"I want to start a blog."
Those 6 words take me right back to June of 2009, when I snapped a (dark, blurry) photo of some blueberry lemon cheesecake cupcakes with lemon frosting, waxed poetic about them, and hit "Publish" on my very first Willow Bird Baking post. When I hear those words now, part of me wheezes under the weight of the work I know awaits the speaker. Another part of me, though, feels excited about the fun they're about to have.
Because that speaker will often go on to ask me for advice, I thought of doing a post to sum up my "You're Starting a Blog!" tips and ideas. It sounds like such an easy task, but actually, I've been racking my brain to think of what's most important to convey.
There's all the easy advice you've heard before: start your blog on WordPress, write about things you care about, write at least one post per week, include photos, use natural light to take those photos, create a social media presence on various websites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Instagram) and interact with your friends and readers there to build community. But all of that advice has been given a million times over on a million other blogs. What can I add to this conversation?
If I say that my advice is to be authentic, I know you're gonna groan. I know you're going to secretly think of this article that makes fun of giving that advice. (Incidentally, I found that article frustrating in that it took a variegated, organic field and created, facetiously or not, divisions: an "in" and "out" crowd if you will. I think it serves us better to recognize that there are organic trends that ebb and flow and to not be judgy-judgy about other people doing their thang, even "all in fun," but I digress.) But despite all the lip-service people give to being authentic, I think there's more to be said about it. And I think I'm the one to say it.
So here goes: the most important piece of advice I can give you is to be authentic.
If you're finished with your eye rolling (and they're not stuck), let me elaborate.
1. Define YOU -- your values, your goals, your style. To be true to yourself, you have to have a firm idea of yourself. When you blog, you run into ethical dilemmas all the time: whether or not to post about a certain product, whether or not to accept offers from certain companies, whether or not to participate in certain contests. You also run into opportunities to define who you are all the time: from deciding on the content of your posts to choosing the visual design and layout of your blog. Without a clear vision from the beginning, things can get muddy, contradictory, and forgettable to your readers. Or worse: ethical faux pas can be offensive or exploitative.
Awhile back, people made the connection that a blog was a brand you were creating. Your online persona and really your entire blog package was marketing your brand both to readers and companies that might want to work with you. I both hate and love that terminology. I hate it because it reduces this beautiful, passionate extension of my life to a sterile business and also, in my humble opinion, tempts bloggers to become profit-machines, contracting with businesses, pushing products, and viewing their blog primarily as a means of income. There's nothing wrong with that -- but those certainly aren't the blogs I love to read and it's certainly not the route I hope you choose with your blog. Call it a personal preference.
I also love that people have realized their blog is a brand, just like I'd love it if people realized they themselves were walking BRANDS: advertising with their words, actions, and values who they are and what they stand for. Realizing this breeds intentionality, and I am nothing if not intentional about things -- maybe even to a fault.
So define yourself. Make a list of the values that are important to you. For me, some of my values include honoring God, analyzing and processing in writing the journey He's sent me on, being adventurous in the kitchen, being honest, and being humble.
Make a list of your goals. Is your goal just to tell your stories? To build traffic and be heard? To create a community? To make money? (It's possible to do, but make sure it's not your main goal or you'll produce another of those spammy blogs with tons of coupons offers, pinnable recipe roundups, and no real voice. Am I being judgy-judgy? I'll stop.)
Make a list of the words that define you (and your blog) as a "brand." For me, that includes words like comforting, home, sweet, simple, humble, laughter, realistic, welcoming, loving. And, okay, snarky. 'Cause I can't keep the snark at bay. I know; I've tried.
2. Be intentional. After you define yourself and your "brand," make every choice to build that representation of "you" in your online space. Choose the colors that communicate you. Find the voice that communicates you. Take the photos that communicate you. Write about the content that communicates you. Accept the offers that communicate you (and politely decline the ones that don't.) Interact with your community in a way that communicates you.
Being intentional also includes being deliberate about building that community. Reach out to others -- starting with friends and family -- to share what you're doing in a genuine way. Don't become a salesman and pitch it to them. Be yourself and share it with them. Make connections with other people doing the same thing and support them; you'll find that they often want to support you, too.
Be intentional about the way you accomplish your goals. I'm betting you didn't say your goal was to "get a ton of blog traffic no matter WHAT I have to do," so don't act like it. Don't spam people, don't annoy your Facebook and Twitter friends, don't become what I call a "climber": someone who only interacts with others for their personal gain. Don't sacrifice quality of posts for quantity. Don't resort to being churning out quick-and-popular posts like an SEO-obsessed robot.
