Tips for Choosing a Theme


I’ve recently been working with two different clients. One is an author wanting to upgrade from her adequate (but static, and a bit dated) website, the other is newly self-employed professional in a specific niche, and needing a web presence.

Both wish to be able to manage the sites themselves without having to call on a web designer or other tech help when they want to update the content. Neither is quite ready for a blog – at least to start with (I’ve persuaded them of the long-term benefits of having a blog, but first things first).

There were some similarities in the design brief: both wanted a ‘clean’ look, the ability to use their own image(s) in the header or masthead, the ability to use to a specific background colour. Both were looking at as a starting off point, mainly for its low maintenance aspect and to keep costs down. A hosted site at can always be ‘converted’ to a self-hosted WordPress site relatively easily. (For more on this, read my previous post about hosted versus self-hosted blogs.)

One of my first directions was to take a look at the range of WordPress Themes available. Were there any Themes they liked the look of? Personally I find it useful that you can browse by colour, or style, or industry, or even layout (number of columns and so forth). You can choose from Free Themes only, or All Themes (including those you pay for). The Theme Library is a whole bunch of goodies, and fun to explore. Or so I thought.

But both clients had the same reaction. They couldn’t choose. They couldn’t see past the fact that they were blog themes. All the examples shown were blogs, not websites. And there was TOO MUCH CHOICE. 

I should be used to this by now, but it still takes me by surprise – clients are much happier if I basically decide for them. I have three or four Themes I tend to suggest if the client has no strong preference. These are basic, clean, almost bland in their default form, but they allow for a certain amount of customising, and their look and layout suits what many people want from a website (as opposed to a blog).

So here are my tips for choosing a Theme, if you’re starting from first base and are a bit overwhelmed by the choice on offer:

Selecting a WordPress Theme

Click on the Theme name for more details

1) Read the detail – when browsing Themes, hover over the Theme thumbnail and click first on the Theme name for more information. This will bring up a page of detail about the Theme, examples and more. Do this before hitting ‘Live Demo’ and certainly before clicking on ‘Use this Theme’ – only click this when you are sure, as it will replace any current Theme you are using. If this is your first foray into Themes then it’s less drastic.

Look at the list of Features a Theme offers, they can vary widely

Different Themes offer different features

2) Layout – do you have any preferences about where the main menu should go? What do you think about a 2-column layout – with the sidebar on the right, or left? Do you want the option of a ‘magazine’ layout, with blocks of content on the page? Would you be happy with a large, deep masthead? Check out the Theme’s features. This is where you’ll see all the options. Some offer more than one menu, some have one-, two- or three-column page layout options, and more.

3) Images – don’t be put off by a Theme just because it appears to be image-heavy. The images are often optional, and Themes are shown at their best when populated by beautiful photos.

Gazette Theme

Don’t be put off by an apparently image-heavy Theme, or a Theme Name

4) Logo – some Themes have a logo in place that can’t be changed a great deal, others allow you to use your own logo.

5) Colours and font styles – what are you able to change? Some Themes offer 2 or 3 ‘palettes’ to choose from, and they might allow you to upload a custom background. But more likely you are stuck with the colours you see in the demo. Same goes for font, line height and other styles. However, if you upgrade you can modify these (see below).

6) Check out examples – some Themes offer a link or two to actual blogs or websites using the Theme. They can be useful to see, and help you envisage the Theme ‘in action’. For example, the Hemingway Rewritten Theme shows six example blogs.

7) Try it – if this is your first Theme, just try one and see how you get on. If you find it doesn’t offer the features or flexibility you’re after, or there’s something you don’t like once you start using it, you can always change to another Theme. Build some trial time into your launch, if you’re planning a launch … a few weeks gives you time to try before making a final decision. And it’s one of the fun things about – a makeover is only a couple of clicks away.

If you find a Theme you like but want to customise it to a greater extent that the Theme allows, you have a couple of options.

CORRECTION: the Custom Design Upgrade is no longer available outside of the Premium hosting plan.

The first is to pay for the Custom Design Upgrade, currently $30 a year. This gives you access to more options, such as a custom background, more choice of fonts, and bespoke colours. It allows you to make alterations to the CSS, or stylesheet – this does require a bit of know-how, but it means you can really make the Theme your own.

