Category: Everything Else (page 1 of 38)

Deciding what to write about in your blog post

This is part of a series. In the following, I cover some of the things you should consider as you think about what to discuss in your blog post.


Usually, when people ask me about blogging, they ask me about one of two things. They either wonder where I find time to write, or how I find things to write about.

Where do ideas come from?

I’m a bit like the novelist Henry James in thinking that ideas for writing surround us. They’re in the air,  sparked by conversations, things we read, and thoughts we have. Almost always these writing ideas are prompted, which means that if you want to improve the rate of your outputs, the easiest way to do so is to increase the rate of your inputs. Read more. Have more conversations. Spend time walking and thinking.

Ideas come from other ideas, as Steven Johnson notes:

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of writing, however, I came across some fantastic advice shared in a wonderful book by Anne Lamott entitled Bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life. In it, the author, who runs writing classes as well as writing works of fiction and non-fiction, writes:

 “E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

Just start writing. Many blog posts I’ve started writing have morphed into something completely different. I often start with a title and the subject I want to write about. By the time I’ve finished my first draft, I have to completely change the title because what I’ve written bears no resemblance to what I set out to write. And that’s OK.

There’s nothing new under the sun, so it’s probable that someone’s written a blog post similar to the one you’re planning to put out into the world. That doesn’t matter. The world’s interested in your perspective. What have you noticed? How did that thing turn out when you applied it to your situation? Why did this idea remind you of something else you’ve experienced?

Contributing to the wider conversation

You never know what effect you’re going to have on a reader until you put your thoughts out there. I can remember being encouraged at church when I was younger by hearing that people need to be evangelised to six or seven times before they’re ready to engage. The same is true of brands trying to make a sale. You don’t know where people are on their journey, and you’ll never know (unless they tell you) what effect your writing will have on their life.

Think of your writing as part of a the wider tapestry of the web. You’re providing a thread that other will weave together into a more complex whole. It’s worth noting, to quote Anne Lamott again, that, at least until you’ve got into your blogging groove, your first drafts are likely to be terrible. Lamott suggests recognising and celebrating the fact that no-one will ever see these ‘shitty first drafts’:

“All good writers write [shitty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. . . I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.”

The upside of this is that you’ll have an insight into the trials and tribulations that other writers, bloggers, and essayists go through in order to get just the right word or sentence formation to convey their meaning. You’ll be more likely to share and comment upon good writing. In turn, seeking out that quality writing will have an impact on your own.

Finally…

If you’re sitting there with the cursor blinking in front of you or a vast white expanse of emptiness to fill, then tighten the focus. I can’t find the exact quotation, but I think it’s in Bird by bird that Lamott talks about describing a particular scene in as much detail as possible.

While she’s talking about fiction-writing, Lamott’s advice is useful for any kind of writing. Focusing in on a particular aspect of the thing you want to talk about helps get you started, helps get you some of the way towards finishing that ‘shitty first draft’ that you can then build upon.

Again, just get started. If you feel like something’s on the tip of your tongue, literally write gibberish using your pen or keyboard until the words come. The brain is wonderful at self-correcting when it sees something that’s wrong. If what you see in front of you is different from what’s latent inside your mind, often the right words come tumbling out. Try it!


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Putting your blog post into the world

This is part of a series. In the following, I cover some of the things you should consider as you put your blog post out into the world for others to read. This includes discoverability, commenting, and following-up.


According to one source, over two million blog posts are published each day. Some of these are personal in nature and will be read, and are intended to be read, by a very small audience. Meanwhile, some of these blog posts are written by paid staff and are meant to be read by as wide an audience as possible. The latter is often known as content marketing.

Content marketing means attracting and transforming prospects into customers by creating and sharing valuable free content. The purpose of content marketing is to help the company to create sustainable brand loyalty and provide valuable information to consumers, as well as create willingness to purchase products from the company in the future. This relatively new form of marketing usually does not involve direct sales. Instead, it builds trust and rapport with the audience. (Wikipedia)

You might be reading this and thinking ‘content marketing doesn’t apply to me’. I want to persuade you otherwise. Like it or not, people will use your writing as a way to think about you as a person.

Discoverability

Your blog posts will turn up when people use a search engine to find out more about you. This means that you’re in the game of reputation management. While you’re not neccessarily “attracting and transforming prospects into customers” the whole point of you writing the post is to inform, engage and/or entertain and audience.

