Last summer I was asked to write an article for a special issue of a botanical journal to be devoted to developmental genetics and homology. I was asked to prepare the article in only two months, which I declined, but I did agree to write it by the beginning of November. I’ve been busy since then, writing two grant proposals for the National Science Foundation, moving out of my house and to my sabbatical location, preparing a talk on my research, and doing fieldwork for new research.
I woke early today and sat down at the computer with a cup of tea. I began work on the article about developmental genetics and homology. The article is based on a talk I gave at a botanical meeting in 2004. I like to begin manuscripts of new articles. I tell students that I begin writing the articles when I conceive the research project. I write the introduction to the article as a way to see the ideas of the project; I then put the introduction aside, sometimes for many years, while I conduct the research.
Converting a talk into a manuscript for publication is very different from beginning a manuscript from a pile of data, files of literature, and a blank screen. When you begin with a talk, you’ve already digested the material and considered the points and how you want to make them. Converting a talk into an article manuscript can sometimes be rapid, especially if I’ve made all of the illustrations for the talk that will be needed for the article. Those rapid conversions are usually talks that become manuscripts soon after the talk. The conversion I face now, over a year after the talk and my last immersion in the literature, makes me uneasy, especially at my sabbatical locale, where I have access to neither my extensive files of literature nor a research library.
I began this article by making a copy of my talk notes, putting in hard returns to arrange key statements as separate lines, and cutting explanations of the illustrations I had used in the talk. In scientific talks, the images shown convey as much as do the words, but this talk was not based on data original to my lab, it used primarily data from the literature. It’s unlikely that I will use the illustrations I used in the talk; my explanations in the article will likely consist of narrative—background, examples, and inferences—rather than visual illustrations.
Talks are structured differently from articles and are far simpler. After considering how to rearrange the material from the talk to make the article, I decided it was time to clean the bathroom. I cleaned, showered, threw some clothes in the washer, and then went out for the New York Times.
On my way back with the Times, I began to see the beginning the article: a simple sentence, a thesis sentence, and perhaps a compelling notion: Comparative biology requires homology. I wrote a few more sentences and then began thumbing through a file of literature. I pulled out a few articles and read one. I incorporated ideas from this paper and cited it in my first paragraph and in a paragraph that could come later. I worried more about how to structure the article, then set it aside, and went out for Indian food, which I’ve been craving, for dinner. There was rain on the mesas and sharp lightning strikes; thunder began popping at close hand when I entered the restaurant and a downpour began. I could see after dinner that I need a fresh outline to move the article away from the inhibiting structure of the talk. That’s where I’ll begin in the morning. After the outline, a few paragraphs will flow easily, although they may not last. I will continue to wrestle with the ideas and literature.