Ian Babelon is finishing a PhD at Northumbria University in Newcastle (UK). His thesis focuses on online citizen participation in urban planning. He is editor-in-chief of the blog of the Young Academics network of the Association of European Schools of Spatial Planning (AESOP), which also welcomes contributions from researchers and practitioners at all stages of their career.
Blogging is not only a fun way to share your work as researcher or practitioner, it also supports greater impact. This post reviews the benefits of blogging for regional and urban experts, as extracted from the wider blogosphere. The post was initially published on the blog of the AESOP Young Academics network on 12 December 2019.
Blogging is increasingly popular among academics and practitioners alike. Individual professionals, research groups and companies now routinely blog about their work, leading to a flurry of blogs available within spatial planning (see particularly the excellent list of planning blogs provided by Feedspot). Simone Tulumello, researcher at the University of Lisbon and founder of the AESOP Young Acadmics blog, reminds us about the importance and many benefits of blogging. Sharing your work isn’t just about fancy academic publications. You need both blogging/fast sharing and formal publications, as part of a balanced publication strategy. If you and your organisation suffer from the ‘Publish or Perish’ syndrome, you can rest assured that you could possibly also Publish AND Perish. Blogging is just a great tool to make your work more impactful.
The flip part of the popularity of blogging is a sure sign that the golden era of blogging in the noughties (2000s) is a thing of the distant past. If you seek superstar blogger status, brace yourself for some disappointment.
The fact that planning experts and aficionados commonly share their work by blogging should be exhilarating, however. The diversity of available outlets means your work can reach a wide range of readers based on the geography, theme, and type of your work. Whether you are a researcher in-the-making or a senior planner, there is blog for every purpose. Academic blogging is a great way to further disseminate your research. It can also be used to help demonstrate the impact of your research. In the industry, digital marketers routinely remind entrepreneurs about the value of blogging for business. Researchers, too, have a lot to learn from digital marketing experts about impactful communication and marketing. Although the ‘publish or perish’ paradigm may prevail at many research institutions, the present and future of impactful knowledge seems to lie in the ability to translate insight and experience in easily digestible and actionable pieces of content.
To effectively market our own work and ideas, we may need to reconsider how we look at and relate others’ work. To become seen, one must first learn to see (see the book This is Marketing by marketing guru Seth Godin). Blogging is probably as much about sharing and celebrating our own achievements as learning to appreciate and share the achievements of others. The sharing ethic of blogging is underpinned by the fact that the internet is all about collaboration. Blogging is a free and accessible way of sharing what makes you unique and special.
To blog effectively, the following tips can come in handy
A 1000 words
An average semi-academic blog post can be about a 1000 words. Both literally and visually. Literally speaking, 1000 words is just about right length for an analytical blog post. Give or take 500 words (i.e. 500-1500 words). The blog of the AESOP Young Academics promotes ‘semi-academic’ contributions: easy to read, and yet rich in analytical value. You do not want to make your readers too hungry for more. Neither do you want to inflict them with scroll-numbness in the fingers.
Visually speaking, the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words holds true for blogging. When you include a carefully-chosen picture or diagram, it could be worth the entire 1000 words in your post! You can also cheat with word count by having 2 or 3 good pictures (visual readers will thank you for it). Consider providing due credits if you do not want creators chasing you. That includes crediting yourself if you are the creator!
Blogging is fun!
Blogging can/should be FUN. Big time! It is absolutely not a chore. At the same time, the harsh truth is that digital natives, just like digital immigrants, are not necessarily naturally-born bloggers. As with some of the most enjoyable things in life (be it fine beverages, coffee, soulmates, languages, art, silence, prayer, physical exercise and so on…), appreciation will likely grow over time. Fun may be commensurate with experience, exposure and/or repeated trial and error. Enjoyment may therefore arise with skill or experience, rather than the other way around. Skill, in turn, largely emerges from the capacity to sustain deep focus… Such is the Zen of fun, effective blogging. It is the middle way between the cracking fireworks of creative trepidation at one extreme, and the dim dullness of the writer’s block at the other.