Although some people (including me!) still use RSS readers to get updates on news that interest me, most people these days come across things via social networks. Unless you are actually blogging on behalf of a brand, the chances are you won’t have the time, patience, or inclination to post to every possible place where you could promote your work.

Instead, focus in on what you’re trying to achieve, and select the places you’re going to prioritise. For example, I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account, and have long since given up on Google+. As a result, every time I write a new post, it goes straight away to:

Then, at the end of the week, I include the posts I’ve written in my weeknotes, as well as in my newsletter.

Although I’ve experimented with auto-posting to social networks, I’ve gone back to doing so manually. Each one has a certain ‘grammar’ to it and, well, it just seems obvious and a bit tone-deaf when people auto-post. It’s best to do it in a more organic way, I’ve found.

Remember that many social networks will auto-preview your blog post with at least the title and image you’ve chosen to accompany it. Make sure these tell the story (and/or give the vibe) of what you’re trying to get across.

Commenting

Mainly as a result of the explosion of social networks over the last decade, I’ve found that it’s become less and less likely that people will leave a comment directly on my posts. Some people use plugins to allow Facebook to power their comments section. Some people do without a comments section altogether. It’s entirely up to you.

What I’d advise is that you should be intentional about the ‘call to action’ (as it’s known) that you provide. If you want people to leave a comment, then say so — and suggest what it might be about. For example: “I’d love your thoughts on whether comments sections are a good or a bad idea”.

Unless you decide to turn off comments, you’re going to want some kind of moderation system in place. Most these days allow you to hold comments by first-time commenters in a queue for you to review. Once they’ve proved they’re not a spam bot or a troll, you can let them post directly to the site.

I know others have had problems with commenting and, while as a straight white male in a developed country I’m speaking from a position of privilege, I’ve never had many problems with comments on the web. If people step out of line, tell them so. It doesn’t happen very often at all.

Most people who read your blog post won’t comment at all. Some who do comment won’t do so on the post itself, but give their thoughts, or frame it as they share it with their networks. Again, make sure the your title is both specific and generic enough to do the work you’re asking of it.

Follow-up

Once you’ve sent your blog post out into the world, don’t just expect it to fend for itself. Support it! Nurture it!

There are multiple ways of doing this. For example, given that most people pay attention to whatever’s in their social network feed at a given moment, you might consider re-posting it a few days later. Again, there a plugins that do this, you can schedule it, or just do it in a spontaneous fashion.

Another way of leveraging the work you’ve put into the post is by citing it in a follow-up post. Use it as a building block. As you’ll no doubt have already seen, this post that you’re reading is part of a series on the same topic. That’s a great way of pointing to an emergent body of work.

Finally, don’t be shy about making people aware of your work. You’ve written your blog post(s) for a reason, for an audience. If you think someone, or someone’s network, would benefit from reading it, then tell them! You can also drop in hashtags or post to particular groups.

Remember with the latter example, however, that an important part of blogging is reciprocity. That doesn’t just go for citing and linking to other people’s work within your post, it also goes for pointing to other people’s work on social networks. You scratch their back, and their more likely to scratch yours…

What have I missed? What would YOU add to this? Let me know in the comments section below, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Mastodon!


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Sitting down to write a blog post

This is part of a series. In the following, I cover some of the things you should consider as you sit down to write a blog post such a structure, style, and citing other people’s work.


1. Consider your reader

It’s a bit meta, but this is what my editing window in WordPress looks like as I type this:

WordPress editor window

The first thing to think about when writing a blog post is your reader. When you’re starting off, it can be difficult to know your audience so, instead, have a particular person in mind and write for them. If it’s a professional blog it might be a colleague. If it’s a personal blog it might be a friend. It’s up to you. But write for real people.

This means that your reality isn’t the editor window you see in the screenshot above, but the finished blog post. As such, check what you’ve written looks like several times before (and after!) you hit ‘Publish’. You can see the ‘Preview’ option at the top-right of the screenshot. Use it.

Note: if what you’re writing about is particularly important, or a sensitive topic, you might want to share what you’ve written with someone else first. In those situations, I’ve found writing in something like Google Docs is an easier way to elicit comments before copying-and-pasting into whatever blogging platform you use.

2. Write like a journalist

When I was 14 years old, I wanted to be a journalist. A couple of weeks on work experience at a local newspaper put paid to that idea, but there’s several things that have stuck with me as I explored that potential career.

