Blogging Q&A, Part Two: Content

30 September 2021

Friends, I’m so glad you’re as interested in this series as I am! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the first post – I always love hearing from you.

Today, we’re diving in to all things content! I’m answering your questions about where I get ideas for posts, the topics I’d never write about, whether I’ve written any posts I regret, how and where I draw my personal boundaries, and more. Let’s go!

Have you always enjoyed writing? How did you come to love it?

I’ve enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember! I remember being so proud in second grade when my teacher laminated and bound a short story I wrote and illustrated. She shared it with the principal, who also wrote me a note saying she loved it. (Just goes to show how much the encouragement of teachers can mean!)

My love of writing grew out of my love for reading, which has also been around for as long as I can remember. My parents both read to me, of course, but I think something that was foundational in cementing the habit was seeing my Dad, especially, reading books in so much of his leisure time. I wouldn’t have said it in these exact words, but I wanted to be just like my Dad, and so I read, too!

In high school, I took a few Creative Writing classes and was the poet laureate my senior year (fancy!). I majored in English in college, with a concentration in Poetry; my senior thesis was an original collection of my poems about our island in Maine. I also took a Creative Nonfiction class which I loved; no surprise, since that’s pretty much what I do here now!

All along the way, I had people – teachers, mostly, but also family members – who reflected back to me that I had talent, and encouraged me to keep developing it. I am so grateful for that.

Where do you get ideas for posts? Do you store them somewhere? Do you have a content calendar?

I get ideas everywhere and all the time! Far more than I would ever have time to write about. There are a few main buckets:

— Ideas that grow out of our family’s season or activities. If we’re learning or doing or experiencing something, it’s a natural fit for a blog post, since I’m already spending a lot of time thinking about it. Examples include this year’s garden party and my post about baking with June.

— A trend in the culture or a theme I’m noticing. Conversations with John or friends, sermons at church, posts on Instagram or blogs, articles or essays, podcast episodes, and the things that pop into my mind before I fall asleep at night can all spark ideas for posts, especially if my take on a trend seems different from the dominant narrative. Examples include this post on children and the passing of time, this post on trade-offs, or this post on the standards of parenting.

— Reader feedback. Sometimes this comes in the form of a direct suggestion or query, like from an email, a DM, or a blog comment. Or, I might notice that a particular post generates more conversation than usual, which tells me the topic might be worth expanding upon. Examples include my photo organization series, this post on self care, and this post on organizing your own childhood memorabilia.

— Something that sounds fun. If I see someone else sharing something that looks fun, like the Coffee & Crumbs’ end-of-year superlatives or Janssen’s summer memories or actual Christmas gifts, or decisions that have led to a life I love, I might put my own twist on it.

While waiting for their time to shine, ideas for posts reside in a Google Doc. It’s just a simple bulleted list; right now it has sections for reader requests, work, home, parenting, Marvelous Money, and “everything else.” As of this writing there are 116 post ideas in the doc, which should keep me busy for many years to come.

And yes, I do keep a low-key content calendar! I wrote more about it here, including the sheet I print out six months at a time to house my schedule and month-by-month ideas.

Is there anything you’d never write about?

Yes! Hundreds of things, probably! I want to discuss things that bring people together, things where it’s possible to find commonalities, so you generally won’t find me writing about the divisive issues of the day (except maybe screen time with kids, ha). I’ve found that it IS possible to think deeply and feel passionately about something without broadcasting my thoughts to the widest possible audience.

I rarely say “never,” but one thing I can *almost* guarantee you will never see me write about is my vote. This is a practice I picked up from my Dad, a Coast Guard officer and political science professor; he has kept mum on his personal picks all my life, even in the face of pestering, curious children. (As you’d expect for a professor, he was happy to talk about any issues on the ballot, and even the merits of the candidates, just not the boxes he checked.) I’m not sure if this is a policy common in the military or just a personal preference, but I’ve grown to respect (and adopt) it in my later years. It’s not for everyone (in fact, it would probably seem quaint, or even wrong, to some), but it feels right for me.

A mostly unrelated photo, but I wanted to share the Four Things bag that was a gift from my sister-in-law! It’s mostly my library book bag, so it is related in a way :)

What would you love to write about, but haven’t?

Oh gosh, so many things. (See: list of 116 blog post ideas in Google Docs.) I would love to do another round of Marvelous Mamas, and a series of interviews with my favorite dads. I’ve been kicking around ideas for a post on patriotism for YEARS. I’ve wanted to have a discussion about our relationships with our alma maters. I want to finish my Triangle guide. I want to share my advice for new college students. (I’ve already shared advice for new college grads!) The Toni Morrison essay with the line “your real life is with us, your family” has been so resonant with me for the last few years that there must be a post in there. I want to write about parenting with a higher risk tolerance, my most-recommended books, helping our kids develop executive functioning skills, and soooooo many Marvelous Money topics (lifestyle creep, our rhythm of generosity, college savings, working with a financial advisor, the financial implications of having three kids…!!).

