So you are thinking about starting an academic blog, or perhaps contributing posts to someone else’s blog or the blog of an institution. You might well be asking yourself if it is really that different from other types of academic writing.
This is a good question, but it is the wrong place to start. You should first be asking yourself, why bother?
Why write an academic blog?
Blogging is increasingly seen as a useful sort of practice for academics to engage in, but blogging, if done well, is time consuming. So, you need to be 100% sure of what’s in it for you.
The first decision you need to make is whether your blog is going to be scholarship or service focused. Or, as Saunders et al put it when they were discussing their own blogs and the reasons behind them, is it going to be a community blog or a communication blog?
A communication-focused blog
Do you feel that your area of expertise is misunderstood or overlooked by the general public? Is it relevant to a topic of current debate in society, a debate that could really use an informed opinion? Or is it just something interesting that you want to share as widely as possible?
In writing a blog to address these questions, you are performing a service to those outside of academia and writing a communication-focused blog (or blog post).
A community-focused blog
If, however, you are more interested in connecting with others in your field, even if they are spread out around the world, then you are writing a community-focused blog. One of the reasons you might do that is both to get your thoughts together and get swift feedback from knowledgeable peers. This might reasonably be argued to constitute scholarship, too.
Of course, another reason why you might want to talk to others in the academic community is to promote yourself — yes, you can publish brilliant papers in the hope of becoming a recognised authority, but if only a very narrow circle of people read it, how will you advance your point of view? You might also want to push forward a particular aspect of your field within the subject area as a whole, promote your institution as a place of cutting-edge research and academic thought, or make sure voices that are often under-represented get heard.
Blogs are also a good place to write about something that perhaps doesn’t fit into your current project or isn’t worth a paper in its own right but that people in the academic community would appreciate, or perhaps benefit from.
And that might be not only details of the research itself, but how you went about it. It could include sharing useful tools or resources. Or even be about career-building tips you want to pass on. An early survey of academic blogging found that many academic blogs focused a lot more on the academic environment itself than its product, and even now this sort of blog is well-represented in search results for ‘top academic blogs’.
Is there no room for blogging for purely introspective reasons then? Of course there is. Drawing on the ideas of transformative learning, you can treat your blog as more of a reflective journal. You might want to bear in mind, though, that while this is a good tool to critically examine yourself, your research and your practices, the best examples would also be action-oriented rather than just a platform to let off steam or moan.
How to write an academic blog post
The great news is that no matter why you start academic blogging, if you are doing it reasonably regularly, you will hopefully see the benefits in terms of honing your writing skills. Particularly, if you remember this feature of blogging most purposes — no-one actually has to read it.
If no-one has to read it, then it needs to be as readable as possible. Part of this is about making it engaging, which can only be a good thing in terms of learning how to hold readers’ attention in all types of writing.
But this is not the only consideration.
The thing about writing a blog is that your reader will be looking at a screen to process your text, which makes it harder going. You need to make some allowances. You should also remember that some readers might find you via search engines. Search engine optimisation (or SEO) is not just about stuffing your text with words or phrases someone might be searching for. No, search engines such as Google also look out for features of clear, well-organised, online-friendly writing in the posts they choose to show to readers.
One last word of warning. Yes, readability is important, and yes, being interesting as well as informative is desirable, too, but you do want to remember an academic blog is still an academic genre. Beware of overdoing the clickbait language or the deliberately controversial nature of your posts!
Online writing tips
- Using keywords that people might search for is helpful
- Try to balance intrigue with being unnecessarily populist
- Subtitles break up the text and make it easier to read
- It also helps casual readers find the bit of the text they are interested in
- You don’t need to go as short as the one sentence paragraphs of mass media
- 150 words or fewer is a reasonable length for an online paragraph
- Have 75% of the text with sentences at 20 words or fewer
- Balance long sentences with short ones — avoid too many long sentences in a row
- It needs to be 300 words minimum to be picked up by search engines
- The recommendation is often to keep it at no more 1,000 words for readability
- Currently search engines are preferring longer posts, 1,750 words for example is a good average
- It can be longer, even 5,000 words, if your post is definitive
- Longer posts need to prioritise readability in other areas
Style / register
- Write as though you are talking directly to your reader
- Use questions to invite an internal dialogue with your ideas
- Have an eye-catching opening paragraph
- Use informal devices such as CAPITALS to emphasise
- Use bullet points for concise and easy to read lists
- Avoid really unusual fonts or colours
- Readers like (some) visuals
- Visuals help to break up the text and improve readability
- They also stand out when you share your post on social media
- Copyright free images exist, for example, at pixabay.com
- Consider explaining terminology, or link to an explanation
- Consider linking to online resources — blog posts, articles or open source research papers — in place of other types of citation
It’s often a good idea to end with what the advertising copywriters have named a ‘call to action’ — and since the action bloggers, including academic bloggers, often want is engagement, then ask for it directly.
How many of these tips make sense to you? How many do you find challenging? And how many can you find in the blog post they are attached to? Please don’t hesitate to comment below.
By Heather Belgorodtseva
Heather Belgorodtseva is an EFL Teacher and Teacher Trainer. She has been involved in online communities since 2000 and started her first blog in 2006. Currently she can be found writing about discourse analysis and online communication at Those Sharp Words.