Instead, revel in the fact that "networking" for you can really mean making awesome friends in the blogging community and enjoying relationships with your readers. "Dress for the job you want" by trying to make your work consistent and professional. Print up some business cards to give friends and people you meet. Know how to describe your blog in a sentence or two for folks who are interested. All of these things are positive, intentional steps to get the word out about the great stuff you're doing without becoming a slave to "success." Keep sight of your ideals. You can care about growing your readership (slow and steady) and getting your name out there while still honoring your values.
3. Be yourself, but be yourself in the unique ways. There are so many food bloggers. Don't worry; I still want to read your blog, too! But I do want to know you and not just another Food Blogger (TM). I want to know about your crazy life as a dental hygienist by day, culinary student by night. I want to read about your horrifying experiences as a retail clerk at an unnamed superstore. I want to know about your puppy rescue and the heartwarming lengths you go to to save animals. I want to hear all about how your kid painted herself blue and ate only blue foods at daycare on what they dubbed Smurf Day. I want you to explain how being a Catholic-Jewish Elvis impersonator went for ya.
One thing people love to read on my blog (and I'm glad, because it's what I love to write!) is stories about teaching. My students are so surprising and smart and hilarious -- so those are the unique stories I have to tell. Think about what you have to say. What's your story?
There's a lot more I could say, but I really think whatever you do will be lovely as long as you define yourself and then are intentional about being yourself. Just to answer some of the questions you all left on Willow Bird Baking's Facebook page, though, I got together with the awesome Kaitlin Flannery of Whisk Kid (you'll love her blog -- it's wonderful!) and recorded a little Food Blogging 101 chat for you. Hope you enjoy!
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One thing I know you'll enjoy is this white sheet cake. I'd been craving white sheet cake for awhile -- one of those light, moist slabs o' cake that you can pick up at Sam's Club or Costco or Walmart slathered with white icing. And I don't mean that crusty, heavy, dyed buttercream you scrape off, but the really light whipped icing. I don't know what they put in that stuff, but it is all kinds of amazing! I'm always shocked that a store-bought cake can be that good.
After a little internet sleuthing, I made myself one of those satisfying white sheet cakes at home. This sheet cake is a white Texas sheet cake iced with a lovely whipped frosting I found on Cake Central. A hint of almond is what brings the entire recipe together and makes it taste bakery-quality. Since the cake is easy to throw together and comes out huge, it's perfect for a birthday party! Or, you know, a Tuesday.
Do you have any blogging questions that didn't get answered? Do you have some advice you'd add for new bloggers?
One year ago: Cheeseburger Bāozi (Steamed Cheeseburger Stuffed Buns)
Two years ago: Carrot Cake Sandwich Cookies with Honey Cardamom Cream Cheese
Three years ago: Ugly as Sin Coconut Cake
White Sheet Cake with Fluffy Whipped Icing
Recipe by: Adapted from recipes found at The Girl Who Ate Everything and Cake Central
Yield: 24 servings
This quick white sheet cake is light and moist with a hint of almond flavor and whipped icing on top. Let the cake sit out for 10-15 minutes before serving so the icing can get nice and soft.
1 cup butter
1 cup water
2 1/4 cups cake flour
2 cups white sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup salted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, room temperature
3 3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon meringue powder
To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease (I use Wilton's Cake Release) a 15 x 10 x 1" baking sheet. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the butter and water to a boil. In the meantime, in a separate large bowl, whisk together the cake flour and sugar before adding the eggs, sour cream, almond extract, vanilla extract, baking soda, and salt. Mix to combine. While mixing, slowly pour in the boiling butter and water mixture. Mix to combine completely. Your batter will be very runny. Pour the batter into the prepared baking sheet.
Bake at 375 degrees for 17-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in several places comes out with a few moist crumbs (don't wait for the top to get golden brown, necessarily -- mine stayed pale). Cool completely.
To make the frosting: Cream together the room temperature shortening and butter until fluffy. Cream in the powdered sugar. Add the salt, almond extract, vanilla extract, meringue powder, and whipping cream. Blend on low until just combined, and then beat on high until fluffy. Spread over cooled cake. Add sprinkles. Store in refrigerator, but let sit out for 10-15 minutes before serving so the icing can get nice and soft.