In June I will have been blogging for 8 years, which is a pretty decent run for an original content blog that aims to put out useful, high quality material 48 weeks a year. One of the key success factors in blogging is trust. If you publish roughly the same sort of post, at regular time intervals, people will trust you more because you are sending a signal you take the enterprise seriously. If people trust you, they are more likely to sign up and follow on social media – and share with their friends.
Many people underestimate how important being regular and predictable is to operating a ‘serious professional blog’. I’ve seen a lot of blogs come and go in the education space. I wonder if this is because people assume being a blogger just involves being creative. There is so much more to it than that. I’ve learned a lot about being regular and predictable by being a Qantas frequent flyer. I fly often, but my experience on Qantas is always more or less the same – if I notice the process, it has broken. They do this by making sure there are clear business processes and that everyone understands how they work.
Over the years I have developed business processes for managing a blog that work for me, drawing on a range of digital tools. I thought I would spend a bit of time explaining part of the process to you because I think it illuminates the problem of the academic writer – managing the endless academic writing pipeline. I got this idea from Pat Thompson, who has written about her (impressive) writing pipeline. Pat breaks down her writing tasks into: stuff she has to write (reporting on research projects), stuff she gets asked to write (such as book chapters), stuff related to supervision (writing with her students) and stuff she wants to write (projects which interest her). It’s a good set of categories that pretty much lines up with mine, but Pat leaves out blogging, describing it as “part of everyday activity, a bit like brushing your teeth”.
Unfortunately, I am not this kind of blogger.
In one of my favourite books of all time, “Chasing the Perfect: thoughts on modernist design”, Natalia Ilyin describes creative motivation as falling into two buckets: love or fear. While Pat operates from the love bucket, I definitely have my head stuck firmly in the fear bucket. Although I love writing blog posts, the only reason I have kept the whole operation going at such a high professional standard is from Fear of Embarrassing Myselfand Fear of Letting People Down. Hence my blog ‘behind the scenes’ is run with as close to military precision as I can manage.
I would argue that managing a blog and managing a standard academic writing pipeline are essentially the same, which is why committing to maintaining a blog is excellent practice for an aspiring academic. The diary structure of blogging software makes the various stages of the standard academic writer’s pipeline problem much clearer. There will be some things in production, some things finished and waiting to be released and some things that are merely a twinkle in the writer’s eye.
The Thesis Whisperer has a community content driven model. In addition to the posts I write, others volunteer to author content that I edit and distribute. I am deeply grateful that many, many people have volunteered their time and effort to this purpose. The blog is richer because of the multitude of voices, but it does mean that behind the scenes is a lot of invisible work. I correspond with authors, edit posts, negotiate changes, choose images, mark up html and market them on my social media channels. The most annoying part of this process for me is setting up the publishing timeline (I am slightly number dyslexic, often swapping the last two digits in a string). I am, therefore, heavily reliant on my digital tools to manage the whole writing pipeline.
The three key tools are my phone, my electronic diary and Omnifocus. Before I go any further, yes – Omnifocus is a Mac only product (boo), but does have PC equivalents (try Trello or Asana). In this post I am going to explain how I manage my writing projects with Omni, but you should be able to apply the same general principles to any decent piece of project management software.
Capturing my ideas
My creative muse strikes at strange times: on airplanes, while driving, cooking or having a conversation with someone. I use a range of capture software, including Evernote, Apple Notepad and Pocket. I tried, for years, to have a system for this – because I love systems. However, what I have learned in the last eight years is that the system is less important than the fact that you WRITE THE IDEA DOWN SOMEWHERE – IMMEDIATELY.
Preferably record the idea digitally, but if you’re a journal writing type, snap a photo and send it to Evernote. Evernote has optical character recognition and can read your messy handwriting (I promise). Add as much detail as you can at the time and include a keyword which is distintive. The keyword is critcally important as it makes it easier to search for the idea later, but don’t rely on the keyword alone. Last year I made an infuriating note that just said “Flamingos!”. I swear it made sense at the time…
Lately I have just started asking Siri to take a note, which is as good as anything else. I end up with digital detritus everywhere, which offends my OCD tendencies, but ultimately if an idea is good it will keep burning inside me until it’s written. When the idea has come into focus, I add it to Omnifocus as an action, filed under the Project heading “Blogging” and the context “Considering/Ideas”. More on how Omni works in ‘managing the queue’, below.
Capturing ideas from the community
I make it easy for people who are contemplating writing for the Whisperer by putting my editorial guidelines up on my About Page, along with an online ‘contact me’ form which delivers straight to my email inbox. My first stage in communication is to respond to the ideas and clearly explain the process to prospective writers. When I have confirmation that people understand what is involved (especially how long they will have to wait to see their post appear), I let them know I intend to publish and send the email and any attachments straight to OmniFocus2. Each email automatically becomes an action with the original word file attached for my records. It’s very helpful to have an original to roll back to if there are problems in the editing process.
Managing the queue
Sometimes I have had a year of content in Omnifocus, waiting to be queued. This is a lot of correspondance to manage, but Omnifocus makes this easy. I have previously blogged about how Omnifocus helps keep track of your stuff by assigning each note a ‘Project’ and a ‘Context’. As I noted in my image above, I treat Omni projects as areas of activites, the contexts help finer grained organisation. Here is how I arrange my blogging contexts:
Basically, the email action sits in the ‘Production’ context until I have completed editing and mark up, when it is moved to the context ‘Scheduled’. I keep notes on any subsequent correspondance I have had with the author in the notes pane. When the post is in ‘Scheduled’, I know I have set the blog to automatically post it on the date set in the ‘due’ setting. I can see the blog post that is due to be published in my forecast view, so I remember to promote it on social media and be alert to an increased volume of comments (I have no filters on my comments, but this is a post for another time if you are interested).
Closing the Loop
I used to just publish the post and leave it at that, but now I try to close the loop with the author and report back. I see this as a mark of respect for the time they have taken to contribute. The blog post will stay as an action in my system until I have emailed back this follow up, so I don’t forget. I generally send the statistics on the number of views (which can easily hit 50,000 given the size of the Whisperer mailing list), with some screen shots they can use in their folio or CV if they want.
If you think about it – publishing a paper follows roughly these steps. Ideas need to be captured, turned into actions, processed and then distributed. Along the way there are communication challenges, with editors and follow authors. Keeping track of the progress and status of each piece of writing is part of the kit of being a professional writer. I’ll share more of how I do this in a future post, but I hope this post has given you a bit of an insight into my blog business processes.
If you run a blog I’d love to know what tips you have for organising yourself and your content. Do you work from the fear or the love bucket? If you’re not a blogger, I wonder what steps you take to manage the other kinds of writing in your life? I’d love to hear about your academic business processes in the comments section!