Category Archives: research

Write about what you don’t know: 5 tips to help you do research for your blog

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Blogging should expand your brain. It’s a great tool for learning things, so why limit yourself to what you think you’re an expert on? I want to write about things I don’t know. Then I can help other people get started, and other  people can help me learn. (Hence the preponderence of “Thinking about…” and “Learning…” posts on my blog versus “How to…” posts.)

Research lets you jumpstart your learning by building on other people’s experiences. Fortunately, you have access to more information than you could ever read, thanks to the wonders of the Internet.

image

I’ve been re-learning how to research and how to synthesize that information for blog posts. It’s much more useful when you’re no longer trying to pad a school report with three to five reliable sources. Did you come across an interesting post on a blog? A great message on a forum? Go ahead and link to them, no PhDs required.

1. Make an outline of the questions you want to answer or ideas you want to explore.

You’ll be reading a lot. It helps to have a framework that shows you what you’ve covered and what you need to look for next. Here are some outlining tips from Journalistics. Here’s an example: my outline for blogging skills.

2. Search for “good enough” resources.

Don’t worry about finding the absolute best resource. Look for good-enough resources, and prioritize as you find more. Don’t link just for the sake of linking. Every link should add more insights or details.

I usually go through the first five to ten pages of Google search results. If people quote an even better source, I follow that link. Sometimes I’ll try different search queries based on the titles of blog posts I like.

You can quickly get a sense of whether a blog post is better than other things you’ve read. Does it give specific, punchy, perhaps unexpected advice illustrated with personal experiences, or is it your run-of-the-mill link-building blahblahblah? Speed-reading can pay off a lot here.

Want to go into greater depth? Look for relevant books and read them, summarizing the key points for your readers. Google Book Search is great for searching inside books, and Amazon’s recommendations are handy too. I sometimes check out seven or more books on a single topic, read them all over a week, and pick out key points for a blog post. This is an excellent way to add value, because most people won’t have the time to read the same books.

You can also check out other channels: podcasts, Twitter conversations, online Q&A sites, magazines, research papers… Go beyond blog posts when looking for resources, and you’ll find plenty of relevant material.

Good news – you can’t lose. If you find excellent resources right away, then you don’t have to write a big blog post. Just learn from those resources, and maybe write a post with your question and links to the best resources you found. If you spend an hour searching and you can’t find anything you really like, that’s fine too. Chances are that other people are frustrated by it too. Take that as a cue to write the blog post you wish you’d read.

3. Add key points and links to your outline.

By adding to your outline along the way, you’ll see how ideas are related to each other and where the gaps are. If you’re copying an exact quote, add quotation marks so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize it when rereading your notes. Better yet, paraphrase it right away. To make citations easier, add attributions or links. That way, you don’t have to chase down references.

Here are Cal Newport’s tips on how to use an outline to write papers quickly: outline the topic, find solid sources, capture quotes, and then turn that outline into your paper. Works for blog posts too.

4. Reorganize your outline and notes.

Take another look at your outline and reorganize it until the flow makes sense. The order in which you find resources is rarely the order in which you want to share them. For example, you may want to categorize the tips you’ve picked up, combine similar items, and arrange them in a logical order. You can also compare different viewpoints and line up the arguments for each alternative, then conclude with recommendations. With a little paraphrasing, you might be able to fit the tips into a creative mnemonic. Play around with the structure before you start writing your post.

5. Add value through summaries, insights, and personal experiences.

While searching for resources, you might have noticed an intimidatingly large number of results. For example, searching for how to do research for your blog gets more than a billion search results. Why add one more?

You’ve probably also noticed that many results are missing something. Maybe you didn’t find a single post that answers the exact question you wanted to explore (or if it did, the answer was buried in an intimidatingly long post). Maybe most of the search results are fluffy self-promotional pieces. Maybe they’re badly formatted and hard to read.

There’s room for you to add something of value, even if it’s just a good summary. Other people could spend a few hours reading all those search results and books, and trying to map out the insights from various resources… but if you’ve already done the work, why not save them some time and share what you’ve learned so far?

Add your own tips. While researching, you’ll probably think of a few points that you can’t find in the pages that you’ve seen so far. Write them down. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because they’re more experienced than you and they took that for granted, but other beginners will find those tips useful. Maybe other people didn’t write about those tips because you’re more experienced than they are (or at least you’ve made different mistakes). Add your thoughts.

Tell personal stories. Instead of just sharing advice, share your experiences in applying that advice. What worked well for you? What could have gone better? This is a great way to learn more, too – you’re not just passing on advice, you’re trying things out and adding your own perspective. A.J. Jacobs and Gretchen Rubin do this really well in their books on life experiments, and are definitely worth reading.

I hope these five steps will help you learn new things while writing blog posts. You don’t have to limit yourself to what you know. You can use your blog to help you learn. Good luck and have fun!

