mrschristine.com

Generate the blog that makes you feel better

Published April 27, 2019

It’s been a long time since I made any significant changes to my blog and the system it runs on, and now, seemingly overnight, everything has completely changed. This isn’t the work of a moment though. This is something I’ve been thinking about for at least three years.

Colourful comic-book style blog text

The problem

I’ve used Wordpress for many, many moons now and whilst I’ve always thought it was functional in a way that would work for most people, it never quite fit my purposes. I have a variety of different content that all needs something slightly different - from a grid layout for music and books, to the note-taking style of a Film Watch review, as well as the more standard blogging template.

Gradually, this content has spread far and wide across the web as I’ve tried different solutions, been down lots of dead ends and generally had to wait for technology to catch up. I’ve spent too much money on Wordpress websites that only really do half of what I want, making compromises, tying myself to one platform that still managed to constrain my content… and therefore my enthusiasm for creating it.

As well as that, I wanted to make blogging a more mobile activity - being able to publish on the move, or at least not being tied to the desktop. When Apple introduced the iPad keyboard, this made the device ideal for writing content wherever you are but unfortunately the Wordpress app and the mobile admin in the browser left a lot to be desired.

The solution

Finally, after investigating a lot of what the web has to offer, a solution that fixes almost all of these problems has come together.

It’s flexible enough to adapt to whatever content I decide to try my hand at next. It’s not tied to one platform, and although it makes use of specific technologies, they are interchangeable with others. Everything I write can be under one roof and whilst I have so much work to do to tidy up the archives, the goal is that it will be a beautiful one-stop-shop for everything mrschristine related.

This is how it works (the science bit):

  • Write blog posts in iA Writer. This app is available across iOS and MacOS devices, syncs nicely, and presents a really good editor for writing in markdown.
  • Edit photos in Affinity Photo. This app is on Mac and iPad (iPhone solution currently being tested) that is really very powerful even though I only tend to scratch the surface with photo resizing and the occasional crop.
  • Both of these feed into Working Copy, which is a Git client. This isn’t my favourite piece of software as it could do with some user experience upgrades, but it functions and is only really needed to push a couple of buttons.
  • I’m using Github for the Git repository, but other services are available. At some point I could even host the content myself, but for now this works really well.
  • Bringing it all together is Hugo, a static site generator. Jekyll is an alternative, and maybe there’s a grand plan to write my own in Swift although that would be in the distant future.
  • Hugo produces static html pages that make up this marvellous website. Yes, static pages like it’s the 1990’s all over again.

Pros

It costs nothing. Apart from purchasing the occasional piece of software mentioned above, the running of the site is free. It’s also really fast - both in terms of how the website runs, but also in terms of publishing.

I have full control over all my content. It’s where I put it, written in the way I want. I can now adapt to any software that comes out. iA Writer is my editor of choice at the moment but if something better comes along, I can give it a try without compromising anything I’ve already done.

Editing on the move is now easy, simple, and actually a lot of fun. Everything is in sync, and I can store the content in a folder set up however I like, rather than being limited to how Wordpress would like to structure itself.

Cons

It’s not all blissful. There was a significant upfront cost in terms of time and learning. With Wordpress, you press a few buttons and you’ve got a website up and running. This is far more nerdy, and requires a lot more steps. You do need a little bit of technical knowledge. But it’s a one time set up that should then run and run.

The template system used by Hugo (and by Jekyll) is not great. It’s fine if you want to just pick a theme and use it out of the box, but if you want to do any customisation (which, of course, I did), then it can be very frustrating. My finicky requirements are probably beyond what most bloggers would be looking for, so whilst this was a con for me, I don’t think it would be too big a deal for others. There’s an option to use Forestry which provides a content management system for static sites - so essentially provides a user-friendly overlay for the setup we’ve put together. That costs a bit extra but might be worth it for someone wanting a slightly less nerdy experience.

The next step

I know I’ve got a mammoth task ahead of me sorting out all the old posts that I’ve scattered across the web, but what’s more important is the motivation I’ve got back for blogging. I can’t wait to get back in front of the keyboard and whilst I’ve kept up blogging because I’ve always loved it, not I’m really excited about each time I get to post.

It’s worth mentioning that the muscle memory that I need to rewrite to do this is incredible. For pretty much my entire blogging life, it’s been the same process - enter a title and some content on a website admin page and then publish to see the results. Even when Mr C ripped up the rulebook and wrote the entirety of Sidepodcast from scratch that was still the same format.

Here, we’re talking about files and structure and markdown and syncing. It’s not harder, it’s just different. It’s going to take a while to get used to. But, my word, it’s going to be so worth it.

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