Tips to get you thinking about the role of the post when writing for a blog.
Inside Teaching MSU
Cross-posted on the Inside Teaching MSU Blog, this post (and the others in this “Blogging Tips” series) represents not only a newly-established relationship between the Hub and Inside Teaching at Michigan State University, but also a shared commitment to the development of communities and scholars dedicated to innovation and excellence in academia. Inside Teaching MSU is a network and resource primarily for graduate students at MSU. That said, we hope the relationship between Inside Teaching MSU and the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, marked by the cross-posting of this blog series, demonstrates this shared commitment and relevance to all academics, not just graduate students. In this blog series, we present an approach to blogging which began with Inside Teaching and is now shared by the Hub. As we suggest below, the prompting questions and tips that we provide are relevant to a broad audience (whether that be graduate students, undergraduate students, specialists, fix-term or tenured faculty, or staff). We refer generally to “academics” and “scholars” below to reflect this.
As academics and scholars begin to reimagine or, perhaps for the first time, consider and cultivate their scholarly presence in public ways, many have turned to blogging. Due to its nature as a digital tool, blogging flexibly accommodates a variety of writing styles, genres, and author needs/goals. Blogging also facilitates networking and dialogue across vast distances and with several potential audiences. As a result, a close consideration of authorship and audience (Part 1 and Part 2 of our blog series, respectively) and the role they play across various contexts is crucial to public scholarship. However, the post itself also plays an important role. In his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan writes, “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium–that is, of any extension of ourselves–result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (McLuhan, 1964, pg.7). Here, it is the phrase “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964, pg.7) that is particularly summative of the impact of a blog post’s form/genre that we explore here. The form and genre you choose to use to frame, position, and structure your blog will tell a story of its own. It will also either help or serve as a barrier to tell the stories you want to tell. In essence, form and genre will influence which stories (i.e. messages) are told as well as the way in which these messages are perceived.
We extend McLuhan’s argument to include the platform that houses your blog/posts and the way in which you promote your work, both of which (in addition to the form and genre of the post) contribute to the success of the piece (“success” here is defined by your larger goals and purpose) and the way in which the piece is perceived. In this blog post, the last in our “Blogging Tips” series, we explore these aspects of blogging by specifically asking: How does form accomplish your purpose? How does platform accomplish your purpose? And, How does promotion accomplish your purpose?
How does form accomplish your purpose?
Once you have spent some time thinking about the overall purpose of your blog, taking some time considering the form will help you accomplish that purpose. For example, one of our (Inside Teaching) goals for this post and the series more broadly is to prompt a conversation around blogging practices. We also imagine the series serving as a resource for bloggers and those working on their digital presence. To achieve these goals, we made specific choices regarding the form of the post. We were careful in the overall organization, starting with a statement detailing the cross-posted nature of this piece. We then introduced the topic for this particular post, followed by three separate sections framed around questions. Lastly, we contextualize the questions in practice, sharing one author’s experience thinking through these questions. Apart from organization, we intentionally framed our post (and the series more generally) around questions. This enabled us to share an approach and open up dialogue about the blogging process, rather than dictate the conversation or potential relevance of the post and the questions we ask about authorship, audience, and the post/blog itself. We opted for a tone and general linguistic style that we imagined would translate across our main audience (which is composed primarily of academics, scholars, educators, and researchers). Furthermore, the decision to house this conversation in a blog post was also intentional, for we see this particular genre as serving as a model for the very practices we are writing about.
Additionally, certain style preferences, such as font, internal formatting of structures like lists or image captioning, and overall blog structure (e.g. title formatting and presence of an image header, keywords, and a subtitle), were set by the overall blogs where this piece is posted (the Hub blog and Inside Teaching’s blog). With respect to blogpost length, we were provided with suggested ranges, leaving us to determine where in that range our post should fall. Finally, both the Hub blog and Inside Teaching’s blog consciously strive to promote accessible content. As such, some accessibility-related decisions were already made for us. However, as we prepared this blogpost, we realized that not every blog image included alternative text. As such, we intentionally provided alternative text for the infographic featured at the top of this blog, increasing the readability of the image. The fact that we were able to make this choice also reminds us that accessibility takes constant and intentional thought, and requires that we think about the many ways in which this blog post might be read and perceived.
If you are posting under a pre-existing blog, you should take some time to familiarize yourself with the expectations of that blog, for many aspects of form will already be determined. However, if you are designing your own blog (on a personal website, for instance), you will likely be responsible for these decisions. Regardless of where the blog post is published, though, remember that the choices you make will affect the way in which potential readers will engage with the content and will contribute (whether that be positively or negatively) to your overall goals/purpose.
