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Setting up a Writer's Web Site

Friday, 15 May 2009

I've been working some more on my main web site - The new site looks pretty similar to the old one but it has, in fact, been completely rewritten. If you're thinking of creating a writer's site for yourself, my experiences and some of the techie details that follow might be of interest.

The main problem with the original site was that it was written using HTML frames, which is pretty much the cardinal sin of web page design. In my defence, the site was lashed together in a few hours, and that was the easiest way to get the layout right. But frames cause lots of problems, not the least of which is that you don't end up with proper addresses for your sub-pages. You generally end up with URLs that take you to the page you want but without all the surrounding headers, menus etc. Which also messes up search engines. Essentially, frames are very, very wrong.

Now, the layout is completely done in CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) - which is basically how it should be done. I can now provide a link to, say, my reviews page and it will work properly. In fact, all styling is now done in CSS, to properly separate content from form. I no longer use tables for layout but, again, CSS. It's all so much better. Although, as an aside, if you're thinking of adopting the same approach to creating a site of your own, CSS does have flaws. There are some basic things it just doesn't do and you inevitably end up making design compromises.

Setting everything up using CSS is a bit more work than using old-school tables etc. But it is worth it in the long-run. You can make global changes to a particular style used throughout your site very easily once it's all in place. At the same time, I wouldn't get too obsessive about it. I have used a very few bits of non-CSS layout just because it was easier. You can always clean it up later. The main thing is to get the site up and working.

However you go about things you will inevitably end up bashing your head against the lunacy that is web-browser incompatibility. You get something looking good in Firefox, for example, and Internet Explorer mangles it. This nonsense has been going on for years. It really is time it stopped. I'd recommend getting your site working acceptably in Firefox (which tends to be more compliant to the standards) and Internet Explorer (which most people use) and leave it at that.

For reference, the new site cost absolutely nothing to create. I used nothing more fancy than Notepad to write the HTML, CSS and JavaScript (there's very little JavaScript - really just a small routine to stop robots from skimming off my email address.) I used the free (and excellent) FileZilla program to FTP everything up to my ISP. The domain was free as part of my ISP's bundle. The photograph on the front page was taken for me by a friend, the artist Stephen Rippington. I also use a free hit counter from StatCounter to monitor how many people are accessing my site. You probably already get something similar from your ISP but using a third party counter means you can move the site between hosts, should you need to, and keep all the statistical history. I also set up a free monitor via BasicState to keep an eye on the site and alert me if it becomes unavailable for some reason - e.g. if there is a problem with the host.

I used some SSI (server-side includes) in the site so that standard chunks of HTML like the menu can be created once and used in many places - but again, this is all part of a standard ISP bundle. The site is completely static HTML, but it wouldn't have been too much work to generate some pages dynamically from a database (e.g. the Bibliography.) Again, this would generally cost nothing as resources like MySQL and PHP are generally included by ISPs too.

The site will do for now, I think. It's certainly a lot better than many I've seen. It could be improved - it probably will be as time goes by - but for now it does a job. If you are thinking of giving yourself a web presence, feel free to copy what I've done as a template. Then improve it and tell me about it! There are, of course, other approaches you could take. A page on Facebook, say, or a Blog. But there's nothing to stop you doing all these things and, for me, a proper web site, implemented as professionally as possible, is an essential part of setting out your stall as a professional writer.

It is, I suppose, debatable just how much such a site actually achieves. When you set one up you fondly imagine that readers and publishers will flock to it and inundate you with requests for more work. In practice, that doesn't happen, unless you are already well-established. You still have to get out there and submit work to agents and publishers, of course. At the same time, I can see from my logs that people are looking at my site, which means I am getting more exposure than I would have done otherwise. A web site certainly doesn't replace the conventional ways of getting your work seen, but it does complement them.


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