Soapbox Science

How To Learn By Blogging About Science

Scott Wager photo (2)

Scott Wagers is a physician and a researcher who is dedicated to making collaborative research projects run well. He is the founder and CEO of BioSci Consulting and blogs about collaborative research at Assembled Chaos and eTRIKS.

A visiting German professor in my college days was asked about his impressions of American students. His response was that, in contrast to the quiet, note-taking German students, he enjoyed the challenge of teaching the more questioning, thinking Americans. He said he came away from each lecture knowing more about the topic than when he started.

If you value learning, you appreciate the more interactive students. Having to answer questions, even on topics you think you know about, is a great way to learn. This type of active learning means that you not only absorb new material, but you also structure your thoughts and then articulate them.

William Zinnsser, in his book Writing to Learn, highlights another form of active learning – writing – and explains how he and others have used writing as a teaching method. Creating stories around topics can help students gain insight and can make even the dullest subjects become exciting and creative. Put a subject into a story format and voila! It becomes interesting and you remember it. A story is a thinking framework. So are blog posts. By writing your thoughts into a blog post you improve your own understanding of your subject. Blogging is a form of active learning.

Here is how you can make certain you learn the most from blogging:

A 12 step process

  1. Determine a strategy: What do you want to learn about? What is important for you to learn about? The most popular blog posts are those that teach something, or ‘How to posts’. Even something you might think is mundane, such as the technique for cell culture, is probably interesting to lots of people. If you want to learn how to do that something, there is no better way than to write about it.
  2. Automate the flow of content:  consider that social media and the internet is best used for assisting your blogging and your learning. Accordingly, follow people with interests that fit your strategy on Twitter. Set up lists on relevant topics and be diligent about culling out those who send a lot of chat-like tweets. You may want to see those for social purposes, but on your lists only retain those who are tweeting useful links. Think about using social media management tools like Hoot Suite or Tweet Deck to organize your Twitter account. Along the same lines, the discovery engine Stumble Upon is useful in that it learns what you like and shows you a refined list of sites that are personal to your interests – very helpful in replacing mindless surfing. Discussions are also useful, with the obvious platforms that facilitate conversations such as Linked In or Google+. Have a quandary? Form it into a discussion and see what you get back. Lastly organize yourself. With all the content out there you can get overwhelmed. Use something like the note-taking software Evernote, setting up notebooks for each post you are working on.
  3. Comment on relevant posts: This is somewhat related to point 2 above, but deserves its own discussion. One ironic fact about blogging is that you don’t have to be unique. The potential audience is so big that there can be literally dozens of articles on the same topic. If there are other posts on what you want to write about, even better. Use these as opportunities to make a comment. Not just a ‘That’s great.’ Or, ‘Thanks for the post’, but rather take their idea and extend it. Test the waters for what you want to post. Write a paragraph or two.
  4. Focus on a topic: Once you have your content generators flowing and you are commenting on interesting posts, select a topic you want to learn about. The more focused the better.
  5. Read a post or article on that topic and decide what is interesting: Pick one post, or manuscript, or even the insert from a kit and read it and decide what is most interesting. Write down the interesting bits as a simple list.
  6. Identify a story that relates to the topic: This is the fun part. Think about a story that relates to the topic. It could be a personal experience, or a historical account. It could also be an extended analogy. Think your way through the story. The more story-like it is the better.
  7. Choose a headline: Choose a ‘headlinish’ headline. Good headlines grab attention and bring out what is remarkable. They can be a simple as ‘How to …..” or more eye catching such as “The Vasco Da Gama Guide to Translational Research.” A good place for inspiration, believe it or not, is Cosmo. Those headlines are written by professionals with the intent to grab readers’ attention. Headlines also tend to frame what you are writing about, which is why choosing a headline earlier on is helpful.
  8. Write a complete draft without further research: There is an important concept here. Often when you write you stop to work on a word or a sentence or to find a perfect reference. Doing so interrupts your thinking. Blogging is about your thoughts. Let them ride. Your first draft will be horrible. That’s okay. No one else will read it and you are free to completely change it. Just get your framework down.
  9. Review and add more detail based on research – tap into your automated content: This you probably know how to do. It is hard to be in science without knowing how to research a topic. For your post you can use other forms of media as well, a video for example. Other blog posts that relate to what you are writing first are a rich source of material. They are often more immediately understandable. Focus on popular posts. They are popular for a reason. Supplement with traditional manuscripts, review articles and lectures.
  10. Revise at least 5 times: This gets back to the logic under point 8. Don’t get hung up on getting it perfect at the expense of the flow of your writing. You won’t solve every phrasing problem the first couple of times through. You won’t even solve some with 5 revisions. Don’t worry- that is perfectly normal.
  11. Finalize with links: Go through and link to other relevant content. Don’t forget to link to your own posts.
  12. Read and respond to comments: When people comment on your post it is a real learning opportunity. Be vigilant and respond to every comment.

Principles to follow

1. Iteration – Don’t worry if what you write is not perfect. Sleep on it. It is hard to solve every problem when you focus on it intensely. When you step away from the problem and then relax, the answer comes to you. The same is true for writing. You will get stuck on phrasing or on what to say next. Stop, sleep and repeat. You’ll find the more your revise the better your post becomes.

2. Don’t avoid being remarkable – You are writing a blog post. Undo the shackles and be speculative, be provocative and above all be communicative. If you find yourself shying away from a topic, but would passionately discuss it at a cocktail party, that is where your post needs to go.

3. Lead the reader – Our attention spans have dwindled. Give the reader a reason to keep on reading.

Next time someone who is sceptical about the benefits of blogging asks you what you’re doing when you’re working on a post, tell them that you’re using “active learning” to get yourself to think about a topic in more detail. Perhaps they might be inspired to try it as a helpful technique too! 


  1. Report this comment

    Gavin Masterson said:

    Thanks for the article, Scott. I recently started a blog to enable the type of active learning you are talking about here and I’m working on my first post this week. The question I have for you relates to controversial ideas and their place in blogging. While I’m not against controversy, and thrive on a diversity of ideas that controversy can generate, it seems to me that blogging some ideas might lead to future complications associated with notoriety. Sometimes I like to play devil’s advocate when debating topics at ‘cocktail parties’, but it seems as though one can easily be misquoted/misinterpreted when making statements online. Have you had any experience of this or do you have any suggestions on how to be clear when making controversial statements?

  2. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    On behalf of Scott Wagers:

    Gavin, thanks for your comment. I think blogging is like any other public presentation where you have to balance being remarkable against being disrespectful. You can be very nice about arguing a controversial point. That said I do try to avoid topics where you find people giving emotional responses that are even sometimes irrational. You can’t have a good discussion with people who are irrational. It does mean that you should look at blogs with topics similar to the one you want to write about. Even make comments as a sort of test of the topic you want to write about. In reality you cannot avoid upsetting some people. The more popular a post is the more likely there will be some critics.

Comments are closed.