Spring Break Classic Posts: What I’ve Learned from a Year of Blogging: Advice for Would-Be Bloggers

(It’s Spring Break here this week, so I am taking the week off from blogging to work to revise a few articles and begin working on new research projects. As a result, I am re-posting old posts that some new readers might have missed but which were very popular the first time I posted them. The following was initially posted on January 4, 2012.)

A grad-school colleague and dear friend of mine has recently gotten tenure and will be going on research leave next year. In a recent email exchange about something we are working on together (and which will hopefully become a working paper sometime next summer), she told me that she’d been toying with the idea of joining the blogosphere, and that she welcomed any advice I might have for her.

Since I spent a good amount of time thinking about what I wish I had known a year ago, I thought I should share it more broadly. Here is a list of 15 things I wish I’d known before I started blogging. If you have a blog (and it need not be academic), please add your own suggestions in the comments.

  1. This is optional, but very helpful for those moments where you don’t have time to come up with fresh new material. Before you start blogging, start accumulating posts (or post ideas) in a Word file. I did that while on sabbatical in 2009-2010, long before I posted anything. It came in handy once or twice.
  2. There is no use in promoting a blog on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. if it only has few posts. You should wait until you have at least 25 posts (or ten “substantial” ones, i.e., not just a bunch of links) before you start promoting your own blog.
  3. Five hundred words per post at most. Anything more than that, you split into a series of post. If you read Paul Krugman’s blog, he always manages to explain things concisely (and oh-so-clearly!) in way less than that. This is truly where blogging enhances your writing.
  4. Post at least three times a week, even if it’s just to post the abstract of a new working paper, or to post links. Readers who do not use RSS (and there are still many!) will tire of not finding fresh content every time they visit. If you will not be able to post for a while, write a post explaining that you’re taking a break. There were 184 million blogs out there in 2008. My hunch is that at least 75 percent of those are derelict.
  5. Write in very short paragraphs. For me at least, there is a considerable difference between reading something on paper (or my Kindle, for that matter) and reading it on my computer screen. I approach paragraphs as I did when I wrote for my college newspaper.
  6. On the technical back end, I don’t know what to recommend, since I’ve only ever used WordPress on my own domain name. I’m not sure I would recommend using a blog service like Blogger or Blogspot, although some famous blogs are on such services. I registered my domain with GoDaddy, and although I used the same service for my hosting, it was horribly slow. So on Don Taylor‘s recommendation, I switched to HostGator (it’s what the Incidental Economist uses for hosting, and Don Don’s co-blogger Austin Frakt says the only time they ever run into problems is when Paul Krugman links to them, and they have tens of thousands of view in one afternoon) ran into problems was because of a conflict due to the Twitter sidebar. It is actually really easy to install a WordPress site on your own domain, as there are dozens of tutorials out there, and many popular hosting sites like GoDaddy will even install WordPress for you if you want it.
  7. Write about what interests you. It’s what gives your blog its own personality. Unless you bring in a great deal of value added, don’t feel like you have to blog about a given topic just because everyone else does.
  8. When you feel like you are ready to start promoting your blog, after you have been doing it for at least a couple months or have accumulated at least 25 posts, create accounts on sites like Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon, and Reddit.
  9. Perhaps more importantly for promoting your blog, join Twitter, and start following the people whom you find interesting. Most people are nice and follow you back. Twitter is also a great source of things to blog about. For me, it was crucial in keeping track of what happened in terms of food prices and social unrest in 2011.
  10. Twitter might seem overwhelming at first. You may ask yourself, “How can I keep track of all this?” The answer is “You can’t,” unless you spend your days looking at your Twitter feed. Twitter allows me to take the pulse of the development policy world. The metaphor is richer than it appears at first sight — a doctor does not constantly check a patient’s pulse, only when it seems warranted, or when they think about doing so.
  11. Your self-description on Twitter is all-important. Mine reads “Assistant Professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. My research focuses on development policy. RTs ≠ endorsement.” I follow other academics back almost automatically, out of solidarity. Likewise for people who write in their self-description that they are interested in development. But I almost never follow people back with blank self-description, unless they are real-life friends.
  12. Back to blogging: be generous with attribution and links. There is nothing in social media more disheartening than working a few hours on a great post, only to see someone make the same point somewhere else without mentioning where they got the idea. Likewise with tweeting.
  13. Most academic journals now have RSS feeds for articles just published (or, as is the case for some journals, for articles just accepted and in press), which helps keeping track of new articles. The NBER also has an RSS feed for its working papers.
  14. When you finish working on a working paper, blog about it. Of course, the reader should know that it’s still a work in progress, and that it’s subject to change. I’ve received many good comments on my food riots paper when I first talked about it, after I’d finished writing the working paper version.
  15. When one of your article gets published online, blog about it. This gives you a chance to discuss what the paper does more informally (and in many more words) than the abstract does, and so it increases the chances people will read your paper and cite it. This can only be good for your career.

For similar lists, see also:

There is also the Huffington Post Guide to Blogging if you want to read an actual book on the topic. I read it after blogging for about ten months and did not find it very helpful, but I might have a different opinion if I’d read it before I started blogging.

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