because it’s fun to play with words—pay attention to the rhythm of your writing, effectively wield irony, alliteration and other literary devices for the good all who read your work. Try to write something that makes you smile! When I can see an author’s love of words in what he or she writes, I get excited.

Don’t underestimate the value of “fun” as a writer. When you’re in a rut, it shows. When you play it safe, your readers know it. But when you experiment, you’re more creative and engaging (even if the only person who knows about your experiments is you).

Write more better: read!

There are certain authors whose books are about as much fun for me to read as chewing glass. Some are written so poorly that, in my cynical moments, I wonder whether their authors are functionally illiterate or simply hate words. Most of these are written by pastors and academics, sadly.

There are several reasons for this: some, while being very well-spoken, lack writing skills (they’re only being published because they have a big church). But others either don’t read or read too much of the wrong types of books.

And so comes today’s tip for becoming a better writer:

Tip 3: Read. A lot!

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This advice is well-known, particularly to those familiar with Stephen King’s On Writing, or Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy. Both are strong advocates of writers being readers:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” King writes. “There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of.”

“Go for total tonnage, and read like someone who will forget most of it … Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading you will not be able to remember,” Wilson likewise encourages. “The fact that you can’t remember things doesn’t mean that you haven’t been shaped by them.”

Both advocate reading in terms of sheer volume, but another concern needs to be raised: variety.

Writers—especially Christian writers—desperately need to vary their reading. I’ve never really had a problem reading a lot, but I have frequently had issues varying the genres I read. It’s easy, especially when one writes a lot of contemporary theological issues or reviews books written with Christians in mind, to get stuck reading only books of that sort. This was me up until a couple of years ago when my friend and colleague, Amber, called me out on it and challenged me to start reading fiction again, which I’ve been doing increasingly ever since.

What’s been fun for me in reengaging fiction, beyond enjoying good storytelling, has been looking at how authors are using words–the emotions they’re trying to convey, the response they’re encouraging, what they’re doing to keep me following along and interested… This is really helpful from a practical standpoint (as well as being a lot of fun).

Some may read this and object, saying, “But I don’t like fiction.” Okay. My wife is right there with you. Try it anyway. But try the right stuff. Go to your public library, for goodness’ sake. Ask for recommendations on Facebook or Twitter. Heck, read the blog post I’ll write on this sometime next week! But even if you never want to write fiction, you should still read it. It’ll make your non-fiction work better.

To be fair, being a reader doesn’t make one a writer. Many people read a great deal yet still cannot string together a coherent sentence (without the help of a well-paid ghostwriter). Regardless, while not all readers are writers, exceptional writers are readers.

Write more better: be coachable

I’ve never met a good writer who has it all figured out. The best I know are eager for feedback. This isn’t because they love having their egos stroked, but because they want to get better at what they do. As much fun as praise is—I mean, who doesn’t love reading an encouraging comment (they’re not just an urban legend!) or a thoughtful review of a book you’ve written?—it doesn’t help you become a stronger writer.

For that, you need thoughtful critique. And you also need humility in order to learn from it. Which takes us to the second tip in our quest to become better writers:

Tip 2: be coachable.

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Being coachable is primarily an issue of character. It means being humble enough to evaluate oneself honestly and to receive instruction and correction where needed. As a writer, there are several groups you must be willing to hear from:

Editors. One of the most difficult moments of writing my second book was when my editor told me, “What you’ve said is right and good and true, but you’re losing focus. I need you to re-work it.” Hearing this, I was disheartened. After all, I’d put in a ton of work already, and the idea of more wasn’t terribly appealing (since I was trying to avoid a season of writing from after dinner until 1 am). But the criticism was bang-on. So, I got to work and we wound up with a better book as a result.

Why do I share this? Because good editors are your best friends. They’re there to help you sharpen your words and ideas, and help steer you back in the right direction when you’re going off on a rabbit trail. Listen to them!

Audience. Yes, our writing is “for” us, but it’s also for other people (or else, we would keep diaries instead of blogs). My favorite moments here have been receiving constructive criticism in a comment and taking that as an opportunity to revisit what I’ve written (this happened last week, in fact). An engaged audience is really helpful to learn where you’re lacking clarity, making a weak argument or a strong point. Listen to them!

Peers. This is a funny group, because they sometimes act as our editors (informally), other times they are a part of our audience, and a lot of the time they’re simply there to help us push through a block or work out an idea. They’re also really great at providing hard critique in a way that doesn’t crush your spirit. Listen to them!

But the ability to listen to any of these really comes down to your character. You can “hear” what’s said and not do anything with it, but your writing will suffer for it. But if you can be humble and learn from the critique (or outright criticism) you receive, and act on it, you’ll be much better off.

