Friday, August 30, 2013

Should you write a science blog?

I get asked a lot how I keep up the blogging. It might be the second most asked question right after “What happened to your hair?” (Answer: It’s a natural disaster, get used to it.) The third frequently asked question, especially by students, is “Do you have any advice if I want to start blogging?” Yeah, I do, but I’m not sure you want to hear it.

I used to think there should really be more scientists blogging. That’s because for me science journalism not so much a source of information but a source of news. It tells me where the action is and points into a direction. If it seems interesting I’ll go and look up the references, but if it’s not a field close to my own I prefer if somebody who actually works on the topic offers an opinion. And I don’t mean a cropped sentence with a carefully chosen adjective and politically correct grammar. In some research areas, quantum gravity one of them, there really aren’t many researchers offering first-hand opinions. Shame on you.

So yeah, I think there should be more scientists blogging. But over the years I’ve seen quite a few of them starting to blog like penguins start to fly. If I had a penny for every deserted science blog I’ve seen I’d be wondering why some deranged British tourist stuffed their coins into my pockets. What’s so difficult about writing a blog, I hear you asking now. You’re asking the wrong person, said the flying penguin, but what blogger would I be if I only had opinions on things I know something about? So here’s my 5 cents (about 4.27 pennies).

As everybody in quantum gravity knows, first there’s the problem of time. So here’s

    Advice #1: Don’t start blogging if you don’t have the time.

Do you really want to invest the time you could be teaching your daughter basketball? Do you really think it’s more important than rewriting that grant proposal for the twentieth time? If you had the time to write a blog wouldn’t you rather use it to learn Chinese, train for a marathon, or become an expert in power napping? If you answered yes to any of these questions, thank you and good bye. Also, give me my money back. If you answered yes to all of these questions, I suggest you touch base with the local drug scene.

But how much time will it take, is your next question. Depends on your ambition of course, said the penguin and flapped her wings. You should produce at least one post a week if you ever want to get off the ground, which brings me to

    Advice #2: Don’t start blogging if you don’t like writing.

The less you like writing, the longer it will take and the more time becomes an issue. The more time becomes an issue, the more you’ll hate blogging and esp those people who seem to produce blogposts, seemingly effortlessly, 5 times a day, apparently while cooking for a family of twelve and jetting around the globe in a self-made, wooden plane sponsored by their three million subscribers.

Are you sure you like writing? No, I didn’t mean you gave it a thumb up on facebook. Are you really sure you like the process of converting thought into keyboard clatter? Ok, good start. But just because you like it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I’ll admit it took me years to realize it, but evidently I have a lot of colleagues who fight with words. Did you notice that this blog has a second contributor? Yes, it does. It’s just that the frequency of my posts is a factor 300 or so higher than his. He can be forgiven for making himself rare because he’s got a full-time job and two kids and a wife who blogs rather than doing the laundry. But mostly the problem is that he’s fighting with words.

Words – Once upon a time I went to a Tai Chi class. The first class was also the last because I realized quickly that my back problem wasn’t up to the task of throwing people around. I used the opportunity though to punch the trainer straight into the solar plexus a second before he had finished his encouragement to do so. I hope he learned not to use more words than necessary. But I also took away a lesson, one that’s been useful for my writing: Don’t try to take hits frontally, deviate them and use the momentum. So here’s my

    Advice #3: Don’t be afraid of words.

Words aren’t your enemies. It they come at you, use their momentum and go with it. That’s easier said than done, I know, especially if you’re a scientist and have been trained to be precise and accurate and to decorate every sentence with 20 references and footnotes. But don’t think you actually have to be a good writer. Because most likely your readers aren’t good readers either, which is only fair. If you can really write well, you shouldn’t blog, you should… you should… write my damned grant proposal. What I mean is if you try to blog like you write research articles, you’ll almost certainly turn out to be a flying penguin, so don’t overthink it.

However, nobody is born flying, so here’s

    Advice #4: Be patient.

It takes time until you’re integrated into the blogosphere. You can help your integration by using social networks to make yourself, your expertise, and your blog known. Unless you are already well known in your field, it will probably take at least a year, more likely several years, till readership catches on. Until then, make contacts, make friends, learn from others, have fun. Above everything, don’t call a blogpost a blog, it’s mistaking the weather for the climate.

