How to build a professional writer’s website: Tips from a digital publishing geek

Okay, I’m a writer, I’ve just started this site as my “official” website to share my work and attempt to form some kind of online presence (increasingly essential to literary agents and publishers). How am I different from the hundred and one other dalmatians doing the exact same thing?

Drawing of many dalmations with red collars and one with a purple collar
I drew this dog for you.

Writing is one of my passions, but it’s not my job. Digital publishing is. I’m paid to know how to design, improve, and maintain a website that hosts written content. There are so many digital details swimming in my brain, it’s a mess. Online resources like W3Schools often help me dig through that mess. I stay fresh by following blogs targeted at website designers and front-end developers, and I even listen to podcasts during my 90-minute commute (ewww right?). HTML, CSS, javascript, XML, metadata, SEO, SEM, these things no longer scare me.

Okay, SEO does a little still, mostly because I know I’m Google’s bitch.

The point is, I have some authority on the subject, so I’m going to direct this post at other writers interested in doing something similar to what I’ve done for messywriter.com. Here goes.

Your Domain

If you’re in it for the long haul, don’t just get a free microsite (something that’s tacked on to some bigger domain name). Get your own domain. Depending on what you want, you can get it for $10-20 a year and it’s fun to come up with one that suits you. However, do some serious domain name research if you’re going to go this route.

Hosting

This is where your WordPress or similar beast comes into play. Again, not too expensive ($10-$40 a year) and you should be able to find a package that includes a domain name. If you’ve no idea where to start, try WHOIS to see what your favourite writers went with for their sites.

Although you’re probably not collecting anyone’s personal data, you might want to fork out a little extra for an SSL certificate (HTTPS) so your visitors don’t get a warning when they visit your site.

messywriter.com secure connection message

Design Priorities

In my hummmble opinion, these are your highest priorities when you’re designing your site:

  1. Responsive: Everyone has a smartphone now, make sure your site looks good on it. If you don’t know CSS, make sure you use a responsive “theme” on your hosting platform. Remember to see how it looks on your phone/tablet before you publish any changes. Images and slideshows can be especially tricky in this regard.
  2. Speed and Simplicity: You want people to get a special impression of you, but keep it simple. If you’re using a platform like WordPress, your site will already be bogged down with everything it’s doing in the background. Any extra bells and whistles will slow it down further, and you don’t want to frustrate your audience away before you’ve even had the chance to build one. Beware of floating headers that cause your content to jump, giant images that visitors might have to download over a data connection, and bloated plugins that take time to load on every page and post. That said, find “light” versions of essential add-ons like social media sharing.
  3. Express yourself: Whether it’s a nonstandard Google Font, a cool graphic logo, a special colour scheme (purple is bold I grant you), make it yours and keep it consistent across your site. This will be your brand and just as important as your name as a writer. Again, try to keep it simple.

Track That

Know how I said I’m Google’s bitch? Get on board with Google Analytics and Google Search Console as soon as you launch your site. Over time, you’ll learn who your audience is and how you’re getting them. Search Console will help you find out what keywords people are searching for that leads them to your site, and you can use that going forward when you work with metadata.

I never metadata I didn't like, with Data from Star TrekMetadata

This is a whole post in itself (which I may try to tackle in the future), but metadata is key when you’re putting content online. So many visitors will stumble on your site in a search or when they’re checking out similar content, and even though search engines are becoming much better at making connections based on your content alone, you can make it much more clear. However, it is a lot to remember every time you create a page and write a post to incorporate the right keywords, a strong title, the right meta description. I’d recommend finding a plugin or add-on for your platform that specifically helps you with SEO.

Content

This is where I’m at now, and this is what *should* be the easy part for a writer. Write! Generate content, make sure it’s quality but also frequent. Post your work at minimum every week. Not only that, share other people’s content. Link to everything: resources you stumbled across, writing you liked, your favourite songs, that blog post you just read about building your new website….

Good luck, friend.

PS, I’ve been listening to “Limbs” by BONES.

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