Advice: how to blog

Thinking of starting a science-oriented blog? Here’s some advice, drawn from my own experience of blogging and reading others’ blogs (although never actually reading anyone else’s advice on how to blog!)

  1. Know why you’re doing it. I do it primarily to share ideas that I think are interesting or important enough to be worth sharing with my fellow professional ecologists, which for whatever reason I don’t think are best shared via peer-reviewed papers (although sometimes my posts do turn into papers I wouldn’t otherwise have written) But there are other reasons to blog. For instance, you could just treat it as a way to keep notes for yourself, which you make public on the off chance that someone else will find those notes useful. Carl Boettiger’s “open lab notebook” is an example. You could just see it as good writing practice. You could treat it as a form of public outreach or a way to make a “broader impact” as required by some granting agencies (though I can’t speak to whether grant review panels would view it in this way). You could do it to influence policy. And there are other motivations. You need to know why you’re doing it so that you can figure out how much effort to put into it, and how to most effectively direct that effort.
  2. Don’t do it to get famous. Every decent blog I’ve ever seen is written by someone motivated by something other than self-promotion. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about trying to build an audience (more on that below) You should care, just like you care about things like where your papers are published and whether readers can understand them. But “building an audience” isn’t an end in itself, and if you try to treat it that way you’ll never get one.
  3. Know what audience you want to reach. I write for my fellow professional ecologists and ecology students. This blog would be totally different if it were aimed at, say, engaging the general public, or at influencing policymakers, or if I didn’t care about having an audience at all (because it was just notes to myself), or etc.
  4. Post frequently. This is by far the most important thing you can do to build and keep an audience. I try to post a few times per week, but even just once every week or two should be enough to build you a reasonable audience of your fellow ecologists, assuming you’re doing other things well. Once a month or less won’t cut it, I don’t think. I keep things ticking over by doing a fair number of very quick, short posts–links to things I found interesting along with a couple of sentences of comments, links to cartoons, whatever. Also, when I get a chunk of time to write posts, I’ll get ahead by writing several posts and then scheduling them to appear in future. Another approach is to make it a group blog.
  5. Have something to say. If you don’t say anything (e.g., all your posts are links to other things, without much “value added” from you), or don’t say anything of interest to anyone else, you won’t draw an audience. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about your own opinions, interests, and experiences–far from it–but it does mean you need to find a way to make those personal things of interest to strangers. And while commenting on recently-published papers is great (it’s certainly an inexhaustible source of ideas for posts!), I suggest that it not be the only thing you do, just because there’s a fair bit of that sort of commentary out there already.
  6. Have something to say that no one else is saying. Agreeing with people, repeating the conventional wisdom, and stating the obvious will not draw many readers. Now, what’s “conventional wisdom” or “obvious” depends a lot on the audience, so saying something new need not mean disagreeing with others. Note that following this suggestion may somewhat distort people’s impression of you, because it will shape your choice of subject matter. You’ll only end up writing about the subset of topics on which you have something to say that no one else is saying. Economics blogger Nick Rowe has two nice posts on this. For instance, it may look like I think everyone else is wrong about everything, but I don’t. It only looks that way because I write a lot about the subset of topics on which I think I have interesting disagreements with others.
  7. Write well, and don’t write in a dry style. A big part of why I was able to build an audience on Oikos Blog was because I tried to write in a breezy, snarky, funny, and forceful way. This does risk crossing some lines that really shouldn’t be crossed, and I’ve crossed them more than once (more on that below). You don’t have to ape my style–find your own voice–but you do have to have some sort of style. Your blog shouldn’t sound like a typical scientific paper. If you’re not sure about what how to go about developing your own style, try aiming for something conversational, the way you might talk about science while hanging out at a bar or something.
  8. Read and comment on other blogs. Reading and commenting on other blogs educates you in the “norms” of blogging, and in how those norms vary. For instance, part of what gives me the confidence that it’s ok to write in a forceful style is that this is the style of many of the blogs I read. Plus, some people will find your blog by clicking on your comments on other blogs.
  9. Remember that what you say online will shape how others see you offline. Well, unless you blog anonymously, but doing that is harder than you might think. Assuming you’re not blogging anonymously, you need to be able to live in the offline world with everything you’ve said online. That does not necessarily mean that you should seek to avoid ever offending anyone. In particular, if you ever disagree with anyone or say anything critical about anything, sooner or later someone will probably take offense. And keep in mind that even people who don’t read your blog may well develop a different offline impression of you due to your blogging, for all kinds of reasons. You need to decide if you can live with all that. Note that you can try to “manage” people’s perceptions of you to some extent by having multiple blogs on which you “wear different hats”. Jeremy Yoder is a good example: Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! is his group blog devoted to popular science writing, while Denim and Tweed is his personal blog where he mixes science with posts on non-scientific topics.
  10. Engage with your commenters. Blogs can be a great medium for conversation, discussion, and debate. But in my experience, if you want decent comment threads it’s going to be up to you to keep the conversation going. Participating actively in your comment threads also builds up goodwill with your most avid readers, which is who your commenters are. That goodwill comes in handy if you ever screw up, as I’ve done. So reply promptly to all comments if you possibly can. Fortunately, you should hardly ever have to block comments or ban commenters on a science blog, unless it’s about some highly-charged topic like climate change or evolution vs. religion or something. I only ever had to block two out of over 1700 comments on Oikos Blog. But just in case, here’s some advice. Moderate your comments, because bad comments tend to drive away good commenters. If you get a comment that for whatever reason you don’t want to publish, you have options. If it’s totally crazy or filled with obscenities or something, just block it. But if it seems to come from someone who’s not a total jerk or lunatic, and who has provided an email address, I suggest emailing the commenter privately. Explain why you didn’t allow the comment and invite them to submit a comment that addresses your concerns. If someone is repeatedly submitting comments you don’t want to publish, warn them that you’ll ban them if they try it again. And if they try it again, ban them (most major blog-hosting sites have tools allowing you to do this). Anyone who complains that you’re inhibiting “free speech” or acting contrary to the openness of the internet is simply wrong. It’s your blog, you’re the only one entitled to say whatever you want on it.
  11. Explain yourself. It’s fine to have opinions, even strong ones–but people mostly don’t just want to read other people’s opinions. Back up your opinions with reasons. This is especially important if, like me, you’re aiming for a forceful style or you spend a significant amount of time criticizing the work of others. The only way that sort of thing is going to go down well with readers is if you back it up with reasons. Even then it won’t always go down well with everyone.
  12. If you screw up, apologize publicly. I screwed up more than once on Oikos Blog, mostly by criticizing people or ideas more strongly or snarkily than was fair. Whenever I realized I’d screwed up, I said so in a post. Fortunately, you’re unlikely to ever have to do this unless you sail as close to the wind as I do.
  13. It’ll take months to build an audience, even if you do everything right. So if you want an audience, be prepared to put in the necessary time and effort.

