How long does it take you to write a science blog post?

By Grant Jacobs 11/11/2010 40


Take this passage from Vivienne’s interview with Ed Yong:

How long does it take you to write a blogpost?

One to two hours to write each post depending on the topic.

Wow, that’s fast! Did it take you longer when you started?

It probably used t[o] take me two to three hours.

Reading this it occurred to me that many readers, at least those who have never tried writing a science blog post, might have no idea – or appreciation – of how long they can take to write.

And perhaps that science bloggers might be comforted by learning that others take ages too – ?

I’m not talking about newsy pieces or free-form brain dump, but science writing. The sort of thing that you see in ResearchBlogging, but not necessarily only the stuff that has their icon pasted on it. That niche that involves reading the stuff up and hunting down the material.

Why? – free-form and news pieces have different demands. Isis, for example footnotes a post on how she makes time to write with that it took 45 minutes. Good going. I might be wrong, but writing about research may be more time-consuming. For most of us, at least.

My posts takes ages, but that may say more about me fretting over the small stuff than anything else.

Sometimes single words hold me up as I check if that term really says what I think it does, if that factoid has sound backing. The evidence of that time won’t show up in the post, but it’s there. I’m sure that’s the same for others.

There’s the little fiddly non-writing things. Placing the links in. Manually coding a few bits that the Word Press editor has mangled. Hunting down nice illustrations.

Ed Yong was saying that familiar things are quicker to write about. I agree.

(They’re easier to write better, too. When I struggle with the subject, I find the writing looks like a battle too. I try ‘unstruggle’ the writing, but often just let it go. It’s a blog, and I’ve only so much time. I’d love to re-work how I blog so that I can cram proper editing time in.)

I relatively rarely write about my own specialist area, which has me fact-checking things that would be trivial to someone else. Aside from that day-to-day bioinformatics would have limited appeal, it’s a break from work. Let’s face it, ‘how I did data-munging today’ isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire. (Or go viral.)

Others spend all day in the lab doing experiments or in the office dealing with paperwork, and are writing their blogs in a new setting. I’ve usually already spent 10 hours on the computer by the time I get to my blog, or are facing that after I’m done if I’m writing in the morning, like today. But at least I can write about something different.

So…

How long does it take you to write a science blog post?

–––––+–––––

(Readers, don’t get me wrong. Science blogging isn’t all hard work. It’s also an excuse to follow the things that strike you as interesting, important or bizarre. I’d never thought much about testing hearing in dolphins until this week, for example, or that, like rare animals, the gut bacteria of those with ancient diets are worth preserving. Or that changing a gene in an adult mammal might cause an ovary to become a testis. I got to think about a genetic variant that caused hearing to be temporarily lost if the person had a high temperature, prosopagnosia – where people can’t ’see’ faces, and laugh at pitcher plants adapted to be tree shrew toilets.)


Other articles on Code for life:

Writing tip — avoid promoting particular booksellers…

The best places to read

Who blogs on what, and why

Rain, sleet, snow, music and science blogs

Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles


40 Responses to “How long does it take you to write a science blog post?”

  • Usually around three hours, including reading the reference first. If I’m in a hurry and *really* need to get one out, I do a sneaky “writing-while-I’m-reading-the-paper” blog post which I can hack out in about an hour if I’m lucky. Those tend to be slightly shorter though, and not as good.

    Often I’m writing up papers I’ve had to read for some other reason though, so paper reading time also counts towards Things Done For My Course and it seems like less ‘extra’ work.

    A proper “long” essay post, with many references, is a good four hours but I hardly ever write those, because I think people prefer my shorter less involved ones!

  • My serious posts generally take about an hour, but that doesn’t count my first reading of the original source material. If you include that, then 1.5 to 2 hours is about right.

  • If I include creating graphics, writing a post takes between two hours and a day. The first post I wrote for the Canterbury Earthquake took about six hours. Most of this time was spent writing code to parse GeoNet data and plot the points on Google maps. This was working quickly to get the maps out in a timely fahsion.

    I currently have two proper “essay” posts that are drafted. I know that each will take around two hours to write properly with another four hours or so of coding to create the graphics.

    Even a short video post takes can take up to an hour. This includes re-watching the video (sometimes several times) and reading around the work that is presented.

  • Lab Rat,

    A proper “long” essay post, with many references, is a good four hours but I hardly ever write those, because I think people prefer my shorter less involved ones!

    I know the feeling!

  • Well, the ‘off the cuff’ ones might take 30-60 minutes, but anything more serious would take 2-4 hours & a ‘proper’ research post would be 6-8 (which may be why I don’t do them too often!)

  • I beat you all!

