I am no web designer. I’m a novel writer and a scientist and an artist, perpetually seeking out a delicate balance between creativity and productivity. I’m a notorious “tweaker,” of novels and presentations and graphs and visuals and picture frames that hang slightly crooked on the wall. I can end up tweaking my books and blog posts to a subjectively defined level of perfection before sending them out anywhere, and apparently the same holds true for my website.
It took me 30 days to write my first publishable novel (thanks NaNoWriMo!). It took me longer than that to fiddle my author website into existence, and I’m sure the work has only just started. This blog post gives the rundown on how I did it — tips and tricks and stuck points to avoid — in hopes that I can help creatives like me out there to save time and money and focus on the creativity.
An important note:
This is a long post full of a lot of details about my process in creating my particular website, but here’s the most important thing I have to say: I strongly believe that the world doesn’t need your awesome website. It needs you — your passion, your presence, and your courageous creativity. Your website, however elaborate or basic, should exist to share your creativity with the world in whatever form that takes. So, no matter what shape your website takes in the end . . . get on out there and be your awesome self!
First, some clarifications:
Disclaimer 1: I am not a website developer. I’m describing things here in the terms that I best understand, but I’d recommend reading tutorials and familiarizing yourself with website development beyond this post. I’m telling you what worked for me, but I know I’m probably wrong about best practices. Ultimately you’ll have to find what works for you, and yet I hope this post can be of some use in the process.
Disclaimer 2: The information here was relevant when I created this website in early 2021, but the world moves fast out there. I can’t say that any of this will be relevant at any point in the future. Good luck!
Disclaimer 3: I tried to create my website on a pretty small budget, so most of these options are free or as cheap as possible while still preserving quality. This is definitely not a full review article, so I can only share the options that I decided to use for writerchickphd.com. More options are out there; feel free to go find them!
Good? Okay, let’s begin . . .
Step 0: Craft your vision
Just like any other creative work, your website needs its “why.” Why do you want this website to exist? Are you selling your published books? Are you curating a mailing list, or generating blog content? What is it that you hope your website visitors will do here? Questions like these will shape the content and creation of your site. The answers might shift a little while you go, but it’s always good to have the big picture vision in hand before you start creating.
For my website, part of my vision involved wanting a place to share things that bring me delight as an author, on and off the page. This meant that my website needed a lot of static content as well as a blog and newsletter (dynamic content). For now, my newsletter sign up is the most important call-to-action (CTA) on my site, the ask that I have for my website visitors. My vision involves growing my newsletter list over time and eventually sharing book news and sales and giveaways with my readers and community.
One part of crafting the vision for an author website involves research, seeking out and studying the many examples of author websites that are out there. There are lots of good ones! I searched examples of author websites on Google and found great summary articles with good lists. I kept a list of the ones that I particularly liked and what features I wanted to add to my own.
Even as a new author seeking publication, I believe it’s important to do as much of this platform-building work as possible, even in the early stages. Your website can be as basic as an About page and contact info, but it’s a good idea to make sure that you have something out there connected with your name and navigating interested visitors in the right direction.
Step 1: Pick a website development platform and hosting service
There are lots of website development options out there (Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, WordPress . . .) but the one that I chose for my website was WordPress (wordpress.org). I made this choice because I wanted full customizability and low cost. WordPress is a collection of software that lets you build a largely fully customizable website using the power of plugins to do basically whatever you need.
Note: WordPress.org is not the same thing as WordPress.com! I had to figure this out while I was getting started. WordPress.com is a hosting service that runs the WordPress website builder software, but WordPress.com doesn’t allow you to customize your website using plug-ins, and generally limits your options. For my goals, WordPress.com wasn’t what I needed.
In order to build a website using WordPress, you will need a hosting provider. After considering a few options (Dreamhost, Hostinger, Bluehost), I decided to use IONOS 1&1. Here was my list of considerations:
- Good load time (how long does it take to load for a visitor)
- Reliability and good uptime (whether or not your site is down)
- Easy wordpress installation (many of them come with WP installed already)
- Unlimited bandwidth (you don’t have to pay if there’s a lot of traffic)
- SSL (allows https, extra security for your site, essential)
- Overall cost (the starting price will often be much lower than the renewal price)
Step 2: Pick a WordPress theme
This was honestly the spot where I got stuck the longest. WordPress is amazing because it offers literally thousands of theme options, but where the heck do I start?? How do I find a theme that will let me shape the vision that’s in my head, or offer me ideas for vision I don’t even have yet? What’s in a “theme,” and what am I getting when I activate one for my website?
I have come to think of WP themes as special toolboxes, or perhaps palettes (for the artistically inclined). They come with preset color schemes and font families, and typically include templates for different blocks that you can use to build your website. You can preview a theme’s colors and fonts and templates ahead of time, decide if you like the look, and then fill the templates with your own content.
