I recently received an email from a professor who want to start a professional blog. "What advice would you give about having a blog?" she asked. "Is there anything you wished you knew at the start? Anything you did and wished you hadn't? What are the best ways to get out the word about the blog?"
My usual answer to would-be blogger: "Try standing in the garage and talking to yourself for twenty minutes a day. If you like it, you might also enjoy a running a history blog."
That answer is too flippant--and wrong. I began this blog with no particular expectations of readership or impact. And Northwest History remains a small fish in the blogging world--even in the history blogging world. I am sure that I do not receive a fraction of the readers that Kevin Levin enjoys over at Civil War Memory or that read AHA Today. But this blog has brought me a modest professional reputation in my field, some interesting collaborations with people whom I have met through the blog, and serves as a resource for my students. At history conferences someone usually comes up to me and introduces themselves as a reader--perhaps the only one at the conference, but still. And when I went up for tenure this year I presented this blog as a work of public history scholarship and my Cliopatria award as peer review. I received tenure. Not bad for something I began on a whim in 2007.
My mission statement covers some of this ground. Here is my advice:
- Decide what your blog is about, and stick to it. This blog covers the history of the Pacific Northwest, digital history and resources, and sometimes teaching. You topic does not have to be a straight jacket (perhaps 10% of my posts are outside of my usual topics), but keeping a tight focus helps you build an audience and reputation.
- Don't make it about you. Blogging about your academic work is fine, but if you find yourself posting pictures of your cats, it is time to retire from academic blogging.
- Don't make it about politics. It is so tempting to become political--what the hell is wrong Eric Cantor anyway?! And political posts will get you an audience more quickly that anything else you could do. But the political quickly drives out the historical, and soon you are running a miniature version of the Daily Kos.
- When you have an idea for a post, go ahead and start it. Save it as a draft and come back later. The 'Blog This' browser button helps you get a fast start to a new post.
- Not every post needs to be an essay in miniature. Sometimes sharing a video or a new online resource requires only a few words of introduction. Blog posts should be pithy.
- Share what you are working on. The other day I posted a brief letter from William F. Cody that I had just transcribed, along with a video clip I found online.
- Don't expect comments. According to Google Analytics I have a readership. 35,000 people visited Northwest History last year (either that or 1 person 35,000 times--same thing right?). Most of these people came here on purpose-my leading referrals are from Facebook and Twitter and other history blogs. But I don't get 100 comments a year.
- Try to keep a semi-regular posting schedule. My Google calendar nudges me to post something twice a week.
- It is OK to stop. A blog is not a lifelong obligation. With a blog as in life, when you run out of things to say you should stop talking.
- I don't have any insights into promoting your blog beyond the usual advice--comment on related blogs, put the URL in your email signature, and sign up with a service that automatically published your new posts to Facebook and Twitter (I use Networked Blogs).
- Have fun! When blogging begins to feel like a chore, your days are numbered. (See #9.)
Do you have an academic blog? Tell me about it in the comments.