If I’d included weeknotes, which I compose every weekend, I’d perhaps have finished on time. But, for some reason, I decided not to — thinking, perhaps, that it was somehow ‘cheating’ to do so. Whatever the reason, I’ve realised that I haven’t been writing as much as usual during the pandemic.
In general, I find the quantity of my outputs are determined by the quantity and variety of my inputs. The more my information diet and everyday activities revolve around the same things, the less I’m likely to compose something new. I miss travelling in that respect. Not only does it open the mind, but meeting new people and having serendipitous conversations explains the arc of my career in a way that my LinkedIn profile does not.
As a member of the tight-knit Team Belshaw, travelling also gives me the kind of freedom from familial obligations that allows my mind to roam a little. I met my wife at university aged 18, so I’ve never truly lived the bachelor lifestyle. Conferences, events, client meetings, and mountain training enable me to travel both physically and mentally to other places in a way not afforded by other means of escape.
In particular, there’s something about travelling on planes, looking out the window, that gives one perspective on life. Given the environmental impact, I can’t see myself wanting to travel via that method in the future unless I can avoid it, so I think I’ll have to make do with the view from the top of mountains. The added benefit, of course, is that walking to the top of them not only provides exercise, but gives one time to think.
So, on reflection, it’s no wonder the quantity of my outputs have diminished in proportion to the variety of my inputs during a global pandemic. I’m very much looking forward to a bit of travel as the lockdown in the UK eases. Hopefully, that will have a knock-on effect on both the quality and quantity of my writing here, and elsewhere.
Every December I update the Start here page on this blog with the five most popular posts from that year. In 2020, I haven’t been gathering stats as much, as part of a drive to ensure I’m my authentic self.
So what to do? Stop the tradition, which dates back to 2006? I don’t want to do that, so, instead, I’m going to share my favourite posts from this year. These are the ones that have meant to the most to me and I’ll share 10 here and to five, as usual, on my Start here page.
Without further ado…
Letting go of my pre-pandemic self — the pandemic, coupled with the therapy I’ve undertaken, and reflections on my undergraduate Philosophy days, made me realise that I don’t need to be the same person I used to be.
Practice what you preach — this year I switched theme on this blog to one that is much lighter and less resource-intensive. The stimulus to this was a realisation that, while I personally use a bunch of browser plugins to block trackers, I’d been subjecting others to tracking via the WordPress plugins I had installed.
This has been a good week. Among other things both at work and outside it, the highlight perhaps came on Friday morning when I went for a run.
Picture the scene: I get my running gear on, head downstairs, pick up my phone and open the Spotify app. It notifies me there’s a new album out by Faithless. I stretch, and start my run just as the sun is beginning to rise.
As I run the bypass route around Morpeth, the sky changes from purple to pink to orange to yellow, while a magnificent sonic landscape emerges, and my endorphins surge. Perfect.
In parenting news this week, we confiscated my son’s smartphone for a week due to his consistent, albeit reasonably low-level, flouting of family rules. When he persisted a bit, I banned him from the PlayStation for the weekend as well.
The above isn’t usually something I’d share here, but I watched The Social Dilemmathis week, and thought it was so good that I watched it with my son at the weekend. Although the whole thing is a warning about the dystopian mess we’ve got ourselves into, it was nevertheless gratifying to see my own position vindicated.
Not only have I retreated from mainstream social media, but I’ve also insisted that our children go nowhere near it either. Their screen time is limited, especially compared to other kids their age. I wasn’t surprised to learn via The Social Dilemma that the those involved in Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, etc. do likewise. I remember reading that Steve Jobs was particularly zealous in that regard.
I wrote a rare post on my literaci.es blog about this after watching the film, which I entitled Notification literacy? Being very intentional and strict about notifications is, I think, the single most important thing you can do to improve your (and your children’s) relationship with their devices.
The funny thing is that, after a few days away from his phone, my son (as usual) finds other things to do, and is generally just a much nice teenager to be around. Funny, that.
On the work front, this was the final week collaborating with a cohort of nine charities as part of the Catalyst Discovery programme we’ve been funded to work with over the last month. It’s been great, and they’ve all really enjoyed it too, giving us fantastic feedback and all rating We Are Open Co-op as either a 9 or a 10 out of 10 in terms of an NPS score.
Other work has included a bit of work on a new Greenpeace project, mainly reading and suggesting ideas while Laura is away. She’s leading the project, but is currently away for a couple of weeks, sailing around the Mediterranean with her husband and scuba diving. Not that I’m in any way jealous.
