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.

What do I talk about? 10 ideas to get you started


Maybe you’re writing a blog, or have a Facebook page to maintain… there are going to be times when you think ‘what on earth do I write about and why on earth would anyone be interested?’ Not to worry – I hear this all the time and you already have LOADS of good material to share, believe me! Here are a few ideas to get you going.

1. What I’m working on

Everyone wants to know what people are writing about, what’s coming next, sneak previews of topics or plots or characters. You don’t have to give much away, but a little sharing brings your readers along with you. If you start doing this early in the process then you will build a head of interest so that by the time the work makes it to the booksellers your audience is desperate to get their hands on it.

2. Where & how I write

Do you have a routine – 1,000 words before morning coffee, no writing until after you’ve walked the dog? Do you write in cafes, in an office, in silence or listening to Mahler? Do you favour longhand drafts or do you write directly onto a computer or tablet? Do you record notes for yourself when out and about?

However humdrum they may seem to you, these kinds of details are fascinating to your readers. You don’t have to share any personal or private information. But letting people in on your life in small ways – mentioning your dog by name, or admitting you always write in pencil – can make you stand out as someone who is not only real but memorable for being real.

3. Who my heroes are and why

It doesn’t matter how many times you see this tackled in interviews, it’s always a winner. By admitting which writers you admire and love reading, which authors have influenced you, you’re going to stimulate conversation. Encourage your readers to share in return – “over to you!”

4. How I got here – inspirational stories

Have you overcome difficulties to achieve success? Did you face 100 rejections before your first novel was published and is now a New York Time Bestseller? Did you used to work at a publishers and were you inspired by the slush pile to write your own novel, only better? Inspirational stories are always popular, and great material for sharing. Package your stories up with a hashtag such as #FeelgoodFriday, #inspiration or #howIdidit and encourage retweets and shares.

5. Writing struggles, and how I overcome them – for example creating believable characters, dealing with writer’s block

Admitting your vulnerabilities is a great tactic for creating a warm fuzzy feeling towards you. Other writers will empathise, readers will marvel at how much work actually goes into your craft. These can also be turned into ‘how to’ posts, if you’re interested in building an audience of your peers in order to market your coaching services, for example.

6. My favourite book/author/poet when I was a child/teenager

Similar to number 3 – you’re telling readers indirectly about your life and what has shaped it, and you’re giving them something to emphasise with or reminisce alongside you. Don’t forget to ask readers for their own examples.

7. Ask reader ideas about a character or a plot, or for input on a book cover

Is there anything more exciting for readers than to be consulted by authors they admire? Imagine being able to influence plot twists or character traits – it’s great fun, you’re not committed to using any of the ideas but that’s not really the point. The fact that you’re asking, whether it’s in comment-form (will take a lot of your time to reply to everyone individually) or as a poll (less personal but easier to manage the results), the consultation process is what matters.

Similarly if you have involvement with the book cover (or if the publisher can be persuaded to take part), why not run a few dummy versions by your readers and ask them to vote for the winner?

8. Write yourself into my forthcoming book (contest)

What’s in a name? You could run a simple contest whereby you outline three or four (as yet un-named) characters in your next book, and ask readers to put their own names forward. Make them work for it though – they should say why character X should be named after them. Great fun, and very memorable. This can also work well in children’s books. I still remember a schoolfriend telling me how the little dragon in ‘Ivor the Engine’ was named for her father, and how impressed I was.

9. What I think about … the shortlist for XYZ award, a recent award-winning book, etc

OR What I think about … the changing face of romance, the growth of steampunk etc

Everyone has opinions, and we love reading them – whether we agree or not. Opinions spark debate. They may (or may not) be controversial. They can be revealing, informative, entertaining … if you’re already a non-fiction writer you will probably find opinion pieces easy. If you don’t, not to worry you may prefer to
curate other people’s opinions in the form of a round-up ‘what people are saying about…’ Either way, talking about topical events, happenings and trends will help position you as a player in that world – connected, knowledgeable and interested.

10. Ask readers for suggestions of books that would make great movies, and who would star in them.

OK, it’s a bit populist but the odd lightweight topic never hurt anyone’s reputation as a serious writer! This is the kind of fun question to throw out on a Friday and again, it has great potential for multiple shares. I don’t know about you, but I could go on and on about how I was desperate for ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ to be made into a film, but when Clint Eastwood was cast rather than my own choice (Sam Shepard) I was gutted.

Don’t stop at words on a screen. Many of the above themes can be re-imagined as interviews (either you interviewing another writer, or another writer interviewing you, perhaps on their own blog), as audio posts or podcast episodes, or as video.

And if you’re thinking ‘what’s all this got to do with selling books?’ then remind yourself that buying a book is an act of trust. A reader is entrusting their precious time and emotional involvement with the world and characters you have created. If they already feel they know and like the writer, because of the conversations they’ve had or what they’ve heard them say and talk about, they are more likely to trust them. Plus of course, it’s fun, stimulating and may lead you in all kinds of interesting directions in your writing.

Are you making the most of Twitter lists?


Last year I wrote a post about Twitter lists, and from talking to people it’s evidently still a feature of Twitter that’s widely under-utilised.

