The perfect blog entry

A number of folks participating in the two grad seminars this semester have asked what their blog postings should look like. As always, I prefer to be surprised, but perhaps a better way of asking that is how to improve your posts. This has less to do, I should note, with how to make a perfect blog entry in the general sense, and more with how to make a better blog entry with respect to the course.

I am using blogs in these two courses as a stand in for the pretty standard “response paper” found in many graduate courses. The idea here is to “engage” the readings in some way, extracting what you think the crux of the matter is and discussing it. This may be a synthetic essay that identifies a theme common to several readings, it may extend one of the ideas in the readings, or it may challenge some of the positions presented. Ideally, the readings inform and support your own ideas, acting as a kind of lever.

Over the next few weeks, especially, I will try to highlight some of the postings that seem to do this well. But at this stage, let me offer some general advice:

0. Be original. Make sure you are writing something that someone (not just me) would be interested in reading.

1. Have a thesis. No matter how short your entry is, it should have a central argument that is stated fairly early on. This may not be a general rule for writing, but for me it is. Any writing — from a note on the refrigerator to a multi-volume book — should have a clearly expressed thesis that is presented with evidence supporting the thesis.

1a. Have a title that reflects your thesis.

2. Assume an informed, third-person reader. Imagine that a graduate student at Stanford or Indiana or Keio is reading your entry. You should not start out with “What the author writes…” but identify the author and briefly recapitulate his or her position. This is equally true of commenting on the assigned readings, other things you find on the web, or your peers’ blog entries. A short sentence that says something like “John writes that Paul is short-sighted in his vision of the future of peas,” along with a hyperlink to the referenced item, is enough to orient a reader who may not be closely following our reading schedule or the ongoing conversation.

3. Contextual linking. I know that requirement for APA style slipped into the syllabus, but if there is an opportunity to link to a source, use it. As Lisa notes, blogging is all about the linking. (Yes, just like that.)

4. Check for spelling and typos. For now, this means copying and pasting your entry into Word or something similar to check for spelling. (I’ll work on building in a spell-checker, or there are spell-checkers you can install as plug-ins to Firefox and to IE.) You should also read over your entry for typos and homonyms, which may not be caught by your word processor’s spell checking function. Some of you would benefit greatly from reading your entries out loud, to see where you might be able to simplify and clarify.

5. While you are presenting an argument that is likely abstract, or general, make the evidence or examples as concrete as possible. Examples are a great way of providing something to think with.

6. Double-space between paragraphs. It makes reading much easier.

7. Tell me a story. All writing is ultimately about weaving a story; all the more so when you are trying to be persuasive.

For even more general advice to good blog entries, try here.

OK, on to some of the blogs in the informatics class:

* Generally, Andrew’s blog and Diane’s blog are good starting points within the systems seminar. These are among several others who are already doing an excellent job, and you can probably get a feeling for which these are on your own. I would recommend everyone identify the blogs you like, and steal some part of their approach. Note the style of making use of the citations, direct links to relevant information, and incisive analysis (literally “to dissolve”; taking apart the argument and making sure the pieces make sense). They rely on their own experience and knowledge, and each of you have unique experiences and knowledge you can apply to this process.

* Mr. von Tagger has an interesting first entry sets up what I think is an interesting question. The entry could have gone a lot further in answering it. I’m a bit less impressed by the answer in a follow-up, since it doesn’t seem to provide as careful an analysis as it might, but it’s an interesting effort. Seems to me that a bit of Lukacs might inform an answer.

* In his first couple entries, Charles invokes (without naming it) the idea of “appropriate technology”. His insights are interesting, though again, I wish he had continued to develop them a bit. I also like the image of him wielding gardening implements, both because I am a sucker for illustrative images, and because it builds toward an informatics tradition.

* Bonnie has an interesting “metablogging” post that ties blogging back to Hughes and the need to connect to others.

* Garrett (among several others) provides a good example of useful information foraging.

* You might also benefit by looking over some of the blog entries in your “sister” class in communication. How well are they doing these things? Can you follow their ideas without having been exposed to their readings?

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