If you still think you want to write a blog, then go ahead. I honestly don’t think it takes more than that: Time, and a good relation to the written word, and patience. The main reason I’m still blogging is that I like writing and verbal TaiChi doesn’t take me a lot of effort. It arguably also helps that since 2006 I’ve been employed at pure research institutes and don’t have teaching duties, see advice #1.

Then let me address some worries. This might be more an issue for the, eh, more senior people, but it should be said

    Advice #5: Don't be afraid of the technology.

As with everything in life, you can make it arbitrarily complicated if you want, but as long as you have an IQ above 70 you'll find some way to blog. It really is not difficult. Another worry that newcomers seem to have is that they’ll run out of ideas, so let me assure you

    Advice #6: Don’t worry that you’ll run out of things to say.

Topics will come flying at you faster than you can get out of the way. There’s always somebody who’s said something about something that you also want to say something about. There’s always some science writer who got it so totally wrong. There’s always somebody’s seminar that was interesting and somebody’s paper that you just read. And if all of that fails, there’s always somebody who has thrown sexist comments around, ten things you wish you had known when you were twenty, and down at the very bottom of the list there’s blogging advice. So don’t worry, just take notes when you come across something interesting or have an idea for a blogpost. I pin post-its to my desk.

Yes, in principle you can fill your blog otherwise than with words. This might work if you have a lot of visual content, pictures, videos, infographics, applets, etc. Alas, the way things have developed the primarily visual stuff has migrated to other platforms and blogs are today the format primarily used for verbal content. And since the spread of twitter, facebook and Google+, sharing links with brief comments has also left the blogosphere. Blogging started out mostly being about writing, and it boomeranged back to this.

Having said that however, blogging of course isn’t only about writing, it’s also about reading. So here’s my

    Advice #7: Care about your readers.

They’ll give you feedback as to whether you’re expressing yourself clearly. If the comments don’t have any relation to the content of your posts, you’re not expressing yourself clearly enough. If insults pile up in your comment section, you’re expressing yourself too clearly. If you’re not getting any comments, see advice #4. However, please

    Advice #8: Don’t be afraid of your readers.

If everybody would like what you write, somebody would hate it just because everybody likes it, so it’s futile. If I’ve learned one thing from blogging, it’s that misunderstandings are unavoidable. They’re part of the process and that’s a two-way process. Just don’t take hits frontally, use their momentum. That misunderstanding really makes a good topic for your next blogpost, no?

You’ll have noticed that I didn’t say anything about content. That’s because the content is up to you. It really doesn’t matter all that much what you write because blog readers are self-selecting. The ones who’ll stay are the ones who like what you write. If it matters to you to attract a sizeable audience then you should spend some time thinking about content, but I’m not the right penguin to give advice on that. I basically just write what comes to my mind, minus some self-censorship for the sake of my readers’ sanity. You don’t really want to know how I lost my virginity, do you?

So should you write a science blog?

You and I both might think you should blog, but that’s wishful thinking. Be honest and ask yourself if you really want to write a blog. Without motivation it’ll be painful both for you and your readers. I wouldn’t want to eat in a restaurant where the cook hates cooking and I wouldn’t want to read a blog where the writer hates writing. If you’re not sure though, I want to encourage you to give it a try because writing might just change your life.

For me the blogging has been very useful, especially because it has taught me to quickly extract the main points of other people’s work and to coherently summarize them, which in return has made it much easier for me to recall this information later. I have also over the years made many friends through this blog, some of whom I have met in person and whose friendship I value very much. I see a lot of cynicism these days about the emptiness of social networking. But I appreciate social media for making it so much easier to stay in touch with people I know who have distributed all over the planet.

Homework assignment: Open the book closest to you on a random page and take the first noun that you see. Imagine it’s a chapter title in your autobiography. Write that chapter.

25 comments:

B Yen/Getty Images [ iTunes demo ] said...

What is your take on the Cosmicvariance, one time rated #1 Physics blog..just got ABANDONED. Due to the Cancer of crackpot media (Kalmbach Publishing), which acquired Discover magazine, print & online.

http://www.science20.com/science_20/blog/discover_magazine_sold_print_science_media_valuations_plummet

Have you considered some sort of "empire building" model, like Huffington Post? Become a 1 stop shop for News (say Physics, Science in general), develop web-traffic, sell advertising space. Eventaully sell off for hundreds of millions of $$'s? Use profits to fund your own Physics research, & say a Garrett Lisi "Science Hostel" model. "Research nodes" all around the World?

