In this post, I set out what I have learned about writing a really good academic or research blog post. It is increasingly important to present academic research to the broader public. That requires a special way of writing about research.
I am a legal academic at Monash University and I am a regular blogger and author for academic commentary site The Conversation. For the past three years I have been editor of this Australian Dispute Resolution Network blog and I encourage and require my undergraduate law students to write for the public in the blog format.
This post has been written in conjunction with the Australian Dispute Resolution Network’s 5th annual workshop in Hobart from 9-11 December 2016 at the University of Tasmania. This piece has been posted during my session about academic blogging, to demonstrate how easy it is.
Artist Barbara Horsley involves Chloe Stout in adding a few brush strokes to ‘The Old Post Office’ at the Australian-Italian Festival in Ingham, Queensland, 2013, Scragg, Sarah, Courtesy John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Why Blog Research?
All academics need to be able to write about their research in simple and non-technical language for the broader public. Blogging is also a great way for students and practitioners to present their work to a broader audience.
In this blog we have already set out the Top 6 ways that Twitter can help your research.
Blogging is a great way of sharing your research with a more wide-ranging audience than a typical peer-reviewed academic journal allows. The ubiquity of neo-liberalism has meant that those working at higher education institutions today need to demonstrate how they have contributed to the knowledge economy.
As impact and engagement are increasingly becoming important measures of research productivity at Australian universities, blogging allows academics to increase the exposure of their research and to develop their profile as a public commentator.
But the real reason that I blog as a scholar whose salary is paid by Australian taxpayers, is that it feels like the right way to give back.
Through my legal research I have learned wondrous things about the impact of law upon everyday lives. Explaining what I have learned and why it is important to the people directly affected by law and legal process can help to give people understanding and choice and it can help towards them achieving that elusive goal, access to justice.
Start by Looking at Other Academic Blogs
Research blogging is a unique genre. Lots of students and academics I know find it hard to know where to start.
I think the best way to learn about how to write a blog post is to read lots of high quality research blogs. The gold standard is academic commentary site, The Conversation, which started in Australia in 2011 and which has presence now in the US, South Africa, the UK and France. The Conversation was developed with the aim of helping academics to present their research to improve the quality of public discourse. In my experience of publishing with that site, although they can be tricky to get published in, the advice of the editors on how to present my research has informed how I write outside the blog genre too.
If you are interested in looking at Australian law blogs, here’s one great aggregate and another from my Monash colleague Melissa Castan. Specifically on the non-adversarial theme is this ADR Research Network blog and the Mainstreaming Therapeutic Jurisprudence blog. For research-specific blogs I like the Thesis Whisperer for postgraduate researchers and their supervisors, as well as its more grown -up sibling, the Research Whisperer.
There are other places where people have written well about academic/research based blogging. Here’s a great introduction to academic blogs by Professor Patrick Dunleavy at London School of Economics.
There are some other interesting links on writing research/academic blogs and the blog genre: from the Thesis Whisperer about the value of blogging for PhD students, the Research Whisperer (ostensibly about science blogging but really relevant to any discipline) and this one about how to start writing a research blog post.
What Should I Write About?
In working out what to write about, you can take Dunleavy’s approach in this post and write a summary of a paper, article, chapter or essay you have already (mostly) completed. Dunleavy argues that after you publish an academic journal article, you should write a post summarising it.
Academically a blogpost boosts citations for the core article itself. It advertises your journal article in ways that can get it far more widely read than just pushing the article out into the ether to sink or swim on its own.
Dunleavy’s argument could apply to a thesis chapter, a conference paper or to a research essay completed for academic coursework.
I prefer to start with a blog and then turn the post into something that counts more readily as academic productivity. Writing a blog post is often a great way to capture an idea quickly. Many of us in the ADR Research Network have found that our posts on this blog have become the basis for a later academic project, whether that be a conference paper, an empirical research project, a collaboration between researchers or an academic journal article. In a busy academic life, it is good to make one piece of work count twice, and blogging allows for that.
Another trick is to ask someone else to write a post as a guest blogger. That adds variety to the range of posts on a particular blog and helps ensure that posts are regular.
Tone and Form
A blog post should be written differently to an academic journal article. It needs to be understood by a non-expert audience, it needs to keep people engaged when they could easily switch to social media entertainments, it needs a different way of referencing sources and needs to look good on a screen (rather than on a page).
A good length for an academic blog post is 800-1500 words. It can definitely be shorter but any longer than that will lose readers part way through and will be too long on the page.
Don’t use technical language, or if you must, you need to explain it simply. I try to think that I am blogging for an interested, intelligent but non-specialist audience.
Paragraphs should be short, just a few sentences at most. Otherwise, your paragraphs will look too long on the page.
Rather than footnotes you should use hyperlinks. Blogging raises the moral problem of so much publicly -funded academic writing being hidden behind publisher’s paywalls. Assume your readers aren’t connected to universities and can’t afford to pay journal subscription fees. Hyperlinks should be to open source material that is not behind a paywall.
Grab their Attention with a Photo
A post should start with a hook that grabs readers’ attention. You can do this with a cracker opening line or you can use a picture.
I find that a great photo enlivens a post, and encourages readers to look at the piece. Especially with blogging services such as WordPress which send an email out to blog subscribers, a photo looks really good on the email that gets sent out.
When using photos online, it is important not to breach copyright restrictions. You could use a photo that you have taken yourself or you could use photos that are open access/licensed under Creative Commons or which are out of copyright.