Find Your Muse
Related to the last point, we all need our muses, teachers, gurus, role models or sources of inspiration. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey emphasises the need to identify, connect and tap into the source of our creativity, passion, and purpose in life. It makes all our endeavours more effective. Inspiration can differ for each and every one of us. For example, you may find yourself tapping your inspiration in the air around you. At a jazz award ceremony in 2014, pianist Keith Jarrett shared: “Music is either in the air and you find it; or it is in the air and you don’t find it, but you just don’t try hard enough” (6’55). So it is largely your choice not to be held back.
Once you find your muse, nurture it and treat it with great respect and gratitude.
Look and listen
Looking at how others share their work and ideas can provide inspiration about how to communicate your own work and ideas. Find your role models. This can (and should) include drawing inspiration from people completely outside your field, such as artists, entrepreneurs, authors, and so on (see below for how to steal with taste).
No rules, no limit
When it is comes to rules, the sky is the limit. Particularly if it’s your personal blog, you are your own master. Blogging on established websites can also entail significant freedom. Planning blogs such as this one can feature any of the following: book reviews, insight about personal career paths, reflections about the field, reflections about specific themes or issues, summaries of published journal articles, summaries of conferences and seminars, short biographies of iconic spatial planners and architects, advice about careers or complete a PhD… You name it!
Perfection is the enemy of the good
Perfectionism is both a boon and a curse. When it comes to blogging, good is usually **much** better than perfect. Like for journal articles, one good idea per contribution is a good rule of thumb. Do your spellchecking and proofreading, but don’t try to cover up all possible mistakes – everyone can learn from them! Sharing the difficulties you encountered in the field or in your research can save your readers from similar mishaps. By seeking the good at the expense of perfection, you can actively support collective learning.
Blogging on the Web 2.0 has never been so easy! Picture: an authentic Remington typewriter, with an unusual 1930s design, noiseless! and in size 8 (between a mobile and a standard typewriter format), by Oliver Hammond on Flickr, Non-Commercial Creative Commons Attribution.
Purpose and strategy
Effective blogging hinges on clarifying your purpose and strategy. Even if you write a single blog post, you should be crystal clear about your overall purpose. It will be useful to have a strategy for structuring, writing and disseminating your blog post, for example through social media. If you write regularly, you can plan a series of posts each dealing with a different topic or different facets of your work. If you are a regular contributor to a blog or run your own blog, you can have an overall strategy for what you want to achieve. A clear strategy can clearly benefit the full life cycle of a post, from ideation to feedback from users. It can also tie in with your wider work and career goals as planning academic or practitioner.
Share generously (but not obnoxiously)
Blogging is about sharing in many ways: about a wide range of topics and in many different formats and writing styles. Sharing is best done often or at least regularly. As such, it can be a form of generosity whereby you give freely at least some of the precious experience and insight you have gathered. Promote your blog posts and other work largely through all relevant social media such as Facebook, Twitter and relevant LinkedIn groups. This said, avoid bombarding readers with narcissistic/self-referential content or by obnoxiously colonising social media feeds. Share with good measure.
Short, sweet, and simple
Blog posts are typically short. Longer content could well become journal or magazine articles. Even the shortest blog posts can generate a life-changing impact on your readers – these may take up to several years to appreciate fully! This can certainly be the case with exceptionally creative posts.
Keeping your posts ‘sweet’ means making them engaging and fun to read and write. Crisp writing can also ensure your posts are both short and simple, which can greatly aid with digestion. Bite-sized content can be particularly effective. Meaty content can also be easily digested, if well-seasoned and prepared.
Keep it simple by avoiding all unnecessary jargon. It may be tempting to write academic or semi-academic posts in a very formal manner. But blog posts serve a specific purpose: to disseminate experience and ideas broadly in an accessible way. Keep your best academic language to those fancy Q1 journals. Assume also that your blog readers don’t own a PhD about your particular topic, unless high-level experts in your niche field are your sole intended audience. Impactful research arguably deserves a broader range of readers than the tribe of experts that you interact with on an everyday basis. There are no excuses for not writing simple content; even the most complex ideas can be communicated in a simple way.