There’s a particular style of writing that journalists are good at: getting to the point. The first paragraph of what you write should sum up for the reader what you’re going to cover. If that doesn’t come naturally, then internet culture has come up with a useful get out of jail free card: TL;DR.

TL;DR, short for “too long; didn’t read”, is Internet slang to say that some text being replied to has been ignored because of its length. It is also used as a signifier for a summary of an online post or news article. (Wikipedia)

You can see that I’ve used the TL;DR approach at the top of this post. It’s a useful way of initially scaffolding the reader’s attention.

Another way that journalists’ writing is distinctive is the length of their paragraphs. Keeping them short makes them easier to read. Like this one!

3. Use sub-headings

Even short blog posts benefit from sub-headings. The reason that list-based posts (known as listicles) are so widely shared is partly because you know they’re going to be easy to scan and parse as a reader. You feel you’re guaranteed to get something useful out of it.

Take the post you’re reading right now. Chances are, based on eye-tracking studies, you’ve already scrolled down the page to see how long this is, and the sub-headings have caught your eye. You’ve decided that this is something relevant to you, so have gone into further detail.

Sub-headings are another way of scaffolding your reader’s attention. Let’s not forget that attention is the currency of the web.

4. Link to everything

The fundamental difference between reading on paper and reading on the web is the hyperlink. We take this for granted these days, but it’s an immensely and transformative thing. Not only can you tell your readers about a thing, but you can show it to them!

Already in this post, I’ve linked elsewhere on the web. This can be for several reasons, including:

  • Defining the thing you’re talking about (in case your reader hasn’t come across a particular term before)
  • Backing up the point you’re making (so that your reader knows it’s not just you who thinks this way)
  • Providing further information about the topic (in case your reader is really interested in this area)

If in doubt, provide a link!

5. Credit everyone

If attention is the currency of the web, then recriprocity is the way it obtains its cash value. I cite your work, and you cite mine. The most obvious and easy way to do that is to quote a source and link to it. I’ve done this with the Wikipedia example above.

Another way to do this is when you use images. Every post should have at least one image as including something visual helps readers remember the post, and entices the reader in when sharing beyond your blog.

As you’ll see with the image accompanying this blog post, you can use Creative Commons-licensed content in your own work, so long as you stick to the terms by which it was shared.

So, for example, in this series I’m using images provided by WOCinTech Chat. They make all of their content available under the least restrictive license – CC BY. This means that as long as I say who the image was originally by, I’m free to use it in my work. Etiquette dictates that I also link to the source, as you’ll see if you scroll to the bottom of this post.


Finally…

I think it’s worth saying that blogging is different to any other kind of writing. It’s wonderful in that respect. Unless you want one, you have no editor other than yourself, and there’s almost an expectation that you’ll add your personality and experiences into the mix.

In this post, for example, you’ve learned that I wanted to be a journalist, that I sometimes write about sensitive topics, and that I’m a believer in (what used to be called) netiquette. As your audience read more of your work, your personality seeps through, meaning they’ll be more willing to comment on your work.

We’ll cover the read/write nature of the web in a future post of this series. Again, it’s something we take for granted these days. You might think that you just want to quickly share something for the benefit of a few people, or are writing because you have to, but I’ve found blogging to be one of the best ways of informing the world of things I care about. It’s a powerful tool.

If you’re reading this without having started a blog, then go and get started! It almost doesn’t matter at this point where you decide to start writing. Unless you’ve been asked to write in a particular place, or really want to delve into hosting your own blog, just head over to WordPress, Medium, or Blogger and get started!


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

How to write a blog post

Last month, one of my clients got in touch to ask if I could send them some guidance around writing blog posts. They asked me to include the usual things such as:

  • Structuring a post
  • Making things clear for the reader
  • How to grammar/spell check

They asked me to put together something, which effectively is a couple of sides of A4 paper, for the start of the school term for a team they’ll be working with this academic year.

One of the reasons for my delay in getting started (other than the busiest summer, work-wise that I’ve ever had!) is that, rattling around at the back of my mind, is a series  on how to write blog posts. While it’s important to cover the bullet points above, I think there’s things to say about in situating blog posts within a wider discourse.

Here’s what I’ve written so far:

  1. Sitting down to write a blog post
  2. Putting your blog post into the world
  3. Deciding what to write about in your blog post
  4. Tools to help you with your blog post

I hope it will be of use.