Remember, a list can be public or private. A private list is great for researching, whether it’s background for your latest book or keeping tabs on groups of people you are interested in following (but don’t want to look like a stalker) such as agents, publishers, journalists or reviewers.

A public list is one that other people can see and subscribe to. People who create public lists are often seen as authoritative and knowledgeable in that field, a ‘curator’ of useful people to follow and great content. But before you start a public list check out those already in existence, rather than re-inventing the wheel (see my next point).

You can of course subscribe to other people’s (public) lists. This means, for example, if you are a poet and want to follow other poets on Twitter, you don’t need to start your own list if you don’t want to, because someone like Antony Wilson has already created one called ‘Poets’ (and there are over 700 members).

When you subscribe to a list, the list owner may or may not get an alert telling them the list has a new subscriber. When you add someone to a public list, that person will generally get an alert telling them.

When you add someone to a private list, they are not notified. This is why, if you don’t have a lot of followers, it’s a good idea to add people first to a private list rather than following loads of people.

Why? because it’s a good idea to keep your ratio of followers to followees either reasonably equal, or have more followers than followees. It is one of the informal criteria many people have for deciding whether to follow someone.

Here are a few ideas about how you could be using lists:

To capture the names of people involved in an event

How often do you meet interesting folks at a conference, or a book launch or other event, and exchanged names or contact details, perhaps hurriedly, then later struggled to remember the name or find their card? Why not create a Twitter list specifically for that event, and add their Twitter name to it there and then. If you’ve already created the list, and are using a tool such as Hootsuite on your phone, you can add names at least as quickly as adding someone to your phone book.

If you take part in a Twitter chat, you could also add participants to a list and give it the name of the chat. That way you can keep in touch with them without having to follow everyone, the list keeps growing as new people join the chat, and you’ll always remember the context in which you ‘met’.

To create a helpful resource

It’s not just your peers who may be grateful for a list of fellow crime writers on Twitter – your readers will also appreciate it. They’d probably also be really interested to know who are your favourite bloggers, or literary events, or living authors who are great Tweeters. List-makers are often seen as the curators, the do-ers, the people to be connected to on Twitter, so a bit of altruism in this department won’t do your reputation any harm.

To reward or show recognition

If there are people who regularly share your tweets, or respond, or are great conversationalists, or write consistently good blog posts, you could create a list for them and give it a ‘feelgood’ title that makes it clear why you’re grateful or why you rate them – ‘Awesome writer-bloggers’, ‘Generous Tweeters’ for example (or whatever works for you – but make it reasonably descriptive, so that anyone added to it feels rewarded and anyone coming across it will be impressed enough to follow or check out its members.

One thing that has changed since this time last year is how to search for Twitter lists on Google. The way to do it now is to type the following into the search box: inurl:lists <insert search term>

(with or without the angled brackets). For example: inurl:lists crime writers

brings up the following:

Google search for Twitter lists

You can also search via the Twitter search box, and via people you already know on Twitter.

Good luck and have fun with lists – there are loads of other uses, let me know in the comments if you have devised innovative ways of using lists.


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.

#Whattheheck are #hashtags and how should you be using them?


Hashtags started life on Twitter, as a way for people to find tweets on a specific topic. A kind of search tool, if you like. The habit caught on and hashtags are now routinely used to organise conversations around a specific topic or event. This might be anything from a scheduled Twitter Chat, to a news story, sports event or a conference – you name it.

You’ve probably seen them on your TV screen when a show is on – #poldark for example. When you see a hashtagged word like that, it means ‘follow this hashtag on your social platform of choice to see and join in the conversations going on around it.’ And it’s not just Twitter these days – hashtags are used on most social platforms.

poldark hashtag

Event organisers routinely use them to facilitate attendees connecting with one another, before, during and after the event. I’ve experienced this often – if you go to an event where you don’t know anyone, you can identify other attendees by their tweets using the event hashtag. It’s a useful ice breaker.

conference tweets hashtags

Hashtags are great for following topics long-term. For example, I have a permanent stream set up on my Hootsuite to monitor the hashtag #poetry, and another for #writetip. You can join in by using established hashtags in your own updates – it brings you to the attention of others following that hashtag.

Think about it – without any filtering, your Twitter stream is a hosepipe of updates on every subject possible. How do you get to see the updates you’re interested in? How do you join an existing conversation around a topic? How do you find other people interested in the same topics as you? One answer is to follow a hashtag.

How to follow a hashtag

When you attach a hashtag (#) to the front of a word (or phrase, but with no spaces) on Twitter or Facebook, it’s turned into a hyperlink, meaning it’s clickable. When you click on it, you’re presented with all the updates containing that hashtag. This includes upates from people you’re not following, and this is important: hashtags don’t just filter your home stream, they are a way of connecting with other people using the same hashtag – whose updates you wouldn’t otherwise see.

