Ben Allen Blog – one year on

by Ben Allen on January 30, 2011

At the start of 2010 I setup this blog to start a discussion on topics I have a passion for and to learn more about blogging, writing and the web in general. I feel it’s appropriate to look back on 2010 and ask “what have I learnt?”.

It’s a long post so feel free to jump to the bits you’re interested in:

  1. The WordPress ecosystem
  2. Writing process
  3. Discussion & comments
  4. Analytics
  5. Discovering new Mac tools which help tell the story
  6. Conclusion

1. The WordPress ecosystem

Since I decided to host my own blog, by necessity, I’ve had to learn about the WordPress ecosystem. When setting up the blog I wasn’t really aware of the alternatives to WordPress. The blogging platform was so widely used & discussed by friends and colleagues that I didn’t stop to think about my options.

I knew there was hype about WordPress but I also knew that WordPress was more than just software. The community surrounding WordPress, in my opinion, was and still is the biggest asset to the entire platform. Why?

  • WordPress is “extensible”. Developers get excited about this word. The only thing developers love more than getting functionality for free is building something cool on top of something cooler. The truth is, just because something is “extensible” does not mean it’s useful to the end user. The developers need to be utilising the extensibility – building software that’s useful and well supported. WordPress has a massive & active developer community and this is huge news for the end user. I can easily add cool functionality to my blog through WordPress plug-ins & widgets or I could completely change the look & feel of my blog by using themes. All this is about 3 clicks or so away within my admin dashbaord.
  • WordPress is “learnable”. There is nothing more frustrating than using software that does not have a facility to learn more about that software. Perhaps you want to learn about advanced usage, perhaps you want to look under the hood and attack the details, perhaps you just want to hear about what’s hot or what the pros do. With WordPress you have access to all the above. Blogs, podcasts and books provide a huge resource. There is so much knowledge to tap into.

There is barely a learning curve to WordPress if all you want to do is setup a basic blog. I though wanted to get “good” at WordPress and I knew that would require work. I’ve viewed that work more as an opportunity to learn something exciting, something that could help friends or perhaps even earn money.

In just 1 year I’d describe my WordPress knowledge as “intermediate”. I’ve been able to help friends on their WordPress projects and, in my day job, I’m in the process of launching my first WordPress site (which will be using the very cool Carrington Build). There is no way I would have had the confidence to pitch for that work if it had not been for this blog.

A couple of resources have really helped me learn:

  • The WordPress community podcast – great resource to work out what’s hot in WordPress land. I like listening to the “pro point of view” and I love the theme and plugin reviews.
  • WP Candy – get your daily WordPress news
  • Digging into WordPress book – I read this book just recently and its great for the beginner and intermediate WordPress user. The book takes a comprehensive look at everything from developing themes to WordPress security
  • Yoast – the host of the WordPress community podcast and top SEO specialist. Joost de Valk’s blog is full of tips, tricks and thought provoking articles

2. Writing process

The process of creating good content is hard. The process of creating good, original content is even harder. Like most bloggers I started out thinking I wanted to write like somebody else. In my case I enjoyed the long form, thought provoking & highly actionable style of Avinash Kaushik. I quickly realised that producing that style of content was a massive effort. An effort which would require a substantial amount of time. I could only give up this much time every 2 weeks, hence my posting frequency. I aim for a post every 2 weeks but as you can tell from my “monthly posts sidebar” my consistency has been poor.

My writing process goes something like this:

  1. Lightbulb moment! This is when I think of a good idea for a post. Ideas generally come from discussions at work, discussions at events I attend, through reading other articles online or by listening to different podcasts. I keep track of post ideas using WordPress drafts or by using Evernote.
  2. Write a rough plan. This usually incorporates an introduction, a list of points I want to make or a line of argument, a conclusion and a list of links I know I will use. This usually takes between 60 and 90 minutes.
  3. Write the post in full using MarsEdit. Review & edit, review & edit, review & edit. I try to be brutal when editing. If the content is not focused or feels waffly I try my best to kill it. This process usually takes at least 4 hours. It can take up to 6 six hours. The Chicago Restaurant Guide was a monster effort!
  4. Check the code generated by MarsEdit using TextWrangler. I used to be a developer. I cannot abide bad markup. MarsEdit usually does a great job but I do like to check!
  5. Upload to WordPress & check look and feel. Tweak if necessary.
  6. Publish to live and get feedback from friends.

When it comes to my writing style I still think there is plenty of room for improvement. I truly wish I had been taught more English grammar at school (or perhaps I should have paid more attention). I’ve been reading The Elements of Style (slowly) and I hope this improves things.

