Let Me Tell You a Story: Academic Storytelling
Is academic blogging just a collection of shorter papers or is it truly a different way of writing? Depending on your audience it can be. But acquiring the art of academic storytelling is a worthwhile goal.
I was originally going to call this post Science Blogging, but after digging into the subject, it turns out Science Blogging has its own entire playground, and since I wanted to keep this more general I decided to go with academic blogging. And for the sake of this post I'm going to define academic blogging as blogging about (their own) research by academics. So while anyone can blog and anyone can blog about science, we'll be looking at (PhD) students, professors, and other academics attached to research institutes.
Is academic blogging just a short-form paper? The short answer is no. The somewhat longer answer is it depends on your intended audience. Knowing your (intended) audience is important, as it will affect how you write. If your aim is to communicate with your fellow academics you'll probably use more technical terms than if you intend to reach the public-at-large. However, whether you want to talk about newly published articles in a post-peer-review manner, discuss the vagaries of academia and your field with your peers, or want to reach out to the public, or any and all of these, what's important in this form of communication is storytelling. You're selling a narrative, only one based in research instead of fiction. These aren't 16 page papers including methodology and statistical calculations; instead you have to make it relevant to your reader and preferably in a limited number of words.
What are the benefits?
Melissa Terras, Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and Professor of Digital Humanities in UCL’s Department of Information Studies, used storytelling to get attention for her papers, by putting the papers into context and sharing elements of her research that didn't make it into the final paper. She experimented with this to see how these blog posts would affect attention and interaction with her papers, with some interesting and positive results: papers she actively promoted through her blog and other social media were downloaded over 11 times more than the one she didn't promote. Of course this is only one experiment, but if we take a look at the authors of an article on academic blogging and their experiences, the exposure blogging grants does seem to bear out. They too reported a far larger number of views and downloads.
How does it work?
Rob Dunn, a biologist and writer at North Carolina State University, is adamant that to capture your audience's attention, you need to put them in the centre of your writing. He also has some useful tips on how to write for the public. Making your writing active and your research tangible will make your post more meaningful to the reader. Give them concrete or current examples to cling to. An example of how you can use current events was this topical post inspired by Luis Suarez' dental chops at this year's Football World Cup. In it its author, Marcia Brandenburg-Goddard, made a connection between Suarez' biting and an aspect of her research into brain mechanisms underlying social dysfunction, showing that such research not only serves in clinical situations but out of the football field as well. Another great example of academic storytelling are the many TED Talks by academics. Most of the time these are highly entertaining and they manage to capture the audience's attention while still talking about their often complicated research.
For more tips and explanations of the importance of storytelling and you can check out these posts:
The confusing art of storytelling and academic writing
Storytelling 101: Writing Tips for Academics