kvcUnless you’re just blogging to exercise your writing skills, or to communicate with a few friends, you’re in the publishing business, and you have readers who hope, or expect, that your blog, just like any other publication, will be valuable to them.

Information science identifies two ways that published works can provide value to readers: They can inform, or they can entertain. Most newspapers and magazines have articles that do each.

As anyone who reads How to Save the World regularly can attest, I’m no expert on writing for entertainment. I’ll leave it up to others to offer advice on how to write entertaining blogs (though I have no doubt that good stories are an important component of many entertaining articles, columns and blog posts).

Most blogs aspire to inform, in one way or another, and that’s something I do know a little about. The word inform means, literally, to put form around, to flesh out. The ‘value chain’ at left, another artifact of information science, shows the stages that we go through in the process of becoming informed. A blog that takes us from one stage to the next informs us — and therefore has value.

Here are the four ways that this can happen:

  1. Aggregation/Research: This is the process of pulling together, compiling data. It’s what a reporter does. Who, what, when, where, why, how. Just the facts, ma’am. It’s research. It’s hard work, a lot of digging. Example: Billmon or Kriselda go back and find out what someone said two years ago that’s still archived in some obscure publication or cache, which proves the Bush Administration has been lying/up to no good.
  2. Synthesis: This is the process of distilling and organizing information to provide context for understanding it better. It’s what news writers and editors do. Charts and tables are also examples of syntheses. Example: I took the aggregated data on US incomes and produced this power chart.
  3. Analysis: This is the process of deconstructing the information to reveal what it means, what it implies. It requires not only an understanding of the information and its context, but also broad and/or deep expertise about the related subject matter: politics, economics, history etc. It’s the domain of experts and specialists: business gurus, professors, and lifelong students of specific domains of knowledge. Example: The New Yorker does in-depth analysis like this, while newspaper op-eds (and blog rants like this one of Rayne’s) provide more cursory and subjective, but still valuable (and often entertaining as well) analysis.
  4. Prescription: This is the process of advising and/or persuading the reader what actions or responses are appropriate in light of the analysis. The analyst may conclude with a prescription that follows from the analysis, or the appropriate action or reaction may be obvious or tacit, or the analyst may not presume to offer a prescription, and instead leave this final step up to the reader. Example: Here is my recent prescription for education reform.

None of these four ways of informing the reader is inherently better or more valuable than the others, nor is it always advantageous (or even advisable) to try to do more than one of them in any single article. But you’ll generally find that the best publications, and the A-list bloggers, tend to do (at least) one of them very well.

So, at the risk of taking all the fun and uncertainty out of your blogging, and being accused again of saying there’s a right and wrong way to blog (there isn’t — there are no rules, OK?) here’s a scorecard you can use to assess the ‘information value’ of your posts:

Appropriate research done, facts checked, citations given

Article presents new information, or presents it in a new way/light
Layout and organization is clear and concise

Graphics used if (and only if) they improve understanding
Aggregation/summarization saves readers time reading other stuff

Article adds something unique that readers don’t get elsewhere

Analysis helps reader see the meaning/significance of the issue

Arguments/solutions presented are logical and/or persuasive

New ideas, perspectives, useful tools or ways of thinking are introduced
Heading, intro help readers assess their interest in reading further

I’ve been using it for awhile — checking off the 3-4 things I’m trying to accomplish in the middle column before I start writing each post (which 3-4 vary from post to post), and then just before posting scoring myself on how well I’ve achieved each of those 3-4 objectives. It’s caused me to ‘pull’ a few posts that didn’t measure up, and miss a few days posting, but it’s for the better. I’m also realizing that time pressures recently are negatively impacting my ‘scores’, and the quality of what you read on this blog. The drop in comments and hits shows you realize that too. I’ll try to get back to full stride as soon as work (and other writing) pressures ease off, and I appreciate your patience in the meantime.

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  1. Your point Graphics used if (and only if) they improve understanding presents a literary bias that should be balanced with the statement that complex prose statements only used if graphics can not make the statement in a clearer way. I do not make this point in order to find fault with the original statement, only to point out that your site epitomizes the the thoughtful combination of the two statements in my opinion.

  2. topku says:

    What most puzzles me is that in China more and more bloggers consider weblogs as their daily dump instead of KM tool or others. So many of them dont need the ways you said at all.

  3. Indigo Ocean says:

    I usually like to leave the action part up to the reader. If I say “your son just burned down the neighbor’s house,” give you evidence of it, and argue why this is wrong, I don’t expect to need to tell you what to do about it. I will leave that up to you. I try to make my points as convincingly as that so as to leave only the ambiguity that is required by individual free will.

  4. Bryan says:

    hrm… so.. my blog’s content is pretty much useless(hey, everyone is welcome to write so don’t blame ONLY me), but my system that i’ve hacked up is REALL cool (: everyone go check it out right now, make an account and write a nice long worthwhile post.

  5. jcwinnie says:

    Reminiscent of the SOAP methods used in health related fields and MADE:MotionActionDetailExplanationI think having action last, as your model does, could be a mistake.

  6. mrG says:

    IMHO, fact checking is not only overrated as a practice, but practically impossible because you’re then faced with fact-checking your checked facts and fact-checking those; if facts were so easy to come by, lawyers would be out of business.Thus I subscribe to the National Enquirer School of Journalism: Every piece is an opEd piece, so let’s just be honest about that. I present only those ‘facts’ that agree with my supposition, and conveniently ignore the rest.Whatever we write is only our opinion and nothing more, just opinion and perspective. Some of it presents itself as fact, but it’s still opinion, conjecture, muse and hearsay and the active process of intelligent reading dictates that one should not seek only those blogs that agree with you, but you should actively seek out those that irk you the most to consider other opinions, other points of view.What I look for in any writing, be it academic journals or cult fiction or blogs, is passion. Ditto for TV: The show may be a piece of junk, but if the passion of the participants shows through, then I know I am experiencing real communications and I’ll pay attention because I need to see my world through their eyes before I become boxed in by my own little world view.This may be why the I Ching says,

    Practice armed defense daily

    which one might paraphrase as “put your heart out there” or more simply, “go forth and blog” :) — note that the Book of Changes says ‘defense’ and not ‘offense’; you go looking for someone to spare with, not set out seeking someone to trample by bursting into his comment box with lofty self-righteous pronouncements …. (ooops, ah .. er … ok, let’s move one …)

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Jack: I follow you, and you’re right. It’s all a matter of balance, picking the right medium for the right purpose.Indigo: I admire that. I just can’t seem to resist injecting my own opinion. I’d never be able to run a pure ‘linker’ blog.Jonathan: The value chain shows the sequence in which value is added in research and exposition. In real life (as contrasted to blogs and editorials) making decisions is an iterative process. You could do that in a blog, but it would read like ‘thinking out loud’. Interesting, perhaps, but arguably less compelling.Gary: I’m with you, but I’m not sure most bloggers are looking for passion. I like Toby’s Political Diary, a very passionate blog, but judging from its popularity it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. As for reading stuff by people you know you don’t agree with, bless you for doing so (and saving us the aggravation) — to me, life is too short to expose yourself deliberately to things you know will upset you.

  8. Wow – I’ve arrived a bit late to this conversation, to say the least – but I wanted to say thanks, Dave, for this great post. It will help me improve my blogging considerably!

  9. says:

    As relevant today as it was three years ago! This post was so clear. Darn, now I have to go back and re-write my posts. I’ve got my work cut out for me.

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