Facebook hashtag search

If you’re using Twitter on the web, click on a hashtag and you’ll see all the tweets using that hashtag – but you also have a number of choices on the left hand side of the page – the default is ‘Everything’, but you can search for just people, videos, news stories etc or even more specific criteria in an ‘advanced’ search.

hashtag search on

If you want to save a search, hit ‘save’ (top right of search results column) and you can return to it anytime but clicking inside the Twitter search box – a list of your saved searches will come up, just click on the one you want to retrieve.

Another neat thing you can do is to embed your search results in a Twitter widget on your blog’s sidebar. You might want to do this, for example, if you’ve created a hashtag for your new book release, or are attending or promoting an event, or involved in a news story, and you want your blog visitors to see the conversation.

Click on the three little dots top left of the search column and you’ll be prompted to ’embed this search’. This takes you to a screen where you can customise your widget.

Create twitter search widget

I’m often asked if hashtags are ‘governed’ in any way. Can anyone create a hashtag? What if it’s been ‘taken’?

The answer is it’s a free-for-all, in that anyone can create a hashtag, and if it’s already in use then that’s your lookout! It’s best to check first by doing a search on your chosen hashtag.

Something that can be an issue is multiple hashtags for the same thing, which results in a number of parallel conversations – not ideal. This is why TV companies, publishers and event organisers often make an effort to promote the ‘official’ hashtag, before too many unauthorised versions come into play.

If you do create a hashtag and want people to use it then you have to encourage take up – by using it frequently, attaching it to relevant retweets and so forth. It’s a good idea to keep your hashtags short if possible, allowing space for retweet, otherwise they may get cut. This is also a good reason not to use TOO many hashtags in one update. Using more than one is fine, but if they’re long they don’t leave much room for anything else. Hashtags stand out as links, and can add interest to a tweet in the same way that regular links do – research suggests that updates containing links (including hashtag links) get shared more than those without any links.

Another way you sometimes see hashtags used is as a sort of ironic comment, or as a way of getting a point across, or being funny – such as #whatwashethinking or #lazyediting. These kinds of hashtags tend not have much of a shelf life and are really just created as one-offs, for effect. Of course, sometimes they catch on – you just never know!

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.



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

Building your email list, part 2


This is the second part of a longer blog post: part 1 is here.

People who sign up to your email list need nurturing, and at the same time you need to work at signing up new readers.

You’ll always be losing subscribers through unsubs, changed email addresses, spam filters and just being invisible – whether it’s because you don’t send often enough to the list, or your emails are disappearing into spam or ‘promotions’ folders. Then again, those subscribers who are still opening and responding to your emails after many months or years are your most loyal and valuable.

It’s important to create valuable content for your newsletters so that people look forward to your email updates. But as well as this, what else can you do to help keep your list growing?

1) Encourage shares & forwards whenever you send an email – top and tail with ‘forward to a friend’ messages and include social sharing buttons.

2) Capture visitors by making your sign up box stand out. For example – with the SumoMe WordPress plugin you can set a floating sign up message & box to appear, and customise it to first visits only if you don’t want it to be too annoying.

Sumome WordPress plugin

Example of a floating email sign up box on SumoMe’s homepage


3) Offer an incentive to join your list – for example a sample chapter, a free tip sheet or entry into a giveaway. There is a caveat here: some people will join a list just to get the freebie, then unsubscribe.  Just saying!

4) Offer a short course or series by email – delivered by timed autoresponders. You can do this if you use a service such as Aweber, or the paid version of Mailchimp. The thinking behind this is that repeated exposure in the few days after signing up not only reminds readers of who you are and what you offer, but takes advantage of the ‘honeymoon’ period when people can still remember why they signed up for your emails and how great you are. For example, you could offer a short story, delivered by seven installments by email.

5) Turn your email list into a community in itself – perhaps give email subscribers access to a private group on Facebook, or let them have exclusives on cover reveals, earlybird invitations to your book-related events or readings and other ‘thankyous’ to let them know you appreciate them. Loyal email subscribers are likely to be your best advocates, talking up your work on social media and face to face with others, so they are worth looking after.

6) When you send out a newsletter or email exclusive, let it slip on your blog and in your social updates. It doesn’t have to be as direct as ‘My newsletter is going out today, sign up now or miss out’ – which can come across as hectoring – but mention the actual content – if it sounds intriguing, if there’s something ‘in it for them’ and if you make it easy to sign up, you should see some takeup.

7) Collect email addresses offline, from people who come to your readings or other events. Have a sign up list on the table where you are signing books, or a simple QR code that people can scan to join your list. (More about how to set up a QR code in another post!)

8) Promote a book giveaway, and have entrants submit with their email address. You can create a simple giveaway for free at Rafflecopter, for example.


Rafflecopter allows you to create and administer giveaways, even randomly selecting the winner(s) for you.

9) Get together with another writer or blogging buddy and offer a joint giveaway or contest – that way you both reach a new audience and potential new sign ups. (You must ask permission to add people’s email addresses to your list, don’t just add them automatically.)

10) When creating content for guest blogging opportunities, include a call-to-action and link for readers to subscribe to your email updates in your author byline. (I need to be better at this!)

There are no doubt many other ways of growing your list. Best results come from a multi-pronged approach! When you’re browsing other people’s blogs and websites, notice how they do it. Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried these or other methods and how they work for you.