6 Secrets to Writing a Blog (Brain Knows Better 6-month Anniversary)

Brain Knows Better logo concept by Duaba.

Brain Knows Better logo concept by Duaba.

This past week was the 6-month anniversary of my inaugural post, Growing Up Trekkie - How Star Trek Made Me Fall in Love with Psychology. Since then, I've written 18,118 words across 20 posts, averaging a little more than 3 articles per month.

I've had a lot of fun writing about what I love. It's also been encouraging to see the website grow - my readership has tripled since October 2012 and my list of the best scifi scores from the last decade was featured on one of my favorite science fiction websites, SF Signal.

I've got a lot of neat stuff lined up for the next 6 months - a logo is in development (check out the concept above), there're a lot of new scifi films I'll write about this summer, and I'm talking at Nerd Nite (and possibly San Diego Comic Con) in the near future. But before I get to all that, I want to mark this this occasion by looking back on the 6 biggest lessons I've learned about writing for the internet these past 6 months.

1) Academia trained me to think, not write

My 100+ page dissertation could probably be summarized in 10 pages. 

My 100+ page dissertation could probably be summarized in 10 pages. 

I spent 7 years in grad school doing science. Thanks to my professors, colleagues, and the dreaded peer-review process, I got really good at critical thinking. It's all about knowing where to look, what to search for, and how to digest the information you find.

But just because I can think through an issue doesn't mean I can communicate in an effective way. Academics don't write like the rest of the world - we write exhaustive papers, include vague titles, bury the lead, and avoid personal details. While academic writing is thorough, fair, and objective, it is also stripped of any humanity. Academics love reading in this style - the rest of the world not so much.

Many of my original posts were plagued by the academic curse. Look at "Star Wars Episode VII, Star Trek into Darkness, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, and the Adaptability of Fans" - what the heck does that title even mean?!? This essay should have been called "No Matter the Franchise, Fans Will Always Want More". Then there's my Prometheus film review - this post takes far too long to get to its point (my thesis doesn't come up until the 4th paragraph) and covers too many ideas. Here's an outline of what I wrote:

  1. Prometheus was a letdown.
  2. Prequels usually disappoint people.
  3. Prequels and evolutionary theorists make the same mistakes.
  4. Old ideas in psychology lead people to make similar mistakes about themselves. 
  5. Prometheus 2 will be better. 

That’s not a cohesive story. Compare that to my review of Oblivion, which sticks to one message:

  1. Oblivion was entertaining.
  2. It's not a complex movie.
  3. It's just a fun ride.

Lesson Learned: When you write for the Internet, you have to communicate in a very clear, brief, and highly organized way.

2) Blogs aren't newspapers, they're conversations

Lowen helped me understand that blogs work best when they're authentic and conversational (photo credits go to New Starship).

Lowen helped me understand that blogs work best when they're authentic and conversational (photo credits go to New Starship).

Some of the best advice I got about blogging was, "write like you're talking to me, not lecturing at me." People read blogs because they enjoy the personal perspective of the author - their voice, opinions, humor, and stories. My readers are fellow geeks and they want to read an interesting article about stuff they like, not feel like they're in a class studying for a test.

I struggled with this - including personal details is a big no no in clinical psychology (many psychologists try to maintain a "blank slate" with their patients). But something really interesting happened - the more authentic I was, the more my posts were read and shared. For example, an essay about how Firefly helped me understand my culture was linked/tweeted/liked all over the place. Sharing personal details, when relevant, turned my content into a more natural form of communication.

Lesson Learned: Keeping a conversational tone doesn't dumb down your message - it makes you more credible, interesting, and persuasive.

3) The best conversations happen off the blog

Funny that I haven't written about most of the topics I outlined in my first Facebook post.

Funny that I haven't written about most of the topics I outlined in my first Facebook post.

Once I was regularly publishing, I couldn't understand why so few people commented on the blog (this was supposed to be a conversation right?). I knew a good chunk of people were reading, they just weren't saying anything. I feared silence meant people hated my writing.

