Where Do Blog Post Ideas Come From?
Someone asked me by email, do you have any advice on how to come up with blog post ideas? I recently launched an informational website, so far I have around 40 articles and I'm already finding it difficult to come up with ideas that aren't just a regurgitation of something else I already discussed in another article.
Almost all of what I do is in response to something I see, read or hear. So I read and gather information widely.
- I subscribe to a number of email newsletters
- I subscribe to hundreds of RSS channels
- I follow Twitter, Mastodon and LinkedIn (not Facebook, because media is manipulated on Facebook)
- I listen to podcasts while cycling or commuting
How do I choose what to follow? I have identified four major areas of interest in my work:
- media and journalism
- computer technology
- education (learning, inference and discovery)
I once wrote an article saying, basically, that if you're not sure what you're interested in, look around your home - what books do you read, what tools or gadgets have you bought, what do you dress for, what do you watch and listen to -- you will probably find these themes. Some of them will be 'work' related (ie., you can make money off specializing in them) while others might not be. Here, for example, are my non-work related interests:
- video games
Second, I don't just read surface stuff that is sent to me, I go on deeper dives. This may happen for any number of reasons:
- It may be motivated by my work (as a researcher at NRC I currently have projects related to VR, Data Literacy, Ethics, etc)
- It may be motivated by something I'm responding to -- if something I read tweaks my interests, I will very often follow up with a search for key terms
- I follow links in articles, to see what the author is reading and quoting
- Sometimes, I'm just curious (that's how I've learned about things like Stirling engines, bikepacking, etc.)
- If there's something I don't understand, I look it up. I am not content with not understanding.
Third, I link things together. This is what can be called the 'idoru' phase of the work - the intuitive perceiving of patterns of phenomena (and like anything 'intuitive', it takes practice, a lot of practice). Over the years I've identified six major forms (which I call the critical literacies):
- evidence of similarities, rules, patterns, regularities
- patterns of meaning, truth, valuation
- uses and applications of things, affordances
- influences of frames, contexts, environments
- cognitive applications, such as explanation, inference, definitions
- patterns of change, including cycles, exponential change, tipping points
These aren't as hard to learn as you may think. The main thing is to be aware of them as possible connections, and when looking at one thing (say, a blog post) to keep other things in the back of your mind, always looking for these connections. When I read what someone writes, for example, I ask:
- where have I heard this before (ie., this topic, this form of reasoning, this kind of thing)?
- what counts as evidence for the author - who (or what) else weighs evidence this way?
- what could I do with this? what could I (or someone else) apply it to?
- what does the author take for granted?
- how is the author reasoning - what are the premises or assumptions?
- what sort of trend, movement or directionality can I discern?
(Traditional journalists used the "five Ws" (who, what, where, when, why, how) in this way, but I prefer my own framework).
Fourth, I create. I don't always create a blog post; I would be very boring if I did nothing other than blog. When I'm not reading and gathering, I spend my days creating. For me, creating means:
- working with software - eg., I enjoy going onto sites like CSS-tricks are trying out some of the coding techniques
- exploring and photographing - wherever I am, I get out, and look closely at the environment through the camera lens
- correspondence - like this email - which will end up as a blog post
- help and how-to guides - trying to fill a need, and help people by writing down and sharing what I know how to do
The creating aspect is important. I spend a *lot* of time learning how to do things by trying to do things.
Finally, sharing freely. Not just blog posts, but slide presentations, podcasts, video recordings, photos, social media posts, email correspondence, chatter on Slack channels, etc. Now I'm not an especially social person so most of my sharing is done online, but more gregarious people would be joining community groups, attending meetups (actually, I do that from time to time too), attending free talks and seminars, etc.
Don't worry about whether people will like it, whether they will accept it, whether they think it's valuable, etc. People will make their own decisions about that, and I've learned that you can't second-guess them -- I've never been able to predict what will be popular, what will provoke outrage, and what will be met with indifference. Just keep sharing and trust in the process.
It's important that the purpose of these social activities is not to get but to give. It's not about what your social network can do for you, it's about what you can do for your social network (and - drawing connections - you'll find this sentiment at the root of the Tao Te Ching). There are many good things, but at the heart of it, people like you more when you're helping them and giving them things, and they in turn are more likely to do things that help the community.
Society - and your success - is based on giving, not taking.
If you do all of this and fail to come up with too many ideas for blog posts, I would be very surprised. If it doesn't come at first, just keep at it. Take two blog posts and apply the critical literacies to them, and draw the connections. As Doug Belshaw recently said, "everyone they think is good at something has practised and practised and practised. It’s particularly true when it comes to tech, yet the barriers (have) never been so low."
> If I may ask, you could provide a concrete example for this: "influences of frames, contexts, environments"?
Frame: suppose you're discussing education policy with an administrator. The administrator may think of learning as being similar to computer processing, and so will talk in terms of 'decoding', 'buffering', 'processing', etc. Knowing that the person thinks of learning in this specific way guides you in understanding what sort of explanation will work with them, what criticisms they might not find relevant, and perhaps a need to redefine or reorient the frame to produce a better understanding.
Context: things that were true before Covid became untrue after Covid. So knowing when the article was written will inform you what background assumptions the person was working with - for example, they may have thought crowds of people were best for something beforehand, but much less useful (and actually dangerous) after. Or they may be writing for a different context - for example, what they think conditions will be like after the pandemic.
Environment: a person talking about policy in China or Saudi Arabia is working in a different environment than a person talking about policy in Canada or the U.S. Such a person might say "you would never do x without consulting". You would interpret it differently for each environment, regarding *who*U is being consulted, for example. Similarly, terms like 'left wing' and 'right wing' mean very different things in the U.S., Europe and Israel. Or even physical environments: the sort of things you can easily find in your environment are very different from the sort of things someone else can find, and this changes the definition of 'easy'. I see this a lot in technical writing, when someone says "Simply install technica and set it to ramble." My reaction is "simply?"