15 thoughts on “Advice: how to blog

  1. Thanks for this! I’m trying to start my own blog geared more towards the general public than ecologists (although there’s a section on R for Ecologists). I was wondering what your thoughts are on when to write about your own research. If you’re getting interesting results, is it appropriate to write about it and show data/graphs prior to manuscript acceptance? I’ve been trying to avoid doing that because 1) it seems wrong to advertise research that hasn’t been peer reviewed and 2) Honestly, I don’t want to get scooped. However, if the blog is aimed towards the public, and not ecologists, does it matter?

    • Certainly, when people are blogging about ongoing work, it’s more common for them to blog about things like conduct of the work (e.g., “here’s some pictures of my field crew setting up the experiment”) than show graphs of the results. But I’m not sure that that’s because it’s somehow wrong to show ongoing results. I mean, if you go to a conference and present unpublished results, you’re “advertising” work that hasn’t been peer reviewed. I’m not sure how showing your ongoing results on a blog is that much different (indeed, it’s not all that uncommon these days for people to post slides from their talks on their blogs).

      Similar remarks apply to getting scooped–if you were really worried about that, presumably you wouldn’t present unpublished work at conferences, right? Plus, for much of the work that ecologists do, it’s pretty much impossible for others to scoop you. Nobody can rush out to the same field site and run the same expt. as you, plus it’s unlikely anyone would want to b/c they couldn’t count on getting the same result.

      The other issue is whether presenting unpublished results would be considered “prior publication” by journals. See my recent post on this. Check the journal policies, and email the EiC to clarify if necessary. At a guess, I’d say a “popularized” write-up for a blog, with a graph or two, would not be considered prior publication, but check with the journal of interest first.

      • Thanks for the response! I guess I’ve always considered presenting at a conference sort of like peer-review since I’m presenting to a panel/room/hall of scientific peers who can grill me afterwards on the ins and outs of my experiment. Blogging let’s me post whatever I want with no quality control beyond myself. (Your point #9, I want to avoid having others think I’m advertising poor work by circumventing the review process. Probably bad to start that way as a grad student).

        Thanks for the suggestion to check with journals about the possibility of prior publication. I hadn’t thought of that as a possible issue. And thanks again for this post!

  2. Thanks for this post! I have some complimentary things to say about why I think your blogging has been such a success. When I stumbled across the Oikos blog, the most recent post was on some interesting new papers just published in Oikos and I thought that was the purpose of the blog, but after taking your suggestion to read through the archives, I realized the blog was very diverse and that drew me back. Since I was considering going back to school at the time, I needed that mixture of professional-level discussion with just-for-fun posts and personal posts to imagine myself as a professional ecologist. You may have been aiming for ecologists and students, but you landed at least one aspiring student.

    • Thanks very much, that’s very kind of you.

      I recall that back in college, I volunteered as a tour guide, showing around prospective students and their parents. One year in Sept. I met a new student and his parents, who said that they’d been torn between my college and another, and they chose mine because I was more enthusiastic than the tour guide at the other place! I was flattered, though I also felt like “Whoa, I hope you like your choice!”

  3. I write totally for myself in a style that I like, but am glad when someone else reads it, too. However, the premise of your advice seems to be that one wants to build a large audience, which may not be true for everyone. Granted, I find it nice when more people read my blog, but there are certain things I will not do in order to increase readership, like fretting over how often I blog, or whether my writing style is dry or wet. I do very much agree with points 5 and 6; my own two rules or public speaking are 1) love the words that you speak, and 2) always have something to say. Both rules apply to blogging too, I think.

    • As I tried to note in a couple of places, much of my advice is not applicable if you do not care about having an audience, or only care a bit. If you don’t care at all about having an audience, then probably only points 1, 2, 9, and possibly 12 are relevant. If you only care a bit, then I agree that it makes perfect sense to decide what sorts of things you’re prepared to do in order to build an audience, and what sorts of things you aren’t prepared to do (e.g., your case: “I’m not going to worry about my writing style or how frequently I post, but I am going to make sure that I have something to say.”)

    • Björn,
      I cannot imagine having something to say, something that not everybody else is also saying, and not wanting or caring for an audience. But I also see a contradiction between these and blogging regularly. Unless one is a chatter-box, how can one have something exceptional to say twice or more times a week?

      Jeremy,
      congrats to your new blog.

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