C is for Coursebook writing

23 01 2011

I recently got the following email:

I’m writing to ask if you could steer me in the right direction towards writing an ELT student’s book. … I have eight years’ teaching experience and the Cambridge DELTA. I’m presently coming to the end of my master’s degree … I will very much appreciate any suggestions you are able to provide.

As you can imagine, I was amused on two counts. Firstly, isn’t the writer aware of my less than coursebook-friendly reputation? And, more to the point, isn’t it a little naive to think you can just break in to this highly competitive field without so much as a by-your-leave?

Gathering dust (good title for a coursebook?)

However, the request got me thinking. It’s not unreasonable, after all, having taught a bit and having got as qualified as you can get in this field, to consider a move into some related area such as training or materials writing. It was more or less the point that I was at, when I first got into writing. In fact, it seems to me, on reflection, that my own experience might be instructive here. (At the same time, the world of publishing, and of ELT publishing in particular, has changed enormously since I first started writing 20 years ago. So I’m not sure if any advice I can offer is as apt now as it might have been then).

So: it’s 1991. I have just finished my MA and I am asked, by a leading publisher, if I will review a new coursebook series that is in production. (The connection is not entirely fortuitous, I have to admit, since the writers are both friends of mine, all of us having worked and studied together). I write the review, and this leads to my being asked if I’d be interested in submitting a proposal to write the first workbook of the series. My proposal is accepted and thus begins my apprenticeship into ELT publishing. (I was lucky to have an extremely patient editor who was able to curb my enthusiasms without destroying my confidence).

One thing led to another: I wrote the two other workbooks for the series, and then was approached by another publisher with a view to my ‘finishing’ a coursebook series that the existing writer was too busy to complete. Again, I had to learn how to adapt my own ideals to the constraints imposed, not only by the publishers and their reporters ‘on the ground’, but also to the other writers in the series and their particular vision. One thing you learn is how to bite the bullet, but not at the cost of a fair amount of agonising, and copious phonecalls and meetings. (To my shame, my pig-headedness on an issue of syllabus sequencing reduced one editor to tears).

A teacher’s guide assignment led to yet another coursebook project – this time a co-written one (the first that was mediated almost entirely by email, as it happened). And so on. The rest is NOT, as they say, history. I was starting to realise that the tension between my own principles – as developed in my teacher training – and the demands of mainstream publishing had reached breaking point. But that’s another story…

Nevertheless, I think there are some pointers to be gleaned from this account:

1. Don’t expect to start ‘at the top’. Materials writing involves a fairly prolonged apprenticeship, usually doing a lot of the spade-work that the coursebook writers themselves don’t want to sully their hands with.

2. Make yourself known to publishers, by offering to report on new projects, trial material, and write supplementary materials (tests, resource packs, online content, etc).

3. Give presentations at conferences, where you might just get noticed by a passing publisher, and asked to submit a proposal.

4. Don’t waste your time writing the complete draft of a project and sending it off to the publishers: find out what it is that they want first; write a pre-proposal, summarising the gist of your project, and, if the response is positive, prepare a more fully-developed proposal (with some sample materials).

5. Curb your enthusiams! Publishers respond positively to energy and vision, but not to off-the-wall, totally unmarketable ideas. The EFL equivalent of The Naked Lunch will never fly!

Any other tips from you coursebook writers out there?


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62 responses

23 01 2011
Adam

Thanks a lot for this, Scott. I’m sure there are literally thousands of us out there who would one day dream of being the coursebook writer that finally outdid the Soars’ Headway series. Of those thousands, I’m sure a very large proportion believe that crazy ideas are the key to great innovation. You’re most surely wrong, as point #5 clearly indicates.

I remember receiving a funny chain email many years ago and thought it would make for a great premise for an entire coursebook unit. Reality check: that same chain email showed up as a small ten-question gap fill exercise in an intermediate level workbook for one of the big series of the last decade. This is what you might reasonably expect to happen to one of your great ideas.

