Why blog? Ten things I learned about blogging this year

This post is inspired by one that Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, published about his year of blogging. With fewer than a hundred posts here at Under the Banyan, I’m still a novice — but I want to share what I’ve learned while blogging this year, along with links to some of my favourite pieces.

1. In science, stories lie like fossils that wait to be unearthed
I wish I had more time to find and read new scientific papers. They offer a treasure trove of stories that would otherwise go unreported. I really enjoyed the time I spent on this one, a humbling history of tiny wasps. Here’s the intro…

It’s the land that time forgot, a remote island whose strange life forms have survived in splendid isolation since the time of the dinosaurs. Or is it? Because while biologists have long thought this, geologists disagree. Now, genetics detectives may have closed the case with a study of tiny wasps. Their findings are a reminder that we are just part of a much bigger picture and of a story that never ends.

2. Blogs give research wings
One of my most popular posts this year was about a rain forest I had lived and worked in over ten years ago. The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing describes new research by my former colleague Rhett Harrison. He showed that many large bird and mammal species had gone locally extinct in a Malaysian national park. When I first noticed his paper and asked him about it he told me there had been no media coverage. This encouraged me to write the story. In the next few weeks more than 1200 people read it, thanks in part to Andy Revkin, who mentioned it on his Dot Earth blog on the New York Times website. What I learned with this post is that there is a value in telling a story no one else has told (more than 70 readers downloaded Rhett’s paper via my site) and that a link from a bigger blogger drives a lot of traffic (thanks Andy!).

3. Nothing works like what you know
To write about what interests you can be fun, but to write about what you alone know is to be carried — and to carry readers — further and faster with an even deeper flow of words. Childhood memories, personal journeys and family anecdotes are the salt of many a story, such as these two from this year: Lost in a forest in search of a golden vale and black magic and What trees tell us when we stand close and listen.

4. Images can spark — or replace — stories
Often when I ask myself what I will blog about next, an image provides the answer. Two of my favourite posts this year arose after a powerful image took hold in my mind. One was a photograph of four long-dead elephants. The other was a multi-million dollar sculpture, the world’s biggest of a spider. Images go a step further and dominate the words in my Postcards series. These are quick image-led posts that can provide some pleasure to the eye when my words won’t flow or a real story seems shy. See the postcards from Hanoi (A city of a thousand fig trees), London (Autumn leaves as autumn arrives) and Jersey (Why a child played on ancient graves).

5. Speed matters — as does voice
If you were anywhere near the Internet in March you would have heard of the ill-fated Kony2012 campaign. When the story broke, I got in touch with a journalist friend in Uganda straight away so that I could share the views of someone there as she reacted to a strange narrative that some idealistic young Americans wanted to impose. That piece — A cautionary tale: Kony 2012 – The backlash — broke all records on my blog. More than 15,500 visitors read it in one month.

6. While long is legal, brief is still best
With pages that need never end, and no editor to bend your ear about word counts, a personal blog is a recipe for bad, lazy, overwriting. Yes, long reads are a good thing — if done well. But in general, less is more. I got a taste for this when The Guardian asked readers for a movie review in just 200 characters. My short effort came up trumps — and inspired a blog post (see Southern Beasts: a story to spark climate conversations).

7. Repeat visits need not be a bad thing
Twice this year I revisited stories from the past, with new posts that built on the old. One was about the murder of journalists who report on environmental issues. The other was about the way The Guardian newspaper excluded journalists from developing nations from its ‘international development journalism’ contest for the second successive year. I learned here that if a story is worth telling first time around, it is worth updating.

8. Oldies can be goodies
Some of my most popular posts this year are pieces I wrote last year or even the year before. I’m not sure what makes them endure. In some cases I think the titles are attractive to web surfers but for others I have no clue. Here are the top oldies that proved a hit again this year…

9. Blogs open doors to new knowledge
I wrote a tale of typhoons, trees and tiny creatures… during a work trip to Vietnam. The story is okay on its own, but look at how much better it is with Pam McElwee’s comment. After she wrote, someone called Shrinky Dinky asked a good question. This forced me to go back to the expert I interviewed for more information, which I published here. So the blog post got better thanks to the readers and my reactions to them. I’ve never met Pam and Shrinky in person, but I now follow them both on Twitter and we have interacted since.

10. Respect readers: reach out and react to them
One great thing about writing a blog is that you get to know how many people read each post. What’s even better is when someone comments and you know that your words have had an effect. So I’m hugely grateful to readers in 165 countries who visited my blog in 2012, and especially those who have enriched my stories with their comments. Something I have learned is that a blogger needs to put in the effort to attract regular readers. For me that means sending links to individual posts to contacts in relevant places or fields of work, promoting the content on Twitter and responding to readers who comment.

What else?
There are a few other things I have learned about blogging this year but the main thing is just how much I like it. Blogging is a meditative, relaxing and rewarding process — the perfect exercise for an overworked brain.

A big thank-you to readers from 165 countries

I came close this year to killing my blog and I’m glad I changed my mind. It is thanks to readers like you, who have visited Under the Banyan from 165 countries in 2012 (see map).


Writers can’t stop writing. That’s a simple fact. But when we know that someone — even just a single distant stranger — will read our words and perhaps devote a thought to them, we write harder and better, with more energy and passion.

So, I want to say a big thank-you to everyone who has visited Under the Banyan and has read or commented on my posts here.

I would also like to know some more about you, so please leave a comment here and tell me who you are, where you live, what you do and what you would like to see at Under the Banyan in the future.

I wish you a happy and peaceful 2013