My writing process needs loads of work too. I think some areas for improvement are:

  • Ideation – the process of creating ideas. I can always read more, attend more events and read more stuff outside of my focus in the pursuit of research & the creative spark
  • Using images in my posts. Images help break up content and maintain visual interest
  • Optimising my posts for RSS feeds. Plenty of geeks & common folk love RSS readers like Google Reader or NetNewsWire. I think its important to make sure my content looks good wherever my readers consume it
  • Cross linking to other posts I’ve already written. Good for readers, good for SEO
  • Make my subheadings links so it’s easier for others to link back to content of interest
  • Experiment with different forms of content. I’m particularly excited about using video on the blog
  • Discipline, focus, consistency! I’m sometimes horrible at maintaining focus and I’m worse at sticking to my 2 week schedule. Must do better!

It may look like I’m hard on myself but the thing to remember here is that 1 year ago I didn’t have a writing process. I didn’t know about or use half the tools I’ve just mentioned. I didn’t have aspirations for becoming a better writer. I had no reason to go outside of my comfort zone for the sake of research. Blogging has opened my eyes to a hugely creative experience. While it takes effort the reward is exceptional. Writing challenges my own views and forces me to make my argument clearer.

There is nothing better than reading an old post that I’ve written and then thinking “wow – did I write that? Its pretty good!”.

3. Discussion & comments

I’ve not been able to foster much discussion on this blog. 13 posts & 17 comments are not great numbers! I really like hearing an alternative point of view and reviewing reader feedback so it’s a shame there is not more comments. That said, I’m not surprised. Here are some things I think I need to do better in order to generate more discussion:

  • Improve the customer experience
    • Speed & availability. I don’t think my host did a great job last year. I’ve taken action this year and changed hosts. My new host has 24 by 7 support and I got a great deal on a much snappier hosting package
    • Enable “subscribe to comments”. This will let readers receive a notification when comments have been added to a post. I think this will help foster more discussion
    • Post more consistently!
  • Increase “reach” (the number of people who know about the blog)
    • Comment more on blogs owned by others
    • Hang out in forums and contribute to discussions (likely to be time intensive so might be difficult)
    • Post more links to the blog through Facebook, Twitter and get friends to link to my blog from their sites

If you have more ideas, please share in the comments below!

4. Analytics

I’m super interested in analytics. I love reading about the topic and I often advise on analytics within my job. For this blog however my approach to analytics has been pretty poor. My excuse? Time. I just don’t have time to review the numbers and work out the actionable insights. In this area then, I think I’ve improved the least.

It is comforting to know that when I do get time to play with analytics I have a case study I can mess with. I hope the day comes where I can have a really good play with analytics and regularly derive insights because I find the topic fascinating and I have plenty to learn.

5. Discovering new Mac tools which help tell the story

I’ve come across several problems while authoring this blog and these problems are often solved with great software. I define great software as software with the following attributes:

  • solves my problem
  • is easy to learn
  • has a good user interface
  • affordable! All the software I use is under $100 and usually under $50

Its great when you find a tool which does exactly what you want it to do. Here are the tools I’ve been using for this blog and a few more tools which I have installed and will be utilised on the blog in the future.

  • WordPress desktop editor: MarsEdit. Ridiculously simple & awesome
  • Keeping track of notes: Evernote. Good for tracking notes, ideas, research (using web clippings)
  • RSS reader (for research): NetNewsWire. I also use Google Reader for Android
  • FTP program: Transmit. Does everything well – FTP, SFTP, Amazon S3
  • Text editor for checking code: TextWrangler. I just bought TextMate too. Loads of good reviews. I’ll experiment and report back.
  • Image editor: Acorn. All the good bits of Photoshop without the learning curve!
  • Wireframe tool: Balsamiq. Awesome for sketching ideas. I hope to post a few sketches this year
  • Video screen capture tool: Screenflow. I hope to include some screen capture video in the future. I think it will be useful for walking through ideas
  • Local test environment: MAMP. If I’m doing anything which I think could crash the blog I try it out locally first. Particularly awesome if you’re moving between hosts and want to be sure the transition goes smoothly!

Using all these apps for the purpose of the blog has been a great learning experience. I’ve become a more competent Mac user and I’ve developed my skills beyond the corporate mix i.e., expensive Adobe products like Photoshop and Dreamweaver.

Conclusion

A year’s worth of blogging has been a tremendous learning experience. I’ve developed my existing skills and created interests I never knew I had. Simply learning WordPress has given me another sellable skill.

I’m better at my job because of this blog and I feel I have more credibility as a web professional. It’s a bit like the saying “never trust a skinny chef”. Can you really trust someone offering advice on your digital strategy if they don’t have a good site themselves?

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