6 blog tips for busy academics

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"I don't have time," is the worst excuse not to blog.

Yet, I hear it often from fellow academics.

My advisor from grad school recently asked, "How can you write tons of papers and grant proposals, teach your classes, advise students, take care of your family and still have time to blog? Where does that time come from?"

Embedded in his question is an assumption that blogging has to take time.

Were this true, I couldn't recommend it Ph.D. students or pre-tenure profs.

The secret to low-cost academic blogging is to make blogging a natural byproduct of all the things that academics already do.

  • Doing an interesting lecture? Put your lecture notes in a blog post.
  • Writing a detailed email reply? "Reply to public" with a blog post.
  • Answering the same question a second time? Put it in a blog post.
  • Writing interesting code? Comment a snippet into a post.
  • Doing something geeky at home? Blog about what you learned.

I'll save an argument for the benefits of academic blogging for another post. For now, I'll argue that those benefits need not be high to overcome the cost.

Read below for my efficient blogging strategies.


Update: French translation available.

Tip 1: Lecture as post

A favorite gripe of junior professors is that teaching is a waste of their time.

Excellence in teaching buys no credit for tenure at many universities.

(Of course, putrid teaching can derail a tenure case.)

Teaching is an opportunity to convert lecture notes into blog posts and external evangelism. The conversion usually polishes a lecture too.

It's hard to teach a class without creating lecture notes.

Why not write those lecture notes as a blog post?

Examples

Tip 2: "Reply to public" as post

Many of the academics that "don't have time to blog" seem to have plenty of time to write detailed, well-structured replies and flames over email.

Before pressing send, ask yourself, should this answer be, "Reply," "Reply to all," or "Reply to public"?

If you put effort into the reply, don't waste it on a lucky few. Share it.

Of course, "reply to public" is not limited to email. A few of my recent posts started on Quora. If I still used Usenet, I bet the same would be true there.

Examples

Tip 3: Advice as post

I hear some questions with alarming repetition. To name a few:

  • What is grad school like?
  • How many years does a Ph.D. take?
  • How can I get into grad school?
  • How should I structure a thesis proposal?

Any question asked more than once is a candidate for a blog post.

Examples

Tip 4: Vented steam as post

My colleague, Suresh Venkatasubramanian, claims that the need to vent steam is his preferred reason for posting.

Blogs are a way to safely let it out, assuming appropriate diplomacy.

Examples

Tip 5: Blog as code repository

I used to be great at starting coding projects, but terrible at finishing them.

That changed when I started posting code on my blog.

Posting my code on my blog forces me to do three things:

  • It makes me refactor my code into a clean design.
  • It makes me comment my code sufficiently.
  • It makes me search for the most concise solution.

I've stopped rewriting code, because I reuse the code I post on my blog.

At the same time, I've picked up months-old projects and continued them.

Now when I write code, I look for ways to turn parts of it into a blog post.

Examples

Tip 6: Blog as long-term memory

There are lots of things I used to know, but forgot.

When I find myself relearning something for the second time, I write a blog post on it, so that I won't have to relearn it again.

I often write these up as a HOWTO.

Examples

A few more tips

I have a few miscellaneous tips for busy academic bloggers:

  • Don't blog before a deadline.
  • Don't post too frequently.
  • Don't feel pressure to post with regularity. Twitter and RSS can alert your readers.
  • Don't spend too much time on a post. It doesn't have to be as polished as something you submit for peer review. I don't even spell-check.
  • Do store up posts if you have free time. Release when you're busy.
  • Don't submit your own work to social news sites. If you write well enough, others will do it for you.
  • Don't feel the need to have comments. I get plenty of constructive, meaningful interaction with my readers over twitter and email.

Academic blogs I like

  • Dave Herman's The Little Calculist. I point this out to my students as a great example of grad student blogging as note-taking. (Dave recently finished his Ph.D., but he's given this blog to himself and to the community forever.)
  • John Regehr's Embedded in Academia. John's posts are much more polished than mine, and they're entertaining, educational and thorough as a result. His posts are great outreach and service to the field. He nails the post-tenure associate professor blog perfectly.
  • Suresh Venkatasubramanian's geomblog. Suresh's blog is a great mixture of field-specialist and pan-academic writing. There's something worth knowing in every post.
  • Daniel Lemire's blog hits topics ranging from his own research interests to broader academic concerns. He thoughtfully compresses many of his posts into small, bite-sized form.
  • Dick Lipton's blog does a major service to theory of computation, because he spends time writing engaging, thoughtful and accessible articles. Dick does the esteemed yet friendly full professor blog well.

Translations

This post is also available in Portuguese.


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