Photo Credit : Theslaeslion
By the middle of my first year in a Social Science PhD program (Information Systems), I realized I had a handicap in research writing. Coming from a background in computer science, I was literally stumped on two early proposal writing tasks – I struggled in organizing my ideas, presenting them in a logical sequence and telling a coherent story . As I read more papers, I realized something. Research writing in the Social Sciences is a bit of an art. It is systematic, and rigorous, but artistic still. We tell stories . And storytelling is a fundamental aspect of the publication process.
Writing papers and getting them published is vital for Ph.D. students who want to get research positions after graduation. Your ability to write well significantly improves the chances that your paper will be accepted. Ronald Azuma
And I just wasn’t a good enough story teller. To improve my writing, I took an unlikely approach – I would blog, I would learn to tell stories via blogging .
Interesting, several articles have discussed the relationship between blogging and research performance. But they look at it from the perspective of disseminating research output – I.e rewriting academic journal articles so everyone can digest the main points. So called science blogging. On the flip-side, I am referring to blogging – writing posts on general topics – as a valuable process that helps develop skills which are directly transferable to social science research writing. Social sciences has to do with examining relationships between individuals (and objects) in a society – and there are multiple different methodologies that can be used to answer any given research question. However, writing up all these studies, despite the chosen methodology, involves elements of story-telling. This post does not focus on any given methodology but draws overt correlations between stuff I’ve learned from general blog writing and social science research report writing.
Over the past 12 months, I have written dozens of blog posts covering technical tutorials among other subjects, and here are 8 things I have learned.
1. Write Incrementally
Incremental writing has to do with spending short amounts of time each day working on a piece. Writing everyday has been shown to increase writing productivity by a factor of 10. It does take a lot of practice to build up this habit. And blogging has helped me with this. Over the last year, I built up a blog writing strategy in which I would always write the first few lines of any blog post, hash out the structure of the post and then get back to improving it daily/weekly. A good blog post usually starts as ruminations late at night in bed, or in a hurried shower or between meals, or whilst solving a different problem. So, as soon as I have the opportunity, I hammer out a wireframe of the post before it gets lost in my mind maze. After this, I typically search for more resources for the post on a rolling basis and add more content over time. Some posts stay as wireframes for days/weeks/months … until a later time when I ninja up (finish up the post) and hit publish . Similar with social science research papers. I have learned to start my writing with initial drafts of my thoughts on the problem, the research questions, and methodology . Next, I systematically review the literature to examine what has been done and how my ideas move the entire discussion forward. Occasionally, I’ll randomly find papers that contribute to the wireframe and they gets added as they turn up. And all of this is done over time until the entire paper is finished.
2. Articulate Contributions
Within blog posts, I have seen readers appreciate various levels of contributions. From simply aggregating and explaining existing information, to actually developing new content that previously did not exist. For many such readers, it appears it is important for the title of posts to deliver some sort of clear value proposition and address a particular topic or problem. Similarly, in research reporting, it is important to specify and motivate the focal research question, and then clearly communicate the contribution being made. And this should be cleverly hinted in the title of the paper and summarized within the abstract.
3. Pay Attention to The Metrics – Analytics and Citations
Blog posts have several metrics that can be used to evaluate their “success” and “impact”. With blogging, I learned to use analytics which provide almost realtime reports on user engagement with the content I was creating – number of views, comments, links, shares etc. It is also important to review blog metrics such as search ranking which indicates how relevant a give post is with respect to certain search keywords. With this knowledge I can answer a few questions which help me write better e.g what makes a good post? what is worth writing up and sharing ? What does the audience want ? etc. In social science research, there are (slower) analytics – your citation count – which can also be a great signal of publication impact and help guide future writing endeavours. Google Scholar citation counts has been a trusted way to measure the impact (success) of a researchers output.
4. Address Meaningful Problems (that a significant amount of people care about)
As mentioned above, reviewing analytics data on my blog posts, have revealed interesting insights on common questions such as what makes a good post . To give a simple answer to this question based on analytics, I’ll say a good post has two important characteristics. First, it addresses a problem for which no/little solutions exists. Next, I’d say a winning post is also one that covers a problem or subject of wide interest. The most searched/viewed/referenced post on my blog is one in which I detail my process of solving an issue with updating the Windows 8.1 Operating System. And this makes sense. A large number of people (millions) use Windows based machines and a significant portion of these users are likely to update their OS, and hence care about the update problem. That post is responsible for 30% of my monthly readers. While picking a research topic that satisfies the two criteria above may be hard to implement in actual social science research work where flexibility of your topic may be limited, it still is a good strategy to keep in mind. If you write with a mindset that your research paper solves a problem for other researchers (e.g provides a vital summary, provides results/tables/diagrams that can be easily cited) , it will guide your content presentation and hopefully improve your citations. Another important learning here is that there is value in addressing problems which have received little to no attention in existing literature (in fact this is how many papers are literally motivated).
