Every so often I’m reminded of how much I take for granted about what I do as a blogger, even though part of my job is teaching people how to blog. The most recent such occasion was last week, when I helped put together a quick session on blogging for some of folks in my office. In preparation for that, I ended up coming up with some pretty extensive notes on blogging workflow — that is, how to make blogging a part of your every day routine, if that’s something you want to do. Afterward, I realized it might make a good sort of “meta” post on blogging. So, here’s what I basically went through in that blogging session.
First, I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you already have a blog set up on one of the many available platforms, or that you’re more interested in reading and commenting on blogs than writing one. So I’ll skip over the discussion about how to choose a blogging platform, because that’s an entire post (or a series) all by itself. Let’s jump right into finding material and saving material.
Finding Material – RSS Readers
Probably the easiest way to keep track of any number of blogs and news services is to use an online service to subscribe to and read their RSS feeds. Most blogs and many media outlets now publish RSS feeds that push content to interested readers who subscribe to their feeds. When I started reading a large number of blogs I subscribed to Bloglines, which is probably one of the more popular such services around. Since it’s on the web, you can check your feeds from any computer. It offers users some useful tools, like the ability to set up a rudimentary blog on the service (rudimentary because there’s not much room for customization) as well as the ability to save blog posts, news stories and other items to a clippings folder for later reference. Other popular online blog/news reading services include Kinja and News Gator.
The only problem with online services, I’ve found, is downtime. It’s inevitable and often irritating if you particularly need to be able to get to a certain item you flagged or clipped on the service you’re using. Once I got to the point where I was reading/tracking anywhere from 250 to 350 blog and news feeds daily, and Bloglines continued to have downtime or maintenance time at peak usage hours, I knew I had to find another solution. At first I turned to NewsFire, a Mac-based stand-alone RSS client. However, I ran into a few problems. First, there wasn’t any easy, fool-prooof way to get all of my feeds from Bloglines into the new program. Second, I read my RSS feeds on two different computers; the laptop I use for work, and the Mini back at home. Enter NetNewsWire, the licensed version of which both syncs with Bloglines (thus importing all my subscriptions) and syncs to ftp so I can keep things current on both computers.
There are a couple of Windows based readers out there as well — SharpReader and FeedReader — but I can’t say much about them as I don’t have much experience with them. If you use Firefox or Safari both of them have built in RSS, so you don’t necessarily need to download and install another program, unless there are other features you’d like to have. Firefox also has a number of extensions for RSS reading, including Sage.
If you read enough blogs or other news sources, you’ll inevitably come across stuff you want to save in order to read or blog about later. I come across countless such items every day. Fortunately there are some good options for saving stuff on the web for consumption. The most obvious and the simplest to use is del.icio.us. There’s more to know about than I can say here, but it’s the easiest way to save and share interesting links you come across, and to see what other people are linking that you might be interested in. It’s good for bookmarking blogging material you want to return to later, and some bloggers also use various means to display their del.icio.us links on their blogs as a kind of “link blog”.
However, the nature of the blog is that any site or page can be there today and gone tomorrow when you want to read or blog about it. If really want to save something I recommend two other services on the web. LookSmart’s Furl is the first one I used.
Furl is a free service that saves the important items you find on the Web and enables you to quickly find them again. Furl archives a personal copy of every page you save. When you want to recall it, you can find it instantly by searching the full text your archived items. Each member has a personal archive of 5 gigabytes (GB), large enough to store tens of thousands of searchable items.
So, you’re not only saving a link, but you’re saving an actualy cache or copy of the item. If it disappears from the web. you still have your copy. It also imports from your de.licio.us account. The other service is a similar one called Spurl.
Spurl.net offers users a host of other features. The user can of course add his personal comments, select categories to web pages he stores but at the same time spurl.net makes available various background information for the page such as older versions of the page, thumbnail of the page, translation of the page, popularity rating, reviews, list of pages on similar topics and much more.
Of the two, I ended up using Spurl exclusively. While it has features similar to Furl, one of the things I like about Spurl is that is that it will also post to a del.icio.us account as well as import from one. If I see something on the web that I know I want to return to later, it goes into Spurl, where I can access it by either surfing to my account or via the “Spurl Bar” that’s one of the more convenient features.
If your browser of choice is Firefox — as is mine — there’s one other tool I can recommend if you don’t need long-term link storage. It’s an extension called Session Saver, which let’s you save the tabs you have open and restore them later. If you’ve ever accidentally closed Firefox or experienced a crash when you have a bunch of tabs open, this will go a long way towards saving your sanity.
Getting it Posted
Of course, all of the above is simply the lead up to finally getting your blog post up for the world to see. The simplest way is to do your blogging within the blogging tool of your choice. Depending on which one you’re using, that might be all you need. However, if you’re looking for more features — even basic ones, like spellcheck or a WYSIWYG interface, it’s worth exploring other options. My blogging platform — WordPress — doesn’t offer either of the above options in it’s basic install. (The new version does have built-in WYSIWYG, and is currently in beta. I’m testing it over here.)
For a while now, I’ve been using desktop blogging tools. I’ve bounced back and forth between Marsedit and Ecto, and finally settling on the latter since it offered spellcheck, WYSIWYG, and integrates with the dictionary in Mac OS X, along with a few other features I found attractive. (Another program, Blogjet, available only for the Windows platform.) However both programs are licensed, which means you have to pay for them to continue using them beyond the trial period.
If you want something with the features listed above, but don’t want to pay for it, the online word processor called Writely is free (and in beta) and includes a blogging function and sends posts to your blog when you’re ready to post. It might, however, work differently with different browsers.
Lately, I’ve writing more of my posts in WordPress itself — as Ecto has been acting strangely, probably due to some changes I made in my blog — and getting spellcheck with the help of Google toolbar, as well as a few more features from Lifehaker’s tips on turning Firefox into a web writer. (Be warned, some of those tips might not work if you’ve upgraded to Firefox 1.5.)
That’s all I got, folks. But as I come across more tips, tricks, and tools, I’ll post them here. Meanwhile, if you’re reading this and you’re a blogger, what’s your blogging workflow?