Top ten tips for blogging for scientists

top ten listWhat to start a blog? 

With my concise advice below, you should be ready to get started. I say, “Go for it!”

I know there are quite a lot of people interested in starting to blog, but perhaps a bit uncertain or even intimidated by the idea. I think this is especially true amongst scientists. Social media are collectively a tool for educational outreach and also for engagement with the scientific and other communities. Scientists are increasingly using social media and this trend is certain to continue.

If you are out of the social media loop, you are limiting yourself as a scientist.

Below I give my top 10 tips for blogging, but I also have posted my top 10 tips for scientists to use Twitter as well, which many have found helpful.

Top ten advice for blogging

1. Blog about something that you care about. If you try to blog about something you don’t care about, then your blog will reflect that lack of interest and few people will read it. You will also inevitably quit blogging fairly soon. You should be asking yourself some questions as you prepare to blog. What do you want to talk about on your blog? How can you have a unique voice in the maelstrom of noise on the Internet and in the blogging world? The answers to these questions should guide you in getting the ball rolling.

2. Some practical tips for having a cool, impactful blog. Over the years I’ve learned that following some fairly simple tips can greatly increase the impact and audience of your blog. Include pictures. Include quotes from experts (don’t be afraid to reach out to ask another scientist, for example, for a quote on something). Include other opinions that contrast with your own. Use short titles for blog pieces that include action verbs. Link to background pieces or posts elsewhere. Avoid using too much jargon.

3. Figure out who’s your audience and write accordingly. If the people reading your blog are almost all experts in your field, then you need to write to their level. If, alternatively, most people reading your blog are not experts, but highly interested members of the general population, the way you write and your tone needs to be very different. If you do not write for your audience, then your audience will go away. Also keep in mind that audiences evolve over time so you need to be on your toes and potentially adjust your writing over time as your blog audience grows. You also want to challenge your audience and at times present material outside the core area of interest. This also keeps things more interesting.

4. Add a dash of controversy into your writing. Blog readers are pretty unforgiving when it comes to what they read. If they are bored they won’t come back to your blog. I’m not saying you are going to write boring stuff, but blog readers expect a lot these days: to be educated, to be excited, to be amused and entertained. This is a very challenging set of expectations and raises the question: what’s the right balance? For some types of blogging it is more challenging than others. For example for a scientist who blogs, some of the expectations mentioned above seem on the surface incongruous with science, right? You have to have a balance. Keep in mind that controversy will boost your audience, but you are going to make some people very cranky.

5. Edit your blog pieces before publishing them. This may seem trivial or obvious, but typos and grammatical errors detract from the content so try your best to avoid them. I myself am so busy that often times I have to cram in blog writing between meetings or at lunch or at night so admittedly I am prone to “typo-itis” as I call. To at least do my best to minimize this, I cut and paste my piece into MS Word and run spell-check before posting. I also preview the post and read through it before publishing it. Still some mistakes might make it through. If so, it’s not the end of the world, but try to correct them quickly.

6. Blog regularly. We are all busy, but if you are going to bother blogging you should do it regularly. If you don’t blog at least a few times a week if not every day, it is difficult to maintain a readership.

7. Don’t blog about your own institution or only do so with extreme care. I think it is generally unwise to blog about one’s home institution. For example, I only blog about UC Davis on rare occasions. The tricky and potentially hazardous nature of blogging (or writing in newspapers) about one’s employer has led to many disputes.

For most of us, though, writing about our home institution can be somewhat perilous in my opinion. What makes writing about one’s employer so potentially dangerous from a career perspective is that you need to find a balance between seeming to be negative and seeming to be too positive (akin to self-promotion). You need to walk a fine line, an objective balance in between that can be like walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls.

I’d also add to this category to think carefully when blogging about yourself. I like blogs in which the author takes a personal perspective on things, but do your best to avoid self-promotion. Posting things such as “Look at my fabulous new Nature paper…” or “check out how awesome my h-index is” are certainly unwise. On the other hand telling a story of what went into that same Nature paper and why you are excited about it could make an appropriate post if written carefully to avoid self-promotion.

8. Don’t take it personally when readers criticize your blog and even you. To blog you need a thick skin. Blog readers are an opinionated bunch and don’t pull their punches, especially when emboldened by anonymity. I admire blog writers who, despite perhaps having strong opinions, publish the comments of their readers who criticize them or even attack their ideas. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the Internet!

9. Avoid common traps in blog writing. There are many mistakes that most bloggers make at one time or another. Of course learning the hard way can sometimes lead to the most lasting lesson, but perhaps I can help you avoid that pain and you’ll still learn. Here are just some of the traps. False dichotomies: avoid them. The world is wonderfully grey so avoid turning things falsely into a fake world of only black and white. Personal attacks on others: avoid them. Personal attacks on you: generally ignore them. You only draw more energy to them by trying to rebut them. Copying or rehashing someone else’s ideas: don’t do this. Blog readers come to your blog to read your ideas, not some rehash of someone else’s. While technically this may not be plagiarism, some readers may view it that way. Of course write ABOUT someone else’s ideas and present your own, but attribute the other’s ideas and put your own thoughts into your blog piece. Related to the above, don’t make your blog simply a place where you link to other interesting pieces on the web. It’s fine to link to others on your blog, but if that is all your blog does then it is not really a blog. You need to put your thoughts into the blog to keep it interesting.

10. Use social media to get new readers and follow your readership using Internet tools. Blogs don’t get many readers spontaneously. Readers matter because if no one is reading your blog, why are you writing it? As a literary exercise? Come on. In particular, I find Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools to be very useful. This will help you learn about your audience and keep tabs on how your blog is doing.

To get readers to come to your blog you need to use Twitter and Facebook and other forms of social media to let them know that you’ve written a piece that they might be interested in just now. How to use social media is another piece unto itself, but as mentioned above I do have a fun, helpful piece “A scientist’s guide to Twitter” that you might find helpful.

1 thought on “Top ten tips for blogging for scientists”

  1. Very useful tips. Thanks Paul!
    I’d add specifically for scientists – blog about unpublished research carefully. I had an experience with blogging about some conclusions from unpublished data. I attended a talk in the campus, got inspired, got back home and wrote a post. I sent a link to PI, which i mentioned and got cautionary note from him via email.
    I wrote about my experience with blogging here –
    A quote:
    “Scientific bloggers also have to realize that unpublished information (that you have heard from yesterday’s talk, for example) should be very carefully chosen, and that its release is not going to hurt your colleagues. Only in this case you can build your “scientific equity” or authority successfully.”

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