    (At least) 1 – 2 days for research blogging or other in depth posts. That includes reading, checking references, checking databases/searches (if applicable), making figures, and most of all – checking my English (using dictionaries and Google: if no one wrote it before it ‘s probably wrong ;).
    Cappuccino & wine breaks plus multi-tasking on Twitter, Facebook and Blip.fm is included.
    I choose to write in English, because I reach more people that way. However, it is much more difficult to express oneself in a foreign language (especially in case of non-technical topics).

    Fun posts and short posts costs me one to several hours.

    Jacqueline

  • Chris,

    I’ve been tempted to do a little data graphics myself, but the time involved usually is too much. There are some data graphics posts I’d like to write: if I can find time… (One I meant to write about this time last year! Realistically, I have too many half-written drafts that I really ought to finish!)

    Perhaps somewhere in here we ought to be factoring in the articles we started, then abandoned?

    Funny to say this, but I find this happens just as often because there is too much to say—that the topic got too involved—than the trail petering out. Untangling complex topics takes time. Then there’s resisting the temptation to try connect one point with all the other things you know it relates to, but really you could spare the reader with :-)

  • Well you know how long I take 😉 A couple of extra points:

    – I’d probably say that I take around a third of the total writing time to write the first two paragraphs. The rest are proportionally easier.

    – Many writers will say this and while it’s slightly pretentious, it’s also true. Writers don’t finish pieces. They give up on them. Part of writing is knowing when to call it a day and move on.

  • Anywhere from 4 to 12 hours (maybe more?) for me, depending how much background I get into. The problem is that, once I start diving into the literature for background, I can’t seem to stop…

  • Probably 1 to 2 hours for a “quickie” and a more solid piece of work with references etc may take 8 to 10 hours of computer time (though this may be spread over several days). Don’t count breaks, or the times at the gym or in the shower when the good ideas pop into my head and I start planning them/”writing” the first few sentences.

  • I write most of my posts in my head, usually while walking my dogs…which may explain why my dogs are so fit. The actual act of writing stuff down is fast, but mental incubation can take days, weeks or months.

  • @Coturnix I also do most of the thinking on posts when walking our dogs. It’s a great opportunity to think.

  • Excuse the delay in moderation – was away at a science communication seminar and ended up in a very long discussion!

    For those commenting: once you’ve been moderated, you can comment at will.

    Ed,

    Writers don’t finish pieces. They give up on them.

    I like that thought. Maybe I need to do a little more ‘giving up’?! :-) Truth be told, I do feel that way, that a lot of the time the “Publish” button is more an “Enough!” button. ‘Enough’ in the sense of this is good enough, as you were saying.

    Coturnix (Bora),

    I used to take long walks every day and did a lot of my science thinking that way, taking a small notebook with me to jot things down. I still do the walks (not as often as I ought to, really), and still maintain my notebooks.

  • 1-2 hrs, according to the subject. If I could earn my living by blogging, I would have much more time to write (and my posts would be longer and better). Unfortunately it ain’t so. :-)

  • Ages…usually a few hours in total (plus all the thinking and obsession time) – longest is getting all the refs right. I blog infrequently, people like Ed Yong and Razib give me sleepless nights…how do they do it?

    This discussion is good, it reminds me of a college dinner many many years ago. There was a journalist from The Times who was a “press fellow” – he was amazed that it took a year for a masters (5-10,000 words) and 3+ years for a Ph.D (60,000) because “I can run off a 5,000 word article in an afternoon…”

    Some journalists are scared, offended by the blogosphere – wonder why

  • Keith,

    I’m curious as to what way you find that getting the references right takes time? (I’m thinking that for simply putting them on paper, the citation tools at ResearchBlogging have made that a cut’n’paste job. I’m guessing you’re meaning something else – ?)

  • I’m guessing there is also a difference in ‘reporting’ a paper (not saying this is a bad thing, and dressed up to be entertaining to the reader) and criticising a paper.

    I’d have trouble reading a paper at the level of criticism in a lot less than an hour, i.e. allowing for the writing, formatting, etc. I know my reading is slower than when I was a kid, but still! Mind you, if you really know the patch, there’s not as much in it.

    Different objectives and all that. Just trying to guess what the contributing factors to the very wide range of times might be.

    Apart from obsessing 😉

  • “There was a journalist from The Times who was a “press fellow” – he was amazed that it took a year for a masters (5-10,000 words) and 3+ years for a Ph.D (60,000) because “I can run off a 5,000 word article in an afternoon…”

    Yes, but doing a masters or PhD requires actually doing novel research so that you have something to write about! If it was just a writing exercise most people could knock it off in a few months.
    Don’t forget that through out postgraduate research you not only have to read hundreds of papers, you have to get a good sense of what has already been done to find out what NEW research you can do.
    Then when it comes to writing up you have to discuss what everyone else has done, explain why you did what you did, explain what your results mean etc

  • @Grant – “getting the refs right” takes me a long time. Often it is remembering something that was said in some paper and then spending half an hour trying to find it. Other times it’s knowing where the ref is but reading it again to make sure that I am interpreting it correctly or quoting it exactly

    @Michael – yes that was what the journo could not get his head around. With my PhD, being an experiment driven project he could see where the years come from, but for my friends Land Econom Masters thesis he couldn’t understand why it would take so long to write so few

  • It takes me 1-2 hours for a short post, like a brief round-up of research, or my tuatara tuesday posts where I’m writing about stuff I know and don’t have to do much additional research. Longer research blogging posts take 4-6 hours, and are generally written in 45 min-1hr installments around wrangling my 9mth old! Hence I’m not very prolific – it can take me several days to get a post like that together.