However, since September 2014 has included the Custom Design upgrade in its new Premium hosting plan, along with other upgrades such as VideoPress (video hosting), No Ads, a custom site address, increased storage space and email support. The Premium package currently costs $99 a year,

CORRECTION: although it’s being offered to new UK customers for £85, which is a lot more than $99. A tax on UK customers?

which I think represents good value and it’s what I now recommend to clients. You can compare the different hosting plans here.

How to follow blogs in Hootsuite


Following other blogs is a big part of your life as a blogger. Just think of the inspiration, context, camaraderie and collaboration opportunities they offer. But how do you keep up with them? Do you use a feed reader, or hear of new posts via email, for example?

Because I blog using WordPress I’ve always found it easy to just hit the ‘Follow’ button on another WordPress site, and have the blog added automatically to my WordPress Reader. But for non-WordPress blogs, it’s not quite so easy – you have to copy and paste a blog or feed URL manually into your WordPress reader.

Also, with WordPress blogs, I have the option in my Reader to get a weekly email digest of new blog posts. This means every Monday morning I have a dozen or so alerts, and I can skim through them at the start of the day. But more than a dozen at a time would be too much for my inbox (or my Monday morning brain). And I don’t have this email option for non-WordPress blogs I subscribe to in Reader.

However, I recently took the plunge and decided to add all my blog subscriptions to my Hootsuite dashboard. I’d been putting it off because it wasn’t a high priority and I imagined it might be more complicated that it turned out to be, but I needn’t have worried.

So if you’re in a similar position, here’s a step-by-step guide to moving all your blog subscriptions to Hootsuite, so you can view blog updates anytime alongside your other social media accounts.

1) In WordPress, go to your Reader, and click on the cog next to ‘Blogs I Follow’ to bring up a list of your subscriptions.

Exporting feeds from WordPress

Click on ‘Export’. You’ll be prompted to save the export file (.opml).

2) Log in to your Hootsuite dashboard and Add a Tab and call it ‘Blogs’. (For this illustration I’ve called mine ‘Test’, because I already have a ‘Blogs’ tab.)

You’ll then be prompted to add a Stream to that tab – you have a choice of Networks, Apps or Shared. Select Apps, and click on Hootsuite Syndicator. If you don’t see that as a choice, click on ‘Get More Apps’. You can then search and install Hootsuite Syndicator (it’s free).

Hootsuite - add a stream

3) Under Hootsuite Syndicator, click on the RSS icon and you’re into the Subscription Manager screen.

Hootsuite subscription manager 1

Here you can either add individual feeds, or import a number of feeds. Do this by dropping in your .opml file.

4) If you have a lot of feeds to import it may take a few minutes, but eventually you’ll see all your feeds appear.

Export feeds to Hootsuite

5) Close the Subscription Manager, and you now have a ‘Blogs’ tab alongside your Twitter, Facebook or whatever you have … where you can skim through new blog posts and read them at any time.

I’d like to be able to read blog posts from my phone, but sadly it seems that Apps streams aren’t viewable on the mobile app version of Hootsuite. However you can read them on a tablet in a web browser.

Subscribing to new blogs

When I find a new blog I want to subscribe to, I now look for the RSS icon, rather than just hitting ‘follow’ or ‘follow by email’.

Look for the RSS icon to subscribe to posts

When I click on that, a box comes up inviting me to add the feed to my Hootsuite (you have to be logged into Hootsuite for this to happen).

Add feeds to Hootsuite 1Click on ‘Add to Hootsuite’ …

Add feeds to Hootsuite 2

I then select ‘add feed to existing tab’ and choose ‘Blogs’ – and the blog is added to my Blogs stream in Hootsuite. Done!

Inviting guest writers onto your blog


Interview couchKeeping a blog going with good content isn’t easy. Even if you keep your editorial calendar up to date (ahem!) there are always times when your priorities are elsewhere, you know you’ve got a big job coming up or you just need a break.

This is one reason why it’s worth having others post to your blog. I don’t mean you have to give them access to the Dashboard (although if your blog turns into a team effort, it’s easy enough to do that while still maintaining control).

