You are, at long last, writing a paper, after months and maybe even years of toiling, measuring, analyzing, debating, re-measuring, all the while remaining steadfast and dedicated to the scientific pursuit. Congratulations! It is no small feat to reach this point, as you are well aware, especially after all the time you spent doubting you were making any progress, or feeling that you didn’t understand your work, or that no one understood it, or that nobody but you understood it or that it was a trivial extension of work done a decade ago.
Flush with a burst of energy accompanying this hard-won confidence, you open your word processor of choice, not wanting to waste this energy or fall back into the introspection and doubt that could sap you of your will to write. Perhaps in your younger, more ambitious days this would be a typesetting program like LaTeX, which so elegantly combined the joys of writing with the satisfying structure and rigidity of computer programming, and handled your equations, figure labels and references with such unparalleled clarity and efficiency. However, after too many advisors or co-authors were too computer illiterate or unable or unwilling to see LaTex’s beauty and elegance, you are resigned to the pedestrian Microsoft Word™, because though you dread dealing with its quirks, you now know which fights are worth having and which fights you can win.
It’s not that you expect much help from your adviser. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects much of anything from your adviser. They will, however, want to read and edit the finished manuscript and will, in all likelihood, scrap what you wrote and write something completely different, and you have to be ready to accommodate that.
After staring at the empty page for some time, you begin with a title because it seems like the natural place to begin. Perhaps it will focus your thoughts and give your paper a clear direction, though on more careful consideration you cannot properly title your yet unformed work and besides, nobody really gets that much out of the title anyway. Inserting a short placeholder you intend to change later, you move on to your abstract.
Here is the true starting point for your story, where you must introduce your subject matter as something essential for the advancement of your field and also interesting and relevant for the journal’s (you are not certain of which one yet) broad readership. Suffice it to say this is a daunting task, and no matter what you write it will surely be revised later, so you jot down some phases and buzzwords with a note to return later.
Beginning the main body of the text, you of course must cite the works of others, for how else will you establish the importance and relevance of your own work? Leaving your still mostly blank Word document in the background, you begin to sift through the library of references on your computer, looking for the perfect references that will properly set the stage for your manuscript, which is certain to revolutionize the field, or at the very least make a few interesting points, or if not that perhaps get into a reasonable journal. Your library of references stretches before you like the maze of catacombs beneath an abandoned city, which you would organize better if only you had the time. You must sort through the Papers Obviously Not Relevant To Your Work, Papers That Might Be Relevant But Have Not Been Read, Papers Which Claim To Be Relevant But Most Likely Are Not, Famous Papers You Wish Were Relevant and Actually Relevant Papers That Were Sadly Published In Less Flashy Journals. If this were not enough, you are also faced with unknown threats: Papers Whose Authors Will Complain If Not Cited and Papers That Are Extremely Relevant But You Are Unaware Of.
These threats send you on a journey into the even more treacherous maze of the Internet, permuting and rearranging keywords in searches, jumping from a reference in one paper to the references in another, all the while filling your hard drive with PDFs and further expanding your poorly organized reference library.
At some point you realize, probably because you are hungry, that it is surprisingly late and your coworkers left the lab ages ago. Since you can’t be expected to get anything useful done while tired and on an empty stomach, you retire home as well, not certain it is even worth saving your nearly but not quite blank Word document. You should get home soon and cook a healthy dinner, since you have a big day ahead of you tomorrow, when you may finally, at long last, begin to write a paper.[In the style of Italo Calvino, inspired by if on a winters night a traveler and t zero.]
After postdocs at NYU and at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), John Royer is now a faculty member at the University of Edinburgh. There he studies the dynamics of colloids (like toothpaste), emulsions (like mayonnaise), and dense suspensions (like oobleck). He is currently, at long last, about to write a grant proposal.