How to find a focus for your blog

Deciding what you want to blog about can be challenging, especially if you have a variety of interests. Narrowing down your niche is probably the most important decision you’ll make during the early construction of your blog. If you don’t take time to define your niche, you risk becoming unfocused, which can become incredibly frustrating for writers and readers. Being unfocused negatively impacts your abilities to generate topics for future posts, reach specific audiences, and maintain the drive and purpose behind your blog. Clarify your niche by considering the following questions. 

What’s your overall goal? Bloggers have many different reasons for why they write. Why do you want to blog? Consider why you want to start your blog and what purpose it will serve. Maybe you want to establish expertise in a specific area, spread inspirational messages, provoke thoughtful conversations, or just gain peace by getting your thoughts out there. The motivations behind starting a blog are countless. Think carefully about your motivations; there may be more than one. Write these down. 

Where’s your expertise? Consider your professional skills, degrees, specialized training, awards, and recognitions. What are the parts of your job you enjoy the most? Are there common areas in which colleagues or people in your personal life seek your advice? 

What are your passions? Better yet, what are your obsessions? Think about the genres of books you read most often, your favorite podcasts, writers, and websites. How do you spend your free time? Defining passions as those things you would do for free, are there passions you would want to blog about? Write these down. Obsessions are those things we can never really stop thinking about; they trouble or excite us that much. Obsessions often revolve around serious issues. Consider what problems you want to help solve and how your blog can meet that purpose.

What’s your unique story? We all have unique life experiences. Have you experienced something that, if shared, could help someone else who is going through a similar journey? 

Who’s your target audience? Who do you want to help? As you identify the problems you want to work on, your main interests, unique characteristics, and the reasons you want to blog, imagine your readers. Are they fellow bloggers, prospective clients, or people who are trying to achieve a specific goal or learn a special skill? Narrowing down who you envision reaching through your blog will help focus your writing and the messages you deliver to readers.

What about profitability? If your intentions include monetizing your blog, market research will help determine demand and profitability. Strategies for market research can be found here.

Asking deep, open-ended questions to clarify your intentions will help focus your blog niche. As you answer these questions, circle common themes that pop up. If you have more than one idea, select one to try, and track readership and your interest level. You’re never locked in to any one idea. Allow yourself to pivot and redesign your niche as needed. Defining your blog focus will help target your writing, making it easier to generate ideas for individual posts. Most importantly, it will fill your blog writing with purpose and intention, making the process more meaningful for you and your audience.

Connecting to your purpose with big-picture thinking

I recently attended a fantastic high school talk, where I was reminded about the importance of remaining connected with the big picture and ultimate purpose of our work. The talk was focused on public health and economic disparity, a timely and emotionally charged topic. After presenting an idea or two, the speaker would look at the students and ask a relatively simple but incredibly powerful question- “How does this make you feel?” The levels of engagement, energy, and participation by the high school students in the audience were phenomenal.

Emotions motivate and empower you to take action. Conversely, in the absence of emotion, your purpose and drive can run flat; you stagnate and forget your intentions. This is especially true for laboratory-based scientists, who constantly surround themselves with “models” of the real world, data, and facts. Days are spent focused on narrowly defined problems in attempts to test highly specific hypotheses. In fact, during your career development, you may be encouraged to specialize and become an expert in a well-defined area and discouraged from deviating from that niche until you progress in your career.

Having focus is critical for progress. But what happens when you forget to look up periodically and ask the bigger questions. Questions like “Why does this matter to patients, their families, and the public?” or “How will answering this question make the world, society, or current situation better?” Data, observations, and numbers are the necessary evidence you need to form conclusions and develop additional hypotheses. But focusing exclusively on data points can cause you to lose sight of the bigger picture driving your quest for answers. This is true when you are working in the field and when you are communicating your research. Forgetting the reasons your research matters, and failing to communicate those reasons effectively, can hinder others from understanding the impact of your work. It can also cause you to lose the energy and excitement you need to maintain momentum.

Isolating yourself at work, for example in the lab environment, may temporarily help you focus and complete your tasks. However, working in a bubble hinders your ability to place your work in context with the broader community and to connect with the people you are trying to help. Ultimately, this will cause you to lose sight of the problems you are trying to solve. As an example, basic cancer researchers may generate data representing molecules and cellular behaviors. Behind those data are patients with diseases that urgently need to be better understood, prevented, or treated. For design scientists, there may be technical obstacles that need innovative strategies, and for educational researchers, there are major gaps in knowledge that desperately need to be filled. For anyone whose mission is to learn and educate, remembering who will ultimately benefit from your research discoveries will keep you connected, grounded, and emotionally driven to perform and deliver the most impactful results.

