Recent Writing, Part 1: The Why

Last week I published my second book, The Viva: Who? What? How? and as part of the process of publishing I want to spend a little time this week thinking over what that has been like. In my day job, we frequently extol the virtues of “Plan -> Do -> Reflect -> Review” – the cycle for experiential learning. And I also really like that call to arms that has done the rounds a fair bit in recent years, “start with Why”. So today I’m exploring the Why of writing a book. Tomorrow I’ll come to the How, and on Friday I’ll explore What, which in this case means reflecting and reviewing the process to see what I’ve got from it this time around and what I would share.

The Why

I’ve been keenly interested in the PhD viva for almost five years. My interest – and in particular my interest in helping postgraduate researchers prepare for it – just keeps on growing. Over the last five years my involvement has looked like this:

  • 2010: Does a few workshops on viva prep in one university.
  • 2011: Expands into other universities.
  • 2012: Still more universities; starts the Viva Survivors Podcast.
  • 2013: More unis, podcast, publishes first ebook (Fail Your Viva).
  • 2014: More unis (!), podcast returns to regular schedule, research into viva experience, first steps at research dissemination, starts writing second book.
  • 2015 so far: More workshops, regular podcast, more research and publishes The Viva: Who? What? How?

Every year I’ve done more on the viva, and in different ways. I think it’s important that PhD candidates know that the viva is something that can be enjoyed. I think it’s important that they know there are useful and effective ways of preparing for it. In the latest book I wanted them to get a sense that it was also something which didn’t have to be a mystery: people have lots of questions about the viva, and there are some answers out there.

Why Write A Book

As I’ve mentioned recently, the idea for the book came from a chain of thoughts over last year. I started recording the questions that people asked me in workshops, then realised when I started blogging regularly that they might make a good regular series of posts. After a few weeks it was clear that people were finding them valuable, so I decided to continue the series but start the ball rolling on a book.

I’ll explore the practicalities of that tomorrow, and my reflections on Friday, but there is something that I knew I would get upfront from writing a book. I knew that my ideas would become more concrete. This seemed a little counterintuitive the first time that I wrote a book – and on other occasions when I’ve written longer pieces (including my thesis!). One might think that one would need to have fairly firm ideas before committing them to paper (or a document file). In the process of writing and re-writing though, I find that my ideas – as they stand – are not always certain. I use terms loosely, and my chain of thinking is not always sequentially connected. Writing throws this into sharp relief – and in writing some more, editing and rewriting, I find that the dots connect.

It isn’t just that they become clearer on the page though, they become clearer in my head. While writing The Viva: Who? What? How? there were many occasions where I had breakthroughs of explanation that I have subsequently seen help PhD candidates in workshops. I have had this experience on workshops before – I try out new things all of the time to see if little differences help ideas connect more – but I’ve never had such a big series of eureka moments as when I’m writing. Writing helps me to think.

Writing is also something of a compulsion for me now. I want and need to write. Sometimes I’m not entirely clear as to why I need to write something, and sometimes I don’t know what the next post or the next project will be, but I need to do it.

If you’re a writer, or if you need to write, it can be useful – I think – to find the Why of it all for you. If you are driven to do it, find out what the driver is, see if you can follow it more and get more as a result. And if you have to write, but it’s not something that you want to do, finding a motivator can be just as helpful, even if it just enables you to get one word after the other done.

Thanks for reading. Tomorrow I’ll look at the How of writing my latest book: process and practicalities!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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