In preparing for this post, we asked a graduate student in Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures who writes under the name Jude Sierra (Twitter: https://twitter.com/JudeSierra) how they interact with and make choices related to blog post form in their work.
In response, they shared the following:
“I think that when I am in the beginning stages of planning a blog post, the first thing I keep in mind is where the post is going to be hosted. If it’s a guest post, as was the case in Dialect in Dialogue, design choices are out of my hands (font or color for example). Questions of length can also be dependent on the host blog. A guest post I wrote, “Saudade’ in the Latinx Community” came with a length maximum (which creates its own issues–balancing clarity with concision without losing my writing style). On my own author blog, while I am free to write any length post I’d like, I have to be aware of the level of engagement I expect from my readership. An excerpt or a deleted scene with commentary gives me additional room to play than a post about writing process and choices specific to particular novels. Even with posts that contain excerpts, however, I’ve struggled with ordering and format — if I put the excerpt first, will readers want the commentary? My purpose in sharing the commentary is often symptomatic of my desire to elucidate something or talk about process; this struggle begs the question — how can I balance my message and the desire that drives the post with what will effectively reach or sustain an audience? I try to be aware here, because I definitely don’t want to be shouting into a void when the whole purpose is to connect with current or potential readers.”
As can be seen, in Jude Sierra’s work, they often consider blog post length, where it is hosted, design choices, and structure. In doing so, they recognize that decisions about these choices should be made in context, specifically with the overall goals/purpose of the blog in mind. Interestingly, taking time to reflect about their work (in this case through the use of blogging) has also given Jude Sierra the opportunity to engage with their readership. In one particular response to the Dialect in Dialogue blog post, a reader brought up the issue of accessibility as it relates to certain aspects of written content:
“When writers slip in a bit of slang or historically used phrasing, such as ‘hep cat’ or ‘you don’t say’ in a novel set in the 50s, it works and is readable. But when it’s something spelt differently than traditional spelling, it becomes nightmarish for someone like me [who is dyslexic]. Reading English is difficult enough. I don’t see all the words on the page and I don’t see them in order.”
Building on their experience reading dialect as a person with dyslexia, the reader continues with a discussion about the way in which the actually writing of certain forms/styles of language might function to spotlight that text (whether that be unintentionally or intentionally). They end their comment with a brief exploration into the way in which these choices interact with genre (e.g. novel versus screenplay).
“Also, regardless of dyslexia, given the nature of the written medium, anything unusual in text catches the eye and looms larger than perhaps the author intended. A change in font, in caps, etc. In audio and video, the listener/viewer has more to catch them, pay attention to, and carry them away into the story. In text-only, the text has an inordinate amount of emphasis. It’s text and my imagination only. So anything written heavily in dialect inordinately spotlights that dialect. The dialect may never recede back to middle ground for many readers so the story can take center place. If you were writing your book as a screenplay, I think your use of dialect could be different than it might be in print successfully.”
As a single case, the Dialect in Dialogue post serves as a useful demonstration of the dynamic, multi-faceted nature of the blogging process. It is also a reminder that blogging requires close consideration of form and genre, pushing our thinking as authors beyond content itself to the way in which content is presented.
How does platform accomplish your purpose?
In addition to the form of the post, the overall platform that houses individual posts and larger blogs will also help determine how readers engage with the content. For instance, greater platform flexibility might allow for increased customization (blog color, background, structure, etc.). Additionally, some platforms are designed in such a way that aspects like accessibility and responsiveness are more easily attained. For example, in WordPress, you are able to select themes that are “Accessibility Ready.” Such themes were intentionally designed to follow accessibility best practices with respect to color contrast, link focus, and navigation, and also help individuals using assistive technologies engage with and actually read the content. Certain platforms are also responsive, while others are not. Responsiveness is important, as it is intended to lead to web-reading experiences where web content is easily read and navigated across a range of devices (e.g. computers, smartphones, larger hand-held technologies, and so forth).
Apart from accessibility and responsiveness, as you critically reflect on the affordances of individual platforms, also keep in mind the ways in which the platform positions and structures features like reader commenting or discussion, content ownership, social media links, advertisements, and payment. Does the platform allow you to flexibly choose whether or not readers can comment on individual posts? Does the platform allow you to block certain users from engaging in your content? If not, what types of security measures might be in place to ensure that your blog is not spammed with unwanted or unrelated content? Additionally, make sure to be familiar with the policies and expectations regarding rights and content ownership (i.e., does a company or an organization retain ownership?). Do you have to pay for the hosting space or your website service? Sometimes free services come with unwanted features, like advertisements. Consider how the presence of web content such as this alters a reader’s experience with your blog. It is also helpful to do some research into the free services your institution might provide. Michigan State University’s College of Arts and Letters, for instance, has invested in Reclaim Hosting and offers it for free to all graduate students and faculty in the College. Lastly, if you are on a path towards public online scholarship, you might want to consider connecting your blog to other social media accounts that you might have and are using to cultivate a digital presence. That said, as you do so, make sure that your platform enables you to do this in the way that you would like, as each platform is built differently and therefore has a unique functionality.
