There I was exactly one year ago, on 24 March 2020, in the gaps between home-schooling and ‘home baking’, wondering what on Earth I should do with my time while my laboratory was shut. In the absence of pipettes, the main thing available to me was writing. I’ve enjoyed writing since my undergraduate days, and I’d done a few pieces on scientific life here and there — but these had been a sideshow, not the main event. The change in my daily schedule led me to contact Jack Leeming, a careers editor at Nature, to find out whether he would let me produce a weekly column. These slowly morphed into the coronavirus diaries.
The first 14 weeks (April–July) were pretty intense — coming up with a solid idea every week and working that into an article was quite a challenge. The pandemic itself had a mixed impact: it provided the source material, but also underpinned my stress and uncertainty. Some of the ideas never made it past the cutting-room floor; others were paused and recycled at a later date (last month’s article on humour took three passes before I delivered the right punchline).
I have loved doing it, although academics might see it as the ultimate Tantalean torment: 19 Nature articles indexed on PubMed, none of them returnable for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the UK system for assessing research quality at higher-education institutions.
In most of the pieces, I tried to include a message and some advice — an update on my situation, followed by some of the lessons I‘ve learnt in the pandemic, in the hope they’d be helpful to others.
The biggest lesson from the writing process has been the collaborative nature of the work. Publishing these diaries differed from producing any other output of my academic career. Most people reading this will be aware of the normal course of a scientific paper: author(s) submit, editor gatekeeps, reviewer slates, author revises, paper published. The scientific author and editor feel detached, and the relationship is often anonymous and sometimes adversarial. In the case of the diaries, it was a collaborative effort between myself and Jack. I would have an initial idea midweek, which we would discuss on Friday. I’d write the first draft over the weekend, to be edited by Jack on Monday; I’d finalize on Tuesday, and the piece would go to the subediting and art teams. On Friday, we’d publish it. Each article took around days from start to finish, which meant that they overlapped — one would be in subediting while I came up with the next idea.
It was a team effort. The words that came out of my head underwent substantial improvement by Jack. Red ink featured heavily — many of my gentle preambles were struck through, annotated with the phrase “throat-clearing”. After some editing tennis between us, it would go over to a ‘top editor’, who would often pick up on overt anglicisms and cut them out, as well as give us a helpful third point of view. Finally, one member of a team of subeditors checked through it all — very different from the experience of panic-proofing my own academic articles in 24 hours. The team comprised one additional, crucial member — the photo editor. Thanks to Jessica Hallett (and latterly Agnese Abrusci) for setting the visual tone of the pieces with cartoons that captured the key message of each piece, inside the colourful illustrated post-it notes that tied my diaries together.
Writing these pieces has taught me that science writing is a two-way process. If you strip everything else away, an editor’s core role is to commission and select articles that people want to read. If you speak to them first, you can find out what they think is interesting and save you and them time if what you are working on isn’t it.Writing the diaries has also shown that I need structure in my weeks. One of the worst things about lockdown was that every day felt the same as the day before, the only variation being which room I endeavoured to get any work done in — would I fail to write a grant in the kitchen, not add to a paper in the sitting room, struggle to supervise my lab members in the study? At least with looming deadlines, I had a timetable: if Jack is chasing me, it must be Monday; subeditor on my back, it’s Wednesday; self-congratulatory tweet of the published article, it’s Friday.
But, more broadly, in the past year I have learnt that:
1. You can still be a scientist without a lab. Although my group and I had to stop working for three months, we were still able to do some science. It wouldn’t be a great way to operate long term, but the core identity of my lab group has remained intact.
2. I never, ever want to home-school my children again. One of the key lessons for future pandemics is to have older children. Not really a practical or helpful tip.
3. It is not possible to fit everything into reduced hours. Having my time halved because of home-schooling meant that some things had to go. I won’t know for a few years whether the strategic decisions I made were the right ones.
4. Remembering the good times of 2020 is important going forwards. There were some things that were better in lockdown. I am trying to work out how I can get away with wearing slippers at work.
5. I need people to function.
6. I am quite bad at predicting the course of once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic events.
7. I’m no better at writing jokes than I was a year ago.
We are still not quite out of the woods — everything could, of course, collapse again. And the trajectory of the pandemic will be different depending on where you are. I apologize if these pieces have been United Kingdom-centric: I haven’t left these shores since February 2020, so it’s relatively hard to have a true sense of what’s happening outside my front door.
One year on from the first lockdown here, I am hanging up my diarist’s quill. It’s been a blast. But don’t worry about missing me — I have written an imaginatively titled, accidentally-prescient book: Infectious. It’s about infectious diseases, and is due out in the autumn (fingers crossed one of the editors won’t cut this shameless plug).
It’s been great writing these, but I solemnly swear I hope never to write a coronavirus diary again. Thanks for reading.