It’s more a question of receiving someone else’s material and posting it up, with an introduction from yourself. Occasional guest bloggers will usually do this for a byline and links to their blog and social profiles.

How to find guest bloggers

1) A personal invitation is a good approach. Start with other writer friends you know, whose style you like and who you think would have something to say of interest to your blog readers. They don’t have to be bloggers themselves, but they should have something new to offer – perhaps a niche expertise or a different background to you.

2) Target your best commenters. If there is someone who comments regularly on your blog, and has interesting opinions, you could ask them if they’d like to write a guest post expanding on something they’ve written.

3) Go through your social contacts. I’ll bet there are people you interact with on Twitter who would make great guest bloggers.

3) Don’t just limit yourself to writers. What related topics might your readers interested in? What about a post about book cover art, or the historical period you write about, or a popular library or research facility? There will be specialists in all these areas who could write something fascinating and different. Think about other media. If you rarely post audio or video, for example, there might be a guest blogger who could do that, providing something new and fresh for your readers.

Agreeing the terms

Be professional and organised – when someone agrees to write a guest post, make sure you’ve established what’s expected on both sides. Are you offering byline & links plus exposure to your audience, or some other form of compensation? Are they providing a copy of a book or other gift for you to run a prize draw for readers?

Provide a deadline for receipt of copy, a preferred word count, and either establish a topic up front or let them know they have a free rein. Do you want them to provide images to go with the post? If so, what size should they be, and do you also require captions?

When the post goes live

Are guest bloggers expected to monitor and respond to comments for a day or two after the post goes live? If your blog is busy and receives lots of comments, be sure to ask them to. One of the benefits of having guest bloggers is that it takes some of the workload off you, but if you have to spend two hours fielding comments that kind of defeats it.

Make sure you promote the post in the normal way and publicly praise/thank your guest for their piece. Are guest bloggers expected to share the blog post with their social networks, or promote it on their blogs? Again, one of the reasons for inviting guests onto your blog is to increase its exposure to new audiences – namely the guest blogger’s own social networks. So worth asking, although it wouldn’t be good to insist. It’s unlikely someone would not want to do this, but they may need nudging.

These are just a few guidelines to get started with guest bloggers. The ‘deal’ you strike is more likely to be relaxed and friendly than formal. However, as your blog grows in popularity you may start getting actively approached by people wanting to guest on your blog, and that’s when a guest blogging policy is a good thing to have. Start by creating a ‘Write for Us’ page or a paragraph on your ‘About’ page that sets out the terms for potential guest bloggers.

If you find guest blogging works, and some guests become regular writers, you will almost certainly need to start compensating them. But there are ways you can up their profiles before it comes to that – such as adding a headshot to their posts, an Author Box linking to their profile, and having a ‘Contributors’ page or sidebar feature where they are listed. Many large multi-author blogs started this way.

And don’t forget you’ll probably find yourself guesting on other blogs too. Guest blogging is sociable and rewarding. Have fun with it.

Should writers blog? Hear me being interviewed on The Author Biz


Last month Stephen Campbell of The Author Biz podcast invited me onto his show to talk about authors and blogging. He grilled me about everything from ‘should authors blog?’ (I wish there were a straightforward answer to this!) and my thoughts on the various platforms available, hosting options, organising your time and so forth.

Listen to the podcast here.

The Author Biz podcast

I find being interviewed a little nerve-wracking and I admit I could only listen to a small amount of the recording! But If you’re new to blogging or on the fence about it, it’s definitely worth a listen.

Stephen publishes a new podcast every Monday on The Author Biz, a towering achievement, and his interviewees have included many top authors, publishers, agents and editors, all sharing their expertise, opinions and advice. I’m grateful to be included in such great company.

Do check it out, and you can subscribe in iTunes.

How to promote your blog posts on social media – manual vs automation methods


You’ve written a new blog post and hit ‘publish’.

What next? You may have subscribers who receive an email alert, either immediately or maybe in a weekly digest, together with other blogs they follow.

But what about reaching new readers? Your post may well come up in searches – particularly if you’ve thought about your keywords and used them strategically.

