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Why I Blog

May 11, 2010

First blog post, Jean's Garden - screenshotSome recent discussions about garden blogging, particularly in response to proposed changes in the system of “picking” blog posts at Blotanical, have included a focus on why people blog.  I have been struck by how often garden bloggers have described their blogs as something they do “for myself,” a personal record of their gardens that they keep online just because it is convenient. Some use the blog format because it allows them to share their garden record easily with friends and families; others have expressed their surprise at discovering that others, particularly strangers, were looking at their blogs. Those who see their blogs as personal records tend to strongly reject any system for evaluating blogs or blog posts, seeing evaluation as inappropriately injecting a competitive element into the personal sphere. These discussions have led me to reflect on my own very different experiences of and motivations for blogging and to consider an alternative perspective on evaluation.

I have long kept personal garden records, including both a spreadsheet where I record what is growing and blooming in my garden (see Keeping a Garden Record)and written personal journals that have come more and more in recent years to focus on my garden. So I don’t blog to keep a record for myself; I blog to connect with an audience of readers. Part of my motivation for blogging is to share my garden with others.  But my more important reason for writing a garden blog is to practice and develop my creative writing skills. As an academic sociologist, I spend a lot of my time writing and am a published author of books and articles in my field; but my professional writing is a very different, more technical, type of writing. Ten years ago, I wrote an essay about the wild berries that grow on my property for a regional weekly newspaper, and I found that I enjoyed this kind of creative writing. In the years since, I have often thought about doing more of this type of writing, and doing it in a more serious and sustained way. Starting a garden blog was a step in this direction.

Because I blog for an audience of readers and because one of my goals is to improve my writing, I feel differently about evaluation than do many of those who blog primarily for themselves. Experts divide evaluations into two types — “summative” evaluations that summarize how good (or not) something is and “formative” evaluations that provide information that can be used to improve. It seems to be the “summative” forms of evaluation, which can feel like being graded, that many garden bloggers object to. But in order to improve my writing skills, I need constructive, evaluative feedback from readers. Comments left on my blog and reviews of my blog by others can sometimes provide this kind of “formative” evaluation. But the distinction between “summative” and “formative” isn’t always as clear in practice as it is in theory. Seemingly more “summative” forms of evaluation like readership statistics, numbers of “picks,” or numerical ratings of my blog posts can help me understand my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and I can also use them as yardsticks to measure my progress. If I sometimes obsess about how many readers I have, about the numbers of times a particular post was picked, or about my blog’s ranking, it’s not because I’m trying to find out if I’m better than other garden bloggers, but because I’m trying to figure out if I’m getting better at the kind of writing I want to do.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2010 4:11 pm

    Thought provoking questions, Jean. I, like so many, started my blog as a way of “showing” my spread out family and friends my “forever” house. But, then readers started viewing my posts and commenting on my blog. It becomes a bit of an addiction, doesn’t it, I find I am always checking my stats, and when a post doesn’t show up on Blotanical for 24 hours, it frustrates me. How are readers to find me? How can I figure out if the post is interesting, or informative if no one can read me? But they find me other ways, thank goodness. (although I still don’t know if I am a interesting writer or they like me, lol).

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 8:25 pm

      Deborah, I wasn’t prepared for just how addictive blogging would be. I love that instant feedback (and gratification) of statistics and comments. In my professional life, you slave for months (or years) over a manuscript and then send it off. It comes back several months later with 3 withering peer reviews and a letter of rejection or with 3 not-so-withering reviews and an invitation to address all the issues the reviewers raised, shorten the manuscript by 1/3 and submit it again (with no guarantees that it will be accepted for publication after all that!). By comparison, blogging is such a joy — spend 2-3 days writing something, put it out there, and get back positive response!

      But then there’s the question of why people read, comment, and pick. As you so aptly put it, do they think I’m an interesting writer or do they just like me? I figure there’s a certain baseline of people who will read and pick my posts as part of the reciprocity of a virtual relationship, so I tend to focus on the variation around that baseline, assuming that the posts that get more attention are stronger in some way. I’m hoping the new picks system will provide additional information, with one heart indicating that “I picked this because your my friend and I like you,” and the stronger posts getting more than that. We’ll see.

  2. May 11, 2010 4:51 pm

    I am pleasantly surprised at the no. of garden bloggers I can connect with through blogging, so happy to find so many cyber friends who share the same interest. I learn a lot from proffessionals and intellectuals like you.

