In today’s challenge, we’ll create a virtual watercooler for you to meet colleagues and debate research in your field. How? On your very own blog!
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 research. And it’s surprisingly easy to maintain if you set it up right.
Let’s get cracking!
Choose a platform
First things first: let’s pick the technology you’ll use to blog.
One popular option is WordPress. WordPress comes in both open source and hosted flavors. If you use the former, you’ll have complete control over the look and feel of your blog, but also the responsibility for installing and maintaining the code on your website. The latter is better for those who aren’t as technically inclined or who worry less about the ability to control their blog’s appearance. For either option, WordPress offers an easy-to-use editing interface, solid analytics, and well-designed themes and plugins.
The Jekyll platform is a cult favorite that’s used by many tech-savvy, GitHub-lovin’ academics. It offers near-infinite flexibility of design, the ability to write posts in Markdown, and easy installation for those already on GitHub Pages. It doesn’t come with analytics out of the box, though, so you’ll have to install a separate plugin for Google Analytics. For a full guide to setting up Jekyll, check out this Smashing Magazine piece.
Two other blogging platforms are popular among academics: Medium and Tumblr. Both are free to use. Medium is very easy to setup, offers a sleek design, and helps promote your posts among other Medium readers. The latter feature means that you won’t necessarily have control over what posts are promoted on your blog, however, which is a drawback.
Tumblr is similarly simple to set up, offers a more customizable design than Medium, and is well-suited for image-based research blogging–appealing to informaticists who use data visualizations, those who want to blog about figures, and so on. A downside of the platform is that it’s most popular with teens and early twenty-somethings, so it could be difficult to find a community of established scientists on the platform.
You might be wondering, “Where’s the Blogger recommendation?” While Blogger is an out-of-the-box blogging platform that’s similar to WordPress in many ways, in my opinion it doesn’t offer the flexibility of design, easy website integration and domain name registration, or usability that WordPress does. That said, it is used by prolific academic bloggers like Jonathan Eisen and Tanya Golash-Boza. You’re welcome to test it out for yourself!
Once you’ve chosen your platform, go ahead and set up your blog. Here are some tips for doing so:
- You’ll have to register for a blog handle if you’re using WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr (yourhandle.blogspot.com/). If you don’t have a catchy blog title in mind, feel free to choose your name–it’ll help people find you!
- If you’d prefer to have a catchy name for your blog, brainstorm some ideas. Some fun and informative blog handles I like are “Pharyngula,” “Freakonometrics,” and “Thread & Circuits.”
- Create the look and feel you want for your blog, choosing a theme for your WordPress or Jekyll blog that matches your tastes. You might also consider choosing a theme based on its SEO-optimization.
Got your blog set up and ready to roll? Now it’s time to decide what you’re going to write.
Possible uses for your blog
There are a few ways that academics tend use their blogs: to publicize their own work, to discuss others’ research, or some combination of the two. Here are some examples.
Spreading the word about your research
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. Be careful not to scoop yourself, though–if you plan to formally publish on a study, you might consider waiting on reporting your final results.
Commenting on others’ research
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 take-down 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.
What else can you do with your blog?
Decide on a posting schedule and stick to it
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’ll return to your blog. And having a framework to work from 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.
Brainstorm posts in advance
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,
The secret to low-cost academic blogging is to make blogging a natural byproduct of all the things that academics already do.
- Doing an interesting lecture? Put your lecture notes in a blog post.
- Writing a detailed email reply? “Reply to public” with a blog post.
- Answering the same question a second time? Put it in a blog post.
- Writing interesting code? Comment a snippet into a post.
- Doing something geeky at home? Blog about what you learned.
Aim to come up with at least 50 post topics before moving onto the next step: writing headlines that will snag readers.
Write effective headlines
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:
- Put the most compelling stuff in the first and last three words of your headline (research tells us that most readers will only absorb that much)
- Keep your headlines to 50-ish characters or less, so it won’t get truncated by search engines
- Use psychology to compel people to read your post (headlines that are surprising, ask questions, super-specific or follow these other principles are proven effective)
So what does this look like in reality? Here are some examples:
- Why are vegans the best lab workers? (asks question, follows “6-word” principle, element of surprise)
- 5 ways Mike Eisen’s dead wrong about Open Access (specific, follows “6-word” principle, element of surprise)
- How I landed a postdoc gig without even trying (tells readers “how to”, piques curiosity)
A surefire way to keep your readers hooked, no matter what, is making sure your blog posts’ titles matches each’s 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.
Make your posts more popular with images
Images can help break up blocks of text, making your posts more readable (and thus more popular). And they also can help illustrate your points.
Aside from blogging images found in papers you’re reviewing or that you’ve created, my number one recommended place to find free images is the Flickr Creative Commons search (though sometimes there’s a lot of chaff that needs separating out). Buffer has also compiled a list of other free and public domain images you can use in your posts.
Learn about your readers
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.
We’ll see you back here on Monday to talk about publication self-promotion platform Kudos.