Steal with taste
Digital content wizard Brian Clark reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. All ideas have likely been thought of by old men wearying robes back in Ancient Times. So whether you like it or not, you are bound to steal. If ‘stealing’ rings harshly to your ears, how about ‘borrowing’? This does not mean that you should plagiarise, because you should not! Plagiarism is the First Law of Unethical Research. This includes self-plagiarism. A caveat should be made for conscientious stealing, especially if done with taste. In our current digital age, as in the foregone golden age of sea pirates, some view that authentic piracy can be a most noble endeavour. Depending on the context, and on which side of the sea you are sailing, presumably…
Stealing has been particularly rife in all manners of creative creation. Pablo Picasso allegedly wrote or said: “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal”. Would rap, R&B or pop music even exist if it weren’t for good stealing? Would the work of the 100 most influential urbanists have been possible if it weren’t for borrowing from fellow architects, constructors, surveyors, human geographers, anthropologists, environmentalists, activists and politicians? Even the whole Open Source model of digital technology rests on the synergy of infinite, value-driven acts of stealing that help grow the digital commons for the benefit of the most. So if sharing knowledge is your trade, steal from the masters.
Tell a story
Write a post as though you were talking or giving a presentation to your readers. Engage them body and soul. Even academic research can be narrated This can make blog posts more fun to read and write at the same time.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Let’s face it: even the most generous, selfless blogger can rightfully expect something in return for their hard work. Who would say no to a fan club or entourage of supportive researchers and practitioners? Online communities make the digital world go round, which also applies to spatial planning (think AESOP, ISOCARP, the American Planning Association, Planetizen, etc.). Just don’t market your work beyond what is actually useful for the wider community. Don’t build your name on people’s back. Sharing responsibly and ethically remains the underpinning principle of blogging. Rightfully crediting others for their work and ideas can also make you get away with conscientious stealing. Pay the dues to those who have shaped your own work. And pay the dues to the blues in case your hard blogging isn’t as impactful as expected! And do watch out for the ugly bloggers out there. Lest you become one yourself. One could also advise to publish your best knowledge assets in reports and journal articles before blogging about them.
Blogging is a process of finding and refining your voice. It takes both practice and knowing yourself. This requires being clear about your motivation. You may want to pitch your voice differently based on your purpose, audience and the topic you are writing about. Rather than simply copying others, aim to develop your own voice. As someone famously said: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken”.
In all, the art and science of writing effective blog content depends on the overall purpose of the post, the message you want to convey, and the intended audience. There are no winners or losers. Just sharing.
No rules, only guide posts: Be more pirate. Tell a story. Pictures speak a 1000 words. To be seen, one must first learn to see. Find your voice. Picture credit: Pirate Girl by Sönke Haas on Flickr, No Derivatives Creative Commons Attribution.
Are you currently involved with regional research, policy, and development, and want to elaborate your ideas in a different medium? The Regional Studies Association is now accepting articles for their online blog. For more information, contact the Blog Editor at RSABlog@regionalstudies.org.
Besides the embedded links, the tips and insight shared in this blog post are largely inspired from the following sources (listed by date of publication):
Benedikt Fecher and Sascha Friesike at LSE Impact blog. A systemic view of research impact: an invitation. Published 20 November 2019.
Research Out There at the University of Kent. Resources for writing academic blogs. Published 7 July 2019.
Susan Gunelius. Ways bloggers can use Twitter. Updated 24 June 2019.
Lars Lofgren at QuickSprout. 10 Lessons Seth Godin can teach you about Blogging. Updated 4 February 2019.
Lucille Valentine at Research Impact from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Newcastle University. Finding out about blogging for impact. Published 6 December 2017.
Tom Crick and Alan Winfield at The Guardian. Academic blogging – 10 top tips. Published 13 December 2013.
Chris Gilson & Stuart Brown on the London School of Economics (LSE) impact blog. How to: Academic Blogging. Published 13 December 2012.