Amara said...

Lovely. Thanks for the food-for-thought, Sabine. In the last few years I've been using Facebook for my monologues. I used to use my old domain for story-telling, in the years before blogs began, but I never made the leap to use my domain for blogging. Part of my brain says: "Wait until this blogging phase of the Web passes, and then you'll be ready for the next generation of expression. Funny, huh?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

A nice piece, yet I think you left out the most important thing in being able to become a successful and appreciated blogger; well at least from my point of view. For me it comes down to whether if one is primarily a giver or a taker. That being I would argue the best bloggers are givers and in such regard I have found you always as one of the best. I know in the past you've often claimed you do it primarily for yourself and yet I would contend if that is taken to be true it simply means you have a more expanded sense of self than most people.


”For the will and not the gift makes the giver.”

- Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, ”Nathan the Wise”, Scene V

Regards,

Phil

Plato Hagel said...

Bee: Words – Once upon a time I went to a Tai Chi class.... But I also took away a lesson, one that’s been useful for my writing: Don’t try to take hits frontally, deviate them and use the momentum.

Haha....you got the very essence here about grokking and consuming something very engaging about life in general. Getting the feel for something and becoming it.....to let it move on.

All in all there's been a few of us that have been around from the beginning and I couldn't have been more appreciative of the time you and your husband have taken to inform people bout different aspects of the sciences that you are interested in. So thanks for that.

Your advice on blogging is very good too. Can I say something very unique happens over time as you accumulate data that references become like neuron cells that you activate as you incorporate other blog posts together to develop the thinking on any particular subject.

There are science bloggers who have materialized over time that have definitely shined as givers in the way Phil has mentioned. As well recognized the service they are providing by helping the public forward with the understanding of their science. There can be no greater gift then by giving in this way.

Of course the lay general do take up blogging with the understanding of moving forward their knowledge base, so advance in blogging design is inevitable as the internet makes room for data transfers capable of sharing video and lecture scenes within their institutions. This is a very important development for the public benefit as we can gaze in on what the scientists are doing. Boosting our knowledge base.

So thanks for all the info all these years Bee and Stefan.

Best,



Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Robert,

Re Cosmic Variance. Sean writes well. Also, my own interests have some overlap with his, so it's one of the (relatively few) blogs that I follow. I'm not terribly excited about multiverse and boltzmann brains and stuff like this though, so my interest has its limits. Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Amara,

Yes, I quite enjoy your facebook posts, you write really well :o) On some level it really doesn't matter much which forum you use to express yourself. After all it's about you, not about the medium. And facebook has the clear advantage of being more flexible on the private/public settings. Let me ask you a question though. Have you figured out any way to backup your facebook posts? Because we download our blog archives every once in a while and dump it on an external hard-drive just because so much work went into it. Best,

Sabine

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Plato,

Thanks for the kind words, esp from a veteran blogger like you :o) And yes, I also noticed that as stuff accumulates it becomes more useful. As a reference of my own thought processes and as a pool of thoughts that I can connect. I have some problem though with the linearity of writing in general. And I'm afraid that most people do not follow the cross-links, so they'll always only see part of the picture that I have in my mind. Communication can be difficult. Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Robert,

No, I haven't considered becoming a stop shop for news. There are sufficiently many of these already and I'm not interested in doing that. Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Dear Phil,

Thanks for the kind words. Of course I take. I take the feedback from the comments to begin with :o) Best,

Sabine

Uncle Al said...

"as long as you have an IQ above 70" 86. The Los Angeles Unified School District vs. the California Academic Performance Index test shows average high school 83-86 IQ. Said leaders of tomorrow are incoherent on paper.

"'What happened to your hair?'" Waves and curls fall in and out of fashion demanding women are forever lacking. Be wonderful while others complain. Uncle Al got a VP/R&D red-faced, standing behind his desk screaming, "It CAN’T work that way!" It was a free sample, it was absurd, and it did. Footnotes rock the world.

(That was 176 words, now 92 - the hard part.)

Zephir said...