    Sometimes, I think that picks at Blotanical are an indication of a bloggers popularity with the regular Blotanist pickers.

    I am more interested in the comments to my blog which is an important source of information. From comments, I learnt many new things and experiences which I have never heard of before. I also get feedback and know when my post contents become OTT (over the top), so I’ll need to change my writing style.

    Blogging let me connect with the whole world 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 8:30 pm

      Autumn Belle, When I started blogging, I expected it to be a kind of solitary activity. I had no idea about comments, and I didn’t know that there was a community of garden bloggers out there that I would become part of. All the wonderful friends I’ve made through blogging has been kind of like icing on the cake for me. I agree that picks are basically an indication of popularity with the regular pickers, but what determines that popularity? To what extent is it an expression of friendship (with some people putting in more time and effort to make friends and therefore getting more picks) and to what extent is it a reflection of the quality of the blog? (I’m not assuming here that there is only one kind of high quality.) Again, I’m hoping that the new picks system will allow me to distinguish a bit more between expressions of reciprocity and feedback about quality of the post.

  3. May 11, 2010 5:21 pm

    Your post got me thinking … why do I blog? Initially I started out blogging when I began my master gardener training and I thought I could share what I learn with others who are interested. I had no idea how much fun I would have taking photos and writing about what is going on in my garden. It is definitely a give and take… I have learned a great deal from first hand experienced gardeners. I also think it is wonderful to be able to share gardening with others around the world. With your background you have brought some interesting and informative findings to Blotanical. Your garden is beautiful (love the blue blooms)and I just enjoy reading your blog. Thanks, Jean!

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 8:37 pm

      Amy, Like you, my approach to blogging has changed as I have done it. When I first started, I didn’t imagine including so many photos. I have really been enjoying the blogging experience. I have learned so much from others and I think I have learned more about my own gardening style by trying to explain it to others. In terms of writing, I feel as though I’m still trying to find my voice in the blog. I do lots of different kinds of posts and I’m still working through what kind of garden writer I want to be.

  4. May 11, 2010 5:38 pm

    Geez Jean. Summative and formative, I almost felt like I was at a CE seminar. Well, so much for teacher humor. My writing at work is mostly procedure writing. You are so right about the craft of writing. The best part of going to college at the advanced age of 50 was writing. The more I did, the more I enjoyed it. I tell my students that they need to write and write to get better at the craft.
    I started the blog as a part of an ed-tech class. I continued it let the kids know that mom and dad were still alive and let them know how much fun they were missing in the garden. I stumbled upon blotanical and all of a sudden people came to visit. I am still thrilled when people visit. I am flabbergasted when people leave comments. I have made friends from all over, Maine for example. Blogging is fun and I love showing pictures of our garden.
    Pat had her stats final yesterday. I think she aced it.

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 8:42 pm

      Jim, Sorry to make you feel like you are in a seminar, instead of in the garden! 🙂 I guess you can take the teacher out of the classroom — but she’ll still be a teacher. Like you, I feel that doing this kind of writing regularly helps me to get better at it. I’m just starting to get to the point where I can step back and analyze the narrative and stylistic choices I’m making in the blog. And, like you, I’ve been amazed by all the friendships I’ve developed, especially through Blotanical.

      I am sure Pat aced that stats final! And now that it’s over, she can have that sweet moment of total relaxation that comes at the end of the semester. (I probably shouldn’t admit that I think the best part of teaching is the end of the term!)

  5. May 11, 2010 5:45 pm

    Apparently I blog for many reasons. My husband started nagging me to blog last year. He knows I love to write, I love to take photographs, and he thought it was just the obvious thing to do. I resisted for some time, telling him “really, how much do I have to say, and honestly, who really cares?” He asked me to try, so initially it was just a way for us to keep track of what’s going on around here, year over year. It also became a place where friends and family could keep tabs on us, as sometimes I’m really bad about staying in touch, especially when I’m busy. My blog is proof we haven’t fallen into the abyss. I still blog for all those reasons, but now that I’ve met other garden bloggers, blogging has also become a great way to meet other bloggers who are like minded on the gardening front, and I’ve learned so much, both about gardening and blogging. Hubby teases me now, and reminds me that I used to say “Why should I blog? I don’t have anything to say!” 😛

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 8:59 pm

      Clare, Thanks for sharing your reasons for blogging. I think it’s funny that your husband had to push you into it; has he reached the point yet where he wonders if he’s created a monster? Do you find that the more you blog the more you have to say? I look at the garden (and for that matter, at my whole neighborhood) in a different way now, and I find myself composing “stories” about what I see.

