So you want to blog?
Blogging carries on centuries-old traditions of writing for advocacy into the digital era. But what should you be writing about? As part of a preview series of the new book Communicating Your Research with Social Media, the authors Amy Mollett, Cheryl Brumley, Chris Gilson and Sierra Williams look at different types of blog posts and their uses for academics and knowledge workers.
Blogging has now become ubiquitous in the academic sphere – whether in the form of lone academics blogging for the mainstream media such as Paul Krugman or multi-author blog collectives like The Monkey Cage or The Duck of Minerva. But if you are just starting out as a blogger, it can often be a challenge to begin and to keep writing. Here, we will give you some pointers on what to write about on your blog to keep people interested.
Before we go on, it is worth noting that length is important. Whatever the topic, a blog post should be a minimum of 500 words long and a maximum of 1,500 words. This length gives you enough space to introduce your topic and explain your thinking. Some types of blog post will tend to lend themselves to different lengths. Just remember though, audiences are impatient. Content on the web is not like a book or a magazine that can command readers’ (near) undivided attention. Evidence suggests that the vast majority of readers do not read any web content – websites or blogs- to the end. So remember, the shorter, the better.
Write about what you know
The subtitle above is an old chestnut, and for good reason. It is a piece of advice that can be as equally applied to writing for your blog as for any other medium, and that is our first category: writing about your research. Posts which outline the background and aims of your research are often an ideal post to start with when beginning your own blog. This will introduce readers to you and your work and will be a good signal which will show them if your blog will be of interest to them as it continues and progresses.
This then leads to the next type of blog post: research updates. A major problem that early career researchers or those new to the idea of blogging often complain of is that they have nothing to write about. But they will almost always be working on something. Why not blog about it as well? For a research update blog post, you do not have to wait until you have completed fieldwork or have some findings to report – though those are all worthy topics. An update could be just as easily be about your latest thoughts on how to tackle your research question, reflections and comments on papers and research reports you have recently read, or reactions to conversations you have had with colleagues and peers about a project. In many respects, this type of post serves almost as a form of research diary – but an interactive one.
As you develop and grow your skills as a researcher, you will learn things – and you should share these with others. Whether it is how best to take advantage of the newest version of SPSS or a thinking exercise that worked for you, these are all valuable insights in which others will be interested, and that will in turn draw people to your blog. Gone are the days when early career researchers had to attend a departmental seminar to learn about new research techniques or areas of study – this sort of information is now only a Google search away. By outlining in an easy to understand way what you have learned, as well as the problems which led to your need to understand something new, you can help others and give them a reason to come to your blog, and to return to it. ‘How to’ or ‘today I learned’ (TIL) guides are gaining in popularity online, and ones that are written by academics, for academics (or students or knowledge workers) will always be popular among those global communities.
Credit: LSELSE Impact blog ‘how to’ guide on academic presentations. From http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/02/20/how-to-win-at-academic presentations/. Used with permission.
Another type of blog post that you are very likely to have seen already is the commentary blog post. These can take two forms: the commentary post based on current events, but not linked to your research (good); and commentary with a direct ‘hook’ linking to your research in some way (better). The first type is very common on sites such as The Conversation and The Guardian. They are typically commissioned by a central editor who wishes to publish commentary on a current event. This is also the case for many multi-author blogs as well. These posts typically introduce the topic that is in the news and then give some degree of insight into what has been going on, and why. While this commentary will draw on a researcher’s in-depth knowledge of a topic, it will tend not to include evidence such as graphs, charts or statistics. These types of posts are very useful for getting your name out as a commentator on topics that are of interest to the media, but are less so in terms of getting your own research out.
Posts which link back to your own research are more preferable for academic researchers; although, somewhat predictably, are harder to do regularly. However, unless you are investigating something truly obscure, your research in all likelihood will have some relevance to a topic in the public consciousness at some point. This is why it is important to keep abreast of national and international news and debate as much as you can – you never know when your opportunity to contribute might occur. Given the constraints of the media cycle, your research does not even have to be ‘100% fresh’; if it is fairly recent, it will still be relevant. For example, the winter of 2016/2017 has presented all sorts of opportunities for commentary in the form of the Brexit debate in the UK, and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. These debates would be ideal entry points for researchers looking into a range of topics including (but certainly not limited to) climate change, economics, migration, social justice, populism and politics.
By establishing yourself as a commentator on current events by using your own research as a hook, this not only provides content for your own blog, but also allows you to showcase your writing for media outlets, which can enhance your reputation as an expert commentator and raise the wider profile of your organisation.
The last type of blog post is the distant cousin of a research report: a report on a conference or other event. Early career and long-established researchers alike attend a number of conferences, seminars and similar events every year. Why not use these as an opportunity for comment? How often have we gone to such events, taken notes, and then never thought about them again afterwards? Committing to writing such reports about these types of experiences means that this process of reflection becomes a built-in part of your research process and experience. Many speakers at events and conferences will also have their own presence on social media and blogs of their own. Writing a reflective or critical blog post about the event means that the discussion does not end when the live Q&A does, and also gives you an opportunity to connect directly with the speaker, and provides a way for others to contribute even if they were not able to attend.
Chapter 3 of our book Communicating Your Research with Social Media examines the ways knowledge workers can use academic blogging to promote their own research to wider audiences.