Another piece of advice I might add is to start a ‘materials you’ve made’ blog, regularly put a copy of something up for general review and ask for critiques of your work. I did this recently for an exam prep worksheet and it proved to be very fruitful. You’ll start to find out what you’re doing wrong and/or learn lots of things about how to make classroom materials better.

Thanks again Scott for providing the positive discouragement that many of us need.

24 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adam, for starting the ball rolling. Good advice, that, about submitting materials for review by one’s peers — a lot easier to do this now, with blogs etc.

14 04 2016
Ibrahim

Hi Scott,

This is an amazing blog!

I made a few comments on other posts then realized I hadn’t commented on the reason it has garnered so much interaction in the first place.

Do you think that publishers and people like Tomlinson are at opposing ends of the spectrum or do they actually contribute to the profession?

It seems like there is a clash between making money and preparing materials where publishers want to use content that will make money and only use writers that have been established.

Yes, you are qualified and have the exposure, but the advice here is more specifically related to how to please the publishers so they will accept you.

What you share is valuable, but as you have pointed out it is best to be able to know what you can contribute and what you have to sacrifice and develop a thick skin precisely because your ideas based on theory etc will not be accepted by the publishers who have their own ‘theories’.

23 01 2011
TEFL101

“And, more to the point, isn’t it a little naive to think you can just break in to this highly competitive field without so much as a by-your-leave?”

I don’t think it is naive. Good teaching and content creation is not the esoteric preserve of some elite band of educators – especially in this day and age.

“Don’t waste your time writing the complete draft of a project and sending it off to the publishers”

If you really believe in it then it shouldn’t be a problem. You wouldn’t ask an artist to show you his work when it’s only a tenth done. If you’ve put in the work and you’ve given it everything, somebody will want it even if it’s not one of the big names. It might just be your students who use and get value from the material, but what of it?

The biggest problem in this world is that most people can’t recognise talent. It’s often the smaller, more flexible independent publishers who can take risks with stuff, who are most suitable options for new writers.

14 04 2016
Ibrahim

Good point. Harry Potter comes to mind, (not a premise for a course book, perhaps, but the author’s background relates to your point TEFL101), and who knows how many talented material writers out there.

23 01 2011
Adam

Sorry, 101, but I strongly disagree.

If you hand in an ostensibly completed piece of work that you feel just needs the rough edges knocking out of it, the publisher won’t go near it. They’ll get the sense that you have too fixed a vision of what you think this will end up looking like on the shelf and that you won’t accept any compromises. Sorry if that sounds harsh.

23 01 2011
TEFL101

If it is good enough people will ‘go near it’. I didn’t say anything about ‘knocking the rough edges off’. Publishers are free to suggest whatever changes they wish but this is actually more a matter of laziness on their part and more’s the pity them for it!

23 01 2011
John Hughes

Before you start trying to write course books I’d suggest a long apprenticeship in teacher training. I think this is one of the best training grounds for future course book writers because you observe many ways of teaching, different classroom contexts and of course many types of learners. Ultimately you are trying to write for all of these (not just yourself or the way you like to teach). A background in teacher training really prepares you for this.

24 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, John. You’re absolutely right about having a teacher training background: this not only helps at the writing stage but also at the promotion stage.

23 01 2011
John Hughes

As a PS, my comment above of course refers to course material that is trying to reach a wide ‘general’ market. But even with say ESP material I think wider experience outside of just that specific field is important for the writer.

23 01 2011
Mihaly Benedek

Having worked for 17 years in a publishing house for literature, then another twenty years in a textbook publishing house, my impression on one of the the main differences between the two is that while the former is more or less open for finished ‘masterpieces,’ the latter is inclined to work according to rather strict publishing plans. Being aware of the market/customer needs, they try to set up projects which they believe would meet these needs. A project here means a full series, three or four packages for the relevant age-groups.
Textbook publishers, as far as I see, are rather reluctant to launch ideas or names never heard of. They would prefer innovative ideas by established names. Not that they are narrow-minded or elitists. But because they have to sell their products to a much wider audience with a great variety of expectations, traditions and experience.