Blogs are part of the bigger social web, and the principal way they get found (and you get new readers) is via the sharing that happens on online social networks – not just directly from your blog, or on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and so forth but also blogger communities, writers’ communities and special interest forums. But for sharing to take place, people have to know about your blog posts.

What can you do to help kickstart the sharing process? The answer is as much or as little as you like.

The manual method

How it works: You log onto your social network(s), write an update and post in the URL to your blog post. Some people see it, click on it and hopefully share it to their networks.

Upsides: doing it manually means you can write bespoke updates for each of your social networks, which may be desirable if you connect with different audiences and want to customise your language, or maybe not always post to a particular network. You will have a clear picture of what updates are being posted when and where, so you feel in control and happy that your audience won’t feel swamped with too much promo.

Downsides: it’s labour-intensive, especially if you post often and are active on a number of networks or forums. Unless you consistently use a URL shortener/tracker like, you won’t be able to easily track who’s clicking or sharing. When it comes to Twitter, one update probably won’t do it, because it’s unlikely all your followers will be online and monitoring their feed at that one moment.

The basic automation method

If you blog with WordPress, it’s fairly easy to connect your blog with your social networks so that whenever you publish a new post, an alert goes out. From your Dashboard, go to ‘Settings’- ‘Sharing’. Here’s the page for my blog Poetgal, and you can see I have connected it to my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

Sharing settings on WordPress

Once you’ve done this, when you’re on the Edit Post page you’ll see your Publicise settings on the right of the screen:

Publicise on WP screenshot

If you click on ‘Edit’ you can customise the wording of the auto-update. Then when you hit ‘Publish’ the update and link to your blog post will be posted to your connected networks. There’s a good walk-through of Publicize here.

If you’re not using WordPress, don’t worry, there are third-party apps that do the same job no matter what blog platform you’re using, and some come with many more features (see below for the all-singing all-dancing options). For example, take a look at Twitterfeed or IFTTT (which stands for ‘If This Then That’).

Twitterfeed IFTTT


Upsides: You no longer have to go to your social networks and post each blog update, so it saves you a shedload of time, and having to think about it. Once these services are set up, they run in the background. An app such as IFTTT allows for quite specific targeting, using what it calls ‘recipes’. This means you can specify things like “If I publish a new post on my WP blog with the category ‘Twitter’ then post a tweet with image to @robinhoughton”. You can also set up automatic actions based on just about any activity on most social platforms.

Downsides: You may not want every update to go out on all your social networks, and if that’s the case you need to set up filters – always check what settings are available. These tools are pretty cool but there are so many of them it can feel overwhelming – it’s very easy to sign up for them as the basic versions are all free, but you need to keep a clear picture of what you’ve set up, otherwise you could end up multiple-posting. I’d advise finding a service you like and sticking with that. If you change any of your network passwords you’ll need to refresh the connections with any third party apps as they will stop running.

One of the main issues with basic, one-off auto posting is that it only happens once. So you have the same problem as manual posting in that not everyone will see your autopost. If this concerns you then you probably should choose an app that autoposts as many times as you like, at different times of day, what I would call managed automation.

The managed automation method

A step further from basic automation is to signup for a service that will allow you to manage a range of triggered actions based on your specifications. You can decide exactly what gets posted, where and when, and you usually have access to a whole range of other features such as browser extension allowing you to bookmark and share anything on the web, syndication of your blog posts to social bookmarking and media sites, and social analytics.

The good news is you don’t have to jump into using all the available features, and in fact the advanced features are usually only part of the premium (paid for) packages. Even so, the free versions of Hootsuite, Buffer and, for example, are all very good and worth checking out.

You can sign up with any of these services using your favourite social network (if you wish) or by creating a new username for that app. The free versions will have limits on how many social networks you can connect, access to analytics and custom features. But unless you are a pro blogger (running your blog as a business) then you’ll probably find the free services are plenty good enough. All these apps allow you to ‘queue’ your updates for re-posting across your networks at different times of day and on different days, in order to be seen by a bigger cross-section of your followers.

Upsides: These apps give more power to your social updates and take a lot of the elbow-grease out of it. Pro-bloggers swear by automation and there’s no doubt that if you are serious about making blogging pay, you need to spend less time doing things that can be automated, and more time on the stuff that requires brain-effort such as writing great blogs posts, interpreting your stats and nurturing strategic relationships.

