Why do academics blog? What do academic bloggers get from blogging?
Discussions about scholarly blogging most often centre on the need for we academics to write in ways that attract new audiences. If we write blogs, we are told, we can communicate our research more effectively. Blogs enhance impact; they are a medium for public engagement. The advocacy goes on… Blogs (and other social media) can point readers to our (real) academic publications, particularly if they are held on open repositories. Blogging, it seems, is a kind of essential add-on to the usual academic writing and academic publication that we do.
Of course, some people do argue – and I’m in this camp – that blogging is in and of itself academic writing and academic publication. It’s not an add-on. It’s now part and parcel of the academic writing landscape. As such, it is of no less value than any other form of writing. Even though audit regimes do not count blogs – yet – this does not lessen their value. And therefore those of us who engage in bloggery need to stop justifying it as a necessary accompaniment to the Real Work of Serious Academic Writing. Blogs are their own worthwhile thing.
Sometimes I get so enmeshed in this argument, so keen to make the case that my blog is just as much part of my academic writing and publishing as any of my papers or books, that I forget the ways in which blogging can actually inform and support other forms of academic writing. It can. I found myself just the other day suggesting to a doctoral researcher that they might like to blog or write posts for other people’s blogs because there are real pay-offs in doing so – pay-offs for academic writing in general, and in particular for their thesis. My reasons? Well….
Blogging can help you to establish writing as a routine
The established wisdom of academic – and creative – writing is that it is helpful for writing to become a habit. Most advice books advocate writing every day. Blogging regularly can be part of just such a writing routine, and even underpin it. Blog posts can be finished in a sitting because they are small, self-contained pieces able to be drafted in a relatively short space of time. In a couple of days a post can be written and published, and this write-publish-feedback cycle can be good motivation in building and sustaining a pattern of regular writing.
Blogging allows you to experiment with your writing “voice”
Academics generally write more informally in blogs than they do in other publications. It is entirely possible to try out a range of approaches in different posts, varying syntax, vocabulary, genre and so on. These textual experiments can help you to develop and decide on the kind of “voice” that you want to adopt. I can attest to this benefit myself. My books and papers have become less formalised over the time that I have been blogging. Blogging has supported me to take up a more relaxed writing style.
Blogging helps you to get to the point
The blog post is a small text, not an extended essay. It’s simply not possible to introduce lots and lots of different ideas and make multiple points in a post of 1,000 words or less. A blog post is the ideal place to talk about one thing. (This post, for example, is about blogging and academic writing and nothing else.) A lot of academic writing rests on the writer having one point to make and arguing it through – the journal article, for example. If you write a journal article with too many ideas and points it is a sure-fire recipe for rejection. So getting the hang of writing about a single point in a blog and doing so regularly can support other forms of academic writing, even if the actual format (genre) is different.
Blogging points you to your reader
Nobody has to read a blog post. When you start a blog, and indeed start a post, you have to think about who is likely to be interested in it, how you will attract their interest and what you might have to say that will keep them reading till the end. It is very easy online for a reader to simply click away if a post isn’t interesting. You don’t want that, so you have to figure out what your readers’ expectations are. And blogs allow you to think and know a bit about readers in ways that most other academic writing publications don’t. All blog platforms have information about how many people click on and begin to read a post. Bloggers can thus keep track of the kinds of posts that are most likely to be read, by whom and where.
My blogs, for example, always get a lot more traffic when I write about strategies for academic writing. This blogging post on the other hand is likely to be one of the less popular and may well appeal to different people than those who want to know how to approach, say, reviewing literatures. But because I want to keep a range of readers interested in academic writing, and research more generally, I try to vary the kinds of posts that I write. The behind-the-scenes data I can access allows me to think about who is reading, as I think about what to write.
Blogging requires you to be concise
Because most blogs are relatively short, bloggers need to make their point economically. Readers won’t bother if a post rambles on and on and if it offers lots of examples, references and caveats as does the more usual extended academic text. To cater for brevity, bloggers often use lists and bullet points, or write in short paragraphs that speedily carry a reader through the argument or narrative. But the art of being concise is not simply useful for blogging; it is also required for example in writing abstracts, in summarising material, and in giving presentations at conferences. So learning how to say something short is a helpful practice in a range of scholarly pursuits.
Blogging allows you to experiment with forms of writing
A single blog can have posts of different kinds. While some bloggers always use the same kind of format for posts, others choose to take a more varied approach. Because there are no rules attached to blogs, bloggers can do what they want, always bearing their readers in mind, of course. A blog might be a place to experiment with a vignette, a thick description, a set of instructions or a short review. A post might take a more literary form – a letter, or satirical commentary. A blogger might use the multimedia affordances of the blogging platform to include images, videos, slides and sound in their posts, something I’ve been doing lately. I’ve been experimenting with images and slides and have decided to keep having a bit of fun with images and the tongue-in-cheek caption (and the occasional serious one).
Blogging helps you to become a more confident writer
By doing all of steps one to six above, you will find that you think more about writing per se. But you will also be less anxious about it. You will move towards seeing writing as a craft. Like any other craft, writing needs to be practised and blog posts are good sites to do this.
And as you become more accustomed to seeing your words published, you become more at ease with the notion of your writing being out there in the world. While you might not yet claim that you are a “writer”, you may see more clearly the ways in which writing is central to scholarship and how you can be an active participant.
As Michel de Certeau (1980) suggests, the academy is a scriptural economy – it exists for talking, reading and writing. Blogging can help academic writers to feel more able to take up a place in this scriptural economy and to feel more assured about their capacities to make a point succinctly, and perhaps also elegantly.