How Blogging Helped Me Write My Dissertation

Brian Taylor

January 29, 2013

Blogging and academic writing are often perceived as water and oil: They just don't go together. At least that's the perception I have encountered since I started pursuing my Ph.D. and writing blog posts.

In Steven Soderbergh's movie Contagion, one protagonist declares that blogging is like graffiti but with commas and periods. There is some truth to that, as many blogs are uninteresting and poorly written. And I am well aware that blogging does not always produce the highest quality of source material, as you might find in an article published in a peer-reviewed journal.

But blogging has allowed me to face my ghosts, build up a network of contacts, and advance faster through the process of writing my dissertation.

For more than two years, I have been writing blog posts on a weekly basis for the Foreign Policy Association. More than anything, what that experience has offered me is one of the greatest tools that graduate students need to complete a dissertation: confidence in their writing.

Most manuals on writing or on earning a Ph.D.—including such excellent ones as Peg Boyle Single's Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process From Choice of Topic to Final Text and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life—emphasize the need to write every day, even if for only 20 minutes.

Doctoral students understand that. The problem most of us face, even in disciplines like creative writing, is getting into the habit of actually sitting down and doing it. (By the way, plenty of faculty members also seem to share that problem.)

Complicating matters is the odd assumption in academe that writing skill is a given for most academics. There seems to be some sort of taboo among scholars about discussing writing or how to improve your writing. It is perceived as a weakness to openly admit that you have difficulty writing or are going through a period of writer's block. We all complain about those taboos on Web sites like Phinished or in our dissertation-writing groups.

My solution was to blog. As an international-relations scholar specializing in European politics, I have had plenty of inspiration for my posts—such as the euro financial crisis, the military endeavors in the Middle East, the domestic turmoil in the Eurozone, the rise of extremism, and so on. At first I was quite reluctant to blog as I thought that it would add a burden to my research, writing, teaching, and personal life.

Instead, I've found that blogging didn't detract at all and actually improved the quantity and quality of my scholarly writing. Most important, writing online gave me a feeling of accomplishment that is necessary for every writer. Short-term confidence boosts are especially helpful when you're writing a doctoral dissertation or a book, which are lengthy processes that can seem endless at times.

Another major benefit of blogging has been networking. Since I began writing blog posts, I have been in contact with a global audience—readers asking me for permission to reprint one of my posts or asking me to write articles for their magazines or to interview experts in my field. That side of blogging is quite considerable, as it gives a voice to your writing and, most important, your research, and allows you to build up a network.

The general theme of your blog should be about your research and not about a random topic. As a European Union expert, I write about what I know best and about topics that are shaping my CV in a certain direction—and toward very specific jobs. My blogs will ultimately be used as some sort of portfolio illustrating my CV and proving my ability to reflect and write on pressing issues.

Even though it's been one of the most positive experiences of my professional life, I have come to realize that some parts of the academic world still have reservations about blogging. Change is slow in academe, and many scholars still seem to recognize only publication in peer-reviewed journals and established magazines as a sign of solid and relevant research. It is absolutely true that 1,000 blog posts will never equal one article in a peer-reviewed journal. However, those perceptions are changing. In recent years, many well-established scholars have joined new blogging platforms like ProSyndicate, Foreign Policy, and others.

As a final word of advice, I would say that joining an already-established blog connected to an organization is a much more beneficial experience than starting your own blog. Being part of a known organization is the easiest way to get your posts circulating in the larger world, instead of being read only by your immediate circle of family members and friends.

The amount of work required to maintain your own blog is too great, as opposed to being part of a larger structure that is doing the promotion for you. While joining a larger structure may be constraining, as you cannot always write about all the issues that you care about, you do receive more comments, which you can then use to improve the quality of your writing and the content of your work. That feedback loop is critical to becoming a better writer and thinker.

Maxime Larivé received his Ph.D. in international relations and European studies at the University of Miami. He is a part-time lecturer at Miami and is serving a postdoctoral fellowship at the European Union Center of Excellence.