My top ten tips for starting a science blog
I have been publishing on Atoms and Numbers website for over two years, and I greatly enjoy this as a hobby. If you like writing, and you are curious about or excited by the idea of writing about science for a worldwide audience, then you may have considered starting a science blog.
There are many articles on the Internet about the mechanics and technical aspects of starting a blog – I can’t point to a single great article, but I do suggest using WordPress as your platform. In this article, I share my top 10 tips for starting a science blog. This is my own experience (although I confess to not being good at #7…), and while it will certainly not cover all questions from new and potential bloggers, it will give you some things to think about.
1. Before you launch your blog, write its first 5,000 words. That can be five 1,000-word posts, ten 500-word posts, or whatever combination suits you. The posts may be related to recent news, or timeless posts on topics of long-time interest. For one thing, if you can’t come up with 5,000 words right now, you will struggle to sustain a blog. Once you reach this objective, you will have sufficient material to launch your blog – not all at once, but one post at a time. You will have to spend some time working out the technical aspects of your blog, and you will be happy to have a few posts in your file waiting to be published.
2. It’s ok to blog under a pseudonym. If you don’t want to publish your name, at least give enough information so that your readers can establish your credentials – tell us your field and the general area where you are located. You can certainly have a well-respected blog under a pseudonym, although if you become popular, unmasking your identity will become a parlour game among your followers.
3. Think beyond your blog – make that space all about you. There is a very good reason to consider blogging under your real name – shameless self-promotion! Add your scientific resume to your site. Link to your research publications and conference presentations. Show off any newspaper, magazine or newsletter articles that feature you. Tell us about your athletic accomplishments or music career. This is your space, so show yourself off to the World! (As an addendum to point #1, make sure that “About Me” blurb is also ready to go before the blog is launched.)
4. Get a domain name for your blog. WordPress.com will register and map your domain name for under $20 per year – this means that your blog will be something.com instead of something.wordpress.com. Having a domain name will make your blog seem less transitory. It is easier to share your site address when it is something.com. (And yes, do register the .com if you can – proud Canadians may insist on getting a .ca address, but some people will assume that it is .com anyways.) If your blog does become popular, and you are invited to give interviews or take part in a podcast, being able to rhyme off a domain name simply adds that bit of credibility. If you are comfortable with the technical aspect of building websites, you may also consider finding a web hosting company, as you will appreciate the flexibility of employing your own themes and widgets. If you do go with a hosting service, you shouldn’t have to pay more than $100 per year. Another thought – for most people, $100 per year will not break the bank, but it is enough of an investment to make you want to spend some time working on it, in order to get value for your money.
5. Track your analytics. Even out of the gate, you want to know how much traffic you are getting to your site, where it comes from, and what is popular on your site – it may not be the posts that you thought would cause interest. Most blogging platforms will have some form of analytics included, so you can see your traffic from day one. And by the way – unless you are already known for your achievements, you will not get much traffic at first. You want people to share your posts with their friends, and subscribe to your blog’s feed. As you accumulate posts on your blog, you will generate constant daily traffic from search engines, and then your new posts will generate even greater traffic as more people see you on their RSS readers or social media feeds.
6. The best SEO is good content. There is an entire industry dedicated to search engine optimization, and its proponents will give you all kinds of advice in order to make your posts rank higher on search engines. It seems like a vicious cycle – you will be ranked higher on search engines if your content is popular, but to be popular, people need to find you. Break the cycle by writing good articles that interest and bring in regular readers, and encourage them to share with others through social media such as Twitter and Facebook. (You WILL use Twitter, Facebook, and any other social media outlets that you currently use to promote your blog.) Only worry about SEO if you are planning to make a living off your blog – and you won’t be doing that now.
7. Keep a consistent posting schedule, whether you have no ideas or plenty of great ideas. Figure out your best pace for posting articles – once a week, once every two weeks, three times a week – and stick to it. If you are compelled to immediately post an article in response to something in the news, then do so, but consider that as the next post in your update schedule. If you have many good ideas swirling in your head, great – write them out, and save them in a folder. Don’t go on a posting binge just because you are incredibly creative; someday you will be short of ideas, and you will be thankful that you reserved a few of these posts in your draft file, ready to go. That said, there is nothing wrong with taking a blogging vacation or hiatus, but let your audience know you are away.
8. Use your voice and your style. If you like writing short, punchy posts, do it. If you like writing long, 1500-word posts that explore all angles of a question, do it. If you like to explain concepts for the masses, or to engage in a debate, or to tell a story, do it. If you interest is the politics of science, the history of science, or the pure wonder of science, do it. Among the chemistry blogs I follow, here are four authors with very different styles: Chembark writes incisive, investigative posts; Kat Day makes challenging concepts very easy to understand; See Arr Oh is quick at giving a chemist’s perspective on the news; and Chemjobber has established his niche, posting multiple daily short articles about the job market. All of these blogs are must-reads for me.
9. Allow comments, but moderate them. A blog is much more interesting if others can participate with you. Most people will leave compliments or general comments. If you’re going to write material that is edgy or controversial, be ready to have some people disagree or challenge you. Many will do it politely, and do your best to respond to him or to “agree to disagree”. Some won’t be polite, and may simply attack you personally. I recommend that you moderate the comments you receive, approving each one before it appears. Just make sure you indicate that it is your policy on the website. Popular blogging platforms have apps or will send you an email to alert you when a comment is waiting to be approved, so you can quickly let it onto your site. And remember: it’s your website, so you decide how much or how little you want to engage with people who leave nasty comments.
10. This will be a hobby, so have fun. Not to discourage you, but the reality is that you will not make money from blogging until you have enough traffic to entice advertisers. But there are other potential benefits that you should consider. You will (virtually) meet some like-minded people through social media channels, and if you live near a metropolitan center, you might even find get-togethers for bloggers. You may even be invited to events in your area. After some time, you may be able to parlay your blogging hobby into some freelance gigs for newspapers, magazines or other websites. If others see you as an authority on your niche, you may get invited by a media outlet to comment on something in the news, giving you exposure. You may even be invited to give a talk and get paid a few dollars for it. These can be long-term objectives, but as you roll out your blog, enjoy that indefinite “start-up” phase as you find your stride and your niche, and establish yourself as a good, reliable writer. Most importantly, simply enjoy the journey of discovery and creativity.