Downsides: There will be some trial and error before you find the app(s) that suit you, and you need to pay attention to the setup. Automation isn’t for everyone: many people prefer slow-blogging: creating contacts more organically and growing a following based on recommendation and more personal promotional methods. That’s absolutely fine and if I’m honest I’m a bit of a slow-blogger myself. Having said that I do find Hootsuite invaluable as it gives me the right amount of automation and control while still keeping it real.

There’s a great deal of commercial clutter and over-promotion on the social web, and bombarding it with yet more isn’t on everyone’s agenda. However, you do want people to see your blog posts, and saving some of your precious time by taking advantage of the helpful tools available is, I think, a sensible choice.

How to make a custom menu widget for your blog


One of the beauties of blogging is not having to know any ‘backend’ stuff like code. But sometimes it’s good to know a little, because it gives you the means to customise some aspects of your blog.

I thought I would show you how to make a custom menu to go in the widget area of your blog. You can do this in WordPress (self-hosted OR hosted versions) or Blogger. Probably other platforms too, it depends on whether you have the TEXT widget option.

When might you want a custom menu?  A menu is really just a list of links: it’s usually associated with your site’s navigation – home, contact, about us etc. But it could be a list of your most important blog posts (the ones you want people to see), a list of your books with links to buy them, a list of forthcoming events or readings. Some blog themes only offer you one menu in one location. Others offer custom menu widgets, but they’re not always straightforward to set up. With a bit of HTML knowledge you can create as many custom menus as you wish, and include images as well as links.

If you look at the widgets area of your dashboard (or gadgets as they’re called in Blogger) you’ll see an array of options. Scroll through and find the one called TEXT (arbitrary text or HTML) and add or drag this to the position you want it.

text widget screenshot

When your widget’s in place, click on the down arrow on the right to customise it.

Here’s an example. I recently changed the theme on my Poetgal blog, and realised that the main menu is hidden when the screen width go below a certain size. That’s OK on phones because you usually have to touch a menu icon in the corner to see the whole menu. But on a desktop computer you expect to see the menu. I was concerned that several key pages – ‘About’, ‘Books’ and ‘Poetry readings’ – were going to be overlooked. So I needed a custom menu in the sidebar. So I positioned my text widget in the side bar and called it ‘May be of interest’:

custom widget 1

My custom menu is going to be a list of 3 links. In HTML, links look like this:

<a href=”URL of about page”>This is a link to ‘About'</a>

Every part of this this syntax is important – the space between the a and the href, the fact that there is no space between the = and the first “, and no space between the the angled brackets and what’s inside them. Notice also the closing tag </a> – this is where the link text ends. Between the opening and closing tags is the text that will be visible as a link. But we haven’t yet put in a valid URL (web page address).

If I wanted to reference the ‘About’ page on Poetgal, from here, I would paste in the full address including the ‘http’ bit. This goes inside the quote marks, like this:

<a href=””>This is a link to ‘About'</a>

Which then displays as:

This is a link to ‘About’

So, going back to my custom menu text widget, all I need to do is find the correct URLs of the pages I want to link to, and paste them using the syntax you see above. Just type the code out once and  copy and paste as many times as you want links, then paste in the correct links between the quote marks.

custom widget 2

I tend to leave a line space between each link, just so it’s easy for me to see how many I’ve got. But as long as you start each link on a new line, If you then tick the ‘automatically add paragraphs’ box then your links will display with a line space between each one.

Don’t forget to hit ‘save’ – and your widget is up!

custom widget 3


Notice that you haven’t had to worry about how the links look – they are automatically ‘styled’ like the rest of the blog. That’s because the styles (font, colours, sizes, spacing etc) is controlled from another file called a ‘Stylesheet’.

Even if you’re not using WordPress, HTML is a universal language. I’ve been typing <a href=”…”>linktext</a> since 1998 and it still works. Hooray!

It’s just as easy to add images and other stuff in a custom widget. In some circumstances it’s also possible to customise the Stylesheet. More about that in a later post.



