August 2014
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FROM THE TRENCHES: REMINSCENCES FROM A FIRST ELT WRITING PROJECT
Walton Burns, English Advantage, Branford, Connecticut, USA

When I decided to actively seek out jobs as a professional materials writer, I had no idea that my first assignment would be writing an entire course book, as a full-fledged member of an author team, working for one of the large ELT publishers. I had hoped to start out writing a few grammar exercises here, a model reading text there. Maybe someday, a whole unit!

In my case, I had an agent who helped me find this opportunity. I was doubly blessed because it was nice to have someone more experienced than I to guide me through the process. Writing a course book was an amazing opportunity, but going from my worksheets in class to a whole book was also a learning experience. And while I would hardly call myself an expert, I thought there might be some value in recounting some of the things that I didn’t know and some of the rookie assumptions I made.

What Was Out of My Control

First of all, because this was a commissioned work, the form and outline of the book were already determined by the publisher. In particular, there were two documents—the Scope and Sequence, and the Brief—that determined the shape of the work.

The Scope and Sequence looks much like the expanded table of contents or course outline you see at the beginning of most text books. It spells out the topic or theme of each chapter and the different skills, grammar points, exercises, and tasks that will be in each chapter. The second document, the Brief, is basically an annotated outline of the chapter or unit—including the model texts, grammar exercises, vocabulary exercises, and any other content. It tells you exactly what to write, in what order, and to what specifications. And it’s fairly detailed, down to whether the objectives should be gerund phrases, “analyzing verb tenses,” or “will be able to” sentences.

I’m sure that there’s some variation from project to project, but these documents are basically written in stone. There was some flexibility in interpretation—what exactly do we need to teach about parts of speech? How detailed do we get about past tense ending spelling rules? At one point, I did suggest swapping two writing skills from two different chapters based on how it was turning out. But the outline of the book and the outline of each chapter were done before I was hired, and I was expected to write to that. For some, this might seem restrictive, but I found it made the work much easier and ensured that I was meeting the publisher’s expectations.


More Than Words

So, in some ways my job was more limited than I had expected. However, in some ways my job was also broader. I knew that I would be writing instructional text and exercises and explanations. I hadn’t realized that I would also be finding or designing art specs. Or researching authentic model texts to base my work on. And it occasionally felt as if doing research on art and model texts took more time than writing. Once I had assembled a few samples to draw on, writing an actual reading was pretty easy. And researching appropriate art originally felt like a costly distraction from writing. But I soon came to see it as a way of relaxing from writing—taking a break without taking a break, along with other small tweaks like making sure that everything was bold that was supposed to be bold and so on.

Another concern I hadn’t anticipated was layout and length. It was mainly the publishers who did the layout work and told me what needed to be contracted or expanded. However, as I wrote, I also had to think about how everything would fit on the page. In hindsight, it seems obvious that the author should be aware of what the final product might look like, but it took some getting used to.

And sometimes it was quite frustrating; I once wrote a beautiful grammar explanation that got into some useful nuances of verb tense use. Unfortunately, my editor pointed out that including my explanation would have made the grammar section three pages long and that adding an extra page would throw off the alignment of the units. (Not to mention that because this wasn’t a grammar book, there was no need for long, elaborate grammar explanations.) And so my beautiful grammar charts were condensed to two sentences and a few examples.

Deadlines and Time Management

Along with length restrictions, there are time restrictions. Publishing means writing to deadlines. And that may be more difficult than you think. Most materials writers teach as well as write. At the time, I was teaching part time and doing some administrative work for my program as well. I was lucky to have the flexibility to cut back on my hours. Even so, while it seemed like working mornings and then settling down to write after lunch would work, in fact it often took a great deal of concentration to put aside my teaching and admin brains. It also took a lot of time management. I often ended up working nights and weekends so that I could start fresh instead of coming to the work after teaching!

Because you are often under strict time controls, it can seem unfair if your editor or publisher suddenly has to move a deadline. On the other hand, they are dealing with concerns and issues beyond your awareness. So you do need a certain amount of flexibility in both directions—to keep deadlines and to be prepared for delays that are beyond your control.


Check Your Ego at the Door

Time management is a good skill and so is ego management. It wasn’t easy to open that first draft that my editor sent me with all her revisions. I felt like one of my students complaining about all the red ink on his or her essay. And like my students, I had to brace myself and admit that revising is part of the writing process. And that editors focus on what needs to be fixed and not what they like! And of course, some changes were fairly minor, such as moving the order of paragraphs or wording things to match the level. Some changes were suggestions or variations rather than corrections of incompetence. And finally, of course, none of the corrections were aimed at personally hurting me. My editor was trying to create the best possible course book.


In some cases, her suggestions were better than mine. I once designed a vocabulary exercise that had students determine if a situation or object fit the vocabulary word or not. For example, if we were teaching “tangible,” students would discuss whether different objects were tangible or not. I loved the critical thinking aspect of this exercise. However, my editor pointed out that students would not be actually using the target vocabulary. Of course, she was correct. We had to design exercises that had students writing vocabulary words. So we worked together to adapt it. In other cases, we went with my ideas.

Team Work

It took me a while to see the editor not as a critic or a boss, but as a member of a team. Together, we were creating the best possible proposal to present to the publisher. And even the publisher is part of your team. Writing means juggling many things at the same time. There’s the pedagogical material. There’s the length and layout of the book. There’s cohesion within the units and from unit to unit. There’s the learners’ level. On top of all that, there may be cultural sensitivity issues, if the book is going to go to international markets. It’s too much for one person to consider and keep track of. You need the editor and the publisher to do a good job. Your work is going to go through several drafts. You may even have more than one editor. The process is going to involve rewriting and adapting. You may write something, and have the editor reject it, only to have the publisher reinstate it. It’s nothing personal.

I can’t claim to be an expert, and I know that not every job is the same. However, reflecting on my experience and noting these lessons learned definitely helped me be a better and more professional writer.


Walton Burns is a teacher and materials writer from Connecticut who has taught in Kazakhstan and the South Pacific as well as New Haven, Connecticut. He currently writes ESL materials and blogs at http://www.englishadvantage.info.
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