So You Want to Have a Website?
A Brief Guide to Web-Presence for Writers
Good on you. You're a writer, presumably you want to get your name out there at some point. In an increasingly digital age, having a website is a must. Deciding that you want a website is far and away the easiest part, though. Much like sitting down with a blank notebook or a new text document, the possibilities are endless, which can be quite daunting. The first thing you need to decide is what you want your site to look like. Look around; the authors you admire are sure to have websites of their own. Are there any sites in particular that you'd like to emulate?
Next, ask yourself how much work you're willing to put into getting your website up and running. Say that the website you most want to emulate is full of rich content, Flash, or what have you. Your favorite authors probably aren't doing their own web design, but unless you're already signed on with a publishing company or someone owes you a really big favor, you're going to have to go it alone for the moment. Don't worry, though; the mid-90s are done and gone, and you don't have to settle for a simplistic Geocities page. You don't even have to worry about what HTML stands for.
The next question you have to ask yourself is whether you want to own your own domain name (TLD – Top-Level Domain). Having your own .com costs somewhere in the area of $12 dollars annually, and that doesn't account for hosting costs. If you plan on using a free hosting service, your costs end there, but if you want to avoid the limitations imposed by such free services, expect to spend at least another $60 annually. In other words, if you want to own your own website and use paid hosting, you're looking at $70-80 a year, or one week's worth of groceries for two people.
Now, let's break your options down a bit more.
Free Site (No TLD)
The internet is full of free site hosting services, but they basically break down into two categories: personal sites and blogs. Personal sites are what you get from services like Google's Google Sites. They give you a basic WYSIWYG (wiss-e-wig – What You See Is What You Get) editor or the option to dive in and work with raw HTML. Think of the websites that people made for themselves back in the 90s and early 00s.
I shouldn't have to explain what a blog is. Popular free blogging platforms include Wordpress.com and Blogger. If you don't already have your own blog, you probably know someone who does. These services offer you a lot of free templates that let you quickly customize the look of your site without having to do a whole lot of work.
If you're going with free, using a blogging service is probably your best bet unless you're absolutely sure that none of the services out there can offer you exactly the look and feel you're going for (and at that point, you might as well pony up for your own TLD and build your site from scratch). Setting up a blog should take you less than an hour, including putting up a short bio and an introductory post. Spend some time getting to know the interface, play around with different themes, and above all, publicize your site. Most blogging services have an option that cross-posts your new content to Facebook, Twitter, etc. Milk your networks for as many hits as you can.
Paid Site (Your TLD) No Coding
If you want to buy a domain name, don't hesitate. You never know but someone might come along while you're dithering and snatch the name up. If you can buy your name or your pen-name as a .com, great! If not, try to think of something unique, something that identifies you or your work, something that you won't hate in three years, and get that.
Next, decide whether you want free or paid hosting. Remember that free hosting has its limitations, not all of which are readily apparent. Do some research. Since you're going the no-coding route, keep an eye out for hosting providers that offer free site-building tools. Better yet, look for services which can install Wordpress for you. (I mentioned Wordpress earlier in the free site section; their .com branch offers free blog hosting on their own servers and is supported by users buying premium content such as fancy themes, while their .org branch provides the software for you to run on your own servers and is much more extensible.)
I cannot recommend any free hosting services. I can't say that I've tried them all, for I haven't, but I've tried one or two, and I found them to be more trouble than they were worth. Some free hosts will simply shut your site down after an arbitrary period of time if it hasn't gotten a certain number of hits, and then you have to go back and upload everything again. Your milage may vary. Like I said earlier, do your research and weigh the pros against the cons.
Once you've bought your domain and set up your hosting, creating a basic website should be pretty painless, especially if you're using Wordpress or something similar.
One thing to make sure of is that you set your domain's name servers to point towards your hosting service. When you set up your hosting account, you should be presented with at least two name servers. Copy these into the relevant boxes on your domain account. This option should be listed under something like "account settings." If you don't do this, anyone going to visit your website will be greeted with a generic splash page at best.
Paid Site, Roll Your Own HTML
If you've chosen this option, be prepared for a lot of experimentation and frustration initially. Even years down the road, you'll occasionally run into strange little quirks that will have you shouting at your web browser.
Learning HTML in this day and age actually means learning HTML and CSS at the very least. You may eventually want to learn PHP or some other web scripting language, too, but unless you're an expert code-monkey already, you can probably get by with the basics. This isn't a tutorial on the basics of HTML and CSS, there are already a ton of good resources available, and, if you really must, there are also a number of thick books on the subject. Pick your poison. Primers on HTML and CSS are linked below, along with a number of other resources.
The beauty of rolling your own is that you have complete control. That is also a pitfall, though. Don't be discouraged. The only tools you really need are a web browser or two, an FTP client, and a text editor (Notepad on Windows, TextEdit on Mac, and Gedit and Kate, among others, on Linux) or Integrated Development Environment (IDE). Most hosting services will also have a browser-based FTP client, and some of them work well enough, but in the long run, you'll want a local FTP client. If you use Mozilla Firefox, then I highly recommend an extension called FireFTP. There are also a number of FTP clients available for Google Chrome. If you're still using Internet Explorer, please go and download Firefox or Chrome right now.