Starting an academic blog may seem like a daunting challenge. Deciding what you want to write about has to up there on the list of tasks you need to get done. Whether you have a list as long as your arm of things to write, or you have no idea where to start, this blog post is here to help make sure you start in the right direction.
I'm going to cover:
- What you may want to write about
- How to identify what other people would like you to write about
- How to stand out with your chosen writing topic
- How to enjoy it
After reading about all these, you will have a clearer idea about the next steps for your academic blog.
Just what are you going to write about?
Whilst you don't have to pick 'a niche' to write within, focusing on a narrow field of topics, helps people who read your blog have a better idea what it's all about. It helps build expertise and authority in your own little corner of the web.
By far the biggest decision you will have for your blog is; what are you going to write about?
Here's some things you could hone in on:
- your research; what you study, current knowledge, new ideas*
- your experiences in your role; a day in the life, a week in the life, how you got to where you are, leadership, career
- your processes; how you read paper, take notes, what software you use
- methods; how to use a piece of equipment, protocols, operating procedures, standard practises
- controversial topics; a disagreement, misunderstandings, clarifying a point of view, opinion on something
- current issues affecting your role; diversity, inclusion, gender, workplace culture, barriers
- news; what's happening in your field, your latest paper, interesting things you've read
- reviews; what you've read, books, journals
- help guides; choosing a supervisor or research group, what you look for in a student, setting up a lab
- skills; writing, reading, presenting, editing
- inspiration; your favourite people, people or places you've worked with
- mistakes; what you'd do differently next time, learning experiences
- fun and humour; comics, silly stories, anecdotes
*One thing I would caution about is writing too much about your ideas. It can really help to write out ideas to help thrash them out and make sense but I would advise against publishing them online, unless you are happy for someone else to potentially plagiarise them. When you write your thoughts about some current work, for example, and you want to consider what comes next, personally I would keep it quite high level. Don't go into specifics, like how you would test something. There are plenty of sneaky people out there who struggle to come up with their own ideas, so hold your ideas close.
This is by no means a comprehensive list; there are many more.
Make sure whatever you choose to write about you enjoy and is useful to you. There's nothing worse than having to write regularly on a topic you really don't connect with. If it's useful to you, chances are it's useful to someone else.
Once you have honed into some areas, write down a list of at least 50 topics or titles. This can give you an idea of the direction your blog will take.
If you can't write 50, chances are your blog area is too niche. Try expanding it a little. You can always reign in again later; once you've written those 50 posts!
How are you going to write it?
If your blog is there at least partially to build on your academic career, think about the tone and style you write with. Do you want it to be a light-hearted look behind the scenes? Do you want to use humour, or should it be kept serious?
The style you choose may be partially dictated by the topics you write about and the people whom you want to read it. Think about your reader:
- Who are they?
- What do they do?
- What makes them tick?
- What career stage are they at?
- Are they a specialist in your area?
- What are their values?
Once you have a target reader sorted, write for them each time.
I try to keep a consistent style of writing on this blog. I have a separate blog on Medium which is more experimental. It gives me more flexibility to try different styles and talk about a range of subjects.
How to enjoy the writing
My enjoyment of writing has grown over time. I have created a healthy habit of contributing to my blogs daily in some form. This is not always writing. Sometimes it's research. Sometimes it's staring at my analytics wishing to get out of the 6 month Google sandbox ... I'm just getting there at the time of writing this.
To ensure I enjoy the writing process, I don't do it when you are stressed nor do I do it when I'm stressed. I put on some relaxing jazz music. I'll get myself a coffee and usually sit in my pyjamas and cosy jumper first thing in the morning. It's the time of day I get to myself.
Another key to enjoying writing is having an end purpose. I have two end purposes; firstly to help aspiring academics out by providing useful advice, suggestions and guides based on my own research and experiences, and secondly to improve my writing skills.
Consider how your academic-focused blog will help you build authority
Your blog may be incredibly powerful if you stick to it for the long run. If you take every opportunity to work on it and promote it, integrating it with how you do your day-to-day work it can be a great point of authority and connection.
By writing trust-worthy, genuine content it will help identify you as someone who knows what they are talking about. By discussing it and sharing it with people, it keeps the conversation flowing, again building on your expertise.
If you're like me, at first you may be embarrassed about the whole affair. But it's time to put on your hard hat. Most likely the blows and smirks you expect will probably never come. And if they do, well who will be laughing when you're getting 1000 views a month on the lay summary of your recent research publication! Or when you craft a well-written, thought provoking and entertaining article for The Conversation after honing your skills and confidence in your field.