Guest blog posts & interviews


As the ‘Blogging for Writers’ blog tour comes to a (kind of) end, I thought you may be interested in some of the guest blogs and interviews that have come out of it, in case you missed them…

Erynn Newman Just Write - guest blog by Robin Houghton

Over on US author Erynn Newman’s blog Just Write, I wrote a guest post on How to turn your Blog into a Community – it’s interesting how small details can make a big difference.

The Poetry Shed by Abegail Morley interview with Robin Houghton

Then at The Poetry Shed, Abegail Morley grilled me about various things, from how long it took to write the book to whether it’s worth paying for upgrades… you have to click through to find out!

Elizabeth Spann Craig - guest blog post by Robin Houghton

Popular mystery writer Elizabeth Spann Craig very kindly hosted my blog post ‘How’s your blog doing? 5 top things to measure and why’

Trin in the Wind guest post by Robin Houghton

If blogging has become a bit of a drag and you need to get your mojo back, read my guest post at Trin in the Wind, the blog of Australian author Trinity Doyle.

Writers Digest blog post from Blogging for Writers Robin Houghton

And at Writers’ Digest, Rachel Scheller wrote a piece entitled Your 2015 Blogging Roadmap, based on sections of the book.

Huge thanks to all the writers who’ve hosted me during the tour, and there’s more to come. I’m delighted to be appearing soon at the mighty Writer Unboxed, and also on the legendary blog of Anne R Allen.

Guest blogging is a wonderful way to extend your blog community and reach. If you have an idea for a blog post which would be of interest to readers of another blog, why not approach the blog owner with your idea? They can only say no, but they might say yes!

PS – only 2 places left on my course this weekend in Brighton, ‘Set up your WordPress blog in a day’ – spread the word!


Social media Q & A with writer Richard Skinner


Richard Skinner authorMy guest today is Richard Skinner who I had the pleasure of first meeting at the Vanguard Readings which he organises in London each month, attracting big name readers and a loyal audience. Vanguard also has its own publishing imprint, Vanguard Editions. Richard is the author of three novels, all published by Faber & Faber. His work has been nominated for prizes and is published in seven languages. His poetry has appeared widely and his new pamphlet Terrace will be published by Smokestack in April 2015. Richard is Director of the Fiction Programme at the Faber Academy.

Do you have a blog or blog(s)?

Richard Skinner blog

I do have a blog page on my website but it is not a standard blog, it is more of a place to post essays and reviews and anything else of interest to me. I think of it as both an archive and a resource. I have recently taken a lot of these posts down because they will be collected together into a book of essays, reviews and interviews that will be published in May by Zero Books.

How often do you update it? Do you follow other blogs?

I don’t update my blog in any regular way, just when I find/write something that I’d like to share. I follow a few other blogs, mainly by other poets, for example And Other Poems run by Josephine Corcoran, and Spectral Lyre. I tend to follow blogs when someone posts/tweets that a new post is up.

Tell us what other social media platforms you use regularly. How do you manage the time you spend on social media – do you have any rules or tricks, for example?

I am a regular user of Facebook and Twitter, which I use for both personal and professional purposes — the two often collide.

I put time aside first thing in the morning to catch up on social media and then stop at a particular time in order to write. When I’m at home, I use my MacBook to post/tweet. When I’m out and about, I use my iPad mini (I don’t have a smart phone), but I can only use my iPad in WiFi hot spots, so I’m limited to when I can post/tweet (which isn’t a bad thing, I think). I just use the Twitter/Facebook interfaces. I did have Tweetdeck for a while but I didn’t find it particularly useful.

Richard Skinner on Twitter

How do you balance social media activity with your actual writing – any advice?

When I’m in the middle of a novel, I try to be strict with myself and only deal with social media at particular times. It doesn’t always happen though!

One tip that works for me: I have set Notifications as my Twitter homepage, not Home. I have a large enough number of followers that it would be impossible to read every single tweet on my feed, and so, by setting my homepage as Notifications, I don’t miss tweets that have my handle in them. They are the more important tweets to respond to, I think.

Some people find social media stressful. What do you most like about it what do you most dislike?