  6. Ali permalink
    May 11, 2010 6:03 pm

    I too am enjoying your posts about Blotannical and now this about blogging, and reading what others have to say about it.

    Similarly to you, I began blogging to have an outlet for more creative writing, thinking that someday I too might enjoy writing a gardening column.

    My blog has evolved over time, and now is more something I do for myself (ever since I was offered a column and discovered how little it paid!) and for record keeping. I do try and add some element every year, usually at the suggestion of another blogger.

    I do greatly enjoy reading other blogs worldwide and the comments those folks who visit my blog leave, and do feel like there is a kind of virtual community amidst the blogs I follow. I have learned a lot from other gardeners, and been inspired to become a better gardener. After all, if you are going to post photos, you had better pull the occasional weed!

    Thanks for this thoughtful series! I hope the frost last night did not get too many of your flowers.

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 9:08 pm

      Ali, I think it’s interesting that your blog has evolved over time to be less about creative writing and more about keeping a record and being part of that wonderful virtual community. My dream is not the gardening column, but some kind of garden narrative — a gardening memoir, or a book of garden essays. I think May Sarton’s journals were an inspiration to me.

      Even though it’s been very cold here the last two nights, I seem to have largely escaped frost and I can’t see much damage to plants. My theory is that the air was so dry here that the temperature never got down to the dew point and there wasn’t enough moisture for frost to form. There’s a brook that runs about a quarter mile from here, and I noticed blackened plants along the banks of the brook.

  7. May 11, 2010 10:03 pm

    Hi Jean,
    …as I was explaining to my students the other day, formative helps you learn as you’re doing it, summative is to demonstrate you know it…

    A small reminder for all: popularity does not always equate with quality (and no reflection meant on any popular Blotanists either). Sometimes one must think about one’s intended audience and one’s niche–which may be small, but still valuable for all that.

    I blog for far too many reasons to fit in a courtiously small comment. Let’s just say a blog is a convenient place to put my writing, and the blotanist experience has greatly enlarged my sense of the world and the wonderful people in it.

  8. May 11, 2010 10:13 pm

    Another thought: I just started faving blogs and don’t think I like the idea of ranking them. Each is different, and I like each for reasons that have to do with the individual blog, not how they compare with others. I don’t like one x% more than another. That feature makes faving too much like a multiple choice survey, or ranking one’s friends when in high school.

    Of course I’ve always had a great deal of trouble with categorization in general.

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 9:32 pm

      Adrian, Thanks for the reminder that popularity does not equal quality. (Although I think there’s probably some kind of correlation between popularity and quality.) I agree with you that quality of blogs or of blog posts is not unidimensional; there are all kinds of different qualities that might be valued in a blog. In some discussion somewhere — I think maybe on Nancy Bond’s blog Soliloquy — someone compared blog posts with works of art.

  9. sequoiagardens permalink
    May 12, 2010 12:56 am

    Once again Jean you’ve provided food for thought! My own blogging has inevitably slipped down the priority list of late, and reading you makes me realise that it is important for my soul – more so than for marketing (theoretically my main purpose), record-keeping (my second) or socialising, from which the Blotanical debate has rather distanced me. The Blotanists I have become close to now exist separately from Blotanical. Ironically I think that that is the greatest measure of Stuart’s success! Yet the “commercial” success of Blotanical will depend on the extent of the superficial use of it, and I think the current debate reflects this conundrum.

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 9:44 pm

      Jack, I, too, have found that blogging is important for my soul. I started the blog at a stressful time in my life as a way of having a relaxing and creative outlet, and it really has kept me sane. The unexpected bonus was the relationships with other bloggers. I tend to go into hermit mode when I’m stressed out, and those relationships have kept me connected. I think your reflections on the dilemma (paradox?) at the center of Blotanical is very interesting.

  10. May 12, 2010 7:26 am

    Reading your posts is a most enjoyable experience. I appreciate your site for the quality of your writing as well as its content. I recognize that your words are wisely measured [wish I could do that] but they are inviting words, nonetheless. My opinion is that you have developed the distinct and non-academic style you were searching for. This reader is a fan.

