Radical Mailbag: Writing A Good Blog Post

June 5, 2013, 2:52 pm

woman-writing-letters-by-charles-dana-gibsonSo ya wanna be a blogger? “Santa Rosa Sandy” writes:

Dear Dr. Radical:

Having enjoyed your blog and admired the writing (and wry humor!) for a while, I wondered if you’d be willing to address the characteristics of good blog writing. My own sense is that blog posts should be meaty, but pithy—if that’s not conflating two different food groups. They can be leavened with more personal comment, humor, and current cultural reference than—say—a journal article. I recently submitted an invited entry to a higher ed blog (admittedly, I’d gone over the word limit). But to my chagrin, the editors are making it fit by removing anything that seemed even slightly leavening, leaving a pretty bland result.

This can be discouraging, Sandy. You get an opportunity to do a little writing off the academic grid, to take a chance on finding a voice that isn’t accented by scholar-speak, and poof! You have been returned to the rules of the Ivory Tower faster than you can say “tenure review.”

What counts as good blog writing is directly connected to how the genre of blogging has evolved over the last decade. Blog, as you may already know, came into use as a contraction of the original “web log,” a phrase that described what most people were actually doing: journaling on the web.

Although blogging emerged in its more primitive forms in the 1990s, it really took off in the early 21st century as other forms of alternative journalism withered and died. Academics took to blogging for lots of reasons: one is that academic publishing is frustrating and is aimed at an audience of specialists. We hated the formulaic, stilted voices we had to adopt in order to be taken seriously. We all knew we could do better, and reach a wider audience. Blogging gave us a chance to prove it. Many of us soon acquired a “blog voice” — wry, teasing, funny —  that was quite distinct from our scholarly voice and that allowed our intellectual interests to range freely. We wrote what we wanted because we owned the blogs: some of us still do.

But blogging, as a genre, no longer guarantees autonomy for the writer, in voice or subject. Why? Because a blog can be almost anything now. Blogging software allows national publications, media outlets and professional organizations to generate oodles of free content, sell ads, and reach new demographics, all without paying for new reporting, editorial or production resources. Blogs allow people to write about something without establishing credentials first; create a “platform” for a book; advertise services; connect to communities of like-minded people; narrate weight loss, gender transition, parenthood, gardening or cooking; or complain about the horrors of academic life.

Successful blogs, like this one, get picked up by mainstream publications, but lots of good blogs don’t. Nate Silver, the pollster, started as an independent blogger and moved to the New York Times, which is kind of like becoming a journalist. With comments.

Most importantly, some blogs have active editors who seek out content, and others consist of one or more people who try to make sure something fresh is up on a regular basis but exercise little control over contributors. Rule number one: when a blog has an editor, or you are contributing to a “web feature” of a larger organization or publication, you follow the custom of the country. Curated blogs are a lot like conventional print: the editors will have set a tone, focus and style for their blog; they will create pretty strict word limits; they will chop up your complex sentences and paragraphs into readable bites; and they may eliminate the kind of snark that makes self-published blogs wildly popular (and unpopular.)

Edited blogs are also far more likely to be anxious about whether what you write is going to make them look silly. I would never include some of the words, and distinctive bloggy spellings, that I use on this blog in an on-line piece for the American Historical Association. They expect something different from me, and are generally pretty explicit about what it is without being controlling. As for being funny? A news or professional organization is going to scrutinize your recollections and speculations pretty closely, so it’s wise to monitor the occasional wisecrack for accuracy.  I have a short essay on a New York Times blog feature today in which I state: “Before resigning at 100, Strom Thurmond often appeared not to participate in sessions he chaired.” Originally, I wrote that Thurmond “snoozed through sessions for years prior to his retirement at 100.” When the editor who had commissioned the piece asked me to fact check it, I could not find a single piece of evidence that what I had originally written was so, even though I remember it quite clearly from watching C-SPAN. What I remember can go on my blog, but unless I can source it, it can’t go in the Times, even on a blog.

So the answer to the question is: context matters, as in all writing. A blog isn’t just a blog anymore; it’s a marketing device that describes many different kinds of writing.

So what is a good post?

  • It’s short. A frequent criticism of this blog is that the posts are simply too long. This post is way too long!!! A good length to shoot for is 600-800 words, since people who read on line have notoriously short attention spans. Some of the best bloggers write super short posts, often several times a day, that keep people coming back. Margaret Soltan’s University Diaries is a terrific example, as is Legal History Blog and Edge of the American West.
  • It makes arguments, even complex ones, available to the non-specialist. It avoids an overly theoretical or jargony approach. I have never figured out why people blog densely-written scholarly critique, unless it’s out of some kind of fantasy that if “the people” only had access to scholarly journals they would read them.  From my perspective, that kind of writing is fine, but it isn’t blogging. It’s self-published critical theory that is created by insiders and for insiders.
  • It doesn’t work out personal grudges, deplore what are essentially differences of taste or transform legitimate political disputes into on-line vendettas. Need I say more?

So one thing to think about, Sandy, is that you might have written a great blog post — but it actually belonged at another blog if you wanted to publish it in the form in which you originally wrote it. If you aspire to blogging, you also might want to try to get a regular gig at another, less “professional” blog, to give yourself a chance to play with different voices and see what kind of audience you can entice.

Readers, what is your advice? What is a “good” blog post?


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