Monday, September 13, 2010

Tips for Smarter, Better Blogging: Taking Your Blogging Off-Line with Windows Live Writer


I like to think of myself as a bit of a techie. I can't write code or anything hard-core like that, but I could set up your home network, install a new hard drive (or any other peripheral) in a desktop chassis, upgrade the RAM in anything, and wipe a hard drive and install a new operating system with no problems (including Linux!). My career, before getting married and having kids, was selling computers for Dell (back when all their tech support, sales, and everybody except the people who built the machines were housed in just three buildings on the outskirts of Austin, TX, if you can imagine such a thing). I'm the kind of woman who keeps a wish list of audio, visual, and computing electronics, not jewelry, shoes, or clothes. All of which is why my official blogging start-date is way back in 2005-- I heard about these new-fangled "web-log" things and thought I ought to get in on that.

A lifetime of computer love before and since starting my blog and the after-effects of coordinating a "Room Of Your Own" session at BlogHer '10 on Editing Photographs For Your Blog, has inspired me to start a monthly feature of on-line (preferably free) services that can make your blogging life easier and more refined, while also helping you with technical aspects, i.e. setting up a feed for your site. They will be Tips for Smarter, Better Blogging, for short. 

I am kicking off the series by reviewing a free service called Windows Live Writer that has me extremely excited because it is a HUGE time-saver and lets you take more creative control of your blog.

A little background: I have been blogging regularly since 2008 and consider myself pretty seasoned in the mechanics of blogging. I have also been a die-hard Mac user since I converted in 2006. Which is why I was floored on two levels when I met with the Microsoft Windows 7 team at BlogHer '10 and they showed me some of the new programs available for free in the Windows Live Essentials Beta suite.

First, I was blown away by how great Windows 7 looks and by what an impressive package of free tools they had put together (a package that reminded me a lot of the iLife suite on a Mac, quite honestly).  Seriously, if you are still using XP or Vista and have a system that can handle the requirements of Windows 7: switch. As soon as you can afford to. It is downright elegant in comparison with any of the older versions of Windows.

Second, I had never even heard of "off-line blog editors" until the moment they showed Live Writer to me. I don't know if this a type of program that other people know about and I just missed the boat or if it is a tool that is still relatively unknown.  Either way, I figure that if I haven't heard of it, then a lot of you might not know about it, either. And you should.

Here is what Live Writer does:  It is a program, like Word, which is linked to your blogging account (via a very simple set-up when you first open the program) and you use it to write, add photos, and do the layout of your blog posts. When you're done writing, you press a publish button and it automatically connects to the internet and publishes everything directly to your blog.  What makes it special is that it allows you to write in a WYSIWYG (pronounced wizz-ee-wig, meaning What You See Is What You Get) environment: so what you see while typing up your post in Live Writer is exactly what your post will look like published on your website!  This is a really big deal for anyone that likes to add lots of photos to a post. Photos text-embedded to the left, to the right, then to the middle, etc. are a bear to deal with in the Blogger and WordPress editors (the two editors I have experience with), trying to get them not to overlap or cut off sentences in strange ways and you have to hit publish to truly know how it will end up looking because the preview function doesn't work perfectly.


With Live Writer, you can pick any photo from your hard drive, embed it in your post, and then refine the placement, all while seeing exactly how it will look as published. It was, quite literally, a game-changer to finally have a tool that will allow you to write a blog post that looks like the final product as you create it.  I have been frustrated with the Blogger editor since the first time I realized that only one photo could be uploaded at a time and especially when I had to re-upload a photo that mysteriously didn't take. Uploading everything to Flickr or Picasa in batches and then using the URLs into the post is a close rival in tedium.

Live Writer lets you add as many photos as you want, all without ever opening a browser (another bonus for all the ADD-prone bloggers out there who have a hard time focusing on their writing when email and twitter are constantly calling their name when on-line in Browser-Land), and then they are automatically uploaded into your blog editor's web storage (i.e. when you upload a photo into your Blogger editor, the photo is stored in a Picasa web album) with a single click of the Publish button. It saves so much time, I want to weep for all the hours I've wasted loading individual photos or collecting URLs from my Flickr account to embed.

Screenshot of formatting options in Picture Tools. Screenshot by Keith Combs.

In addition to the fine-tuned formatting of photos, you can also create a standard "look" for your photos by rounding the corners, creating a drop shadow, adding a border, changing the size, and /or adding a watermark, just to name a few of the many options. Once you edit one photo exactly how you want your photos to usually appear on your blog, hit the rather vaguely named "Set as Default" button in the Photo Tools under the Format tab and all future photos will take on those attributes when you add them. (It took me almost two weeks to figure out that "Set as Default" might mean the same thing as Set Preferences, so take note!) You can then adjust or reposition the photo however you like from there. Easy-peezy.

Here is a screenshot of a post I put up with a slew of photos. I never would've been able to do that in my old editor. NEVER.

In addition to the formatting, Live Writer provides a spell check (seems obvious, but not all off-line editors do), the usual host of embed tools for links and video, the ability to switch between WYSIWYG and HTML, photo cropping, insertion of maps (very cool), and the addition/use of your existing blogging tags.  What the program doesn't provide natively, you might be able to find via their Plug-Ins section.  For example, if you wanted to embed an MP3 into your post, you could look through the plug-in browser and if you can find one, just load it up and then voil√† you can embed MP3's. Another handy plug-in to look for is to do an automatic Twitter notification after publishing. As more people start using the program and developers get interested, I suspect the plug-in list will grow to include pretty much anything you could want to include in a post.

There are drawbacks, of course, to working with Live Writer. But really, it is more just an irritation than being an actual drawback. If you, like me, tend to re-read your posts after you've published them and then go back to fix the errors and hit re-publish; your beautiful, perfect formatting gets thrown off when re-opened in your blogging online editor. The secret to avoiding this? NEVER re-open a published post in your on-line editor. Only perform edits and re-publishes from within Live Writer.  (I had to ask Microsoft about that issue because it never occurred to me that I could just open up my old post withing Live Writer and then re-publish after editing.)

Another drawback is that Live Writer is only available to Windows XP, Vista or 7 users. As I am now without a PC, I am back to using my Blogger editor. *sob* I tried out Qumana and MarsEdit, both off-line editors available on the Mac OS, but honestly, they were both too irritating to use after being treated to all the benefits that Live Writer offers.To be fair, I wasn't able to test the newest version of MarsEdit.  Now that I've upgraded to Mac OS X.6 Snow Leopard, I will try it out.  MarsEdit was my more favorite of the two in regards to handling photos within a post.

To sum up, unless you are a user of a blogging platform not covered by Live Writer- which is unlikely, this program will save you a ton of time.  I honestly can't think of a reason why people wouldn't want to use it, as it is a huge perk to be able to write posts off-line where you are not in danger of losing your work to internet snafus. 

If you want to start blogging in the Beta version of Live Writer, you need to have Windows Vista or 7, you can download it here. The current version (less refined than the Beta, but still way better than my Blogger dashboard-editor) of Live Writer works with XP, you can download it here. If you have questions or issues, check out the Live Writer Forums. You can also follow LW on Twitter.


Disclosure: During the BlogHer conference, Microsoft provided me with a Windows 7-equipped ASUS UL30A laptop for one month to test the operating system and try out Windows Live Essentials. They also gave me an arc travel mouse. I have not been compensated for this review, I am just a true believer in Live Writer’s utter awesomeness.


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