How to find time to blog

This was my talk at the launch of the History Blogging Project – if you’d like to leave any comments please do so on the project’s website.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that actually, I don’t always find the time! I’ve been blogging in various guises for about 5 years now, so these are the best ways I’ve found to avoid a blog being just a flash-in-the-pan activity.

Be realistic

As a busy PhD student, you’re not going to be able to write a post a day, nor in most cases would you want to. Set yourself a target you think you can keep to, say a post a week – but then don’t feel guilty if you miss a week or two. A blog is supposed to be fun and useful, not a chore or something to beat yourself up over.

Collect ideas for future posts

If you sit down in front of the computer and think ‘I’ve got to write a blog post’, most of the time it’s not going to work. You’ll find that ideas come at the strangest times, so write them down, keep a list of things you want to write about so that you’re not starting from scratch every time.

Take time to think

Similarly, as with any piece of writing, a blog post won’t normally spring to your fingers fully formed. When you’ve decided on the topic for your next post, think about it when you’re on the bus or in the bath and you’ll find the right shape and tone will often come to you, so when you do start to write you’ll be more prepared.

Create a routine

What works for me is to write first thing in the morning, which is my most productive time. I check my emails and my Google Reader, then look at the blog stats and comments just in case a particular post seems to have sparked a great deal of interest – and then open a new post and start writing, based on the draft I already have in my head.

Write fast then edit

Again, you probably already work like this, but I find it’s best just to write and worry about the finer points later. Get the whole post down on screen, then go back through and check that it flows properly and for the obvious things like grammar and spelling. Reading it out loud will give you a different perspective on what you’ve written that can be helpful. Add images or tables at the end as well, otherwise that activity can get in the way of your writing.

Don’t get distracted or procrastinate

Avoid other sources of distraction as well – ignore emails, Twitter, Facebook messages and everything else until you’ve finished. If you don’t, your blog post will just take twice as long. If you find yourself procrastinating in other ways – making yet another cup of coffee, even doing the washing up – then either stop or accept that you’re not in the mood and leave the post for another time.

Don’t feel you have to write everything

It’s a blog post, not a journal article or a chapter from your PhD. You’re not writing ‘Everything I know about X’, more often than not you’re aiming for a taster on a particular topic, a provocative piece to get reaction or comments, or a hopefully amusing anecdote on something you’ve found in your research. Your readers are just as busy as you and they don’t want to read screeds of text – so keep it short and sweet and save the agonising for work that does require you to be comprehensive.

So a blog doesn’t have to take over your life, it’s perfectly possible to fit it in to the horrendous schedules we all have. It takes a bit of self-discipline and some prior planning, but after that it should become a pleasure – and hopefully the feedback you get will make it all worthwhile!

Do you have any strategies for making time to write your own blog? How about ways of avoiding distractions? I’d love to hear any of your suggestions, so do get in touch.

Born digital

(Archivists will forgive me for the title, I know it means something else to you!)

This blog was prompted by a tweet from @ThetisMercurio yesterday: ‘In some strange parallel universe toxic Sue Palmer expects parents to be more media savvy than their teenagers’. Thetis was referring to a webchat over on Mumsnet (I won’t start to comment on that organisation, because I won’t finish) about how modern life is (supposedly) damaging children. I am currently working with futurologist Richard Watson on his latest book on the effects of the digital age, where he talks about the ‘rise of the screenager’ and laments the loss of time and space to think, but he’s raising issues and trends rather than being heavily judgmental, as were so many of the comments yesterday. And he’s well informed.

What does amaze me, as Thetis’s comment implies, is how naive some parents are about what their children know and can do. Along the lines of ‘I bought a new computer for little Jake yesterday, but it’s OK, I turned on the parental controls’. But if little Jake doesn’t know how to bypass those, one of his mates will. Or ‘I watch everything Chloe’s doing on Facebook’. And then you discover that Chloe’s got an iPhone – what does she need a computer for?

Let’s face it, however up to date we think we are with what’s going on in the digital world, in most cases our teenagers have got there first and are far more able to negotiate and manipulate it (and us) than we are. What we need to do is give them strategies for real life that will help them handle danger in whatever form it comes. I well remember a friend of one of my daughters whose parents were incredibly strict and all the way through school insisted on ferrying her everywhere she went, picking her up at 11pm on the dot and even vetting the playlist at her 18th birthday party for such undesirables as Eminem. What happened? She went to university and was pregnant within the first term.

Yes, children shouldn’t spend all day in front of a screen, of the computer or television variety. But if you make something forbidden, they only want to do it more. If you let them loose with whatever the latest fad is, sooner or later they get tired of it in any case and their use reverts to a ‘normal’ level, however that’s defined. And if your children don’t have any knowledge of technology, they will be disadvantaged in both education and the wider world. Help them to use the communications tools wisely, safely and to their benefit, help them be sceptical about whether something’s good just because it’s new, and you’ll turn out happy, well-rounded young adults who’ll be savvy and confident, with an arsenal at their disposal to take on the world.