For almost all of these, the limiting factor is time.

For having written for such a long time, is there anything you regret writing about? Any posts that embarrass you now?

This is an excellent question, because I have, indeed, been writing here for a very long time. The answer, though, is no, there’s nothing I can think of that I regret writing about.

Of course, some of my earlier posts are a bit cringe-y (whyyyy wasn’t my first post something more astute?! and why did I think I was a DIY blogger??). But I don’t think I need to be embarrassed by posts like that – I was doing the best I could with what I had, and where I am now was built on what came before.

I think the most important reason that I have no regrets and few embarrassments is three-fold:

1. I am a naturally moderate and (in many ways) cautious person, and I tend to think deeply about things. I have a good sense of how I and my writing will be perceived by others, I think about the future a lot, and I have long looked to mentors and experts older than me to model myself on.

2. I have been a pretty fully-formed person since about age 16. The core of who I am and what I believe has been intact for a long time, and I like to say that core is embodied in my spirit age of 36, ha! Even as a college sophomore, I was a wife, mom of three, homeowner, and working professional at heart :) I have not weathered wild swings, but instead seem to have gently evolved over the years. This might sound boring, but it does come in handy when you share your life on the internet.

3. If there is a post I’m particularly nervous about or where I want to make extra-sure my meaning and intent is clear, I’ll ask John to read it before publishing. It’s very helpful to have someone who can catch your blind spots.

What is your approach toward blogging for yourself and blogging for your readers? Do you feel you write more for yourself or do you consider your audience first?

I’d never quantified it before, but this question helped me realize I have a few hurdles that every post must jump over before being published. In order, they are:

1. Am I passionate about the topic? Do I have something unique to share? Am I eager to sit down and start writing? Am I forming sentences and jotting down notes as I fall asleep at night? Am I looking forward to the comment section, eager to discuss with you all?

2. Is it true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy? Is it aimed, thoughtful, strategic for the eternal good of others? Is it adding to the noise or adding to your quality of life? Would it needlessly offend someone or make them feel less-than? Would I be proud to share this post with both my dearest friends and an arena of strangers? With my children?

3. Will my readers find it interesting and helpful? There might be topics I’m passionate about, and that are admirable, but that simply aren’t a good fit: I’m thinking of topics that might be too niche or obscure, too specific to my personal situation or interests, to be widely useful.

In the end, this blog is a record of my personal life, written firstly for my family, but it’s also a public record, not a diary. I don’t think I would have spent so much time pouring out here over the years if I didn’t think it could have an impact beyond the walls of my home.

How do you manage the balance of being personal, yet protective of your and your family‘s privacy? Does it ever feel scary or strange sharing so much about your personal life in a public format?

It’s impossible to know how I’ll feel in the future, but thus far I feel comfortable with the balance I’ve struck. I think about this very deeply, on a consistent basis (at least with every post I publish!), and am regularly examining my comfort level and fine-tuning my approach. I know it will continue to shift as our kids get older, too! The guardrails above help. A few others that come to mind:

— Aside from their nurseries, I don’t plan to share photos of our kids’ rooms. Those feel like personal, private spaces.

— I have never felt comfortable sharing a day-in-the-life post or a specific schedule of our days. Though I love reading those posts from others, they’ve always felt out of bounds for me. (One exception: I did do a DITL Stories series on IG in spring 2020. Things were so nutty and outside our normal with COVID that it seemed like an alternative reality, ha!)

— If I’m deciding between similar family photos, I choose the ones where my kids look better, rather than myself.

— I try to ask permission when I’m sharing photos of other people’s children (like cousins!) and do my best to be considerate of any details I share about others.

— Again, if there’s something I’m on the fence about sharing, I’ll ask John for his opinion or to read through the post.

And the biggest, though perhaps most nebulous one: I always want to be telling my story, not writing theirs. I never want to box them in or make them known here in a way that would preclude their own development or self concept.

It is possible to share some without sharing all, to share generously but not excessively. Do I do it perfectly? No. But I have found it is a worthy pursuit.

And that, my friend, brings us to the edge of part three’s topics, so we’ll pause here for today! I’d love to hear any of your thoughts on today’s post, or feel free to share a favorite past EFM post or post idea you’d love to see in the future!

