One year after starting his Mainly Macro blog, Simon Wren-Lewis discusses the value of academic blogging. He finds that blogging has improved his teaching and helped him clarify his ideas.
I wanted to mark a year of blogging by encouraging other academics (particularly outside the US) to do the same. So lets use my experience to tackle some of the worries that may be holding others back.
1) How do people find out I’m blogging? I’ll be writing to myself!
When I started, I thought my posts would mainly be a useful resource for my students. Things I did not have time to say or elaborate on in lectures. In my case that is all the publicity I gave it, beyond something on my homepage and email signature. But if other bloggers discover that you are writing interesting stuff, it will be picked up. (In my case, I probably have to thank Jonathan Portes, Chris Dillow and – of course – Mark Thoma.) That is one of the great things about this medium.
Now there will almost certainly be a point where you become fixated by audience numbers. But of course it is as much who reads your posts as how many read them. Here I have discovered something that is not that surprising when you think about it, but which should be a great incentive for many academic economists. Economists in policy making institutions read blogs. They do not have time to read many academic papers, but they want something a little deeper than even the FT can provide, and blogs can be ideal from that point of view. So if you have a message you want to get across to those who advise on policy, blogging is the way to do it.
2) I can imagine a few things I could write about, but I’ll quickly run out of things to say.
Yes, I thought that too. Now I admit macro is a bit special at the moment: events just keep providing material. But even so, you may surprise yourself. You certainly do not have to write as many posts as I do, and they can be shorter. (Who just said they couldn’t agree more!). No one is going to ‘unsubscribe’ you just because you have not posted for a month. How many times have you read a post, or a newspaper article, which you have disagreed with in part because you have better expertise or knowledge? Why keep that to yourself?
3) But I do not fancy getting into online debating contests
This was one issue I had to deal with early on. After writing this, I found myself being drawn into that kind of situation. (I was being provocative, so I’m not complaining.) So I pulled back, as I described here. How much you want to participate in this kind of thing is up to you.
One issue I would be careful about is tone. I once had a colleague who was always politeness personified in face to face conversation, but then could occasionally unleash the most hostile and aggressive emails or memos. I now understand better where this comes from. As I described here, when writing about contentious issues like austerity it is perhaps too easy to be rude.
4) But who am I writing for: other academics, or the public?
That is up to you. I try and make what I write accessible to non-economists, but I know that I often fail, in part because jargon comes so naturally. There are a large number of non-economists out there who are genuinely curious about economic issues, and know that the stuff they get from the conventional media is either simplistic or just wrong. If you do try to write for that audience, but also want to write something more technical, you can flag that at the beginning of the post, as Paul Krugman and others do.
5) But I should be doing research, or reading papers, rather than writing blogs.
The main activity that blogging has displaced for me is watching TV. I write the initial drafts of most of my blogs between 9pm and midnight. Now I try and avoid posting them immediately, because my mental faculties are not great at that time, but instead post them 24 hours later. By that time my unconscious mind has probably spotted most errors. You can also integrate scholarship with writing posts, as I suggest below.
6) But if I stray too far from my area of expertise, I may make mistakes.
Or, in my case, even if you are writing within your area of expertise. But as long as it does not happen too often, I think admitting and correcting mistakes does you no harm.
7) Do I have to put all those links into my blogs?
It would be easy to say at this point its up to you, but I think its good practice to link to others where you can. Bruegel said ‘Europeans can’t blog’, not because there are not European blogs, but because they tend not to link to each other. You will find your readership increases if other blogs link to you, so you should reciprocate.
This requires a little organisation and extra time. I try to keep a note of what I read, which I probably would not do if I was not writing a blog. No system is perfect, of course, and many a time I have come across a note of a post I really should have referenced. But it is worth trying.
8) But what if my academic colleagues find out I’m blogging?
I may have to explain this for any US readers. In the UK, and perhaps elsewhere, there is a view that for academics to attempt to write for non-academics is a bit vulgar. I like to think this view is old-fashioned, but I’m not sure. However I think this will change. US academics do read blogs, and are not afraid to say so. And in the UK, there is – in ESRC and REF speak – impact!
9) Still, its not going to actually help my academic work, is it?
I’m not so sure about this. Blogging has undoubtedly improved my teaching. I do not mean students just reading my posts. In many areas, writing posts has helped me clarify my ideas, and my lectures are better as a result. I few weeks ago I wrote a refereed article that I would not have been able to write if I had not been blogging, just because writing posts forced me to think about issues more carefully. I have also occasionally found that an article that I have just read contains material that may be of more general interest, and so I have written a post on that (here is an example). As a result, I am more likely to remember what the paper said, and I hope that paper may have got one or two more readers.
10) Any other advantages?
Well, at the end of the year, you can write: thanks for reading the posts, and happy new year!
This article was first published on Simon Wren-Lewis’ Mainly Macro blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor at Oxford University and a Fellow of Merton College. He began his career as an economist in H.M.Treasury. His current research focuses on the analysis of monetary and fiscal policy in small calibrated macromodels, and on equilibrium exchange rates.
 Blogger says I get around 3,000 pageviews a day, and feedburner says I have around 1,750 subscribers. Is this a lot or a little? Google reader does in principle allow you to compare subscriber numbers across blogs, but it has been saying I have exactly 842 subscribers for about six months, so something tells me this may not be reliable. So, using myself as an example again, this tells you that you do not have to know much about the technicalities of blogs to be a blogger.
 I should have known better. My grandfather on my mother’s side loved spending hours arguing about all kinds of things, my father wrote newspaper articles and books about a wide range of topics, my mother was a sort of journalist for a short while, and my brother is head of a media studies department, so I guess it comes naturally. On the other hand my father-in-law also liked pontificating on political issues at great length, so maybe this just says something about what many men of a certain age like to do.
As a researcher studying technical and scientific communication, I do not find this observation surprising. Dr. Wren-Lewis is experiencing the epistemic value of rhetoric and writing. Writing about a complex issue or problem, especially in a public context where there is at least some accountability, forces the author to formulate ideas in ways that are useful to others (and usually to him/herself). This is a form of knowledge-making–a critical function of writing in scholarly inquiry.
Thanks for a great post!