5. Write for a Given Audience
In writing a blog, the general advice by Google (for better search ranking) is to write for a given audience, preferably one in which you do have considerable expertise. This will ensure three things – that you can address problems that your audience cares about, that you use the appropriate terminologies, and that your thoughts meet acceptable levels of accuracy. In research writing and publication, different journals even within the same field can represent different audiences. For example, in the Information Systems field, top outlets like MISQ, JMIS, ISR appear to publish quantitative/empirical methodology papers, whilst outlets like ISJ tend to publish qualitative methodology papers. Reviewers and readers for each of these journals will likely perceive content differently.
6. Write and Cite
As I delved into blogging and content creation as a whole, I regularly encountered several guidelines . One such guideline is that you only use content that is free or content for which you have legal license, and attribute your sources (usually via links). Another is to create content that is original and hopefully contributes to the general internet discussion on the subject. These rules are particularly important if your blog belongs to advertising networks like Google Adsense or aims to conform to SEO principles for better search ranking. Similarly such rules apply to academic writing. It is strictly expected that you acknowledge ideas (via citations) that were created by other authors. It is important that you carefully survey the panoply of existing literature on a subject, avoid repeating similar studies, and frame your work as a contribution to an identified topic of discussion,
7. Get Used to Being Called Out
Whilst blogging, you will get called out. And for many different reasons.
I have been called out for improperly structuring my tutorials, making blanket statements (poor scoping) , lacking appropriate data to support my conclusions and faulty overall logic of my discussions.
The internet can be tough. More importantly, I have learned to process (critical) responses from readers, respond where needed, gracefully accept suggestions/new ideas where appropriate and even apologize for errors where needed. This is sort of similar to the academic peer-review process. Reviewers will call you out for logic issues, data fit issues, literature review issues, strength of arguments etc . Good reviewers will also offer suggestions on how to address the issues they have highlighted in order to improve the overall quality of the paper. The important thing is to learn to absorb criticism and use it to get better! This is not easy, but alas, it is a necessary quality for successful researchers.
8. Tell a Good Overall Story
A good storyteller does a few things – he whips up interests , uses excellent props, and gives concrete examples that help build an accurate mental picture. With blogging I have learned to carefully revise my posts, to ensure ideas in multi-part posts build upon each other to create cumulative meaning, appropriate examples are given and the entire story is clear. I have also learned to identify errors within my presentation by observing reader comments/questions, their areas of confusion and improving the blog posts/articles. With academic writing, telling a clear story is also very important. Luckily, most papers have a fairly well defined structure to aid the presentation of your story – an introduction, a research background, a survey of related literature, development of hypotheses, data collection and analysis, discussions of insights and a conclusion. Appropriate theories are your structure props, and related research discussions are your examples.
Conclusion – Did Blogging Help ?
I would humbly say yes, for two main reasons – its made me feel better, and its helped me write faster. I have received some great feedback from readers, and its quite a nice feeling to know that content I’ve put out is valuable. Readership numbers have also steadily increased in the past 12 months (most of my hits comes from Google searches, meaning the Google algorithm trusts my content) . For those familiar with the phases of a PhD, it can be really challenging (~50% of all who start, quit , only 0.45% become professors). So, actually creating something, watching it grow, and getting (positive) feedback can be a major morale boost. Secondly, and more importantly, I have also noticed a marked increase in my speed and my comfort in structuring ideas for my research papers. This means that on the average, I have started and completed more papers this year than I have previously. I have also learned to re-read my writing primarily from the reader/audience’s perspective and make necessary adjustments. Ofcourse, I am no super writer at the moment. And I really am not laying claim to any fantastic publication (hasn’t happened .. yet).
But then, the writing mistakes I make today are quite different from those I made a year ago. And so I can argue that I am making progress.
The above being said, I’d be remiss if I fail to acknowledge that there is alot more to research writing than story telling (a great blogger is not necessarily equal to a great researcher) . However, being great at storytelling can be an excellent way to get better at research writing.
P.S. This post took 4 weeks to finish .. short bursts in the first few days, one day of ninja-ing up, and one day for final review.