Photo by WOCinTech Chat used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

My information environment (July 2017)

A couple of years ago this month, I created a page on my wiki to keep track of my information environment. Not long before, I’d written Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society for DML Central, and I was concerned to ensure I was getting a rich and varied information diet.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the world is a very different place. So different, in fact, that I’m not so concerned that I’m choosing to read more ‘biased’ stuff. There’s a war of attention going on and, in any case, there’s no such thing as non-theory-laden consumption of information.

I’ve quit Facebook and Twitter, the former completely, and the latter I now only post links to. Consequently, I converse with my friends on Slack, and in a very nice left-wing bubble on the Mastodon-powered social.coop. I’m OK with being partisan at this stage of my life.

So below is my current information environment, give or take a couple of things I’ll inevitably have managed to omit. The wiki page can be found here.

Newspapers

Aggregators

Newsletters

I try out other ones, but these are my favourites:

Podcasts

As with the newsletters, I subscribe to other podcasts on a regular basis, but here are my go-to ones that I wouldn’t want to miss:

Routines

Internet culture

Music


Recommendations welcome! I’m always on the lookout for high-quality sources of information.

Image CC BY Alexander Svensson

Listen to me witter on about co-ops via @VConnecting at #ccsummit

At the Creative Commons Summit this weekend I had my first experience as a participant in a Virtually Connecting session. It included others both onsite and online, but ended up with Laura Hilliger and I spending quite a chunk of time talking about co-ops. We start discussing that around the 8-minute mark.


(no video above? click here!)

Many thanks to our hosts for setting the session up. I’m always happy to answer questions about our work, whether We Are Open Co-op specifically or co-operativism more generally.

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

Goodbye, Grandma

At almost exactly the same time as I landed in Toronto yesterday, my grandmother took her last breath. She had her son, my father, at her hospital bedside. Freda Belshaw was 93.

Mourning is an intensely private thing, but celebrating someone’s life — as we shall do at her funeral when I get back home — is a more public affair. People process their grief in various ways, and I’m doing so in the only way I know: by writing about it.

My grandma was a matriachal figure, a large presence in any room. She was not someone to be crossed. More than anyone I’ve ever met, she knew her own mind, had definite values, and stuck to them. Apart from the last few months of her life, she stayed in her own home, fiercely independent until finally accepting going into a home for her own safety.

Grandma left school at 14 years of age and, at 15 suffered the dual traumas of her mother dying and the Second World War breaking out. She almost single-handedly raised her younger sister. Marrying my grandad after the war, they lived a happy, working class life in County Durham, where my father was born.

Grandma birthday

She was very proud of my father, her only child. You could not only see it in her eyes when he was around her, but in the way she talked about him when he wasn’t there. They travelled together quite a bit and I was always amazed that she was making trips to the Caribbean right into her late eighties.

As an historian, I’d often ask her about her family, and about experiences during the war, but the subject would quickly change, or she’d say that she couldn’t remember. Freda was not someone to dwell on the past.

I’m sure that over the next couple of weeks, I’ll get some more thoughts together to be able to provide some vignettes and memories for the funeral. Things are a bit raw right now, and I’m writing this with tears streaming down my cheeks.

Goodbye grandma, rest in peace. xxx

How to build an architecture of participation

Back in 2014, when I was still at Mozilla, I wrote a post entitled Towards an architecture of participation for episodic volunteering. I bemoaned the lack of thought that people and projects put into thinking through how they’re going to attract, retain, and encourage the volunteers they crave.

‘Architecture of participation’ is a term used to describe systems designed for user contribution. It’s a term I use relatively often, especially at events and thinkathons run by our co-op. Not only is it a delightful phrase to say and to hear, but (more importantly) it’s a metaphor which can be used to explore all kinds of things.

In my 2014 post, I made some suggestions for ways to improve your project’s architecture of participation. I’ve updated and improved these based on feedback and my own thinking. Based on my experience, to build an effective architecture of participation, you need:

  1. A clear mission – why does this project exist? what is it setting out to achieve?
  2. An invitation to participate – do you have an unambiguous call to action?
  3. Easy onboarding – are there small, simple tasks/activities that new volunteers can begin with?
  4. A modular approach – do volunteers have to commit to helping with everything, or is there a way which they can use their knowledge, skills, and interests to contribute to part of the project?
  5. Strong leadership – do the people in control of the project embody the mission? do they have the respect of volunteers? have they got the capacity to make the project a success?
  6. Ways of working openly and transparently – does the project have secret areas, or is everything out in the open? (this post may be useful)
  7. Backchannels and watercoolers – are there ‘social’ spaces for members of the project to interact over and above those focused on project aims?
  8. Celebration of milestones – does the project recognise the efforts and input of volunteers?

