Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. (Click here to see previous installments.)
Today’s question: Why blog? It takes a lot of time and energy that you might otherwise spend on higher paid work. What do you get out of blogging?
I blog because the world is overflowing with creatures like myxobacteria, jelly lichens, liverworts, and bdelloid rotifers. They’re weird, fascinating, and oddly enough, usually abundant. Most people — biologists included — have never heard of them, or if they have, know little about them.
I had learned a lot about this stuff in college botany, mycology, and microbiology, and much of it was both amazing and obscure. I felt like I was sitting on some of the most wonderful untold stories in the world. I had to share them. I think that feeling of compulsion about something is essential to good blogging. It makes it easier, in any case, to keep pumping out posts.
At first, I thought I would go about sharing what I knew by writing a book. But that goal seemed so far off and difficult. I was working a full-time job to pay the bills. When would I have time to write a book proposal?
Then, in 2008, when I was visiting my old science writing grad program, I mentioned my book aspirations. Director Tom Levenson asked me if I’d considered starting a blog. I had reservations about finding images, and showing people good pictures and videos of what I wanted to write about was so central to my purpose. (Creative Commons licenses turned out to be a godsend.) Also, would I just be stealing material from my book?
But once I thought about it, it made a lot of sense. Unlike writing a book, blogging was a way for me to start working toward my goal TODAY, rather than just talking about it and never actually beginning.
Since then, I’ve discovered many other reasons to blog.
My blog is my own little kingdom. I write whatever I want, whenever I want. This allows me to cover topics that editors might never go for, and in ways they might veto. If I want to display a huge image that takes up the entire width of the screen, I can do that. If I want to insert a clip from Dune to make a point about roundworms (which I did recently), I can do that too. But having no editor is a double-edged sword. You must also do all the work of editing your own posts. In my opinion, work that has had two different pairs of eyes on it will always be superior to work that’s only seen one.
Blogging is a way of exposing your writing to the world — and to the eyes of peers and potential employers and fans — in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. In other words, it’s free (well, low cost) marketing. I was shocked at how many famous science writers were familiar with my blog and my writing at Science Online 2012, even though they’d never met me. I was also shocked a few days ago when a grad student whose work I covered in a recent blog post got in touch with me to let me know not only how she appreciated my post, but that she’d already been following my blog for some time.
In the case of editors, it can lead to you being offered work or getting a much warmer reception when you pitch something. They already know what your unedited writing looks like and whether they like it or not. One need not look far to find science writers who’s parlayed blogs into successful science writing careers. Ed Yong and Brian Switek are oft-cited examples.
In the case of fans, you can start building a following of loyal readers who know and like your work and will be looking forward to it at other places too, like books or magazines.
Blogging is an especially good format if you have a distinctive voice or like to use humor. These qualities tend to be muted in conventional news or feature articles. I am bursting with enthusiasm for my subjects, and on my blog, I can convey that in my own voice. If I want (attempt) to be funny or playful, I can. Some amount of voice and opinion is inherent to most blogging, and it’s a great way to spotlight those strengths.
Finally, blogging is great practice. Being great at anything requires a lot of it. This is an idea Malcolm Gladwell espoused in his “10,000 hour rule” in Outliers, in which he posits the key to success in any field is simply totting up the hours. He claims the Beatles, for instance, racked up more than 10,000 hours in seedy nightclubs in Germany before hitting it big in Britain. Although I believe some talent and some luck are also significant factors, there’s a lot to be said for an industrial-strength dose of practice. When you blog regularly, you will get better at writing, and you will produce a few gems. Those gems may earn you accolades, publication, readers, or jobs.
Recently I reread Elise Hancock’s opus on science writing, Ideas into Words (recommended!), where she asserts that what made Bach great was that he churned out music week after week as a “working stiff” for the Catholic church. A lot of it is mediocre and is forgotten. Some of it is great and will be remembered for the ages. “Today,” she writes, “we hear only his works of genius, of which we have so many because he wrote a little something every week.” Blogging can be like that working stiff church job. It increases both your capacity for — and odds of — creating great work.
I started my first blog when I was in graduate school for science writing. So I’ve never known what it’s like to be a science writer and not blog. Still, I guess I’ve stuck with it for two big reasons: exposure and freedom.
Most of my non-blog writing is for science publications. That means that people who aren’t science-lovers are unlikely to ever read my stuff. Blog posts, in contrast, tend to get more diverse audiences. A few examples come to mind. A little more than a year ago, I got an email from a college friend. He had just read one of my posts from The Last Word on Nothing because it had been linked from Daily Dish, a hugely popular political blog run by Andrew Sullivan. My friend’s email said: “So I am reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog just now, which is really the only blog I read, and I come across this wonderful shout out. Congrats.” That made my week! Last November, a post I wrote about sleep, titled Re-Awakenings, was part of the reason I was asked to join National Geographic Magazine’s new blog network, Phenomena. The first post on my new blog there got picked up by the uber-aggregator reddit and has had more than 108,000 page views. Don’t get me wrong — there are many, many times when I put a ton of effort into a post and it gets little attention. But overall I think the exposure of blogging pays off more often than not.