Part One: Nuts and Bolts
Part Three: Grab Bag
Part Four: How to Be a More Relational Writer

Blogging Q&A, Part One: Nuts and Bolts

28 September 2021

I’m celebrating thirteen years of blogging this month! I began writing Em for Marvelous when I was a senior in college, and I’ve kept it up through so many seasons – seasons in the life of our family, and seasons in the world of the internet. Even after all this time, writing here is one of the joys and delights of my life.

To celebrate, I wanted to answer some of the (many!) questions I’ve received over the years about blogging and writing. (So many that this will be a four-part series, whew!) My position is unique and I certainly don’t know everything about blogging, but I’m more than willing to share what I do know. After all, it’s kind of what we do here :) Whether you’re interested in starting a blog, want to pursue a career in content, or are simply a curious EFM reader, I hope you’ll enjoy this mini series!

Up first: questions and answers about the practical side of blogging!

Photo by Ally & Bobby – considering making it my new sidebar headshot! I think the current one is from 2011 (!!!!).

How do you get started? Domain names, hosting… I don’t know what I don’t know!

Let’s start with the question I’m least qualified to answer, ha! I started my blog a long time ago, and so much has changed since then. Today, my blog is hosted on Bluehost (I just checked and I have the “Plus Hosting” plan). My domain name was also purchased from Bluehost and renews through them each year. My site is a custom WordPress site and was designed and built by Curious & Co. For ongoing troubleshooting and maintenance I work with Parker Web (they are fantastic!).

My biggest encouragement, especially if you are simply wanting to blog as a hobby, is just to start. Don’t invest in a fancy site, don’t tell all your friends, don’t even wait for the perfect name or content schedule or niche to start; just start to see if you even like the discipline of writing and sharing regularly with the world. Great things can grow from a free Blogger blog and a logo you make yourself :)

If you used a site template or have a great recommendation for an inexpensive, semi-custom site design, please share in the comments!

How long does it take you to write a “typical” post? It can take me days!

Me, too! The shortest posts take two hours: one hour to get the initial draft out, the second to refine and edit it, add links, add photos, add tags and categories, and all the other details. Some posts take 4-10 hours over several days; a typical “meatier” post takes about 3-5 hours.

Do you have a program for photo collages? How do you make them?

I make my photo collages in Adobe Illustrator. I’m grateful to have access to it through work – it’s an expensive program! If you don’t have access to Adobe, I believe you can make collages in Canva.

Do you write your blogposts in your WordPress backend or in a separate Google Doc, then transfer it? In a nuts-and-bolts sense, what is your writing method?

I write them in the WordPress backend*! Which is kind of maddening, as I feel like the WordPress people are always changing what it looks like back there, ha.

Depending on the complexity of the post and how time-sensitive the topic is, I’ll start the writing process anywhere from two days to two weeks before the date I want to post. I open up a new post and begin writing – day one can look like a fully-fleshed-out first draft, or just a few ideas jotted down. On a second day, I’ll read through what I’ve written, adding to it and tweaking sentences for clarity, simplicity, tone, impact, etc. I never post something the same day I write it – I always sit on it for at least a day, and coming back to it with fresh eyes helps me catch errors and get to the heart of what I really want to say. This process continues until the text of the post is finished.

Then, I’ll add any links, both external (to products, websites, etc.) and internal (to other posts on my blog, for context or resources). Next I’ll create a graphic (in Illustrator – like for Marvelous Money) or edit and upload photos. Every post has at least one photo or graphic, and some have dozens (trip recaps, for example!).

After doing a final copy edit to find any lingering errors, I’ll add tags (short words or phrases that describe the content of the post and help with SEO) and categories (broad buckets for my frequent topics, like marriage or goals – you can click on them in the sidebar!). Finally, I’ll make sure the post is scheduled. I almost always set my posts to go live in the 5am hour, for my early birds. You can be assured that I am NOT awake pressing publish at 5:23 am :)

*The exception to this is if I have ideas for a post but am not necessarily planning to publish it in the short term. Instead of creating a draft in WordPress, I’ll jot my notes in a TextEdit file and save them on my computer.

When/how do you find time to write?

With many competing priorities, it’s tough! That being said, we make time for the things that matter to us, and writing here matters very much to me (more on that in part three!).

When I’m not on maternity leave, my posts are written in the evenings after the kids are in bed, or during quiet hour on the weekends. Currently, lights out is at 8:30, and then I do 30 minutes to an hour of showering, cleaning the kitchen, making lunches, and prepping dinner for the next day. Since we try to head to bed at 11 or 11:30, that leaves me at most two and a half hours for blogging on a given night – and some days, some of those hours are spent on boring life things, relaxing/socializing, or working on some sort of project. My time for writing varies with the season and what’s going on in our family and at work, but I’d say I generally touch a blog post 3-4 nights a week.

