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The Vicar of Dibley is one of my favorite TV shows. It’s about a female Anglican priest named Geraldine Granger (played by Dawn French) who serves a parish deep in the English countryside. I was recently rewatching “The Christmas Lunch Incident” and there’s a scene where Geraldine is freaking out because it’s Christmas Eve and she still doesn’t have her sermon written. “Right, now some frightening facts,” she says. “It’s the biggest gig of the year. It’s a one-woman show. There’s 12 hours to go. I have no ideas at all.” I think I like this scene so much because it’s easy for me to empathize with Geraldine in that moment. Even though I’ve been writing for publication since my days on the high school paper, there are still times when I find myself staring at a blank Word document and cursing my life choices. No matter how experienced of a writer you are, there will be times when writing a simple sentence is like pulling teeth. In this post, I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned about writing with particular emphasis on how I go about choosing topics to write about. Bear in mind, however, that this is just my experience. Your mileage may vary.
Who am I?
My name is Jason Loch and I’ve been writing professionally since 2010. In the first part of the 2010s, I did some freelance journalism, and since 2014, I have written a blog about the British constitution called A Venerable Puzzle.
You might be wondering why an American like myself would write about the constitution of a foreign country. In the US, our constitution is a single document that you can carry around in your pocket. The British constitution, on the other hand, is a complex melange of statutes and unwritten rules that can be truly baffling to non-specialists. It’s riddled with caveats, qualifications, and contradictions, and much of the relevant information is locked away in monographs or journal articles that are inaccessible to the average person. It’s little wonder then that popular discussions of the constitution often resort to problematic generalizations. My goal, therefore, has always been to make the UK’s constitution as accessible as possible.
Choosing topics as a specialist blogger
When I first started blogging, I was frustrated by the fact that a lot of advice I was seeing was clearly meant for commercially minded bloggers. I was told to do market research or craft buyer personas, and my posts should help my readers solve problems in their lives. This is all good advice, but it doesn’t really work for specialist bloggers.
For example, a few years back I wrote a post about Tony Blair’s decision to reject the Church of England’s initial nominees for the Bishopric of Liverpool in 1997. Although bishops are no longer the political power players they used to be, Downing Street is still involved in their selection because the Church of England remains the established church in England. While it was public knowledge that Blair had asked the Crown Appointments Commission to think again, the details were largely hidden from view. However, I happened to have some documents that shed light on the internal discussions that preceded Blair’s decision as well as the reaction of the Archbishop of Canterbury. They came into my possession by a curious twist of fate. I’d requested the material under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Cabinet Office refused, and I escalated the matter by asking for an internal review. Although the Cabinet Office upheld its initial refusal, the staffer who sent the email to me accidentally included the information as an attachment!
Needless to say, Blair’s role in filling the See of Liverpool wasn’t a topic that lots of other people were talking about in the present day. Even in 1997, it generated little comment outside of Anglican circles. Indeed, the majority of my audience may not have even been aware that it had happened in the first place. Still, I thought it was an important topic to write about. Although Blair’s actions fell within the bounds of constitutional propriety, they were a rude awakening to Anglicans who’d come to believe that the Prime Minister’s role in choosing bishops was little more than a formality. But what may have seemed like a hopelessly arcane subject at first glance turned out to be one of the most popular posts I’d written up to that point, attracting thousands of readers within the first few days.
Despite the post's popularity, I noticed that my audience engagement was heavily skewed toward shares rather than likes or comments. This wasn't a new phenomenon, though. On the contrary, it was pretty much par for the course. At first, this was frustrating since mainstream blogging advice frequently emphasizes the importance of comments. But then I realized that that advice is inspired by a concept of social proof that isn’t universally relevant. Courting advertisers or sponsors is less important in the academic blogosphere, and likes and comments are no guarantee of scholarly credibility. I’ve also noticed that, if my readers have something to say about my blog, they’re more likely to message me directly rather than leave a comment. I really appreciate this, as it can be a great way to hone my approach.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Sometimes, the topic I’ve chosen just doesn’t work out. Maybe the sources aren’t good enough. Maybe I uncover something that contradicts my original hypothesis. Maybe I’m approaching the subject the wrong way. Whatever the reason, it’s usually best to recalibrate and move on.
A while back, I learned that Randall Davidson’s resignation from the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1928 was a surprisingly complicated affair involving King George V and a commission of bishops. My curiosity was piqued–I’d never heard of that procedure before and I knew there had to be a story behind it. I assumed it must have been an isolated incident that could make for an interesting bit of esoterica.
But when I started exploring the archival material, I realized that my initial assumptions were wrong. For one thing, Davidson’s resignation was actually the second example of this curious procedure. A post focused solely on Davidson would be incomplete, but broadening my approach would necessitate the use of additional sources. In the end, I decided to put the project on the back burner. The delay was frustrating, but the final result will be a more informative piece that’s more useful to my readers.
Blogging is always a challenge, but specialist bloggers have to contend with a unique subset of issues. A lot of the advice for fledgling content creators is aimed at commercially minded folks who are looking to acquire customers or court advertisers and sponsors. But don’t feel like this approach is the one valid one. It’s okay to write for a narrower audience if that’s what you want to do--there’s nothing wrong with being a big fish in a small pond. And if you discover that a topic you’ve chosen isn’t working out the way you’d hoped, it’s fine to take a step back and adjust your approach.
Stay tuned for the next installment in this series where I’ll discuss one of the most important and one of the most frustrating parts of the writing process: editing.