This post represents really a good and coherent advice why and how to start with blogging. But I don't agree, we do need more quantum gravitists blogging. There is actually nearly nothing to blog about it in publicly comprehensible way and more blogs about quantum gravity would just increase the already rather high noise/signal ratio. Many dogs, rabbit's death. A hundred times nothing killed the donkey. etc.

Plato Hagel said...

Bee:And I'm afraid that most people do not follow the cross-links, so they'll always only see part of the picture that I have in my mind. Communication can be difficult.

It is exciting to have found these connections developing in one's mind. It 's like given the mind, calisthenics to stretch the brane?:)

Eventually, the picture comes out as you continue to write. This is a very creative process in the making. IN a way, it becomes inevitable, as I watch this work in progress. I see further transitions toward the data
developing as one uses the tools of Youtube, or, other methods to get across your thoughts. This is a good use of media development.

Best,

Plato Hagel said...

Bee:And I'm afraid that most people do not follow the cross-links, so they'll always only see part of the picture that I have in my mind. Communication can be difficult.

It is exciting to have found these connections developing in one's mind. It 's like given the mind, calisthenics to stretch the brane?:)

Eventually, the picture comes out as you continue to write. This is a very creative process in the making. It becomes inevitable, as I watch this work in progress. I see further transitions toward the data developing as one uses the tools of Youtube, or, other methods to get across your thoughts. This is a good use of media development.

Best,

MineralPhys said...

I don't have the time, and I have a love-hate relationship with writing. My blog is totally a testament to my wishful thinking! In fact--perhaps that's its purpose.

johnduffieldblog said...

Sounds like good advice, Bee. I've started doing a bit of blogging myself as it happens, and will bear it in mind. I don't have my own blog or anything, I'm just a contributor to something set up by a guy called James Delingpole. And it isn't really a physics blog, mine is the only physics on there. But hey, you have to start somewhere. And it does focus the mind.

Wild Bill said...

You are the best science blogger I have read.

One nice piece of advice from Muriel Spark, is always to write as if it will be read by a very dear old friend of yours.

Thanks for the entertainment, the enlightenment and the curiosity you have provoked in me.

George Wilkinson said...

Thank you for this!
George

Florin Moldoveanu said...

Interesting advice. I used to write for FQXi and recently I started my own blog: http://fmoldove.blogspot.com/ My major fear still is that I'll run out of topics.

Phillip Helbig said...

"In the last few years I've been using Facebook for my monologues."

And so we meet again, Amara. Not being on Facebook, I realize why you have disappeared from my universe. :-)

Phillip Helbig said...

"Re Cosmic Variance. Sean writes well."

Yes, but he left Cosmic Variance a while back and returned to his own blog, Preposterous Universe. I've also noticed that Cosmic Variance seems to be abandoned.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip,

Oh, right, sorry for the blunder. I just changed the feed in my reader, so I don't really care who blogs under which template.

Emily Lakdawalla said...

I agree that blogs need to be maintained at least once a week; and that most professional (or student) scientists prolly don't have the time for that. That's why I am pleased to be able to provide space on my blog to any planetary scientist who's itching to try out writing a little bit but doesn't want to commit to writing once a week or more. You get experience without commitment (and even copy editing and writing feedback), plus a preexisting audience; I get content. Everybody wins! Right? Please blog for me at planetary.org/blogs if you are (a) doing interesting work (b) have something interesting to say about somebody else's interesting work.

pabloredux said...

"Above everything, don’t call a blogpost a blog."
But blog is a silly word already. Blog post is too clumsy.
Post is too general, and neither article nor paper fit the bill.
I'd prefer to be able to say "Super blog" and leave the weather a little hazy (and the author a little peeved).

Sandeep Tammu said...

Hi Bee,

I am a science graduate student. I always wanted to write, and I started to blog. Well, honestly, for the first two attempts, I lost my interest and it was always shaky.

I made up my mind this time, I have been blogging from the last six months, around 5-6 articles per month. Mostly, I can not find good things to write about. Traffic is absolutely close to zero except for some of my friends.

How did you manage to write consistently good articles?

Sorry for commenting in old article, I hope my question makes sense.

Thank you.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Sandeep,

If you can find "no good things to write about" why do you think that anybody should read what you don't want to write about?