Single use tools

I’m a huge fan of the ‘multi-use tool’, or the tool that becomes one that you habitually reach for, over and over, as part of your writing tool-box (a metaphor we all got from Steven King’s On Writing). I regularly suggest ‘10 uses for terrible first drafts‘ or revisit old favourite techniques like the pomodoro technique in posts like ‘Virtual Shut Up and Write: Now with Added Video‘. I’ve recently been popping some more obscure, but long-term useful, ‘Insider Research Tools’ up on the blog, things like the personal reference library or Handbibliothek, or the curtain weights that are a life-saver on archive visits. I love multi-use tools so much, there is one on the cover of my book with Inger Mewburn and Shaun Lehmann How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble. And I also write about habits… a lot.

But today I want to talk about single-use tools. Sometimes you have a task that is essential, but will only need to be done once. It can’t be done with your multi-use tools or even some of the more niche tools you have in your writing tool box. Nope. It needs a specialist, with a specialist tool, to intervene once.

A recent life example: my watch died over lockdown, so I ordered a new watch online. I prefer a metal watch strap, which is fitted to your wrist by taking out a couple of links. I had kind of forgotten that step though, because the last time I bought a watch was 16 years ago. With my new watch sliding all over my wrist, I looked up some YouTube videos about how to fix my own band and it looked really quick and easy, if I only had three tools that I didn’t have. I tried a couple of work-arounds which did not work, and resigned myself to having a watch strap that was too big. Months later, I was walking through a department store (amazing!) and passed the shop that I had ordered the watch from. I popped in, explained my problem, the chap got out his three little specialist tools, and 2 minutes later I had a watch band that was the perfect size for me.

This got me thinking about ‘single-use tools’ for specialist writing. In something like a thesis, article or academic book, you will often suddenly need just one of a thing–perhaps a translation, or a map, or some code. Now there are other people whose whole PhD is about that one thing, all day they make maps or translate from the Latin or write code; but your PhD is about something quite different.

Because becoming an expert means learning new skills and expanding your tool kit, we can sometimes think this means we need to learn all the skills and acquire all the tools.

This is not actually true! We need to learn many skills, but we also need to work out our network of experts, colleagues and professional services.

One of the reasons that your writing progress can get delayed is because you think you need to learn a whole new field, for one footnote or figure in your thesis. If this is you, it’s worth asking your supervisor, mentor and other researchers if it would be okay to get a specialist in to contribute here. Editors, illustrators, translators and other specialists can often be used ethically, as long as you have permission, and give them credit. Some departments even offer funding to pay for this kind of work. It’s also ethical to offer a bartering relationship–if you have complimentary skills you can swap a map for a translation, or a graph for some code.

However, sometimes you do need to spend hours (or weeks) learning a whole new field for one footnote or figure! I had to read three books by Foucault to understand enough to be able to explain why I wasn’t using his theories of institutional power in my PhD thesis. It was worth it, in that case, because I knew I would need to read a lot of other scholars who used the ideas, I would need to teach Foucault for years, and a decade later I even got a publication out of it (5 ways Hogwarts helps us understand Foucault’s ‘Docile Bodies’, if you are interested). This is why it’s important to talk to other people, to make a good judgement call.

This kind of sharing around of expertise is common in big research team disciplines, so if you are working in a lab, you probably already know this! But this kind of sharing around of expertise is also common in ‘lone wolf‘ disciplines, though it is more often credited in the acknowledgements than in shared authorship.

You will still be considered a valid expert in your field, even if you don’t do every single tiny thing in your thesis. Give credit, work ethically with specialists, and offer your own expertise as appropriate. And keep writing and learning and growing as a scholar and researcher so we can read your work soon!

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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