Rant over – now you can shoot me down in flames if you think my offspring are precocious little brats!

Blogito ergo sum?

Am preparing a list for my supervision meeting tomorrow of what I’ve done since the last one, which of course includes yesterday’s Digital Researcher conference and this blog. Anticipating the inevitable question, I thought I’d try to answer for myself why I’m writing the blog and what I hope to get out of it.

Aside from shameless self-promotion, which of course comes into it, I think the main benefit I anticipate is actually going to come from the activity of writing itself. I may deal all the time with improving other people’s writing, but the discipline of generating something (hopefully) coherent on a regular basis can only be good.

Second is the opportunity to try out some ideas and get feedback on them. You need a network first, of course, but I’m working on that and I know I’ve also got some readers who I met on my degree and MA. I find that for me the best way of developing an idea is to try to get it down on paper and write around it, so the blog can only help in that.

Third is to gain contributions to my thinking from other people, both by feedback to blog posts and by direct appeal if I get desperate! Twitter has already been helpful in that, of course, but the blog is more permanent and gives you the opportunity to be more expansive. I do see definite advantages to combining the two.

Fourth is to establish and enhance my overall web presence. There is more than one Sally Osborn out there, I was perturbed to discover 🙂 So my aim is to so bamboozle Google that I come out on top and am firmly identified with my research.

Fifth and last, but by no means least (can’t always get away from the clichés…), is to expand my existing network and find lots of lovely new people to communicate with, who hopefully are interested in what I’m doing and what I’ve got to say.

It would be useful to hear from other people their reasons for blogging and if I’ve missed anything compelling!

Digital Researcher II #DR10

Today’s Vitae Digital Researcher programme at the British Library was an interesting experiment in using as well as discussing social media. Shame that for the morning the wifi connection wasn’t working and for the afternoon it was rather slow! Luckily many people had phones they could tweet with, but we also seem to have overloaded Twitter a few times during the day. Guess Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Far too much information to process immediately, I’ll have to go through the #DR10 Twitter feed because I saw lots of nuggets and useful websites or tools popping up. The overwhelming impression is that this whole social media things needs careful managing, though. It was far too easy today to concentrate so much on following the tweets that you didn’t listen to the presentations (luckily there are slides available!). And on a general level I sometimes find by the time I’ve checked my email, read Twitter, written a blog entry, gone through RSS feeds I’ve taken up a couple of hours when I really should have been working. Note to self: Need either to get up earlier or turn off automatic updates while I’m working!

But the day led to some fascinating exchanges of knowledge from presenters and participants alike and I’m sure there are contacts and knowledge I’ll draw on at a later date. Interesting to see other people contributing who weren’t present, as well. I’m not sure about the value of the cognitive subject maps, but that may be because I wasn’t able to be at the presentations. I’m sure I’ll glean the best bits from blogs and Twitter over the next day or so!

Thanks to all the organisers for a great day and good luck to everyone.

Digital Researcher programme

I’m going to the Digital Researcher day at the British Library on Monday (which even has its own hashtag, #DR10) and decided it would be a good time to start a blog for my PhD, which I’ve been meaning to do but just not got round to…

I started thinking about how I use social media (broadly defined) at the moment and realise it’s actually quite a lot. OK, I’ve only just started tweeting (@sallyosborn) and this is my first blog post, but my Google Reader is loaded with other people’s blogs and feeds for new journal issues and conference announcements. I often find myself following up leads or hints I get that way, and this month I’ve booked on five conferences, workshops or talks I probably otherwise would only have found out about when they were over. And I can already see that blogs and Twitter are likely to be useful for more than information – doing a PhD, particularly part time, can be extremely lonely and it’s good to feel like someone’s out there who’s going through the same thing and will help if they can.

We’re now so used to email and the internet more generally (how did we fact check without Google?) that it’s easy to forget the way they’ve revolutionised our lives. My diary’s online, accessible via laptop or iPhone, and my husband’s is too so we can occasionally arrange to be home at the same time 🙂 As a historian who works with manuscripts I’m disappointed by the demise of letter writing – what will there be for future generations to unearth in dusty archives? – but at the same time depend on email to do my job, communicate with my tutor, even with my children (they’ll text from one part of the house to the other, and we don’t live in a mansion). I rarely read a newspaper except online, and I’m even able to view some of the manuscript recipe books I need for my research from the comfort of my armchair (OK, it’s not the same as turning over the pages, but sometimes it helps).

While I do have reservations about using Facebook for anything other than social chitchat and I find the more business-related networking that goes on on sites like LinkedIn rather forced and too salesy for my taste, this is a fast-developing area and I’m sure we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Looking forward to Monday’s workshop to find out more!