23 01 2011
TEFL101

Mihaly, we are talking about new and unheard of writers here. You are going to get a much higher rate of rejection if you merely submit ethereal ideas than if you provide a concrete and valuable finished work. I think it’s naive to believe otherwise.

23 01 2011
Mihaly Benedek

TEFL101, what I was referring to is that textbook publishers are usually looking for an author for launching their project and not the other way round. They will advise the author what to write. It is rather rare that a ‘finished work’ would fit into this schedule.

23 01 2011
TEFL101

It is the case for a lot of the coursebooks around. I think the nature of the game is changing because self-publishing and the internet enable people to produce their own works and if they can vertically integrate that into their own teaching and make it commercially viable in it’s own right then all power to them.

I still think that people should not be discouraged from writing a complete work before submitting it. I don’t see it as a waste of time. It is an important creative endeavour and enables you to mature as a professional. If it’s not up to the mark or doesn’t whet the appetite of a publisher then so be it but ultimately the process is more important than the result. The bottom line is that a lot of publishers ought to be more open to original works instead of being so hidebound in the way they operate.

23 01 2011
An ELT Editor

Following the debate above, I’d say the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. By all means send a publisher a developed proposal with a one or two page project description & rationale and a single worked-up sample unit. (Email first.) Publishers look for evidence of innovative ideas but crucially, also the ability to ‘complete’ – that is create polished, finished material.

Here’s the rub, though – this proposal in itself almost certainly will not be published, especially if it is a general English coursebook. But it is the best kind of authorial calling card – if it is good enough, there is every chance that you may be taken on for a writing project. But, as Scott indicates in his post, you are about 100 times more likely to be commissioned to write something entirely different (teacher’s book, workbook, web materials) in the first instance. That’s not because the “big” publishers are conservative and can’t see an innovative/marketable idea when it is shoved under their noses (they can), but because their immediate needs are more usually for someone to step in to work on something already in the pipeline.

Also, show your sample unit to at least three colleagues first and ask them to give you no-holds barred feedback on it. Better still, persuade someone to go into a class and teach with it! Take whatever comments you get on the chin, and revise. ELT publishers see lots of “great lesson material” – ie you can see that this makes a fantastic lesson – for your students, in your context. But this in itself does not a book make. So, get it road-tested by someone else first – preferably someone with a teaching style diametrically opposed to your own!

24 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that very helpful perspective from the publishing side of things. And yes, it’s always a good idea to trial something and get feedback before you send it off to a publisher.

23 01 2011
profesorbaker

Hi Scott,

Firstly, thank you for another excellent post, sharing your knowledge, insights, experience, and wisdom with all of us. You indirectly provide what I call, “soft mentorship”, for all of us, wisely pointing out the pitfalls and dangers of a chosen path, but knowing all the while that the novice will only be more atttracted to the “search for the Holy Grail”, “the hero’s journey”, “the quest for fame and glory”, “the coursebook writer”, that in the end, will only consume them their very spirit(s).

I am more than content to produce what modest materials I am capable of, for my immediate audience, namely, the Chilean students in my classrooms, and the teachers who believe I have something of value to share with them.

An example? Besides sharing my experience at conferences, a year ago I self-produced an E-book, in simple PDF format, called “Teaching Debate in Chile”, and made it freely available to the world at my Slideshare account (profesorbaker) and also at Scribd (profesorbaker). The last time I looked, it had been viewed over 1800 times, which is quite satisfying in my small country, Chile.

The unique thing, however, is that this behaviour, free and open sharing of materials, and resources, is quite common among the members of my Professional Learning Network (PLN), who get together on-line, every Wednesday, at Twitter, under the hashtag #ELTChat.

The result has been an amazing, exponential increase in my current, up-to-date knowledge related to ELT and an equally amazing group of brilliant, talented professionals to access, in a mutually reciprocal fashion, whenever I need help.

