Blogging as an academic – what not to do

This week marked the 11th anniversary of this blog. For the past few years, on this week, I have published blog posts encouraging others to blog, and sharing some tips, based on my experience. However, the past year has been so different from the usual that I thought that I might do something a little bit different, here, too. I thought that I might share what are – in my opinion – some things to NOT do, when you are blogging.

As usual, this post is written from the point of view of an academic who blogs. Moreover, it is written from a position of relative privilege, resulting from my demographic characteristics as well as my professional status. All this to say that, this advice may not be relevant for everyone reading this post. Having said that, I hope that the ideas here are helpful, and that they save you time (and some frustration), if you are embarking on a blogging journey.

  1. Don’t feel that you have to blog

Or, indeed, have a social presence at all.

There is a growing tendency to ask academics to have a social presence, and to help universities, funders and publishers disseminate their work – e.g., to mention open days, to share the results of a research project, or to publicise a new book. While blogging has many benefits for academicsthere are costs and risks associated with this activity, too. Hence, you should only do it if it helps you achieve your goals, and if you feel comfortable doing so. If blogging doesn’t fit your plans or personality, don’t do it. There are many other ways of exercising your scholarship, of engaging with others in the academic and practitioner communities, and of achieving the benefits that others may derive from blogging.

2. Don’t confuse the means with the end

Blogging can bring many benefits to bloggers. For instance, it can help to improve (writing) skills; it can be an effective way of expressing opinions; or it can be a mechanism to meet like-minded individuals. As these examples show, blogging can be a useful means to achieve particular process, content or social goals. If this is your case, then go ahead and blog in the way that fits your goal. 

If blogging twice a week fits your goal, do it; if it doesn’t, change the frequency. If writing long posts works well for you, go ahead and write your heart out; if it doesn’t, play around with different post lengths or even formats. If blogging about your published work is what drives you, go for it; if you find that summarising academic papers, asking questions and talking about work in progress helps you become a better academic, then that’s what you should be doing.

However, unless blogging becomes your main, paid role, you need to remember that you are a blogging academic, not an academic blogger.

3. Don’t expect blogging to deliver tangible benefits

At least, not immediately.

It’s not that I don’t think that blogging could deliver tangible benefits. It does. It’s just that having a blog per se doesn’t necessarily translate into value. 

I am actually stealing this idea from Cal Newport’s Deep Questions podcast (episode 23rd of August 2020). He said that “The idea that being online will somehow translate into value, which will lead to remuneration is wrong. Just being [online] doesn’t bring value. [But] if you are doing something already valuable, then, yes, using these tools can help you find and grow an audience.” 

4. Don’t be discouraged if no one reads your blog

Maybe in the “olden days”, when very few people blogged, it was possible that someone would notice your blog, by accident. Nowadays, however, with so much content around – and so many content filters – that’s not the case. So, be patient. It takes time to build an audience.

Keep writing for the benefit that it gives you (see above), not for how many people are reading each post. Unless, of course, your goal is to reach a wide audience – for instance, if you are trying to recruit participants for a study. If that is your case, then you should consider writing long form posts in other outlets, or contribute to multi-author blogs, rather than creating your own, individual blog.

5. Don’t assume that no one reads your blog

While it may sometimes feel like you are talking to the void – particularly when you are starting – that doesn’t mean that no one is reading your blog posts (or that they will not find your posts a long time after you have written them). So, don’t be unkind (or even just “candid”) about colleagues, students, research participants, relatives, and so on. Chances are that, sooner or later, someone will come across your blog, or that old post, and it will cause you a lot of embarrassment, at the very least (and, possibly, even loss of trust, or financial losses).

6. Don’t overshare

In particular, don’t share unpublished data or research findings.

Some people worry that blogging about their research risks it being stolen. And, indeed, it may be that others will beat you to the finish line, and publish a paper in the area that you are working on, before you do. But, most likely, that is not because they read your blog post. It’s just that they have been chiselling that metaphorical stone for longer, or harder, or with more resources or, frankly, with more confidence to ship their work than you. 

In fact, the contrary of having your work stolen may happen: Having a time-stamped blog post may end up being a useful aid in a dispute, if someone steals your data or research; and people may come to you with ideas about making your work better.

The reason for not sharing unpublished data is not plagiarism, but rather originality, which is a key criterion for publication in top journals.

7. Don’t be too focused on metrics

Blogging platforms will usually give you some information on where your readers come from, what they have read, whether they clicked on the links that you provided, and so on. In turn, that information can help you improve your communication style. For instance, if you get lots of readers from outside of your country, you may want to avoid very specific cultural references, or avoid the use of words with ambiguous meanings (e.g., “pants” = underwear in British English, but outwear in American English).

However, don’t obsess over who is reading what, and when. And, most of all, don’t be driven by the metrics. 

If I were driven by short term metrics, I would mostly write diary type entries, such as my monthly round-ups or the DITL posts. Conversely, if I were trying to maximise evergreen content, I would write teaching materials like what the analyses of smartphone prices vs costs tells us about the role of brands, or what is the difference between segments and tribes.

The truth is that the posts where I dissect a paper, or bring together a number of papers on a topic (for instance, Artificial Intelligence) bring me only a trickle of readers, and the odd comment or retweet. However, they are exactly the ones that benefit my research work the most, because they help me work though the literature on a topic and, thus, build knowledge that I can later use in a paper.

8. Don’t over think it

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us is that even the best laid plans can quickly derail. So, don’t spend too much time or energy thinking about the right name for your blog, the right host / platform, the right frequency of posting, the right format, and so on. Just make sure that you don’t choose a name that could be embarrassing (Speed of Art and Pen Island, come to mind), or a name that will not age well (you are not going to be a research student for ever; or on sabbatical).

Other than that, go for it. Use one of the many free services available, and experiment with format. You can always scrap it and start again. Think of it as a “season” – you can always fine tune it for the next season; or simply delete it, and start something different, if blogging doesn’t work for you.

What other hazards should we highlight for someone starting on this journey? 

5 thoughts on “Blogging as an academic – what not to do

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