One key to making time is to streamline, eliminate, and automate those “boring life things” as much as possible so I have more space for the things that fuel me, like writing – more about that here. And of course, I find that the more excited I am about a post topic, the more likely I am to dive in, ignore distractions, and create something worthwhile. Luckily for me, I never need to write about things that don’t excite me :)

I think you once posted that you make enough from the blog to basically pay to keep the blog running. Has that changed for you?

In 2020, I made $1,531 from affiliate links – $697 from Amazon and $834 from rewardStyle. I spent $1,148 to keep the blog up and running – for example, $156 to Bluehost for hosting and my domain, $150 for my annual survey (to Survey Monkey and a gift certificate for the winner), $632 to Parker Web for technical fixes like restyling my comment section after a WordPress update, and $12 to Akismet for comment spam protection.

While I reeeeeeally love writing here, I’d rather not pay for the privilege (ha!), so I’m glad I’m able to cover my costs through affiliate programs!

How do you get affiliate links? Do companies reach out to you or vice versa?

A quick overview on affiliate links. As an affiliate, I use a special link that’s keyed to my account when linking to some products. When you click on the link and purchase something within a window of time (the length of the window depends on the program), the company gives me a very small percentage of the purchase price (how small depends on the program, too). You don’t pay anything extra; the company is just rewarding me for sending customers their way.

Interestingly, for most programs, I earn based on what you purchase after clicking on my link, even if you don’t purchase what I linked to! For example, let’s say you clicked on the link for a book I’m reviewing in my monthly goals post to read more about it. You don’t end up purchasing the book, but a few hours later, you return to Amazon and buy a hair dryer you’ve been eyeing. As long as you haven’t clicked on anyone else’s affiliate link between then and now, I will earn money based on your hair dryer purchase.

I’m a member of two main affiliate programs: Amazon and rewardStyle (now LTK). Though they function very similarly, they’re also different!

AMAZON: My understanding is that pretty much any reputable site can be an Amazon affiliate, and since many of us naturally shop for so much at Amazon, it’s a great catch-all option to be able to link to! To become an affiliate, you apply on their site. Their link window is 24 hours (SO SHORT!) and their commission rates vary from 1-10% based on the category. Very serious affiliates will constantly monitor the commission rates and vary their posting strategy as Amazon shifts them, which they do often, but I just link to the items I want regardless of what they’re worth that day!

LTK: Honestly, I highly doubt I would be approved as an LTK affiliate if I applied today, ha! They are very much focused on bigger fashion and home design bloggers, and heavily push their Like to Know It social extension, which I don’t use. However, I’m SO glad to be an LTK affiliate, because they’re the gold standard in this arena and work with so many of the big retailers: Target, Anthropologie, Nordstrom, Minted, etc. The link window is typically much longer through LTK and commission rates vary from retailer to retailer. You can apply to become an LTK affiliate here.

Aside from affiliate links, some blogs monetize through receiving in-kind product or creating sponsored content. In general, the closest I come to this is through partnering with Minted for our Christmas cards every year. They reached out to me many years ago, and we’ve been going strong ever since. Y’all know I love me some Minted!!

Do you feel that affiliate links are necessary to your blogging success? Do you think people who write blogs should try to monetize their sites?

Aside from the fact that I’d rather not pay to write here, I could easily write this blog without using affiliate links. And in this season of life, I’ve turned down many options over the years to write sponsored posts because the pressure of performing for a retailer is just not worth what they’re offering (sometimes just free product, sometimes up to $250 or so). It is MUCH more valuable to me to have a community that trusts me and loves participating here than it is to have a few more incremental dollars. Truly, the fact that I have readers who have been around for years and join the conversation is worth way more than the few dollars I do make!

Whether or not to monetize a site is a personal choice, but I have found so much joy, freedom, and community in writing just for the love of it rather than making it a business. I think that’s one key to my longevity.

Do you do keyword research? Your blog seems more day-in-the-life (which I love!) versus SEO-keyword oriented, so I am wondering if you consider keywords or not. If so, which program(s) do you use to research and track your success?

As I mentioned, EFM is not my job, so I get the luxury of not worrying too much about SEO. However, I also love community, and for that I need people to find my blog! SEO can help with that, so I do pay a little bit of attention to it when I want to and in the way I want to.