There are very, very few academics online, beyond some in social media. And the fraction that contribute regularly is miniscule. Use this as your call to action!
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What do people actually want to know?
If you're not sure about what to write, a good place to start is identifying what people need to know in your field or academia in general. What knowledge is missing? You may get plenty of ideas just by talking to people in your field.
You don't need to create new content, you could also be a curator of current content. Often what people want to know is out there, it's just difficult to find. Make it easy for them.
One way to find out if something is lacking in your field is simply to do a Google search. If you ask a question, is it answered already? Who answers it? Are they trustworthy?
(A word of warning, sometimes nobody answers a question because there are very few people asking that question.)
It's likely that, as an academic, you are an expert in a very specific field. This is a good place to start but do be aware of how many people would actually be interested if you stick solely to your specific area of research. Be niche, but not too niche! That being said it's a great place to start.
Search more widely around your topic. Look at the 'people also ask' section as these help identify things that people actually ask that are related to your original query.
Keywords are another thing to bear in mind, though I think things are moving away from keywords and heading towards personalised and authoritative content. With the advent of AI-driven writing, I suspect words like 'I', 'we', 'us' and 'my' are going to be increasingly valuable in organic search.
That being said, if you want to be an authority on soil, if soil is infrequently mentioned on your blog, it's unlikely that Google will view you as an expert on soil. Pick some areas you want to focus on and do some Googling around to find out the key phrases people use, who is writing about it and what you think might be missing. As a researcher, this bit of 'market research' should be super exciting!
Whilst there may be some topics which are incredibly valuable in your field, to begin with it will be very hard for people to find them even if they are the best post on the topic. It's best to try and find some areas to write about that other people have not yet, but that people might be searching for. Yes, these are difficult to find, but worth it to get eyes on your blog.
Keep an eye out on social media to see what people are talking about. Social media can also help identify controversial topics you may wish to discuss.
You will no doubt do this already, but if there are interesting papers relevant to your field, you may want to provide a brief, easy to read review, or look at the topic in more depth. What does it mean for the future of your own research and that of the wider community?
Blogs provide a nice way for you to discuss articles more casually in way which may be more suited to general readers. Many articles are behind paywalls, therefore providing feedback on these can be valuable to many people.
Think about the value you give to the reader
You're more likely to get people coming back if you can provide them with something valuable. If every post they read makes them think 'huh, I never thought of that' or 'that's helpful, I'll try that' then your post has done its job. Just stating the obvious is not going to help people return nor want to read more of what you have written.
If you can write about new insights, make topics easier to understand, be helpful or write something in a much more entertaining way then your reader will view their time spent with you as valuable.
Before you write a post, think of the take home message or the point you want to make and thread this through your writing. The attention span for online content is way, way shorter than other media. Keep everything fairly short and concise. If you want to go further, maybe have a shorter summary post and then a more in depth one for those who may want to read further.
Look to other academic blogs for inspiration
If you're going through a stage of writers block, searching out some other academic blogs can be super useful. What are they writing about? How can you add some more insight? Do you have a different opinion or experience? Is there something missing? What could you do better or add more information to?
Here's some other current academics' blogs to check out for inspiration:
- The Thesis Whisperer - probably the most widely known academic blog by Inger Mewburn
- Patter - Pat Thompson
- The Professor is In - Karen Kelsky
- The Research Whisperer - "Just like the Thesis Whisperer, but with more money"
If they've written something that resonates, be sure to leave a comment on their posts saying you stopped by and your thoughts. Be constructive and helpful, not mean. This can help spark a discussion and may help generate further ideas.
Also look at news and blog sections of journals you like. What has inspired you recently that you could comment on or share with your audience?
How will your writing be different from others'?
Re-churning out the same thing as everyone else won't help anyone. How are you going to stand out from the crowd? One of the best ways you can do this, is by strongly identifying with your 'Why'. Identifying your unique 'why' helps people to connect, build trust and support you in the longer run. A great book to read to help, for which I've written a brief review is Simon Sinek's "Start With Why".
Connect your 'what' and your 'how' to your 'why' and you'll be onto a winner.
Whilst writing doesn't have to amazing to be useful and popular, identifying your UWP (Unique Writing Profile- yes I made that up) is a great way to set yourself apart from the crowd. Being consistent can help people feel more comfortable with what to expect with your writing. If you consistently deliver on what you promise (e.g. on timing, delivery and content), then this alone will help set you apart from many writers.
I hope this post will help you identify what you want to write and how you want to go about doing it. Once you get going, it's likely that your ideas will become self-sustaining in the long run. If this post had inspired you, feel free to catch up with me on Twitter or send me an email; annette (at) knowledgeecology.me.