Thursday, January 17, 2013

The long and the short of it

Optical illusion Deep down inside me something curls away from finding out why I write, in fear that whatever "gift" I occasionally seem to possess will be lost if the light hits it. On the surface, I can reel off a list of reasons as long as your arm.

Some days this blog is a multimedia scrapbook of things that interest me, other days it is a noticeboard, but most often it is a notebook where I jot down things I think I may later want to remember. (I refer to these notes several times a day on average.) Occasionally my writings here delve a little deeper as I try to work through some temporary existential crisis or feel the need to sound off about some egregious wrong that needs illumination.

On MicrobiologyBytes I deliberately try to abstract and explain the content of scientific papers in an accessible form. On AoB Blog we highlight content from Annals of Botany journals, interspersed with slightly longer commentary articles from a range of commentators. I infrequently write these posts, partly because I am not a plant scientist, but also because it's easy to find an excuse not to - such as the infallible "too busy".

This week, two interesting events coincided. The LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog published my article on MOOCs which they had commissioned (in the sense of not paying), and I also read Why Content Goes Viral: the Theory and Proof. I was quite proud of my "heavyweight" 1000+ word MOOC effort, although I don't believe that the technical architecture of blogs is usually the right place for true long form writing. But the combination of these two recent experiences has promoted me ask myself if I could spend my limited time more wisely.

I can't afford to lose the notebook aspect of this blog so it is likely to continue in much the same way as previously, but occasionally I feel the need to be more discursive. Specifically, I am asking myself whether the limited time I have available for MicrobiologyBytes these days would be better spent as less frequent longer format articles rather than the very short pointers I put there now. In academic terms, should I devote my long form efforts to more "worthy" channels, i.e. more conventional publication? That risks siphoning off my limited supply of Cognitive KarmaCard points I could spend on the grant applications and formal papers my line managers crave. More importantly, I worry that infrequent publication puts me at risk of stopping publishing altogether, particularly with a hectic few months teaching coming up where time to write is going to be under particular pressure, whereas hurried moments scribbling can be squeezed in the gaps. It is most important to me that I maximize the value I am able to add to what I write about. The thought of content going viral and reaching a wider audience could be part of achieving that aim.

So here's the plan. This blog - steady as she goes, although I will try to focus on longer format pieces occasionally. MicrobiologyBytes - I'm thinking about a weekly longer article in the model of the admirable Ed Yong. This will be topped up by quick hits pushed through from the MicrobiologyBytes Google+ page to the blog and on to Twitter and Facebook. But that's not going to happen for a couple of months, until the teaching pressure dies down again. AoB Blog is the difficult one. I need a sit down for a strategic chat with my colleagues about the road ahead.

In general, I'm looking to play the longer game rather than chasing the validation of immediate gratification. But this requires serious planning and discipline because one thing I am convinced about above all other - the value of blogging to me is too high to risk damaging it.


  1. The wordcount chart in that SEOmoz article (an article itself crafted to be shared...) is truly a thing of pointlessness isn't it? Label the line but not the axes?!

  2. Not the world's best graph, true, but it makes the point. At least, it did to me.