    I aspire to be like Ed and be able to pump out an indepth, interesting post in 1-2 hours!

    Have to say though, the more I blog, the faster I get. But then sometimes I have to go off and write a scientific paper which really sets back my blogging writing – swapping writing styles is hard. I write best when I don’t think about it too much and I just allow myself to write – otherwise I start overthinking every sentence and getting hung up on the details.

  • I thought it was also mentioning that although most of my writing doesn’t take me excessive amounts of time, there is one piece that I have had in my head for months now and just can’t seem to get it “onto paper”. It’s a tricky one, but hopefully once I get it done it will be worth reading.

  • Several hours generally. Even the blog posts I was largely lifting from a paper wrote last year took some time as I had to re-evaluate what I wrote, incorporate new papers I had found, etc. Before I started blogging, I had no idea posts took so long to write. I am astounded by the rate at which Ed Yong posts, as is everyone, it seems. Haha.

  • Anywhere from 10 minutes (for posting a stunning photo or a must-see video) to several hours, depending on if I’ve interviewed someone/need to wade through a technical paper/have at least an inkling of the science. I would guess the majority of my posts take about an hour, but the ones I am most proud of take a lot longer.

  • Keep it coming! If moderation is slow over the next couple of days, it’s just I’ll be madly busy.

    I have to admit, most times I have had more than a handful of comments, they have been the “noisy” comments of anti-vaccine advocates and the like. You lot are a whole lot better :-)

  • Thank you kind sir /curtsies/
    I think it’s rather affirming (I hope that’s the right word) to see how long others take & realise that one isnt’ the exception :) Sometimes it seems to take me forever to come up with a topic that flows off the pen (oh OK, out of the keyboard – but I do have a rather lovely fountain pen & I use it a lot!), & then of course, like Hannah, it’s so easy to get sidetracked when you’re looking stuff up…
    Thanks for setting up the discussion, Grant!

  • These are really interesting comments. There’s more to blogging, including the time, than a lot of blog readers tend to think. Some people imagine that because it took them three minutes to read the post, it must have taken three minutes to write it! I just wonder – do these estimates of time taken to “write” the blogs include time spent mulling and just letting the subject brew? I’ve sometimes let a topic simmer for many weeks before trying to tackle it in writing.

  • Thanks for all the thoughts. Sorry about the hold-up in moderation. I’ll be back with a few thoughts once I have got other bloggy business out of the way… 😉

  • Excuse my silly remark re anti-vaccine comments (writing in a hurry before leaving the building), but it is nice to have a decent conversation.

    Alison,

    Interesting to read that you still have your fountain pen. I probably do too. Somewhere… (Almost certainly in the pen case at the back of my pen & knick-knacks drawer.) I used to do my accounting books in “real ink” for a lark—traditional style—but haven’t years now. I prefer ink ball pens for “real ink” these days anyway. Less mess!

    Nancy,

    Reviewing videos can take ages, can’t they? Trying to quote from them accurately, checking precisely what someone said again, and all that. (I have a bit of a love-hate thing with videos. Sometimes I have to repeatedly go over a portion to “get” it. On the other hand, if it weren’t for video, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to replay portions at all!)

    Nick,

    do these estimates of time taken to “write” the blogs include time spent mulling and just letting the subject brew?

    For a few of those who’ve written, perhaps,* but I think for most they mean the actual research and writing time. Science blog posts have a fair bit of background reading and fact-checking associated with them. There’s a lot of detail crammed into a research paper, and usually a lot of assumed background knowledge too.

    * Coturnix’s 6 months in particular comes to mind! (See first comment.)

  • I can identify with the recurring theme in this comment thread of taking time to chew on or incubate a post. For me, it happens primarily while sitting in traffic or in the shower.

  • Walking the dog does it for me. Also sitting on the exercise bike at the gym – particularly if I’ve got one of the women’s mags in front of me :) I can almost guarantee that something I read there will set me off!

  • On a related, but different topic, this article looks at how much work maintaining comments is. (H/T: @BoraZ)

    On the rare occasions that I get “a lot”* of comments, some my writing time diverts to babysitting the commenting thread…

    * Which is damn-all compared to other bloggers. I know of one or two bloggers who have ditched comments. (Jessica Palmer’s Bioephemera comes to mind – great reading to be had there, too.)

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