Write more better: write simply

Most of my training has come on the job. I didn’t go to school for journalism or anything like that. I wasn’t a writer until I was one, and I didn’t plan on being one at all. So, when I’m asked the question, “How do I get better at writing,” I feel a little embarrassed. This is not because I don’t know what to say, but because I often feel like I’m making it up as I go along (even when I’m not).

I’m kicking off a new blog series called Write more better: Unoriginal (but helpful!) tips for writing well. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be sharing a few tips I’ve found helpful on the journey to being a writer. If you’re in the same boat I was a few years ago, or are just looking for some advice on how to write well, I hope you’ll find this series helpful.

Alright, let’s get started.

Tip 1: Write simply.

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What do I mean by “write simply”?

Three things: Avoid technical language. Keep your sentences simple. Don’t be a show-off:

Avoid technical jargon

Now, there are times when technical jargon or other big words are unavoidable. When it is, we should bring clarity by explaining what they mean. But any time we can avoid jargon, we should. Often, we use jargon not because we must, but because it’s convenient. This does a disservice to our readers and paints us as being a bit lazy.

Keep your sentences simple

While there are appropriate levels of complexity, overly-complicated sentences tends to suggest we don’t know what we’re doing.

Take this sentence for example:

A chief programmatic outcome is to ensure beneficiaries have developed sufficient relational skills to thrive.

I’m sure you can figure out what I’m saying here, but there are easier ways to write it. If I were writing with simplicity in mind, it might look a little more like this::

We are going to teach people how to make friends because it’s important.

The first makes you die a little on the inside. The second actually tells you something.

Don’t be a show-off

The best way to summarize this point is as follows:don’t use “utilize” when “use” will do.

I hate people using the word “utilize.” Just hearing the word is like fingernails running down a chalkboard, something that amuses my coworkers greatly. While I don’t believe most people mean it this way, using unnecessary big words often comes across as showing off. You’re trying to impress us with your vocabulary, but you’re really only making yourself look silly.

Of bloggers and book hoarders

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Up until recently, A&E ran a creepy show called Hoarders, showing the struggles of people who can’t part with their stuff and their road to recovery. These are people who are living surrounded by overwhelming amounts of stuff—and often in terrifyingly unhealthy situations.

One of the things I really appreciate is the kindness of a number of publishers who send me a lot of books. This is really kind since they don’t have to do this (and I don’t always read what is sent—because it simply isn’t possible). But it also makes me a bit nervous. How do I balance the self-imposed sense of obligation that comes with receiving a book? Do I read it? Give it a shout-out and be done with it? Say nothing at all?

Worse, there’s a tendency to want more (which may well be an example of what the Bible calls “coveting”). It doesn’t matter if I can get through it or not, it doesn’t matter if I can start it or not—when I see a book I get excited about, there’s a temptation to get it.

And before you know it, my shelves are double (or triple) stacked, and my kids are building forts out of my book collection.

Which brings me back to Hoarders. Something that really hit home for me (and my wife) over the last year is the similarity between bloggers—whether they receive books or other products—and hoarders. If we’re not careful, we can let these things pile up and they overwhelm us.

Because of this, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about three basic rules that help me keep a bit of control over the growing number of books in our house. Hopefully these will be helpful for you too:

1. Pass up. If someone sends me an email asking if they can send me a book, there are times when I wind up not responding at all (usually because it gets lost in the sea of awful that is my inbox). But often, I find myself having to respond and say “thanks, but no.” Sometimes even to books that sound interesting to me.

Even if you’re not in a position where people are asking to send you material, if you’re just going to the book store, this is an important practice to get into the habit of. When you’re looking at a book, maybe ask, “But what I really need is…” and see what you’d actually fill in the blank with. Chances are, it’s not the book that’s in your hand.

2. Prioritize. One of my early mistakes as a blogger was failing to prioritize. I signed up for too many review programs (which I now don’t use) and requested too much material. I wound up in a place where I didn’t really know where to start.

These days, I tend to choose what I’m going to read based on:

  • If I have an outside assignment (such as when I’m reviewing a book for The Gospel Coalition)
  • If it’s part of my research for a book project
  • If it’s a book that will help me serve others
  • If it’s something dealing with a cultural issue that interests me

These are pretty broad categories, but they still help me a ton simply because they force me to be a bit more particular in what I’m reading and not try to do too much.

3. Purge. This is the hardest one for book lovers in general, but is the most exciting one for my wife. But if a book is on your shelf for more than a year and you’ve not opened it, it’s probably time to give it to someone else. If you read a book and it was terrible, strip the cover and recycle it.1 If you read a book and you loved it, but know you’re not going to read it again, give it to someone else. It’s rare that you’re going to have the chance or desire to go back to most of the popular level material you’re reading, so it’s just fine to say goodbye to it.

You don’t need the books you’ve not read, and you don’t need to keep most of the ones you have. There’s no shame in admitting it and a regular purging of your books gives others the opportunity to read something potentially really great.