Writing the Paper Changes the Results

You spent months on your calculation, but finally it’s paid off. Now you just have to write the paper. That’s the easy part, right?

Not quite. Even if writing itself is easy for you, writing a paper is never just writing. To write a paper, you have to make your results as clear as possible, to fit them into one cohesive story. And often, doing that requires new calculations.

It’s something that first really struck me when talking to mathematicians, who may be the most extreme case. For them, a paper needs to be a complete, rigorous proof. Even when they have a result solidly plotted out in their head, when they’re sure they can prove something and they know what the proof needs to “look like”, actually getting the details right takes quite a lot of work.

Physicists don’t have quite the same standards of rigor, but we have a similar paper-writing experience. Often, trying to make our work clear raises novel questions. As we write, we try to put ourselves in the mind of a potential reader. Sometimes our imaginary reader is content and quiet. Other times, though, they object:

“Does this really work for all cases? What about this one? Did you make sure you can’t do this, or are you just assuming? Where does that pattern come from?”

Addressing those objections requires more work, more calculations. Sometimes, it becomes clear we don’t really understand our results at all! The paper takes a new direction, flows with new work to a new, truer message, one we wouldn’t have discovered if we didn’t sit down and try to write it out.

2 thoughts on “Writing the Paper Changes the Results

  1. Subhobrata

    I think it must be hard to draw the line for one paper at a time. New Ideas tend to take one to even more novel questions and hence it must be a tight decision to limit oneself to only certain special aspects. What are some strategies to adopt here?

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    Reply
    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      That’s always tough, yeah. I think it helps to try to fit your work to a narrative: what “story” do these results tell? What do I need to talk about to tell that story? Beyond that you have various dials to adjust, whether you’re optimizing for LPUs (Least Publishable Units, for those not cynical enough to have seen the term yet) or trying to make bigger/more impressive-looking packages. But “what stories can I tell?” is usually a good first step.

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