Here are some of my experiences and thoughts behind blogging. I’ve had a few recent conversations with colleagues considering blogging, so I thought I’d share. Perhaps these might inspire or help you in your own writing.
I started because I wanted to participate more in the conversations going on publicly in our fields, and looking for more outlets for writing and ideas. I hoped blogging would have other benefits, and it has, especially in getting good feedback from colleagues, sparking discussions, and leading to new papers and research ideas. I think the SIGGRAPH conference track may have been helped into existence by my blog post on the subject.
One of the things that got me started was a blog post entitled ``Why you (yes, you) should blog’’.
Blogging feels like a thing I just started recently as an experiment, but, looking back, I see it’s now been over 3 years and 60 blog posts so far (😳).
Lower standards, lower pressure, more sharing
High standards and publication rules can inhibit writing. Some of us can be perfectionists, editing and editing each piece over again. And, writing for a publication puts the expectations too high, for something to be good enough to publish, and then to wrangle with a publication process and whether something gets accepted. All these barriers get in the way of writing.
Blogging allows you to write more, faster, and more easily, because of its low standards and low friction. It’s easy to get started. It’s easy to publish. It’s easy to share. Your blog need have no publication rules governing things like like topic, content, page length, citation standards, or writing style. There’s no risk of your posts being rejected by an editor and reviewers. You only have to follow basic principles of writing honestly, ethically, and not saying harmful things that will get you pilloried on social media. And it can be the starting point to much more.
And yet, blog posts sometimes seem to get more readers than more formal writing. Certainly, I think some of my blog posts have gotten more attention than their corresponding scientific papers, even though I put far more effort into polishing and perfecting the scientific papers. (On the other hand, it’s a different audience for each.)
And, the feedback and response are much faster.
I still put a bit of work into each post, going through 2-4 drafts. It’s ranges from a few hours of work total, to a day or more, depending on the length of the piece. I balance not wanting to be misinterpreted with wanting the get the damn thing finished and not put too much time into it. (Sometimes I do a lot of it on weekends since this kind of writing can be so pleasurable.)
You might notice that this blog post is very long. If I were to try to publish it somewhere, I might need to make shorter. Making writing shorter usually makes it better, but requires a lot of hard choices about what to cut. For a blog post, that work is optional. (For this blog post, I would probably start by cutting everything in parentheses.) “I did not have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long letter.”
But, I keep reminding myself: if my standards are too high, the blog post will probably never get written.
Blog posts are drafts for feedback
Blog posts are more like drafts than finished writing: good for getting the basic ideas out and getting feedback. When you write a formal paper, you could be waiting months for feedback from an editor or reviewer, and longer for feedback from readers, at which point the essay can’t change anymore. With blogging, the feedback comes almost immediately, and you can continue to edit the post based on the feedback.
Once I post an essay, I watch the feedback. Facebook comments have been typically offered the richest conversation, since that’s where I maintain personal connections with professional colleagues and friends. Twitter is potentially a wider audience but the comments are often more random and insubstantial. I occasionally find comments about my posts on Hackernews.
Reading feedback online can reveal ways that people misinterpret what I wrote, which is, nearly always, a sign that my writing needs to be edited. For example, I’ve heard from two people who read my user study post as saying we should not do user studies, which I definitely do not believe. I’m currently revising an article in order to make that clearer.
Unpleasant as they are, even dismissive and arrogant comments may be useful (e.g., Hackernews and Twitter especially), since they sometimes reveal (a) common misinterpretations of what I wrote, and (b) the commenters’ biases and preconceptions.
Sometimes I go back and edit and refine blog posts I made years ago, usually with small tweaks or improvements, or links to more recent writing on the topic.
I also notice which types of posts get more or less attention. Positive feedback can be very encouraging to continue exploring an idea or theme.
I have yet to have someone email to me to say “I liked your post, how about publishing it in my venue?” and their venue is something legit, although I like to imagine it happening someday.
Blog posts can lead to publications
I started this blog with two posts about the scientific basis for line drawing. Then it occurred to me to email a vision science/perceptual psychology journal to see if those posts could be a paper. They responded very encouragingly, and those papers were published.
In fact, my first vision science paper came about because I wanted to write some blog posts about the scientific basis of line drawing. I went to read the literature on this, and found a gap that I could fill.
In all cases when since then, the editors said yes, and I eventually published a paper as a journal article.
Now I occasionally write blog posts with the intention of later turning them into papers, including the user study blog post, which will hopefully be accepted soon.
That said, I don’t write blog posts expecting them to be masterpieces. The point is to write more and share more. One of the important steps toward having a few good ideas is having a lot of ideas. I would not recommend planning for publication, but it’s a good best-case-scenario to shoot for.
One question I still struggle with is: should I revise the blog post based on the paper? For example, I completely revised the arguments and reasoning when writing the line-drawing paper based on blog posts. So I think the paper version is much better than the blog posts. But would enough people ever look at the blog post in the future? As it happens, that particular blog post recently got reshared on Hackernews, where it got lots of obtuse comments; maybe it would have been better had I revised it. But these revisions would take time themselves.
Writing (and editing) is thinking
One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Mark Twain: “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.”
I’ve had this experience so many times: I have an idea for something I want to write, and a pretty good idea of what I want to say. As I start writing the ideas down, I find holes in the ideas, or, I follow where the ideas lead, and realize new things. And then I find a new structure for the piece emerging. And, by the time I’ve finished, the new piece makes a point that’s quite different from what I’d originally intended: hopefully clearer, stronger, more concrete.
