I’m an international development blogger — and you can be too! (Or: Why development students and professionals should blog)

I started this blog almost exactly one year ago. It’s time I stopped thinking of myself as someone who blogs, and instead admit that I am a blogger. Yes, it’s an identity. Now that I’ve fully embraced it, I want to recruit you into this world.

In a previous post, I tried to hook you on reading more aid and development blogs. If you’re also thinking about starting your own blog, I definitely encourage you to do so! Here are some tips on the why, the what, and the how.

1. Why should I blog? I’ve got a lot to do already…

There are three broad reasons why you should blog. Starting with the most important:

First, you get smart. This aid and development stuff is complex. If you want to have a positive impact on whatever issues you care about, you’ve gotta get smart.

In grad school, I read a lot of journal articles and books. But they allowed me to passively absorb information. I learned more if I took notes. Even if you never look at the notes again, you grasp an idea more fully after you’ve run it from your ear/eye, through your brain, and out your fingertips.

You go a step further with talking in class and writing papers. These force you to actually process an idea, combine it with other ideas, put it in your own words, and present it in a way that makes sense to you. A good professor and good classmates will hold you accountable for it. When you send the idea back into the world, you have to own it — and so you learn it better. I recognize that there are different learning styles, but some form of this holds true for most people.

So why stop at the classroom? See how the theories apply to recent events. Engage with tangential issues. Just reading the news/blogs isn’t enough to fully process what you’re learning from them. Writing your own blog forces you to churn out something, even if it’s just summaries of interesting articles. It’ll create a useful log of your own ideas. And publishing it to the world is an accountability mechanism. Like hiring a personal trainer for your intellectual development. You gotta get smart.

Second, you get connected. An interesting thing happened in the first couple months I had my blog. Now that I was writing, I started paying a lot more attention to the other bloggers and what they were writing, and then I started responding to their posts, and then they started responding to mine. What I’ve since realized is that the network of aid/development bloggers reaches far and wide. We’re NGO workers, UN agency staff, academics, authors, students, consultants, social entrepreneurs, journalists and more.

I’ve learned a lot from this network. I’ve met many of these bloggers in person, and corresponded with others via email and twitter. They’re a smart bunch. Perhaps more importantly, there are benefits to having this network of people know you and your work. Just one example: last October, Chris Blattman linked to a post I wrote about Do-It-Yourself foreign aid; his link to my work resulted in a chance to write for Foreign Policy.

Beyond the network of other bloggers, your work is on display for the whole world. People who google your name will find your blog. You may even find that potential employers already know your name — and suddenly your job application is more than just another resume in their inbox. Some people are worried about the potential downsides of this publicity. It’s one reason why many aid bloggers are anonymous. I decided the benefits outweigh the risks. For more, see my previous piece on the topic.

Third, you help other people get smart and connected. The last two reasons were selfish. This one is about the benefits to the readers of blogs. There’s an open question of how much impact aid/development blogging has on the industry as a whole. When bloggers take to their keyboards in outrage — whether it’s over t-shirts or tea cups or more t-shirts — do the perpetrators of such outrages listen? Maybe. But even if they don’t, these outrages serve as teachable moments for commentary about how aid and development should be done.

More generally, most bloggers use their platform to share ideas, lessons and perspectives that may be new to their readers. If that helps more people be smarter and better connected, then that’ll be better for the industry as a whole.

2. Okay, so what would I write about?

Whatever you want. That’s the beauty of a blog. You completely control it. Your blog can be as general or as focused as you want it to be.

Many bloggers set some parameters to keep themselves focused. Conveying this in the title has the added benefit of telling readers what you’re all about. For example, some people write about a specific topic or region: Karen Grepin’s Global Health BlogKM (knowledge management) on a dollar a dayTexas in Africa, or Congo Siasa. Others keep their blogs more general but set a guiding principle of some sort: How MattersFind What WorksGood Intentions Are Not Enough, or From Poverty to Power. And of course, others just throw it wide open to a variety of related topics that interest the writers. Those blog titles are more ambiguous: Tales From the HoodShotgun Shack, or Aid Thoughts.

Once you’ve picked a title and general theme/topic, it’s time to write. My primary advice is to just start. You’ll figure it out as you go. If you’re feeling hesitant, try writing anonymously at first and just sharing the link with close friends. As you get the hang of it, you can decide whether you want to expand your audience.

Two of my favorite bloggers have given some great advice that I’ll share as well.

First, Wayan Vota’s How to Blog for Professional Success in International Development has several tips that he pairs with examples from his own work. He suggests that you define your target audience in terms of 5-10 specific people, and then write every blog post with that audience in mind. He also says to engage your audience everywhere: Twitter, LinkedIn, and even offline. Finally, focus on tangible outcomes: is your target audience noticing you, and is this translating into new professional opportunities?

Second, J. at Tales from the Hood gives Rules for Aid Blogging. Here’s the short version: 1. Own your own opinion. 2. Don’t equivocate. 3. Don’t feed the trolls. 4. Don’t allow yourself to be called out. 5. Don’t demure from controversy. 6. Be honest.

3. I guess I could give it a shot. But how?

Here’s the kicker: you’re probably already blogging. As Wayan Vota points out, if you post status updates or links to articles on Facebook or Twitter, you’re already blogging. The habit of sharing ideas, links to interesting articles, or commentary on current events is pretty natural to most of us. Taking the next step and establishing an actual blog is easy.

There are two major blog platforms that you can start out with: Blogger/Blogspot and WordPress. Both sites are free and allow the non-technically gifted to get started in a couple minutes. Both will allow you to register a url (i.e. blogname.wordpress.com), choose a layout from dozens of free templates (this design is called INove), and personalize various options. Blogger and WordPress are pretty similar in most respects. Ultimately, I went with WordPress because findwhatworks.blogspot.com was already taken. When I’m working in places with troublesome internet connections, I also use a program called Raven to draft and publish posts; it’s a bit clunky, but it’s free and it syncs with WordPress.

If you have technical skills and the inclination, you can strike out on your own with a specialized url and a more customizable platform. It seems that most bloggers go that way eventually. After a year of blogging, I’m still happy at WordPress. If you do go out on your own, Saundra Schimmelpfennig has some advice on blog layout and functionality.

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What am I missing? Are there other questions on the minds of potential bloggers-to-be? Do other aid and development bloggers have thoughts to share?

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UPDATE: I forgot to mention that a great way to get started is by occasionally contributing to other blogs. You might flex your chops with a guest post on someone else’s personal blog or on a group blog like whydev.org, which frequently features guest contributors. Many grad schools and employers also have blogs that feature content from students and employees. NYU Wagner’s is here.