Writing in the Time of Corona

April 9, 2020

Despite evidence to the contrary on this blog, some people who don’t like to write have occasionally said things in the vein of “oh, but you are such a good writer”. Sometimes this is by way of trying to get me to do some writing for them in the non-professional setting. Sometimes this is a sort of suggestion that somehow it is easier for me to write than it is for them to write, in the professional setting.

I don’t know. I certainly used to be a better writer and my dubious blogging hobby has certainly contributed to making my written product worse. Maybe I’m just getting that Agatha Christie thing early (her word variety constricted towards her final books, people suggest that was evidence of dementia).

But for decades now, I view my primary job as a writing job. When it comes right down to the essentials, an academic scientist is supposed to publish papers. This requires that someone write papers. I view this as the job of the PI, as much as anyone else. I even view it as the primary responsibility of the PI over everyone else, because the PI is where the buck stops. My personnel justification blurb in every one of my grants says so. That I’ll take responsibility for publishing the results. Postdocs are described as assisting me with that task. (Come to think of it, I can’t remember exactly how most people handle this in grants that I’ve reviewed.)

Opinions and practices vary on this. Some would assert that no PI should ever be writing a primary draft of a research paper and only rarely a review. Editing only, in the service of training other academic persons in the laboratory to, well, write. Some would kvetch about the relative ratio of writing effort of the PI versus other people in the laboratory. Certainly, when my spouse would prefer I was doing something other than writing, I get an earful about how in lab X, Y and Z the PI never writes and the awesome postdocs basically just hand over submit ready drafts and why isn’t my lab like that. But I digress.

I also have similar views on grant writing, namely that in order to publish papers one must have data from which to draw upon and that requires funds. To generate the data, therefore, someone has to write grant proposals. This is, in my view, a necessary job. And once again, the buck stops with the PI. Once again, practices vary in terms of who is doing the writing. Once again, strategies for writing those grants vary. A lot. But what doesn’t vary is that someone has to do a fair bit of writing.

I like writing papers. The process itself isn’t always smooth and it isn’t always super enjoyable. But all things equal, I feel LIKE I AM DOING MY JOB when I am sitting at my keyboard, working to move a manuscript closer to publication. Original drafting, hard core text writing, editing, drawing figures and doing analysis iteratively as you realize your writing has brought you to that necessity…I enjoy this. And I don’t need a lot of interruption (sorry, “social interaction”) when I am doing so.

In the past year or so, my work/life etc has evolved to where I spend 1-2 evenings a week in my office up to about 11 or 12 after dinner just writing. I dodge out for dinner so that my postdocs have no reason to stick around and then I come back in when the coast is clear.

I’m finding life in the time of Corona to simply push those intervals of quiet writing time earlier in the day. I have a houseful of chronologically shifted teens, which is awesome. They often don’t emerge from their rooms until noon…or later. Only my youngest needs much of my input on breakfast and even that is more a vague feeling of lingering responsibility than actual need. Sorry, not trying to rub it in for those of you with younger children. Just acknowledging that this is not a bad time in parenthood for me.

So I get to write. It’s the most productive thing I have to do these days. Push manuscripts closer and closer to being published.

It’s my job. We have datasets. We have things that should and will be papers eventually.

So on a daily and tactical level, things are not too bad for me.

4 Responses to “Writing in the Time of Corona”

  1. Emaderton3 Says:

    I have had a number of mentors (graduate school, multiple post-docs), and all of them approached manuscript writing in very different ways. A few encouraged us to write drafts but were very involved in crafting the message and editing (i.e., teaching us how to write science). Another wrote the entire thing and basically had lab personnel proofread sometimes (with some exceptions). Another let us write the entire manuscript and made very few edits (and likely did not read the whole thing but rather rubber stamped it once it looked pretty). As for grants, some mentors actively involved me in writing them while others only asked for pieces of data and didn’t even tell us what the grants were about.

    As far as writing during this time, I am in the camp with small children that require attention and educational support. So, it has been difficult to say the least.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    I found it mostly impossible to work at home when my kids needed a higher level of attention. I had to be out of the house if I was going to get any work done.

    Some of it is generational, I guess? I mean, when my dad was IN HIS STUDY, we did not interrupt. For anything.

    Interestingly, the first episode of that Tales from the Loop show on Amazon has some themes related to this…..


  3. Emaderton3 Says:

    It also depends what your significant other does! Some have jobs that have more immediate decisions/deadlines/ramifications than us scientists.


  4. Jaws Says:

    There has to be a balance here, and there’s more than one way to do things well or to teach.

    One of the significant problems with the lab-report process is that it has gone to an extreme “throw them in at the deep end and they’ll learn to swim just fine” mindset. The most that we do for younger scientists is show them a product (and, frankly, it’s usually not a very good one); we don’t show them a working process for them to emulate, to adapt to their own strengths and weaknesses, to even point out what those strengths and weaknesses are in the first place. Many years ago, when I was actually in a lab, the research group’s frustration erupted because one non-native-English-speaker in the group — brilliant grad student, who had personally performed critical functions — couldn’t fit his overseas-non-English-speaking-lab-trained preconceptions into an American article format, and he had never been exposed at all to the drafting process. And that was just to get a coherent backup for the final article!


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