That just wasn't the case. Someone usually did say something, just not on the blog. Readers were more likely to communicate through email, Twitter, Google+, or Facebook than by commenting on this website. What's really surprised me is how much feedback I got offline – usually from coworkers, friends, and family.

I have no clue why this is (maybe my posts fail to ignite strong emotions?) - but I've learned to accept it and no longer judge the quality of my writing by the number of comments it receives.

Lesson Learned: Some people are going to love what you write, some won't, but the most meaningful conversations will happen off your website.

4) You never stop writing

To prevent writer's block, I write down ideas when I get them. I use Drafts to record thoughts and iA Writer to polish them.

To prevent writer's block, I write down ideas when I get them. I use Drafts to record thoughts and iA Writer to polish them.

Every medium has its specific challenges - the most difficult thing about writing a blog is that IT'S NEVER DONE. Like some sharks, blogs have to keep moving or they die. Part of this is really exciting and keeps me from getting bored - it's fun to get a new idea, flesh it out, send it into the world, and then get started on something totally different. But blogging is REALLY tiring - a 500-1,000 word post takes me 2-8 hours to write (depending on how well I know the topic and source material). When I do the math, all the time I've spent blogging could have gone into starting (and finishing) a book.

What's helped me keep up with the pace of a blog is constantly writing down ideas as they come to me. I keep a text file called "blog ideas" synced between my phone, tablet, and computer - when inspiration strikes (often in boring meetings, while watching TV, or riding the subway) I immediately jot down all the details. This is why I never get writer's block - I have a gigantic list of ideas to draw from.

Lesson Learned: Blogs need a constant supply of new posts so make sure you have a way to capture ideas as they come to you wherever you may be.   

5) Stay on target

A blogger must stick to what they know - for me that means scifi+psychology. 

A blogger must stick to what they know - for me that means scifi+psychology. 

A few weeks before I launched this website, I attended a talk by top scifi/fantasy bloggers at the 2012 New York Comic Con. Their consistent advice was to find a niche no one else does and stick to it. For the most part, I've done a decent job sticking to my niche - psychology+science fiction. But I did make one very big mistake...

Last November I reviewed Spielberg’s Lincoln. The film was about as far away from science fiction as you could get. However, I had some strong opinions about the movie and wanted to share them. I thought that by focusing on Spielberg, who has made a lot of science fiction films, I could get away with expressing my disappointment at Lincoln's ending. I ended up coming across as an armchair psychologist, diagnosing Spielberg with anxiety and hypothesizing how his childhood influenced the creation of his movies. No one liked this post - it had the fewest hits/likes/tweets of anything I've written. It was bad for psychology and bad for my blog.

Lesson Learned: Find a specific niche topic and stick very closely to it, even when you are dying to write about something else. 

6) Writing makes me resilient

Seeing my Starfleet emblem at work reminds me that no matter how bad things get, I always have my writing to look forward to. 

Seeing my Starfleet emblem at work reminds me that no matter how bad things get, I always have my writing to look forward to. 

The most surprising thing I've learned about writing is how much I love it! I didn't write much growing up. I wrote a lot of academic papers in undergrad and grad school, but I was never excited about that type of writing. This has been different.

Writing for Brain Knows Better invigorated me. This website kept me resilient against burnout from my day job. When patients have been in crises and I've been overwhelmed with administrative work, coming home to my blog always gave me something to look forward to – something fun that was completely under my control. Through writing, I strengthened my ability to reflect on big ideas like what would really happen the first time we meet aliens or why music takes us back in time. Writing for the internet has also opened up a lot of opportunities, like presenting at WonderCon.

It's been such a great experience that I've decided to start writing a book! I can't wait to tell you more, once things are crystallized. In the meantime, what I can tell you is the project involves some of the biggest franchises in science fiction. 

Lesson Learned: Not only does writing lead to many new opportunities, it can also be a rewarding experience in itself and builds resilience against stress.  

Thank you for supporting Brain Knows Better! I couldn't have hit this milestone without readers like you. Please do send me your comments, questions, requests, and complaints through email, Twitter, or Google+ - I'd love to hear from you.