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.