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The wondrous world of wordpress

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I love beautiful websites. For years, I kept wanting to learn how to design them, but it felt like a daunting task, so I would just keep that dream on my “some day” list. In the meanwhile, I kept diligent track of sites that moved or inspired me, like Ashes and Snow.  And then, in the winter of 2009-2010, I started dating a yoga teacher who also worked as a web designer, and this seemed like life’s perfect invitation to learn!  He patiently started to teach me how to use Dreamweaver, but we didn’t get very far, because as soon as he introduced me to WordPress, I immediately realized that learning how to customize an existing template was all I really needed to learn.  Why spend a gazillion hours learning how to design a website, when there are 1001 beautiful wordpress templates available on the web for less than $50? And that is how I entered the wondrous world of wordpress. My first blog was called The Gipsy Life, and I set it up in less than an hour, using a very simple WordPress theme called Misty.  It was a private blog for friends and family. Since then, I have created many more websites, including currency designer Bernard Lietaer‘s (using the Arthemia Premium template), a memorial site for my mother who passed away in 2010, this website (Sparks of Life), and three sister sites: Aya’s Rivers, Learning to Linger and Befriending Life.  I love the process of visually organizing and articulating ideas and possibilities to make them more visible to others.

Here is a brief primer I wrote up in January of 2012 to support a few friends who wanted to start blogging but did not really know how to get started.  This ‘primer’ is based on my own experience, as well as advice I received from my two favorite tech support wizards, Till Kruess in Bali and Chris Tucker in Canada.

Step 1 – Choosing a WordPress Template

You could go two ways here.

(1)  The cheap experimental version.   If you are new to blogging, and are not entirely sure whether you will enjoy it and stick with it, or are in the process of discovering what you want to write about, the easiest way to get started is to sign up for a free wordpress blog.  This gives you an opportunity to experiment and play for a while before you invest more time and energy into developing a more sophisticated website or blog.  Your url will look something like yournameorproject.wordpress.com.   For about $17 / year, wordpress also gives you the possibility of upgrading that wordpress.com url to your own url (yournameorproject.com).  Later down the line, once you get clearer about what you want to write about, and whether you feel comfortable and committed to blogging, you can upgrade that basic free template to a fancier premium version.   I used a free wordpress blog for a whole year before moving on to a premium version.  To set up a free wordpress blog, simply go to this link, sign up for a blog, browse through all the free templates, and find and activate one you like.  Then read step 3 below.

(2) The fancier premium version.   If you would like to get started with a nicer template, then I recommend you explore the following sites:

Nowadays, it does not really make sense to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to have a site be specifically designed for you unless you have very specific needs or you have the financial means to afford something really unique and fancy.  Other than that, chances are you will find something you really like amongst the many beautiful templates that are now available on line for less than $50.  When buying a theme, it’s a good idea to look for online reviews, and choose a designer that offers customer support and an online community forum.  This will minimize the chances of picking a theme full of glitches, or be left to your own devices when it comes to troubleshooting challenges.

Step 2: Uploading and activating your template

If you have selected Option 1, and chosen a free wordpress theme, you can skip this step, and go straight to step 3 below.

If you want to install a premium theme onto your own domain name (Option 2, under Step 1), then you first need to buy the domain name and register with a web hosting service.  This is not hard to do and any good web hosting service will get you set up in no time.

My web designer Till Kruess, recommends Greengeeks, Dreamhost or Hostgater as hosting services.

Some themes are very easy to install and others are harder.   I personally recommend getting someone to install your premium theme for you.  Any web designer / developer with basic wordpress experience will know how to do that.  In two hours of of time and less than $100, you’ll be ready to go.   If you want to install the premium theme yourself, then you’ll have to research how to do that, as I have never done it myself.

Step 3: Creating your site’s basic structure

This involves deciding what will be your main tabs (e.g. “about tesa,” “writings,” “connect” etc.) and blog categories on your site.  I find it best to keep your main tabs on the main menu to a maximum of five or six so you don’t overwhelm your readers with too many options.  You could actually start a blog with simply two pages: “About me” and “blog.”  Or you could start a basic website with three static pages: “about me,” “short stories” “contact.”   The kinds of tabs you will have will of course depend on the purpose of your site, so you’ll need to spend some time getting clear about that. Blog categories allow you to organize your blog posts thematically (poems, interviews, essays etc.) so readers can find what they are most interested in easily.  All wordpress templates offer the possibility to create static pages as well as posts which means that your site can function as both a website and a blog.

Once you are clear about the basic structure you want, you will need to create a page for each tab (see step 4 below), and then select menu (under appearances in the left column of your dashboard) to select the order in which these pages will appear on your main menu.

Step 4: Developing contents

There are really five simple skills you need to master in order to develop and update your own website yourself.  Each of them will only take about 5 minutes to learn.  (1) How to create a new page, (2) How to create a new blog post, (3) how to categorize a blog post, (4) how to create a hyperlink in a page or post, (5) how to upload a document, picture or video.

WordPress has a comprehensive archive of tutorials with screenshots and guides about how to do all the above. http://www.support.wordpress.com.

Step 5: Customizing your template

Most wordpress templates have a few options / settings that allow for customization within the template.   Some themes will allow you to choose background color, front page layout etc.  You can access these settings by going to Theme Options under Appearance.  You don’t need professional help to customize your template in this way.  You just need a bit of time to read the instructions.  Most templates can usually also be customized beyond what the theme allows, but that requires hiring a good programmer in order to do this well and not mess up the current theme.

Widgets

Widgets are sidebar extensions on the side or bottom of your site that can display additional things archives of old posts, a search button, the last five comments etc..  To select the widgets you would like to add to your site, select widgets under dashboard.  If you have a premium template, it is good to install the Jetpeg plug-in, so that you can have an email subscription button display on your site.

Spam protection

These days proofing your website against junk mail and unsolicited ads flooding your site (through the comment box) is really a must.  Here is a tutorial on how to activate Akizmet plug-in, which will provide good spam protection.   Akizmet gets automatically installed if you use one of the free wordpress themes, so you only need to activate spam protection if you use a premium template.

Support

One of the reasons why developing my own websites was fun and fulfilling is that I did not try to handle everything by myself.  I had support from my friend Till Kruss who saved me the stress and headaches of handling any tech challenge that felt way over my head (like installing my template, and customizing certain parts of the format).  If you want to develop your own website, I highly recommend finding a good tech partner, who can handle the operational side of things, and troubleshoot glitches.  I’m developing a small list of WordPress Wizards to recommend to friends who are looking for technical support as they embark on the adventure of developing their own website.  If you are (or want to recommend) one of those experienced wordpress wizards, please send me an email.  Make sure to include details about skills, experience and hourly rate!



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