For example, blogging about my experiences with painting helped me reflect on the nature of those experiences, which then influenced ideas in several of my papers.
Jan Koenderink has said that “drawing is thinking with your hands.” The same is true for writing: writing a coherent piece advances your thinking. I often find that I simply cannot formulate understanding just by thinking about something, it has to be written down and discussed with other people. (I think there might many earlier sources for this quote, especially as pertains to writing, but another advantage of blogging is not having to be too careful with sources and citations.)
(A lot of people have wondered how LLMs will change the process of writing-as-thinking. I would guess they can help or hurt. People who write shallow and thoughtlessly writing will keep doing so, with help from LLMs. People who write thoughtfully will use LLMs as a power-tool to speed up parts of the process and help them think through ideas faster.)
Blogging is writing practice
I believe that blogging has improved my writing, including my technical writing. Blogging offers practice in a non-formal style of writing, one that can be more accessible and understandable. Formal writing has lots of rules, and you can ignore most of those rules while blogging. And technical writing has lots of default structures people use (Abstract, Intro, Related Work)–not because they’re best for communication, but because those are the structures everyone uses.
For blogging, you can use whatever format or style you want. I’ve even used (gasp!) bulleted lists when I felt it best matched the content I wanted to write about.
Writing is a skill one practices over a lifetime. I’ve been writing my whole life and still I don’t feel like I’m a very good writer. But practice and feedback helps me improve.
We really don’t value technical writing nearly as much as we should in computer science. We should put much more emphasis on the skill and art of writing.
Writers talk about the importance of daily practice. I’m not committed enough to do this, but I do think my writing would be better if I devoted at least one hour per day to writing, rather than it happening sporadically.
Aside: Journalistic writing practice
I have, in a few cases, turned blog posts into articles in The Conversation, a site for academic experts to write news pieces with deeper analysis than typical journalism. Some news outlets then picked up those articles.
I don’t think those pieces got much attention. But it was a useful experience for writing.
When I started my first piece for The Conversation, the editor asked me to cut my draft down to 1200 words. I got it down to about 2000 words, and told him I couldn’t cut any more: everything that was in it had to be there. He then took a pass over it, and cut it down to 1200 words or so.
I read his draft and thought, “Yes, this is better.”
Some information I’d thought important had gone missing, but overall the piece felt clearer and more readable. He’d been really merciless in removing peripheral details.
I saw lots of other ways he’d improved my writing. For example, I noticed that he’d turned passive voice into active voice almost everywhere. I’d learned about that distinction in school, but had stopped making an effort since so much technical paper writing uses passive voice. Since then I’ve gotten back into the habit of minimizing passive voice, and it really does make writing better, even in technical papers.
I wish I had a professional editor to give this kind of feedback on more of my writing.
Here are some suggestions for someone wanting start blogging, but not sure where to start.
If you are a perfectionist, set your standards low. Make things easy, not perfect. Remove any inessential barriers to sharing.
Look for things you have to say. As they say, write what you know.
Take a look at Rachel Thomas’ suggestions for how to find topics.
Think about the purpose of the piece you are writing. Ideally, a piece should have a simple purpose that can be summarized in one sentence, the crisper, the better. If you’re making a point, you should be able to summarize it in a thesis statement. Ideally, this purpose or thesis should appear in the first paragraph or two.
- However, don’t commit to a “purpose” or thesis statement when you begin. Your purpose/thesis will change along the way, maybe you will discover it through writing. Part of the goal of writing is to figure out what your thesis is.
Start with concrete facts. What are you responding to or reporting? What did other authors you’re responding to actually say or do? What is the situation? Remind yourself the actual things that happened or that you read that inspired you to write. Without a concrete starting point and concrete examples, writing ends up very abstract and unfocused.
Writing in repsonse to something is a powerful way to get started. I was annoyed at seeing the ancient history of stylization algorithms get ignored and forgotten in the literature. So my first blog posts summarized some of that history.
I only decided to write a paper on line-drawing perception when I found a previous paper that expressed a previous hypothesis. That paper gave me something to respond to, and a reason to think that other people cared about the question.
Start small. Just share with a few friends or colleagues if you want. For me, having an audience is crucial, but it doesn’t have to be a big audience.
Listen to feedback, but don’t take it literally. Another one of my favorite quotes about writing is: “When someone tells you there’s something wrong in your writing, they’re usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they’re usually wrong.”
Also, here are some tips I wrote years ago for technical paper writing.
Choice of platform
After trying several alternatives, I’ve ended up posting my blog on a personal website, shared via GitHub, and set up using the very easy the Fast.ai blog template. I like the fact that I have ownership of all the files, without depending on a commercial site get worse over time. I think GitHub is going to be around for a long time, and monetizing blogs isn’t in their business model. If things change, I have the files and can easily migrate somewhere else.
Here are the other options I tried:
My personal webpage, but that’s just raw HTML+CSS, and there’s no reason for this unfrozen caveman to keep banging on sticks and rocks.
Long posts on Facebook, but lots of people don’t use Facebook, for good reasons. (Also, the permalinks are hideous.)
My employer’s blog site. After that, I realized I wanted my own personal blog where I could write whatever I wanted without anyone else involved, and without it looking like a corporate message.
Same for Substack, which seems like the new Medium. Substack seems good for getting an audience now; it’s like the new Medium. But still my content would be locked up in their site, and who knows when their business model, too, will change.
Nonetheless, my recommendation is to do whatever is easiest and gets you writing. At different stages, I tried everything on the above list, and don’t regret any of them. Once you get rolling, you can switch sites.