A blog can help you establish expertise, forge new intellectual bonds in your discipline, and give you a place to test out new ideas and promote your work. And it’s surprisingly easy to maintain if you set it up right.
There are a few ways that academics tend use their blogs: to publicize their own work, to discuss others’ work, or some combination of the two. Here are some examples.
Jonathan Eisen is famous for (among other reasons) using his blog to spread the word about his own research.
Back in 2011, he published a paper in PLOS ONE. Normally, academics will use their university’s press office to explain their publications’ significance to the media and the public; Eisen decided he wanted to tell the story of his study himself. So, he took to his blog.
The study picked up a lot of press coverage (including the The Economist and New Scientist), received more views and altmetrics compared to other PLOS ONE papers published in the same discipline and year, and – best of all – allowed the person who was best acquainted with the research to talk about it with the world.
Another option is to blog about your in-progress work. Blogs are excellent for engagement and can be useful to get feedback from your peers on challenging problems or new ways to view your results. John Stewart uses his blog to draft upcoming presentations, recap the conferences he has attended and share ongoing projects in both the history of science and educational technology.
You can also use your blog as a space for collaboration with other authors. Zev Trachtenberg built a blog called Inhabiting the Anthropocene where he and many other faculty members blog about the ways in which humans shape the world around us. This group effort brings together a variety of perspectives including philosophy, political science, history of science, economics, and ecology.
This group blog serves much the same function that a conference panel would, exploring many facets of a shared research topic. Because the texts are all digital and shared on the same platform, Zev and his colleagues have also been able to use text analysis to map out the common topics and themes of their blog posts and create network maps of their work. Their collaborative blog generated the data for an article studying the interdisciplinary analytical and cognitive frameworks used in studying the anthropocene.
Many academics use their blogs as a form of post-publication peer review, offering their feedback on recent publications in their field.
Rosie Redfield is among the most famous to do so, having written a stellar takedown of the over-hyped “arsenic life” paper that was published in 2010. Her blog allowed her to respond to the article within days of its publication. Compare that to the two years it took for her formal response article to be published! That speed, along with the fact that she can engage rapidly and often with her readers via the blog’s comments section, makes blogging an excellent forum for post-publication peer review.
Got an idea of what you want to blog about? Now it’s time to figure out how you’re going to blog.
Many “blogging for beginners” guides recommend setting a posting schedule for yourself. That can be once a week, once a month, or however often you can manage.
Why do you want a schedule? Regular posts are key to having an audience that will return to your blog. And having a framework to work from helps to keeps you organized in the rest of your life.
Key to finding a schedule that works for you is having realistic expectations about the amount of time it’ll take you to research and write a blog post. And that will depend upon what you’ve decided to blog about.
Write one or two posts to start out with, timing how long it takes for each. (You can expect that number to go down over time, as you get better at writing more quickly.) Then, look at your schedule and see how often you can spare that chunk of time. That’s your posting schedule.
Got your schedule decided upon? Now it’s time to make life easier on your future-self by brainstorming a boatload of post ideas at once.
Starting a blog can be intimidating because it’s hard to imagine that you’ll have things to write about on a regular basis. Having this master list of ideas that you can return to again and again is reassuring. It also makes it much easier to stick to your blogging schedule.
In addition to interesting topics, recently published papers, and personal updates on your research, some other easy wins can be found by repurposing stuff you’re doing in the rest of your life into “low-cost” posts. As computer scientist Matt Might explains,
Aim to come up with at least 20 post topics before moving onto the next step: writing headlines that will snag readers.
Headlines are your best way to get a piece of your readers’ limited attention bandwidth. Some keys to writing headlines that work, according to the blogging experts at Buffer:
So what does this look like in reality? Here are some examples:
A surefire way to keep your readers hooked, no matter what, is making sure your blog posts’ titles matches the content. If they’re too obtuse or “click-baity,” people will stop clicking through to read your blog.
Remember: practice makes perfect. Writing good headlines is hard work. That’s why people get paid to do it for a living! You’ll likely write and re-write a headline several times before you find one that resonates with you.
Images can help break up blocks of text, making your posts more readable. As importantly, they also can help illustrate your points.
Aside from blogging images found in papers you’re reviewing or that you’ve created, our number one recommended place to find free images is the Flickr Creative Commons search (though sometimes there’s a lot of chaff that needs to be separated). Buffer has also compiled a list of other free and public domain images you can use in your posts.
Now that you know what you’re going to blog about, let’s give your site some style. In WordPress, themes determine how your site looks. They tell the site which fonts to use, what colors to use, and how to lay out your pages.
Choosing a theme is hard because there are so many – at least 20,000! You can find the themes that WP has approved and certified by going to “Appearance” and clicking “Add New” next to the word “Themes.”
The key things to think about when choosing a theme are the number of columns you want and how images are used. If you just want a single column of text with lots of white space around it, ignore all the two and three column themes. If you want a right or left hand navigation menu, make sure to choose one of the two column themes. If you have a beautiful image that would make a great header for each page, look for themes that allow you to display the featured image for each page. If you want your site to be more focused on your text, look for themes that minimize images.
In general, YouTube has thousands of videos on setting up and configuring WordPress. OU also provides you with a subscription to Lynda.com which has full online courses on using WordPress.
Your final task is to set up an analytics service so you can learn about your readers.
Two popular options, Google Analytics and WordPress’s built-in statistics package, can tell you how many visitors your blog has received, what countries they’re coming from, what websites and search engines led them to your blog, what posts they’re reading, and much more.
Google Analytics, in particular, can be overwhelming to use – it’s a powerful tool that can seem like overkill for the novice. CUNY’s Academic Commons blog has a great starter guide to the service.
Your homework is deceptively simple: choose from among the blog topics you’ve brainstormed and write a post with a great headline.
Seriously – that’s it!