I think there’s a lot of very dull/trivial stuff on both Facebook and Twitter (kittens!)* but there’s also some amazing stuff there, particularly on Twitter. I have come across some incredible photos, links, articles and so on, none of which I would have found otherwise.
The Mirror by Richard Skinner
I think the key is to tailor your Facebook timeline and Twitter feed by stopping notifications or muting anything you don’t like so that you’re only seeing what you want to see. Be ruthless about that. The other golden rule, I think, is not to use social media solely for promoting yourself and your work. Use it to share your likes, loves and interests. There is no greater turn-off on social media than someone who only says ‘Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book.’

*I quite like the kittens! – Robin

Social media Q & A with author & poet Claire Dyer


This is the first of a new series of blog posts in which I ask writers questions about how they use social media.

Claire Dyer novelist & poet - homepage

Claire Dyer is a novelist and poet, with two novels and a poetry collection to her name. Her website combines a blog with details of her published work, what she’s reading and where she’s appearing. She also displays her Twitter feed.

I first met Claire at a magazine launch at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford – she is widely published in poetry magazines – and I was interested to hear how she approaches social media.

Tell us about your blog…

My blog is part of my main website and can be found here…

I blog when I have something to say about my writing, other people’s writing, the writing life or just to say how nice or difficult the whole business of writing is!

How often do you update it?

Roughly every 4 to 6 weeks, although I haven’t updated it for a while just recently (I blame Christmas!)

What do you do if you’re too busy to blog?

I pop stuff on Facebook (my personal and Author pages) and Twitter. I also use Pinterest but not very regularly.

Do you follow other blogs, and if so, how? (eg by email, in a reader etc)

Yes, I’ve signed up for a couple (by email) but normally just keep a watch out for interesting blogs by people I admire and will retweet or share them when I can. I have made a private list of ‘People who Tweet Interesting Things’ on Twitter which I monitor so often discover blogs there.

Tell us a bit more about how you use Twitter and other social media platforms …

Claire Dyer on Twitter

I regularly use Facebook and Twitter and try and steer the tricky line between being ‘Claire Dyer the person’ and ‘Claire Dyer the writer’. What I’ve found is that the private and public sides to being a writer are very different and it’s not always easy to manage this in the right way. Someone once told me that using social media is like being at a party so it’s not a good idea to arrive, shout out your own news and not listen to others’. Therefore my guiding principles are to be interested in other people, be supportive of their initiatives, be funny, not moan too much and let people know what I’m up to but not in a pushy way.

How do you manage the time you spend on social media – do you have any rules or tricks, and do you use a social media dashboard eg Hootsuite or Tweetdeck?

I mostly use my ‘People who Tweet Interesting Things’ list on Twitter. I belong to a number of Facebook Groups so that’s helpful in tracking what’s going on but usually I dip in and out so do risk missing things. A friend did mention TweetDeck to me but I haven’t managed to get my head round downloading it yet!

How do you balance social media activity with your actual writing – do you have any rules you abide by, or any tips/advice you would give to other writers?

Log out of Facebook and Twitter when writing otherwise you WILL get distracted!

Some people find social media stressful. What do you most like about it what do you most dislike?

I love social media when it’s positive and supportive and when it serves to disseminate news and information. I do, however, find it hard to deal with it when it is used for negative reasons or when an online discussion gets personal. My tenet is that if I don’t have something nice to say, keep quiet!

Claire’s latest novel is available in paperback and as an e-book, The Perfect Affair – it’s been described as ‘A beautifully told, absorbing romance,’ by the Sunday Mirror, and it’s currently a Sainsbury’s Winter Read.

You can find out more about Claire and her books on her website and blog, via her Amazon Author Page, on Facebook, on Twitter and on her Goodreads Author Page.

When you have nothing to say – beating the social media blahs


It happens to us all – that sudden feeling that you’ve just got nothing much to say to the blogosphere, or the Twittersphere or whatever. It often coincides with that sinking feeling that everyone else seems to have endless ideas, inspiration, energy and motivation. How do you tackle it?

First of all, try to understand the problem – is it one of motivation? (‘Why am I doing this?’) Or finding the time? (‘I have too many other important things to do’) Or confidence? (‘No-one’s going to be interested in what I think’) Or even your general state of health & happiness? You may be physically or mentally exhausted, for example. We lead busy and complicated lives.