Here are some strategies to help you remember why your work is important for the general public.

  1. Surround yourself with a diverse group of professionals and stakeholders, i.e., people who have a shared interest in the outcomes of your work. Throughout my training as a cancer researcher, I had mentors who were full-time scientists and mentors who were practicing oncologists. Each played a very different role in my professional development and in the perspectives I gained about my research. My research mentors helped guide me to apply the scientific method. They taught me to develop and test hypotheses and ensured that I used robust, rigorous experimental and data analysis methods. The oncologists, on the other hand, provided critical information about current needs of patients, and whether my research topic was likely to have any meaningful impact on the understanding of disease or clinical practice. Engaging in regular conversations about your work with colleagues, classmates, and collaborators who work outside your immediate area of expertise can also help you remember the importance of your work. These professionals can ask critical questions that will re-focus your attention on the big picture. Look for opportunities to present on campus or at national and international meetings to gain insights from other researchers. For educational researchers, remaining invested in the learning process and listening to the concerns of students is essential for remaining grounded in your research mission. This not only keeps your research on target with the needs of your students, it also reinforces strong working relationships with students, who become empowered and invested in your work when you ask for their feedback and perspectives. Just as students are the recipients of advances in educational research, the most important group of stakeholders who benefit from disease-based research are the patients and their families. Some investigators join advisory boards for foundations that support disease-driven research; these foundations are often run by patients and family members, who can help educate researchers about patient needs. Working with patient advocate groups is another approach for recognizing and integrating the concerns of stakeholders into your research. Some cancer foundations request that grant applicants include an advocate as a consultant on research projects. Scientific review groups, such as those led by the Department of Defense, often include multiple patient advocates on disease-based research panels. The perspectives offered by advocates on individual grant applications often focus on the concerns they faced as patients and those encountered by others in their advocacy group. These insights are often different than the comments offered by scientist reviewers and remind us of the unmet needs, impact, and big picture of our proposed research. Surrounding yourself with multiple groups of people who offer diverse insights and have diverse interests in the outcomes of your work will help ensure that you stay connected with the true purpose of your work.
  2. Stay current. To stay connected and to generate creative solutions, you have to understand the current context of your field. Most fields evolve rapidly, requiring proactive, intentional awareness of advances and occasional redesign and pivoting in approaches or project aims. Reading frequently, including outside your immediate field of interest, helps retain perspective on your big goals. Reading also helps you connect your work to other fields, increasing potential impact. Attending conferences and meeting with visiting professionals whenever possible helps you learn new information, ideas, or strategies and to have critical conversations that may help you to view your work from different perspectives. In addition, engaging in review, feedback, or mentorship activities can broaden and deepen your perspective and knowledge about your field. Staying current ensures that you are working towards a purpose that has the potential for real-world impact.
  3. Quiet down. When you are constantly busy, you do not give yourself time to think deeply about your work. The current pace of most companies and academic centers leaves little time to sit and think. There are so many distractions, including e-mails, meetings, and paperwork. Taking time alone and away from work-related tasks is critical for maintaining creativity and productivity. When you take quiet breaks, your mind regains energy but generally remains on task, mulling over the most recent problems you were working on. Some approaches for taking quiet time include daily walks, exercise, meditation, and writing. Charles Darwin, a prolific scientist and author, is said to have walked through nature, alone and quiet, each morning and afternoon. He considered these walks his most important thinking time. Quiet time, especially when filled with some form of exercise, such as walking, running, swimming, or cycling, allows your mind to shift focus to the ongoing movement and quiets down the frontal cortex “thinking” part of your brain. This concept of transient hypofrontality, where the frontal cortex temporarily rests, has been shown to allow deeper thinking and trigger so-called flow states, in which ideas and goals appear freely and often result in creative solutions. This quiet time helps you to remember the larger goal of your professional efforts, so that you remain connected and regularly reflect on the future impact you want to have. Writing is another effective approach for reflecting on your bigger purpose. Journaling in response to a specific question, such as “Why do I need to understand the molecular differences between cells that respond to drug A vs those that do not?” can help you work toward a broader understanding of the impact of your work, such as understanding why some patients do not respond to drug A and identifying new drug targets to improve patient outcomes. Similarly, spending time reflecting on and writing the significance section of a research grant proposal or the introduction to a manuscript can help re-focus the big picture aim of your work. Quieting your environment and mind helps you to regain perspective and to return to what truly matters, i.e., the purpose of your work.

Staying connected with your professional purpose requires you to periodically take a step back, pay attention and engage with others. Ultimately, none of us work in silo; we work to make a real-world impact to improve current conditions. What are some ways you remain connected with the bigger purpose of your work or professional mission?