Welcome to a new series on In the Classroom, in which we address various practical aspects of the writing world, from writing craft papers to revising craft papers, to writing other materials that might be valuable on the job market.
Nuts and Bolts
You can really start building a website at any point when you have some free time and the spare money to pay for a domain name and host platform (around $200 startup), plus annual renewal (about $150/yr for website hosting, $20/yr domain name renewal – if you’re a student, Squarespace offers 50% off). But I think it helps to wait until you’ve hit a critical mass where you need to be able to direct people to your writing: you have multiple literary publications — either pieces you can link to online or chapbooks/books available for purchase — or your work has received big attention recently, due to a prize or big grant, or going viral (hopefully for good reasons). In other words, you’re an emerging writer.
Where Do I Start?
I chose to create a website once I had three chapbooks and several journal publications (including online), and was in a tenure-track Creative Writing/Lit job, because it seemed like a necessary professional step. My first website was a custom build by a friend and former student, but ultimately that became too much of a problem to update. When building my second/current website, I decided that what I needed was a functional website built with a fairly intuitive design program – one where it would be easy for me to insert new information or elements, and to update an upcoming events calendar. First, I talked to other authors about options (WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, Weebly). People felt like Wix and Weebly were relatively easy to use, but didn’t allow them to do everything they wanted – they found the visual editing tools especially complicated. WordPress was powerful though its updates could be confusing – some writers paid to have someone set up the basic site, but found it easy to manage from there. Many praised Squarespace for its ease of use and clean, elegant appearance. Since I wanted to build the site myself, and a clean, functional look appeals to me, I went with Squarespace, but Assay uses Weebly and WordPress, so there’s no one-size-fits-all. You can check out the features of each and see which works best for you – most offer a free trial.
I already owned my domain name – heidiczerwiec.com – from the previous site, and Squarespace makes it easy to transfer, with simple instructions. It’s important to note here that when you register your domain name, you own that name – so long as you continue to renew its registration, it’s yours, and you can take it with you if/when you change sites. Also important to consider is what to name your domain/website. I’m lucky, in that my name is so extremely uncommon that I had no competition for this domain. If you have a more common name, you can either try to buy the domain name from its current holder (some assholes buy up names just for this purpose), you can add “poet” or “author” or “writer” before or after your name in the site address, or you can use a nickname or term or pun that people may strongly associate with you.
What Should My Website Contain?
You want readers/viewers to make a strong connection with you and your work – that purpose should drive all your design decisions. At minimum, you need a homepage, a page or place on your site to steer people to your contact information and social media platforms, and you’ll want to feature your writing.
I wanted a pretty clean and functional site, so there aren’t a lot of extra features. But in playing around with Squarespace, it would be easy to add buttons (PayPal or Patreon), a blog, video, or a newsletter subscription. You could even set up direct messaging through your site if you don’t want to give your contact info, though keep in mind that you want to make it easy for interested readers or event bookers to reach you.
Build your home page to feature a picture and message that captures the impression you want to leave – a headshot of yourself, a book cover, or some image strongly associated with your writing, and a message of welcome or sample passage(s) from your writing. My homepage is a gallery that shifts every ten seconds between a headshot of me and four different quotes from my better-known and more-recent work. The navigation bar at the top of each page has links for Home, About, Writing, Events, and Contact. I did include a copyright at the bottom of the site, which is probably just me being anal, but I see it on other author sites, so I’m not the only one.
You may have a separate page for your bio or for information about you. My “About” page has a different headshot, with text introducing myself to readers/viewers – here, I tried to give a mix of information and personality. At the bottom of this page are three biographical notes (short, medium, and long) in case reading series, journals, or other collaborators need a quick copy-and-paste for promotional materials, panels, or grants – if you do this, make sure you keep them updated!
You may also want to have an events or calendar page to let your visitors know where you’ll be appearing. My “Events” page is self-explanatory and intuitive – if you have one, please try to update it every few months so that it’s useful. I like that Squarespace allows me to link events to location maps and social media pages, so attendees can find more info.
Finally, the “Contacts” page has a fun final action shot of me at a reading, lists that I’m available for readings, workshops, presentations, class visits (either in person or via Skype), and book clubs, and gives my gmail address and social media handles.
Because it’s an author website, you’ll want to feature your writing. Since I work in multiple genres, under the link for “Writing” I’ve created separate subpages for Nonfiction, Poetry, and Craft. For each of these pages, I have a column of images on the left, each paired with a block of text to its right. Most of the images are of book or chapbook covers (cover images and titles are both linked to the publisher’s purchasing page), which I’ve paired with a blurb and/or description as well as links to excerpts in online journals, reviews, and interviews. I’ve tried to include both print and audio samples to appeal to a range of readers/viewers. Below the books and chapbooks I also have images paired with descriptions of works in progress and links to published pieces. The “Craft” subpage is a bit idiosyncratic, but I wanted to include it because I do a lot of work in editing, craft and pedagogy, and feel it’s an important aspect of what I offer as an author and potential speaker/workshop leader. Also, some of the pieces have been well received and cited, so I wanted to provide a place to find links to them. If you’re a teacher, you may also want to consider including a page with your teaching philosophy, your vita, or other information about who you are as a teacher.
Overall, creating my website with the content I describe took me about two days, plus follow-up tweaking. I had put this project on my summer to-do list and blocked out more time, but it ended up being quite easy. The most time-consuming parts were looking up active links to my work and reviews/interviews about it (which, honestly, was a good opportunity to cross-check and update my cv), and futzing with the appearance (spacing, background colors, how text and images lined up).
Accessibility is an important consideration, and one that’s easiest to address while you’re creating a site. The Squarespace Help center contains an article “Making your Squarespace site more accessible” (https://support.squarespace.com/hc/en-us/articles/215129127) which advises that when creating your website:
- structure headings so screen readers can easily navigate between major sections;
- do not rely on color as a navigational tool or as the sole way to differentiate items;
- include alt text and/or captions for all images;
- and provide transcripts and in-sync captioning if your website includes podcasts or video (captioning can be enabled from YouTube and Vimeo).
The article also includes links to specific tutorials such as “Adding alt text to images” with step-by-step instructions that include screen captures.
Authors Anna Leahy and Sonya Huber have called attention to the need for accessible author sites on their Twitter feeds, and include links to how to achieve accessibility in WordPress, if you use that platform.
Checking for and/or adding these elements was easy. For instance, I added captions (which in Squarespace automatically becomes the alt text) to all images, providing a succinct description and whether they contained a clickthrough URL: “Author Heidi Czerwiec”; “Fluid States cover: person swimming. Link to publisher.” Any alt text or transcripts you add to a site are indexed in search engines, which helps visitors seeking access and—bonus!—increases your site’s appearances in search results.
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and for Poetry City. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com