Though I would never write about a topic just for SEO purposes, I optimize the posts I choose to write in certain ways: by choosing a title that’s search-engine friendly, by repeating key words from the title in my posts, by using headers (like the coral questions in this post) and tags, by renaming my photos to be search-friendly, and by back-linking as much as possible. One thing that is NOT search-engine friendly: my sentence structure is much too long and complicated, ha!

At work, we use Semrush to research and track keywords, but I’m not passionate enough about ranking to research or track when I’m off duty – I just go by instinct :)

Finally, every few months I check into Google Analytics to take a look at my traffic and see what’s going on. It’s fascinating to see and learn from which posts are performing the best and analyze why that might be!

This is the driest post in the series, but I still hope it was interesting! And if not interesting, helpful :) Part two, coming soon, will be all about content. Anything that surprised you in today’s post? Please share in the comments!

Part Two: Content
Part Three: Grab Bag
Part Four: How to Be a More Relational Writer

Affiliate links are used in this post!

Fall fun list 2021

22 September 2021

After a pregnancy-and-injury-and-newborn phase where we didn’t get out and about as much as we would have liked, our whole family is excited for fall! In a twist on our usual fun list, I asked June and Shep what they’d like to make time for this season yesterday after school. They are now actually old enough to remember things from last fall, and it was fun to hear their priorities. I combined their answers with John’s and mine, and printed out this list for our fridge. Here’s to a beautiful season ahead, and happy first day of fall, friends!

— Enjoy our annual mountain trip (Black Mountain this year!)
— Make pumpkin chocolate chip muffins
— Biscuits, hot dogs, and the ferris wheel at the State Fair
— Play at the Museum of Life & Science
— Walk to our neighborhood food truck festival
— Go on a Halloween neighborhood scavenger hunt using this sweet printable
— Celebrate Thanksgiving
— Make pumpkin pie with June (it’s in her baking book and she’s been asking for MONTHS)
— Pick pumpkins at the patch and go on the tractor
— Decorate our front porch and house
— Hike somewhere with beautiful leaves
— Add candy googly eyes to things during the month
— Make a chocolate chip Dutch baby (I’ve never made one before, but they look fun!)
— Pack a picnic and eat lunch outside
— Camp with friends
— Make apple cider scones for our teachers
— Host the pumpkins and soup party (maybe modified? we shall see!)
— Pick apples
— Have a sidewalk bakery
— Dress our mantel for fall (I bought these vase fillers to make a garland!)
— Roast s’mores in our fire pit
— Dress up and trick-or-treat as a family

I’d love to hear what you’re looking forward to this fall! I didn’t even add any savory foods I’m looking forward to making/eating to this list, but there are many :)

Affiliate links are used in this post!

Morning smoothies

16 September 2021

For years, I’ve eaten a Nature Valley granola bar for breakfast, often in the car on the way to work. Also for years, I’ve listened to people expound on their love for their morning smoothie with only polite interest. “You get in an early serving of veggies!” they’d say. “You stay full so long!” they’d say. “Mmmhmm,” I’d say.

And then my younger sister visited in early August, and we got to talking about her daily eating routines. She’s a minor health nut and starts her day with – you guessed it! – a smoothie. For some reason, her enthusiasm shifted something for me and I’ve had a smoothie for breakfast almost every day since. A few other factors helped:

— I realized I wasn’t eating as many fruit and veggie servings as I wanted to throughout the day. I can’t taste the big handful of spinach in my smoothie, but knowing it’s there makes me feel like I’m a gosh darn health food superhero, ha!

— Breastfeeding = I’ll always take a chance for more liquids.

— The protein powder really does help me stay fuller, longer.

— John’s been on the smoothie train for awhile, and for his birthday, I got him a new blender*. It’s AMAZING and is way better at its job than our old hand-me-down one. Smoothie making is now a pleasure :)

My current favorite smoothie recipe:

— A ripe banana
— A big handful of spinach
— A spoonful of chunky peanut butter
— Half a scoop of chocolate protein powder (Kim recommended this one, which apparently includes two different kinds of proteins and keeps you full longer)
— A spoonful of chia seeds (I get mine from Publix)
— About 1/2 cup of frozen mixed berries (also from Publix, I eyeball the amount)
— About 1.5 cups of whole milk

Once blended, I pour it into one of these cups**, pop it into the cup holder in Annie’s stroller, and set off with June for the walk to school. And friends, as cooler fall weather sets in, I truly feel I am living my best life.

I’d love to hear: are you a smoothie person? I find they tend to be a bit evangelistic, ha! What do you eat for breakfast?

*Father of the Bride vibes, anyone?
**On my first smoothie walk, I poured it into one of our regular glass cups and nearly dropped and shattered it on the pavement multiple times. Learned my lesson :)