I wanted a fully customizable theme, so I picked Neve. I activated it and tried to play around with it, but I didn’t get far until I found the “Starter Sites” option under Theme Details. I was able to find a starter site that worked well with my vision (Original), and I moved on to modify that starter site with my own content.
[Optional] Step 3: Link a domain to your website
Before you get too far into the content process, I’d recommend making the decision regarding your domain name. If you don’t purchase a personalized domain name (e.g. writerchickphd.com), your website will live at a unique but somewhat clunky domain chosen by your provider (mine was writerchickphd.live-website.com for a while). This is fine to start out, but I’d say it’s kind of an industry expectation that you’ll own your own domain at some point in this process, so you might as well get started early.
Basically *everyone* offers you the option to buy a personalized domain these days — WordPress, IONOS, even some of the email management services I tried out. You can swim in that sea for as long as you like, and pick whatever works for you; your decision won’t affect what your website visitors see at all. I decided to buy my domain from Google Domains, because it’s one of the cheapest options available (many of the other options get more expensive after the first year). This choice made things a little more difficult for me in the backend, because I had to deal with changing the name servers and setting up permission files and things to make sure that my IONOS hosting service and Google domain were talking to each other correctly, but I got it to work. With a few support phone calls.
I recommend backing up any significant content building work you’ve done beforehand, and even doing this domain name step as early as possible in the process to avoid stress. (I spent a nervous half day wondering if my entire website’s content, weeks of work, was lost to the aether . . . before learning how to point all the things in the right direction between IONOS and Google to find it again. Phew!)
Step 4: Install and use WordPress plugins
This step is so easy, I don’t think it should even be a step. In your WordPress admin page, you have access to all your pages and posts, including the option to create new ones. You can add content from the templates provided with your starter site, or copy content you’ve previously created, or you can try new things. Trying new things often includes searching for and installing useful plugins, and I’ve found that whole process to be largely intuitive. Many plugins are offered for free, with the courtesy expectation that you’ll rate them and help boost the ones that you like (don’t worry, they’ll remind you about this). Here’s a quick list of some that I’ve found most useful:
- GDPR Cookie Consent (cookie banner, legally necessary to comply with cookie regulations)
- NextGen Gallery (creates galleries of my photos for my fun pages)
- Really Simple SSL (helps me set up SSL for my website)
- ShortPixel Image Optimizer (optimizes my images so my website loads faster)
- SmashBalloon Instagram Feed
- WPFront Scroll Top (adds a “scroll to top” button icon on my pages)
The theme you choose will also have a lot of plugins installed already, and you can use them or deactivate them as you wish.
Step 5: Set up your newsletter and contact form
My current vision is to slowly grow my reader community via a mailing list, so my newsletter is one of the most important pieces of my website. The newsletter sign-up button invites visitors to enter their email address, which is then stored in an email management program that will enable you to send emails to your community about book news and sales and giveaways.
First, you need to choose an email management provider — for example, MailChimp, MailerLite, etc. I chose MailerLite because it fit my needs a little better as a beginning author with a small mailing list. MailerLite helped me set up a basic “Welcome” email that will automatically send to any new newsletter signups. The email content was easy enough to create, and looks fairly professional.
I also had to set up a mailing campaign connected to my website’s RSS feed. The RSS feed is the feed that keeps track of new updates to your website, e.g. new blog posts like this one. If you want your email community to be notified of any new blog posts via email, you can use your email manager (like MailerLite) to set up an RSS campaign to keep track of those new updates.
For visitors who just want to leave a question or comment, you’ll need a contact form. My contact form was handled in-house using the plugin WPForms Lite. You can choose which email the contact form submissions will send to, but make sure you check it frequently enough to catch and respond to any new entries.
Lastly, and this is important: Be sure to test all of your newsletter and contact form signups thoroughly to make sure they’re working! And use test emails that sound fairly legitimate, or your test emails might end up in spam (yep, I spammed myself). Check all the connections before you go live, or you might lose interested readers.
Step 6: Backup your website
Your website, just like any other creative project, should be backed up regularly to make sure you don’t lose data (or worse, creativity). This process will be different if you choose different providers, but hopefully straightforward. With my provider, IONOS, it’s important to back up two things: my database (in my WPAdmin, I go to Tools > Export, export all content), and my WordPress installation with my theme and plugins (in IONOS, I navigate to my webspace and click the gear next to it and choose “Pack” and download a zip file). I would recommend doing backups either periodically on a schedule or whenever you make major changes to the site.
Lastly here are a couple of tools I’ve found useful for design:
- Canva: a design tool for creating beautiful logos and visuals (although I personally used the GIMP image editing software to create my own logo)
- Unsplash: a free library for beautiful stock images (the photographers/artists appreciate credit where it’s due)
That’s it! That’s how I made this website. Now it’s your turn — create something beautiful and enjoy the process (or at least hate it a bit less?). If you’re a creative and you feel so inclined, drop a comment below with your own tips and tricks for website development to help us all out. Best of luck with your own creative endeavors!