So, you want to start a blog, but you’re not sure what to put where. There are all these widgets and plug-ins and add-ons. You know there’s stuff you really should have, but you’re darned if you know what it is.

No worries.

For those of you who don’t already know, I’m something of a blog addict. I write for more than half a dozen blogs – some collaborative, like this one, some my own, some professional gigs, and some as a ghost writer. The number of blogs I read is too embarrassing to share. Though each blog is unique, there is a certain set of “must-have” elements that should be on every blog in order to maximize engagement. Surprisingly, there are a number of really great blogs out there who are missing the boat quite a few of these basics. Don’t fall into the same trap. In this three-part series, I’m going to cover the basic best practices in three areas: Identifying Features, Social Graces, and Side Orders.

Let’s start with Identifying Features:

The first thing a new visitor wants to know when they hit your blog is who are you, what you write about, and why they should care. If you don’t answer these questions quickly, they’ll wander away into the blogosphere, never to be seen again.

Header: Most blog themes give you the option to customize your header image. Take advantage. Whether you use an image you’ve created yourself, or a stock image* find something that represents you, your topic, or your writing. Include the name of your blog in the header and also a tag line – a brief sentence or phrase that captures the essence of what your blog is about.

*Check out www.compfight.com for a great way to search Flickr – just set the search criteria to “Creative Commons” and you’re good to go!

Headshot: Include a headshot in the sidebar of your blog. This can be the same as the one you use on your social profiles (you are using social profiles, right?), or it can be something different. Having a headshot makes it easy for people to recognize you now and in the future. It puts a face to your name and gives your blog a human touch. Think of a headshot – often with a little welcome message beneath it – as your digital “hello.” If you decide to create a new headshot, here are a couple tips from someone (me!) whose dad happens to be an awesome professional photographer:

  • If you can, hire a professional. They know how to make you look really good.
  • Don’t choose a background that’s too busy – it’s just distracting and makes your face hard to “read” in the image.
  • Go for a fairly close shot – let your face fill most of the frame. This will help the image stay “readable” even when it’s shrunk down to a thumbnail size.
  • Don’t wear black or white – both will make you look washed out unless you’ve got seriously professional makeup (ladies) and lighting (everyone).
  • Don’t go for crazy patterns in your clothes – keep it simple, classic. For the ladies – one, striking accessory works well.
  • With any photograph, the lighting is what makes it or breaks it. If you’re doing your own shot, try it in all different lights – sunlight, shade, artificial lighting.

About Page: For the love of Pete, please, please, PLEASE put your NAME on your about page. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an about page that tells me all about the writer’s history, experience, personality traits, favorite ice cream flavor, creative philosophy, and the gods know what else without ever telling me the writer’s name. I don’t care if you use your name as the title on the page, introduce yourself in the first person, refer to yourself in the third person, or include a giant graphic of your name in lights – just remember to tell us who you are! As for the rest of the about page content, write it with a focus on why your reader should stick around. You can include all the “about me” stuff, but don’t lead with that. Draw your reader in by letting them know you know who they are, that you “get” them, and that reading your blog offers them some fabulous benefit that they can’t live without.

If you cover off on these three basic blogging best practices, you’ll make it easy for visitors to know who you are, what you’re about, and – most importantly – why they should stick around. That’s step one in creating a more engaging blog – making a good (and clear) first impression.

Homework: As you cruise the web, notice different blog headers, blogger headshots, and about page copy. Notice what you like and don’t like. Try and figure out why you like certain things and not others. See if you can apply what you like to your own blog.

And be sure to share your thoughts here!

This post was originally published over on the Live to Write-Write to Live blog where I write with a bunch of other professional writers about the craft and business of writing. If you are interested in writing for business, pleasure, publication (or all three!), be sure to come by and check us out.

Image Credit: Perfectance