Writer beware, or how to ask questions

Last week, Jane Friedman, an alum of Writer’s Digest and an advocate for writers working to get published, posted an article over at WD in which she steered very new writers away from hiring professional Web designers when those writers are just starting out on the Web. I can appreciate advice like figuring out what one wants from a Web presence before dropping money on some pricey design that may turn out to be a poor fit for one’s needs. But to me, this just means that writers should spend some time assessing those needs before they do anything else, even before they select a theme on WordPress, for example.

This is because different blog themes have different physical structures, and these in turn will affect where content can go on the screen, which is all very BoringSpeak for don’t paint yourself into a corner. There, you made me go all second person, I feel that strongly about it.

As writers we’re told to spend beaucoup de minutes on our query letters. It’s our make or break moment with each agent. We fret, we struggle, we hate the query letter, at least for a little while. It’s like being paired with a random roommate that first year in college, when all they do is drink, bring flings to the room for late-night sex, and drink all of one’s milk so there’s nothing to put on one’s Fruit Loops. But don’t let me go on about my college. Eventually we are happy with the query letter and we understand its purpose in our lives. Or we’ll still working on it.

We’re also told by lots of people in the writing world to create, build, and manage an online presence. And there are lots of places on the Web to get advice—lots of it conflicting—on how to do this. So many places, in fact, it makes me wonder if the Web isn’t just the biggest narcissist ever. Creating an audience is at least as important as query letters are, if they’re also virtual ombudsmen toward getting agent representation. So they need at least as much attention, right?

Ms. Friedman’s concern is that very newbie writers who haven’t yet figured out who they want to be online could waste a lot of money—or a moderate amount of money, which wouldn’t feel much better—getting some pro designer to set up their site. I counter that professional designers should know how to ask the right questions of writers, or any client, for that matter, before taking someone’s money and spitting out a Web site. And the ones with a lot of integrity will give the writer homework to sort out the requirements—that’s what we techies call them—before they spend any time sorting out what content should go where and what the structure of the site should be. Typography is fun, but it’s one of the least important aspects of crafting a site.

Whether writers work with a professional or go directly to WordPress, they should identify their requirements. This really comes down to a list of questions, answered as specifically as possible.

  1. Whom is this Web site for? If you’re a YA author specializing in strong female protagonists and paranormal storytelling, your audience is going to be different from the one for my LGBT speculative fiction and memoir and pop culture critique. Even though we’ll both want links to samples of our work. And we need to remember that we’ll also be asking agents, editors, other writers, and the like to check out our Web sites, so they are part of the audience. Audience doesn’t only include the targeted readers of our work.
  2. How big is the frame for this Web site? By this I mean are you creating a Web site just for your book or is this your author site? They’ll lead you in two different directions, even though there’s overlap. Agents may push you to create a site for your lovely, funny, self-deprecating memoir, but you may want to work just on your author site first. But I’m sure Ms. Friedman has some advice on that. In any case, you need to start thinking about the categories of content on your site—the stuff in the navigation bar—because that will determine, to a significant degree, whether you will develop a broad or a deep site. More on that later.
  3. How much of your actual writing are you willing to put on the Web site? Some of us put a lot. I was disappointed to realize that for every freebie short story I plunked on my blog, I had one less story I could sell to journals who only print stories with first publication rights, which is guess what, most of them. Also, how much writing you want up on your site can drive the layout—I can see leaving a corner for one’s latest flash fiction piece, for example.
  4. How much time do you plan to spend to add new content to the site? I heard a talk on Whidbey Island in August in which an author/blogger told writers to spend 2 hours on a post, at least at the start. You could hear the air fizzle out of the room. Most of us didn’t have an extra 2 hours to throw into a blog, and to sit down multiple times a week? This guy was mad! Well, truth be told, getting a Web site up and running takes time, but it’s a bit downhill from there. Posts will come more easily with time and practice, but in the meantime, you can find a layout on WordPress that doesn’t have a huge window for your not-quite-there content, and switch into another design once you have 100 posts under your belt. And I think it’s a good idea to spend some quality time looking at the themes to identify which ones might work well for you now and which ones you might be ready to grow into next year. There you go, blogging the Hermit Crab way!
  5. At some point you have to determine the main categories of content for your site. I recommend the old school “card sorting” strategy. Get a stack of index cards and a pad of paper, and some instrument that leaves marks on parchment. Look at other author sites—in the business we call that a competitive analysis—and observe just the home page, to start. What do you like about Bill Bryson’s page? Or Judy Blume’s? Or Coleson Whitehead’s? Write down category names you see repeated, like “Press.” Then scratch that one off, because you probably don’t have any press yet. Go back and look at your answers to the earlier questions. Now put some category names on the index card, one name per card, and lay those out on your desk. Feel free to move them around, juggle them, whatever. Get more index cards and start writing down sub-topic names for those. If one of your categories starts to get long—more than 6 or 7 placeholders, for example—or is significantly bigger than the others, consider breaking it into 2 smaller categories. Just so the site looks balanced.

There are lots of other questions to ask, things like styling—those type fonts again—how to make sure there’s enough white space on the screen to ensure readability, avoiding some big no-nos of design, like not enough contrast, and so forth. But if you don’t sort out these basic requirements, all that other stuff is akin to the lipstick on the pig idiom. Visitors to your site need to be able to find the content first before they can read it. And no pretty site in the world gets visits if it’s not actually providing content anyone wants.

A really great resource out there is Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. It’s not new, but it gets the revisions it needs. And it’s available on Google Books. It goes into lots more detail than any of this.

Whether a writer is interested in working with a professional or not, she needs to have a good idea of what she’s looking for in her blog or site before getting started. The less one has figured out before throwing prose out into hyperspace, the worse the site is going to behave later on. I also think there’s nothing wrong in finding a graphic designer who can create a whole brand for a writer, from business cards to Web site, but the customer needs to know who they are, and they should see the professional asking a whole lot of questions, because otherwise they can’t create anything other than a cookie-cutter site, and heck, we have standard blog designs for that.

Make your site your own and in time, with enough pounding of the publicity pavement, your readers will come. And it should cost a lot less than starting up a baseball team.

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6 Comments on “Writer beware, or how to ask questions”

  1. Jeannine
    September 22, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    This is great advice, Ev! We need to get a new studio artist’s website running for Aric because the old one was too expensive and the layout/structure didn’t do what he it needed to. As we work toward building a new site, I’ll be keeping your advice in mind.

    • evmaroon
      September 22, 2010 at 10:37 am #

      Great, Jeannine! And take a look at that book I recommended…it’s easy to read and informative as hell. Good luck to Aric!

  2. Ishana
    September 22, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    Great advice. I’m nowhere near qualified enough to have my own website, but I think for beginners like me, wordpress and other blogs can help you get a feel for what things you need and what direction you wish to take your online identity. I’m still a little terrified of my query letter, and in my third year of university with those terrible randomly-assigned roommates.

    Thanks for the post!
    ~IshanaTM

    • evmaroon
      September 22, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

      @Ishana: Make friends with your query letter! It’s there to help you, not work against you. And I agree—set ups like WordPress, Blogspot, and the like are good entry points for newer writers. Back in the day I started off on LiveJournal, so WP is light years ahead to me than that.

  3. Ishana
    September 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    I think what terrifies me more than the query letter is the summary. I tend to be wordy, so creating that concise yet intriguing summary is like serving tea to my worse enemy. Though you’ve inspired me to spend the rest of the week improving it. Hopefully I make a new friend out of it!

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