It’s crucial to be kind to yourself – nothing really terrible will happen if you don’t tweet for a week or blog for a month. If you need a break, take a break.

If you’ve started to build a social web presence and have found enjoyment from it, and if you still believe it’s something worth doing, there are things you can try that might help shake off the blahs and get you back to bouncing social media health.

‘Why am I doing this?’

Remind yourself it’s a slow process.

I often get told ‘I’m posting regularly to my blog and yet no-one comments.’ Or ‘If I post something to my Facebook Page and nobody comments or ‘likes’ it feels like a waste of time.’

We all need the positive affirmations that comments, likes and shares give us. But not everything you post will produce a visible effect. The vast majority of people using social media only comment on a tiny fraction of the updates they read, only read a fraction of what they see, and only see a fraction of what gets posted. It’s a big old iceberg out there, and it’s growing bigger all the time.

Rather than stressing about numbers of comments, likes etc (or lack of) remind yourself that you’re building your own social network one person at a time. Put your energies into that, and it will feel more rewarding. Reach out to other people on an individual level – add value to someone’s blog post with a good quality comment, thank someone for a link they posted on Twitter to an article you found useful, enrich your Facebook Page into a resource you’re proud to send people to when appropriate, don’t let it be just another promotional channel. Ask interesting questions, invite an expert to guest post on your blog.

‘I have too many other things to do’

I read two very interesting articles recently about this. One was quoting a study which found that people are happiest when they are focusing on one task only, and not letting their minds wander. It has nothing to do with how pleasurable the task is – you could be paying bills or making love. In today’s multi-tasking world it’s an interesting idea.

In another piece of research, it was found that having a ‘time scarcity’ mindset was crippling not only to our ability to think creatively, but also to how we are able to utilise effectively what little time we do have.  (A ‘time scarcity’ mindset means the feeling of being perpetually behind with things, general overwhelm, too many things needing our attention.) In other words, when we’re in that ‘I don’t have the time/I’m too busy’ zone, we’re less able to focus on the task at hand, so we can’t get as much done as we’d like, and it becomes a vicious circle. When we’re in this state (say the researchers) we tend to give a lower priority to things that aren’t urgent, to the detriment of our health, family, relationships and other long-term aspects of our lives.

Social media can seem to function at a frenetic pace. If you feel you’re struggling to keep up with people’s updates, or read all the blogs you’d like to, let alone do any posting or tweeting yourself, it’s worth reminding yourself that there are tools and tricks to help you manage your social media time, whether it’s having an editorial calendar for your blog, using an organising dashboard like Hootsuite, or installing an app to limit your time on social sites. And it’s better for body and soul to do one thing well, and slowly, than juggle five things because they’re all important.

‘Nobody is interested in what I think.’

This is a big one to unpack. First of all, you’d be surprised how many people are interested in what you think, what you say and how you say it. You’re a writer, so that gives you a head start: you know how to communicate. I’m not saying you just need to talk about what you had for dinner, although the fact that this has become such a cliche shows that plenty of people DO tweet about this and MANY of them have happy followers.

There are all kinds of social media guidelines about what to say or not to say, topics to avoid, how to entice people into following you or befriending you with great content or whatever. I’ve written a few myself! But they are only guidelines. We’re all making this up as we go along. There are examples everywhere of people breaking the ‘rules’ and chugging along very happily. Although the word ‘authentic’ has fallen from favour, I still believe it should be at the heart of any social media presence – which you are building one person at a time – so why expend energy on trying to create ‘ideal’ updates or worrying whether what you say won’t entertain or excite people every time. It’s your day-to-day life, not show business.

Sometimes it can be dispiriting to read about other people’s book deals, competition wins or successes. It’s as if everyone else is more successful AND they’re rubbing it in your face. But that’s a feeling we all have to deal with. I thought this piece on the subject was really helpful – How to Enjoy (and Not Envy) the Success of Others – especially the advice ‘don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides’. Indeed!

Every now and then someone will tell you how much they enjoy your blog posts or your Twitter updates or your Facebook Page and it will make your day. Keep on keeping on!