Recent Writing, Part 2: The How

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”. Yesterday I explored the Why of writing a book, so today I’m looking at How: both in terms of my personal process and also the practical things that I’ve used – software and the like. Tomorrow, I’ll explore What – which in this case means reflecting and reviewing to see what I’ve got from it this time around and what this means for my future writing.

The How

Writers must really grow to hate that perennial question “Where do you get your ideas from?” Answering, in my opinion, can make things seem a bit dull and boring – I like that mystique of divine inspiration or talent! Or perhaps that is just something I’m aspiring to… In any case, the answer in the case of the most recent book does seem a little dull: I was recycling earlier ideas I had had. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the book itself or the subject matter being dull – quite the contrary! – I mean the means by which I got to that idea.

I had been thinking about a book of useful questions for postgraduate researchers for some time, but had stalled somewhere in the writing process. And then I knew that I wanted to do something useful to follow up Fail Your Viva, but wasn’t quite sure what. I had begun a book of essays on the viva, but was stuck with that too. And then I started blogging, which freed up some of the thoughts that I had. As I said in yesterday’s post, this started to bring things together and suddenly I realised I had the idea.

Different Stages

I’ve found it useful to jump back and forth between different technologies and different processes when writing this book. I have only half a memory really about what it was like writing Fail Your Viva, as it was written and published against a backdrop of preparing to move house, an accelerated publication schedule – in some respects, a manic drive to get it finished – and shortly after it was published we moved and then were preparing the nest for our daughter’s arrival.

For The Viva: Who? What? How? I knew that I would be adapting some existing material, and that the book’s format would have each chapter be about a single common question about the viva. I had a list of questions that I wanted to answer, and so set to work exploring on index cards what points I needed to make. On one side of the card I had the question, and on the other a sketch of the answer – the chapter’s outline. I would take myself off to my local Costa and work for two hours with headphones and music on, just writing notes and reorganising the cards until I had a good structure – or at least, something I thought of as a good structure.

When I started writing, I used Pressbooks, which is an online platform for writing books and ebooks. I used Pressbooks when I was putting my first book together, but had already written the book using Notepad and Open Office by the time I started assembling it. This time I went straight to Pressbooks, and didn’t regret it at all. While it meant that I had to be online in order to work on the book, this meant that I developed a great association with “being in the office” and working. I would write every day that I wasn’t delivering a workshop or looking after my daughter, and had goals to cover a certain number of chapters each day. If a chapter was being rewritten from an earlier piece of work then that was what I focussed on first: the feeling of a “win” helped me on to the next chapters, knowing that I already had a certain amount of the book done.

I announced in early December that I was going to write the book, having laid a little of the groundwork in the weeks before that; by early February I had a first draft!


I was really helped a lot in the editing process by my wife Kay. I left the first draft alone for a week or two, then went through it and made some notes; rewriting from the notes gave me the second draft, which went to Kay for comments. Kay went through it word by word and made copious suggestions: all of which really helped. I worked on those, and then produced the third draft, which we both went through – Kay more thoroughly than me – looking this time for spelling and grammar corrections, and also to eliminate repetition. I write quickly, and so it’s easy for me to miss things. I also write, most of the time, in a conversational sort of way. I think that I write how I talk, which means that I sometimes leave things in which sound fine aloud but which are weird on the page. Editing, and following the critical mind of Kay, really helped.

It also took time, but it was not time that was wasted, as I didn’t have a title or a cover. The latter came first, from the services of GoOnWrite, a great business that provides great book covers. The designer, James, uploads a hundred or so covers every week, and sells them on a first-come-first-served basis. I had been keeping my eye on covers for some time, and finally selected one. I think I have the cover for my next book too, but am still trying to decide whether or not that really will be my next book. I digress! The title followed shortly after that: The Viva: Who? What? How? hopefully conveying something of the subject while leaving the subtitle (which was the working title for some time) to confirm the nature of the material.

This has turned into a much longer post than I thought it would be – perhaps I need to get Kay to look over my blog posts as well! I hope that it has been interesting to you, to see how I went from a soup of ideas to the idea, and from there how I created The Viva: Who? What? How?

Tomorrow I’ll be reflecting on the What: what I’ve learned from this process, what I will carry with me in to the next writing project and what I would do differently.

Thanks for reading – and if you’ve got any questions about areas I’ve not covered in the How then please let me know in the comments!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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