Then there’s the amazing freedom of writing any story that you think is interesting. Blogs don’t have editorial gatekeepers saying your story isn’t fresh enough, punchy enough, weighty enough, blah blah blah. You get to follow your gut. That Re-Awakenings story, for example, was about a woman with a strange sleeping disorder and was helped by a drug with a long and tainted history. I knew from my reporting that it was a really compelling story, and so I initially tried to sell it to a big newspaper. The pitch never went anywhere, and looking back, I understand why. I couldn’t convey all of the cool parts of the story in the 300-word pitch. Frustrated, I just wrote it anyway, all 2,500 words of it, and threw it up on the blog. And it worked out.
(There’s another kind of freedom that comes with blogging that I’m growing to hate: the freedom to publish without an editor. I know that my posts would be better if an editor was looking them over before they went live. And I’m not just talking about copy-editing. In an ideal world, I would get to choose my stories and write them, and then an editor angel would swoop in at the end and make gentle, non-binding suggestions about how to improve structure, kill my darlings, and the like. Never going to happen, I know, but a girl can dream…)
Why blog? Because it’s fun. Because you have something to say. Because you want to be heard. But mostly because you’re definitely not doing it for money. In truth, there are probably as many reasons for blogging as there are stars in the sky. I can only answer this question from my own personal experience, offering my own reasons and observations.
I know it’s anathema to most writers to give their words away for free, but not all of the reasons to blog equate to direct financial gain. For me, blogging is an exception. Some people blog because they want an outlet for their thoughts, a little sandbox to play in where they don’t have to worry about an editor or word counts; maybe they write for personal enjoyment or satisfaction — or maybe they do it for mental sanity. Still other people post on blogs for the community and networking that blogging can spark (think: ScienceOnline). I also know of writers, like Brian Switek and Meera Sethi, who have treated their blogs like writing labs, using it to experiment and get feedback as they go. Others, like Ivan Oransky, run blogs that provide a valuable service to our field.
I’ve noticed two very general approaches science writer/bloggers tend to take: 1.) blogging strategically, by posting regularly and using the blog specifically to promote their “brand” or their work or to build an audience as a writer/blogger; and 2.) blogging opportunistically, posting less regularly and using it to explore ideas of interest as it strikes their fancy. Both approaches are equally legitimate; personally I think you just have to decide for yourself what your goals are and how you’re going to use blogging to achieve them.
For me, the key to being happy blogging has been to realize that my blog doesn’t own me. If I need to set it aside for a few weeks or months to work on other projects, then I do. This is one reason I haven’t joined a blogging network, although I’ve been asked a few times. That’s probably the exact opposite of what a writing or business coach would advise you to do (because they’d want you to be building your writing empire by cultivating an audience). But by allowing myself to unplug from it when I need to, it makes the experience much more enjoyable on a personal level. And sometimes nice things happen when you give your posts away for free. For example, I’ve had three of my posts selected for publication in The Open Lab anthology series (2009, 2010 and 2012). Another perk: now that I’ve mostly been posting book reviews, I’ve received a half dozen or so books for free from authors and publishers.
I used to think of blogging as a platform for getting your name and words out there, but now I tend to think of it more like a cocktail party or a neighborhood corner bar: a place to stop in and chat with friends and colleagues, meet new people who think and do interesting things, exchange conversation and cultivate new ideas.
Why I Blog
1. I blog because my interests are too omnivorous, quirky, and wide-ranging to be accommodated by any “beat.”
2. I blog because writers have to be their own brand these days. No masthead or corporation can provide job security anymore. Interested readers are my job security.
3. I blog so I can stay in the mix while working on longer-incubating projects.
4. I blog to be part of the larger conversation. With the advent of social media, the conversation never ceases.
5. I blog because I haven’t met the editor yet who says things like, “Steve, with your long track record, we trust you. If you’re really passionate about something, we know it will be great!”
6. I blog because sometimes I’m foolish enough to want the luxury of being my own worst critic.
7. I blog because Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were my literary heroes when I was young, and they launched a world-wide progressive cultural movement called the Beat Generation by printing their inspired poems and stories in “little magazines.” We can only imagine what they would have done with a low-cost global multimedia platform that enables the audience to find YOU.
8. I blog because there’s a lot of bullshit out there, much of it masquerading as conventional wisdom.
9. I blog to talk directly to my readers, one-on-one, without commercial interests shaping the message.
10. I blog because I’m lonely in my little room, and you’re lonely too, but if you give me a few minutes of your time, I may be able to briefly reawaken in us a shared sense of wonder.