The third bit of work I’ve been doing is to continue helping Outlandish with productisation and their new Building OUT programme. The sweet spot between the two is the playbook I’ve started helping them with, demonstrating how they add value to organisations by sharing the resources they use internally and with clients.
It’s half-term for our kids now, and we’ve booked a couple of nights away next weekend just over the border in Scotland. We’re on the verge of a Tier 3 lockdown in the North East of England due to the pandemic and numbers rising in certain areas. If those restrictions are introduced, we won’t be able to go, so fingers crossed!
If we do get to go, I’ll be taking Friday off, but either way I’ll be taking it a bit easier next week to hang out with my family and decompress after a reasonably-intense few weeks.
Image from the cliffs near Cresswell, Northumberland, where I took my laptop to work on Wednesday morning. There’s a lot of fossils around there!
I almost entitled this post ‘nobody cares’. Because, mostly, they don’t. When you write, you should write for yourself, as a way of setting down what you think, sharing your knowledge, and connecting together your experiences.
There have been times in my life when I’ve blogged every day. Any time you see me doing that, it’s probably because I’m having a tough time at home, work, or trying to chew through a knotty problem.
Another title for this post could be ‘write like nobody is reading’. Because, mostly, they aren’t. Even if you’ve got a lot of followers, most people don’t click through, and attention is a valuable commodity. Just because people are looking doesn’t mean they’re reading. And even if they are reading, what you’ve written almost certainly won’t have as much resonance as it does for you.
So just write. Say what’s on your mind and tell the world about it. Not because it’s going to get retweeted, boosted, or liked. But just as an expression of who you are, where you stand, and what you think.
This is part of a series. In the following, I cover some tools you might want to use when planning, writing, and editing your blog post.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watch other people write, and reading what people have written about how they write, it’s that everyone writes differently.
One way of thinking about this is through rock formation. Bear with me. Remember at school you learned there were (broadly) three different types of rock?
Igneous — formed when volcanic lava cools
Sedimentary — formed from the repeated deposits of sediments
Metamorphic — formed by transforming existing rock through heat and pressure
Writing can be a bit like this too. Some writers sit down in a burst of frenzied activity and their writing is the result of that volcanic eruption.
Others lay down words day after day after day to get to a point where they’re happy. Still others have existing stuff that they’ve worked on, but after a burst of inspiration it turns into something else.
While all writers can write in different ways at different times, it’s good to know what kind of blogger you tend to me. I, for example, tend to be an ‘igneous’ blogger. I like getting everything down in one go — as I’m doing now with this post. That doesn’t mean things are stream-of-consciousness, as often the post has been rattling inside my brain for a while.
Choosing your tools
The reason this discussion about blogging styles is important is that it has an impact on the tools you use and the ways you use them.
The three tools I recommend most often to people are:
There’s a whole list of blogging tools on the Buffer blog.
Interestingly, although I recommend these three, the only one I actually use on a sporadic basis is Hemingway. It’s a great way to spot things your high school English teacher pointed out, such as when you over-use the passive voice.
The other two tools help in-line with your blog post punctuation, grammar, and spelling (Grammarly) and planning (Workflowy).
When it comes down to it, though, the tools you need for writing a blog post are either in your blogging platform or are ones you probably use every day. You need a version history: that’s built-in to WordPress as well as into tools such as Google Docs (and Draft). You need a spellchecker, that’s built into web browsers and word processors. You’ve got pretty much everything you need already!
What people often miss when putting together their blog post is the importance of showing rather than telling. If a picture paints a thousand words, then a labelled screenshot is worth even more — and what about a two-minute YouTube video?
It’s easy to default to words when you’re comfortable in that medium and can type quickly. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes, however, and think about what’s the quickest line from what’s inside your head to what you want to be inside theirs.
Three tools/resources that can help up the graphical content of your blog post are:
These are examples of types of applications that should be in your toolkit.
For example, I’ve included Unsplash because you don’t have to credit the author of the photo you use to illustrate your post, although they make it easy to do so. You can discover many more Creative Commons-licensed images here.
Although I’ve long been a fan of the Awesome Screenshot browser extension, the latest versions of Firefox have a new screenshotting tool which is incredible. Try it!
Finally, the weirdly-named LICEcap allows you to create animated GIFs of areas of your screen. Once you start doing this you’ll begin to realise how incredibly useful it can be. I’m sharing this in the knowledge that most people who read this post will use Windows or macOS. If you’re on Linux, like me, try Peek.
Use blogging as an opportunity to experiment with different tools and approaches. Your focus should always be to convey something to the reader, and experimentation will help you with ways of doing that!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.