How do you research ideas for your blog posts?

Image credits: Stack of books by discpicture (via Shutterstock) 

Author’s note: I feel like this post should have more links in it, given the subject. I’m not particularly impressed with most of the posts I came across in my research, though (see the last point in step 2). Do you have any favourite resources along these lines?

Spousonomics: Using economics to master love, marriage, and dirty dishes

I love research-backed books that help us understand why we do what we do. Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson’s Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes was no exception. The book takes a look at common marital conflicts and situations, showing the underlying economic principles that influence our actions. For example:

  • Division of labour: Splitting chores equally may not result in the most efficient or the happiest of marriages. Specialize, remembering that payoffs can change over time.
  • Loss aversion: People hate to lose, which can result in really drawn-out fights. The advice to “never go to bed angry” can backfire. It’s okay to have time-outs.
  • Supply and demand: If you want something to happen more often, don’t make it costly or risky.
  • Moral hazard: It’s easy to take good things for granted. It’s also easy to end up trying to avoid any sort of conflict. The sweet spot is in the middle, where you’re not taking your relationship for granted, but you’re not paranoid about your spouse quitting.
  • Incentives: Think about the incentives you use and if they’re really effective. Trust can be much more useful than nagging.
  • Trade-offs: Think at the margin: consider the costs and benefits of small changes. Ignore sunk costs when making decisions. Get over the “it’s not fair” fixation.
  • Asymmetric information: Communicate clearly. Don’t play games by hiding or withholding information. Figure out the essentials of what you need to share so that you don’t overload your spouse.
  • Intertemporal choice: It’s easy to make good decisions for the future, but hard to stick with those decisions in the present. Use commitment devices to help you stick with your resolutions or good ideas.
  • Bubbles: Non-bubbly married life is normal, so don’t stress out if you’re no longer infatuated. Beware of being unduly influenced by groups – just because everyone else seems to be doing something doesn’t mean it’s right for you, too. Don’t get overconfident.
  • Game theory: Don’t let the urge to retaliate or overcompensate lead to you to wildly polarized positions. Work together to get optimal results, not just individually-optimal results, and use commitment devices to help you stick with it.

The book goes into far more depth, and is an excellent read. It’s illustrated with case studies (problem couples who usually end up patching things up) and lots of research.

Here are some thoughts I particularly like:

If there are areas you care about but you feel helpless in, put in the time and effort to develop the comparative advantage in at least one of them. The authors tell the story of one economist who put the time into at least learning how to bathe an infant so that his wife wouldn’t end up with all the child-rearing tasks – and so that he wouldn’t get tempted to take advantage of that kind of a division.

Looking for things to read? In terms of marriage research, I’d recommend “Spousonomics” and Susan Page’s “The 8 Essential Traits of Couples who Thrive”. What do you like?

ACM Hypertext conference in Toronto this June; paper deadline Feb 14

My research supervisor is chairing the ACM Hypertext conference that will be held in Toronto from June 13 to 16, 2010. The conference focuses on linking and interconnectivity, and will have sessions on Web 2.0, social computing, and the semantic web. Tracks:

  • Social computing
  • Adaptive hypermedia and applications
  • Hypertext in education and communications

The deadline for paper submissions is February 14.

ACM Hypertext2010

Enterprise 2.0: The business value of social networks

Both our internal Social Networks Analysis community and Colleen Haikes (IBM External Relations) tipped me off to some absolutely fascinating research on the quantitative correlation between social networks and performance based on an analysis of IBM consultants. You can read the research summary and view the presentation, or read the research paper for all the details. Highlights and what I think about them:

  • Structurally diverse networks with abundance of structural holes are associated with higher performance. Having diverse friends helps. The presentation gives more detail – it’s not about having a diverse personal network, but it’s about connecting to people who also have diverse networks. I suspect this is related to having connectors in your network.
  • Betweenness is negatively correlated. Being a bridge between a lot of people is not helpful. The presentation clarified this by saying that the optimal team composition is not a team of connected superstars, but complementary team members with a few well-connected information keepers.
  • Strong ties are positively correlated with performance for pre-sales teams, but negatively correlated with performance for consultants. Pre-sales teams need to build relationships, while consultants often need to solve a wide variety of challenges.
  • Look! Actual dollar values and significant differences! Wow. =)

    Here’s another piece of research the totally awesome IBM researchers put together:

    A separate IBM study, presented at the CHI conference in Boston this week, sheds light on why it’s easier said than done to add new, potentially valuable contacts to one’s social network in the workplace.  The study looked at several types of automated “friend-recommender” engines on social networking sites.  The recommender engines used algorithms that identified potential contacts based on common friends, common interests, and common hyperlinks listed on someone’s profile.