    • Jean permalink*
      May 13, 2010 10:02 pm

      Thanks, Allan. I think I’m making progress on the non-academic style; but one of the ironies of my blogging experience is that my best posts seem to be the ones that draw on my academic skills. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m better at the kind of thinking and writing that I’ve been doing for decades than at the kind I’ve just started doing recently. I want to tell you that the review you wrote of my blog, in which you described me as a “story-teller,” was very important in helping me to find my non-academic writing voice.

  11. May 12, 2010 10:08 am

    Seems to me you blog quite effectively balanced between “summative” and “formative”…

    Personally, blogging for me is a purely creative exercise. I love to “look” more than read – although I, too , have written for pay & publishing.

    I tend not to spend a lot of time “reading” – and more time getting visual inspiration to adapt for our yard and garden areas. I stop to read if the information appears instructive or of immediate “use” to me. (Is that selfish?)

  12. May 12, 2010 10:32 am

    Hi Jean,

    I really like this post and how you approach your garden blogging. I too blog more to help me with my writing skills than to keep a journal. But my main reason for my blog is to try and educate people on gardening for nature and wildlife, and showing them that you really can have a beautiful garden without resorting to lots of chemicals. I am blessed with a beautiful natural environment to start with, and so like to show people what it’s like to garden way up high (7300′). What I’ve learned in the process is that there are so many other gardeners who have wonderful gardens all over the world, and have met many virtual friends this way! I am so glad I started.

  13. Elephant's Eye permalink
    May 12, 2010 4:41 pm

    Your writing? I tend to read your posts first for the sheer delight of of your skill at saying blunt things 😉 so gently, we don’t realise we have been hit. I do admire your constructive criticism which is so graciously presented. Was that criticism?? I read your posts eagerly for the pleasure of your writing, and only secondly for, what is it about today. (And I still remember that post about your Mother’s Lily) Diana

  14. May 13, 2010 7:48 pm

    Jean – you always make me smile! I love that your gentle spirit is still SO thought-provoking and generates such rigorous response.

    The biggest suprise with my blog (now a ripe 3 months old!) was that people think I’m a good writer?! My sister was the ‘English Major’ – I was the architect/designer.. I love that people enjoy it and inspires me to be more creative. (Thanks for getting my ‘gray matter’ going!)

  15. May 15, 2010 12:45 am

    Another enjoyable post, Jean. It looks like you reap plenty of benefits when you blog.

    Blogging pushes a lot of the same buttons for me. I also enjoy the challenge of rethinking the long-form writing I’ve done in the past for what might work better on the computer screen, with the blog post presenting itself as a lesson in restraint and concision. One of my writing profs continues to receive accolades for her short short stories that arrive and depart like a sharp burst of air. It’s a plane of writing I have yet to reach.

  16. May 15, 2010 7:55 am


    Wonderful post. I appreciate the self-reflection you bring to the blogging world. It’s something it desperately needs. Asking the question “why” will lead one to revealing answers.

  17. May 18, 2010 12:21 am

    Hi Jean, this post might put blogging at a higher level, because your readers here will rethink before finally clicking publish. Now i am thinking deeply if i will still post my comment, because it might be too shallow in the midst of the depths poured in here. Whatever it may seem like, i still posted.

    I am not a member of Blotannical because i dont want to be pressured to do what i might not be able to do, as i want it. Suggestions by friend bloggers did not forced me to do that. However, most of my visitors are members there. Mine also evolved as affected by the community. It has now become a purely garden thing, and the original purpose of just self expression now intends to reach some readers, who frequently drop by and reinforce my being human. I intend to put some quality by putting my better photos, plants which might not be too common to the rest of the world, and at the same time introducing plants which are mostly representing our tropical climate.

    I am from the Philippines, a horticulturist/plant physiologist (but not practicing it), and i’ve made a friendship from Malaysia, (we have same climate) we sometimes comment on each other privately on how to improve our sites. We also sometimes post same plants so we can link to each other and create some traffic. I realized i am trying to improve both my writing and my photos, and even intend to write if opportunity comes. However, that thing is not easy in this part of the world.

    Garden evolvement, blog evolvement, i consider also as soul evolvement. Friendship in blogging creates peaceful homogenous energies permeating in our atmosphere, who knows, we are creating world peace on the process! Thanks Jean!

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