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An introduction to ELT writing by Kate Pickering

As teachers, you’ve all probably looked despairingly at your coursebook at one time or another and thought “I could do better than this!” – and maybe you’re right. However it’s easy to criticise from the outside, without realising the constraints under which both publishers and authors work. After 18 years in the classroom, I first started writing about 5 years ago and it was a real eye-opener. This article aims to share some of those insights and also to give some tips for those of you who have the urge to give writing a go.

If you want to become an ELT author you need to be aware of 2 things:

For me, there are 3 main routes into writing:

The DOS/Teacher Trainer route: one way to become visible is to have contact with publishers in other ways. As DOS you’ll be in contact with publishers’ reps who come to promote materials. This can lead to being asked to set up observations or think tanks for visiting authors or to write a reader’s report on a book currently in production. As a trainer, you can come to their notice by giving talks at local, regional or national conferences; this may lead to the publisher asking you to speak as part of one of their teacher training events.

The writing route: start getting published even on a small scale. Lots of journals are keen to receive articles and many of the publishers welcome contributions to their teachers’ websites. Some of them hold lesson-planning competitions & for several author colleagues of mine, this was what gave them their initial break. This can lead to them asking you to write a regular feature – see, you’re already becoming more visible!

The unknown route: occasionally, a direct approach to a publisher will pay off, even if you are not yet visible. However this is more likely to work if a) you have built up a real level of expertise in a given field of ELT and b) you have a proposal to fill a genuine (& potentially lucrative) gap in the market.

Once you have a foot in the door, be patient. Publishers may offer you writing opportunities that frankly fall outside your comfort zone in terms of your classroom experience. Remember, you want to give a great first impression and you’re more likely to do that writing about something that you really know well, so be prepared to say No and wait for the right thing to come along. It’s important to feel confident in your professional knowledge and judgement as everything else in the process will be new to you.

The first time you write, the publisher is testing you out, but you are also testing out the world of writing. A great teacher is not necessarily a great writer; teaching is a social business whereas writing is generally pretty solitary, so you may find it’s just not for you.

When you come to write, there are 3 important things to bear in mind:

Write what the publishers want

Publishing moves huge amounts of money & as a consequence publishers are essentially conservative. However much you earnestly believe that there should be a page on poetry in every unit or that the beginners´ grammar syllabus should start by examining the future perfect, these things will not become a feature of the book unless the publisher agrees. Doggedly swimming against the current and writing material which is too innovative will only lead to a lot of painful rewriting. Remember you are in essence a hired assassin: they pay, you write what they want. Publishers certainly need to be encouraged to nudge the boundaries from time to time, but be realistic.

Write it how they want it

The big publishers have all had their fingers burnt – that inappropriate line in a dialogue which meant the series wasn’t adopted in the Middle East; that ill-chosen visual which led to rejection by all the Catholic schools nationwide. They all have a code of conduct, a list of taboos to avoid.

When you start, they’ll give you a brief – an outline of what they want. Follow it. There will certainly be times when you do need to defend your corner, assert your professional view & push for changes, but you can only do this so many times before you’ll be labelled “difficult”, so remember who’s boss.

Write it when they want it

Publishers work to tremendously tight schedules & the actual writing is only a small and relatively early part of the whole process (see below), so any delay you cause will have big repercussions. Interestingly, frustratingly, publishers are not always good at keeping their own deadlines to you in terms of delivering feedback on time, but try to retain the moral highground here and ensure that whatever they do, your schedule-keeping is impeccable. Late delivery is a surefire way not to be offered work again.

If you do all this – and write some decent material the first time round! – they will offer you other things; you’re now a known quantity with a reputation. Be patient though, that killer international series may take a few years to come along, so be prepared to work your way up gradually, keep to projects you know you can do well and keep teaching & amassing experience & ideas.

Another key question in all of this is do you write alone or in partnership? Writing alone obviously gives you more autonomy (& potentially more money), but it can be a pretty solitary business.  On the other hand, writing as an author team – unless it’s someone you know well before you start – can be a little nerve-wracking at the start as you have to work out each other’s styles, strengths and way of working. For two projects I worked on, the publisher created the author partnerships: starting off working with someone you don’t know is something along the lines of an arranged marriage – you have to learn to love each other! In both cases, the publishers chose well, I think the other author and myself complemented each other and we never had any problems working together (or at least I didn’t and they were too polite to say!) & have remained friends after the experience. Despite geographical distance, we worked very closely together on the material (thanks to Skype) and despite the initial awkwardness, for me it was a great way to bat ideas around, to critique each other’s work almost as a first stage in the editing process & to have someone on hand to give me a helpful shove if I got blocked with something. Some author teams work much more loosely, for example writing alternate units of a textbook or with one person taking on the language input and another the texts and skillswork. Whatever works.

But what does producing a book actually consist of? How does the author’s role fit into the grand scheme of things? Let’s finish with a chart that gives an idea, on the left, of what the publisher does and, on the right, of the author’s work:

PRE-WRITING PHASE 
  • Market research, competitor analysis
  • Ideas development
  • Author selection
  • Commissioning, providing a brief
   

  • Writing a proposal

 

  • Writing a sample unit
WRITING PHASE 
  • Syllabus development

 

  • Commissioning readers’ reports

 

  • Giving feedback to the authors

 

 
  • Syllabus development
  • Writing a first unit
  • Writing first draft
  • Receiving feedback
  • Writing second draft
  • Receiving feedback
  • Writing final manuscript

 

PRODUCTION 
  • Manuscript to design
  • Design without photos
  • Photo selection meeting
  • Proofs with photos
  • Proofs to printers
  • Prepare audioscripts
  • Recordings
  • Pre-publication promotion
   

  • Give feedback on design
  •  Re-writes

 

  • Give feedback on photo proofs

 

  • Attend recordings
POST PUBLICATION 
  • Initial print run
  • Marketing actions (website, launch…)
  • Promotion (conferences, visits, inspection copies…)
 
  • Involvement in production of other components (Teacher’s Book, resources)
  • Involvement in promotion (presentations, articles)

 

Of course, this is how things work NOW.  Publishing is changing fast and publishers are working out how to respond to the challenges of our times:  economic recession impacts on policy-making in education, which in turn impacts on book sales; internet provides a new generation of competitors for the traditional print-based publishers; the digital age brings fresh opportunities, but new technologies are being adopted at different rates in different parts of the world. All these factors will inevitably change the face of publishing in the coming years and with it, the role of the author. But if you’ve been teaching for a few years and are looking for a fresh challenge, then why not give writing a go?

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