How does promotion accomplish your purpose?
Depending on your overall goals or purpose for the post, and what you are hoping to achieve with your audience, the final aspect of blogging that you will need to consider is the promotion of your work. Remember that once you publish it online, you are inviting others to engage with your scholarship. Before they can do so, though, they must be able to find it. As such, it will be helpful to take some time and strategize your blog post promotion. Ask yourself the following questions as you do so:
- What existing networks can you leverage to share and promote your work?
- Who might you want to join in conversation with around your scholarship?
- Who does not generally engage in the type of work you do who you might invite to read your blog?
- Will you be sharing this across other social media platforms (if so, which and how often)?
As you share your post, also consider what you might say about it to encourage people to read it. For example, we try to find a poignant quote, statement, or question that either summarizes the post, asks an interesting question to our audiences, or specifically invites readers to engage with the post. We use these shorter references when we promote our blog content via Twitter and through Facebook. Once we have a good idea of the language we plan to use to share a given blog post, we then think carefully about how we share it and who we tag or reach out to when we do. For instance, on Twitter, tweets are limited to 140 characters. As a result, we often tag individuals or organizations in our broader network who we know will engage in the content and further promote it for and with us. On Facebook, however, we are not limited in the same way, so we often tag more organizations (though we rarely tag specific people on Facebook). Our approach to promotion has been fairly successful, but we know that we still have a lot of work to do, particularly since one of our goals is to extend the conversation and invite others who are new to blogging to dialogue with us about their experiences. We also hope to grow as a network, which will take continued and intentional work in not simply promoting our material to the same few individuals/organizations each time. As you strategize the promotion of your blog or a post, consider starting this process by thinking about your Personal Learning Network.
Putting it all together
As a reminder, blogging is a dynamic tool which you can use to cultivate a unique public online scholarly presence. In our “Blogging Tips” series, we offer an approach to blogging framed by a series of questions and centered around three aspects of blogging: authorship, audience, and the post/blog itself. Whether you are new to blogging or relatively experienced, thinking through the role of these three aspects will be necessary for the success of your blog. As you consider the role of authorship, ask yourself the following: Who am I? Who do I want to be? What style will I use to get there? With respect to the role of audience, begin to explore who your audience is, what you are hoping to achieve with them, and how you will do it. Finally, when you consider the role that the post or blog itself plays, be knowledgeable and critical of the ways in which blog form, platform, and promotion accomplish your purpose(s).
We welcome any questions you have and stories or examples you are willing to share as you engage with either this post or the blogging experience in general. You can find us on Twitter (@InsideTeaching) or Facebook (Inside Teaching MSU).
Gretter, S. and Skogsberg, E. (2016, September 20). Becoming a Connected Educator: Building Your Personal Learning Network (PLN). Inside Teaching MSU. Retrieved from http://insideteaching.grad.msu.edu/becoming-a-connected-educator-building-your-personal-learning-network-pln/.
Long, C.P. (2016, August 30). Investing in Online Scholarly Presence. College of Arts and Letters. Retrieved from http://www.cal.msu.edu/news/webhostingservice.
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill. Full text version available at http://robynbacken.com/text/nw_research.pdf.
Naz. (2016, October 16). “Saudade” In The Latinx Community – A Guest Post by Jude Sierra & A Book Giveaway. Read Diverse Books. Retrieved from http://readdiversebooks.com/saudade-in-the-latinx-community-a-guest-post-by-jude-sierra/.
Sierra, J. (n.d.) Dialect in Dialogue. Open Ink Press. Retrieved from http://openinkpress.com/2017/03/dialect-in-dialogue-by-jude-sierra/.
Theme Directory. WordPress.org. Retrieved from https://wordpress.org/themes/tags/accessibility-ready/.
Inside Teaching MSU is a network and resource for MSU Graduate Students and Postdocs, dedicated to promoting teaching excellence through conversation and sharing practices. Inside Teaching MSU is about interconnection, about finding opportunities to decentralize conversations about teaching, and to take advantage of the expertise of our community of Graduate Students and Postdocs. @InsideTeaching