    Although most people using social media for the workplace claimed to be open to finding previously unknown friends, they were most comfortable with the recommender engines that suggested  “friends’ friends” — generally, people whom they already knew of.  The friend-recommenders with the lowest acceptance rates were those that merely look at whether people have similar interests — although they were the most effective at identifying completely new, potentially valuable contacts.  Friend-recommenders that took the greatest factors into account were deemed the most useful.  (IBM’s Facebook-style social networking site, Beehive, uses this type of friend-recommender engine.)

    Personally, I don’t use friend recommenders to connect to completely new people, but they’re great for reminding me about people I already know.

    Check out the research – it’s good stuff. =)

    (cross-posted from our external team blog, The Orange Chair)

    Expertise is more than meets the eye

    Last Wednesday, I shared this amazing anecdote from a research paper
    on expert levels of performance (Ericsson, 1998) about the Italian
    violinist, Paganini:

    According to my father’s account, during one of his
    concerts Paganini experienced a problem—one of the strings on his
    violin broke; after a brief pause, he continued playing the music on
    the remaining string. A little later another string broke but he still
    resumed playing. Yet another strong broke, and Paganini finished
    playing the concert on a single string while producing the most
    beautiful music. Such a demonstration of an immediate unexpected
    reorganization of one’s music performance is mind-boggling.

    So what’s the explanation for this amazing feat of genius? Ericsson
    went on to explain that in the 19th century, performers generally
    composed their own music. Paganini set himself the creative challenge
    of composing musical pieces that could be played on only one string,
    developing new techniques along the way.

    The audience didn’t know that, of course! Paganini started off by
    playing the pieces on all strings. Easy enough if you’re used to
    playing them on one string! Ever the showman, Paganini would sometimes
    intentionally snap the other strings in the course of his performance,
    finishing—to great applause—on the single string that he’d planned
    all along.

    So what seems like a miraculous gift is really more about lots and
    lots of practice and preparation, with a little bit of trickery thrown
    in.

    Now I have a sneaky suspicion that I’ve seen this trick before. Not
    only that, but I completly fell for it too! I was in Tokyo watching a
    shamisen performance. In the middle of a frenzied passage, the
    plectrum a blur over the instrument’s three strings, snap! went one of
    the strings. Not a problem! He adjusted the tuning peg and kept on
    playing! I was *so* impressed. But now I’m onto you, Mr. Shamisen
    Player. You probably break strings all the time while practicing. You
    might have even been playing a one-string piece and had snapped your
    strings intentionally to impress us. Hah!

    Do we have anything like that in IT? What’s our one-string piece with
    which we can astound other people?

    Ericksson, K. A. (1998) “The scientific study of expert levels of
    performnance: general implications for optimal learning and
    creativity.” High Ability Studies, 9(1), pp75—100

    Random Emacs symbol: comint-within-quotes – Function: Return t if the number of quotes between BEG and END is odd.

    Follow up: JM Ibanez

    and from Paul Lussier:

    Practice can’t account for all of it, actual, real life experience
    handling catastrophes and routing around unforseen problems on the fly
    helps a lot :)

    Paganini obviously knows his music and his instrument to such a level
    that he’s able to pull this type of thing off. But anyone so versed
    in music could do the same thing. Ever listen to extemporaneous “jam
    sessions” from the likes of Eric Clapton, BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Joe
    Satriani, Pat Methany? They’re all unbelievable guitarists who can
    make the guitar do things you never even dreamed possible.

    My manager, at 2:00am, faced with a dual drive failure in a mirrored
    system running an ancient, monolithic, non-moduler Linux kernel
    specially compiled with certain drivers long since lost, pulled off an
    unbelievable feat of grafting a very recent, very moduler 2.6 kernel
    from a Knoppix CD onto this system and was able to get it back up and
    serving NFS long enough to move the entire terabyte array to a new
    system.

    It’s the same thing. Years of practice and familiarity coupled with
    knowing *what’s* possible, then working around catastrophe using this
    knowledge and experience!

    Someday you’re going to pull off the impossible too, but it won’t seem
    so hard to you. It will just be “the natural thing to do” given the
    circumstances at the time. To everyone else, it’ll be a miracle :)

    Remember what Arthur C. Clark said:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinquishable from magic.”

    Where “sufficiently advanced technology” can be defined as any area in
    which you are more expert than the average person :)

    Much done

    Also done with practically all of the data gathering for my thesis. It
    went surprisingly well! I don’t know what I was so afraid of. I have
    maybe one or two more data points on Monday, but I already have enough
    data to make my research supervisor comfortable.

    I will celebrate with a nice long bath and a good weekend. That’s
    it… Besides, I need to decompress before all of my job-related
    interviews!

    Random Emacs symbol: ido-enter-insert-buffer – Command: Drop into insert buffer from insert file.