Most of the links I can find around architectures of participation seem to be tied to Web 2.0 developments pre-2011. I’d love to see a resurgence in focus on participation and contribution, perhaps through the vehicle of co-operativism.

If you’ve got another couple of features that lead to a positive and effective architecture of participation, I’d love to hear them. Then this can be a 10-point list! As ever, this post is CC0-licensed, meaning you can do with this whatever you like.


(Image drawn by audience members during a keynote I gave at Durham University in 2015)

Blogging for a third of my life

I was in the midst of presenting to a conference in Australia last Wednesday night when it struck me just how amazing some things are that I consider to be ‘everyday’. There I was, getting praise, pushback, and questions via Twitter in realtime while I presented, lag-free, to the other side of the world.

Similarly, I take for granted my blogs, and the ability to connect to people around the world. When I step back and think for a moment, it’s truly amazing to be able to have an idea one moment, and communicate it to a worldwide audience, the next.

I’ve now been blogging for around a third of my life. In 2005, after some brief dalliances with dajbelshaw.co.uk (no longer available, even via the Internet Archive) I was inspired to start my own blog by reading the work of Will Richardson and others.

This led to a fertile period of blogging at teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk from 2005 to 2007. My main focus was on History teaching and related education issues. However, as my career developed, my writing started to cover other areas, so I started a new blog (this one!) to focus on education, technology, and productivity.

Since 2008, my interests have diversified to such an extent that it’s made sense to have several blogs, on different platforms, as well as a newsletter and a podcast. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past 12 years, it’s that most people care too much about intellectual property and not enough about owning their own data.

You’ll notice that, these days, I release almost all of my work under a Creative Commons ‘zero’ license. In effect, this is donating my work to the public domain. It’s not that I over- or under-value my work by doing so. Instead, it’s driven by a desire to spend more time creating than worrying about who’s remixing my work.

On the other hand, I do obsess about the tools and platforms that I use. I try to use Open Source wherever possible which, to my mind, is just a sensible way of investing in the sustainability and longevity of my work. I don’t think anyone should be able to shut down the platform on which I share my stuff. Even on the odd occasion I’ve used a proprietary platform, I’ve at least manged to hook it up to a domain name I own.

Anyway, this was meant to be simply a brief post to mark a milestone. If you’ve been reading my work since the beginning, as I know some of you have, then thank you. For those of you new to my work, there’s a list of the various places I update on a regular basis at dougbelshaw.com.

Image CC BY Amy Gahran

#BelshawBlacksOps16 (Pt.2) has begun. See you in 2017!

As usual, I’m taking December off from social media, personal email, blogging, podcast-recording, and newsletter-writing. You may still see some of my stuff published if I’m doing some work for a client, but that’s it. You can still contact me via my Dynamic Skillset or We Are Open Co-op email addresses, but keep it work-related please.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to my digital hiatus this year. What a year 2016 has been! I think we’re all suffering from mild collective  PTSD. I’ll be spending December resting more, spending more time with my family, and taking the opportunity to think more deeply about things I’ve put on hold for too long.

If you’ve got some potential work for me in early 2017, please do get in touch before Christmas. I’ve enjoyed helping clients with a whole range of things this year — edtech strategy, digital skills/literacies, Open Badges. I guess, in general, I translate things that could be seen as complicated into things that are easier to understand.

One of the best things to have happened this year is that a few of us founded a co-op called We Are Open. That’s been a ray of sunshine in a year of trouble within the wider world. So my joyful thanks to co-founders Bryan, John, and Laura for keeping me sane.

My biggest thank you, however, is reserved for my wonderful wife, who not only has had to come to terms with the ups-and-downs of me being self-employed over the last 18 months, but has stepped up to do the admin and finances for both my consultancy and the co-op. Thank you, Hannah. You’re awesome.

See you all in 2017! If you tend to celebrate them, I hope you enjoy both Christmas and New Year.

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