Scott, if you would permit me to add one thing to your insights for the prospective coursebook writer, it’s this, namely:

If your desire, your motivation, is to truly help teachers of English, wherever they may be, then whatever you do, teaching, writing, whatever destiny has in store for you, it will be sufficiently satisfactory and fulfilling for your spirit.

I think you will find that the secret of the “Holy Grail”, the “Hero’s Journey”, the Coursebook Writer, is, was always, and has always, been inside of you all along…

Best regards,
Thomas

24 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Thomas, for that comment and insight. Yes, the goalposts have moved considerably, now that self publishing is a viable alternative to the long haul up the publishing ladder. Likewise, the availability and easy accessibility of online teacher development forums is a real boon for potential writers, in terms of sharing ideas as well as publicising one’s own writing.

23 01 2011
Karenne Sylvester

Scott,

Enjoyed reading your background story and chuckled at bits…

I’m writing a textbook now…something I said I would never-ever-never-ever do, don’t believe in them and all that ya-ya… but then well, like everyone have rent and food that gotta be paid and all a that… however, that’s not, in fact, what made me yes to doing this – in fact I’m mightily tempted by the discipline involved and in having the challenge to try to do something different within a very, very defined framework – hello grammar can I make you communicative..?

Anyway, I actually clicked to comment on your post in order to add advice, I guess, my own route here:

1. Start a blog or a website
2. Share materials for free
3. Share a lot of materials for free
4. Work very hard 365 days a week and market yourself rotten even if deep-down the-real-you hates doing that
5. Be obnoxious about your opinions and develop a very, very thick-skin
6. Share a lot more materials and ideas for free
7. Do all the steps as recommended by Scott above- especially with things like giving feedback to publishers i.e. reporters – help other writers by letting them into your classes, be useful to people in the industry
8. Back up your obnoxious opinions with real-data to show that while you may be wrong, you’ve worked at understanding what you’re on about
9. Become a specialist in a specific area of teaching
10. Train other people in that specific area so that some day you’ll be in a conference and a Publisher will come up to you themselves to ask for more…

Because at the end of the day, if you haven’t the connections from school or work or life, then really, the only way you’ll get noticed is because you’ve become too noticeable to ignore.

K

24 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Karenne, for that feisty advice! The point about “sharing material for free” is very well made, and it would be interesting to know the number of ELT writers nowadays who started off by making their materials freely available online. I also think your point about getting a specialisation is very apt — there’s probably more chance of breaking into publishing via some specific area, such as teaching business English, teaching children, test preparation etc.

25 01 2011
Karenne Sylvester

Hey Scott, not sure of the number who that angle worked for… but have heard that a lot of OneStop submitters/ yahoo forum posters /Dave’s ESL Cafe submitters have wound up with writing gigs in the past.

The one thing I did really want to highlight was the hard-work, as I know that often teachers look upon those who’ve written books – methodology, supplementary or textbooks – and think it’s all about getting a break or knowing the right folks! And yes that may well work but probably not in the long-run, not without talent.

I remember when I was studying script-writing there was a story about a guy who sold his screenplay to Spielberg out of having the luck of sitting next to him on a long plane journey.

He told the story that everyone he met once the movie was released kept saying how amazingly lucky he was and how people would say to his face that they wished they would have that kind of luck. Yet, yes, while it was a 1-a-million chance that he happened to have been bumped up to 1stClass because the airline had overbooked and wound up sitting next to Spielberg, what no one realized or recognized was the thousands of hours he had put into writing a screenplay, that he had had the screenplay in his briefcase because he had just had that same screenplay rejected by a Director he’d just met with and in the moment, had felt like giving up…

What happens in life is that no one sees the work, they only see the luck.

But like Malcolm Gladwell says, to be good at anything, anything at all… even merely better than okay… then you have to put in 10,000 hours. (Outliers, I’m paraphrasing).

Karenne

14 04 2016
Ibrahim

Karenne,

Points 9 and 10 above for any would qualified language teacher looking to go into the profession I reckon tops the chart.

Thanks for sharing.

23 01 2011
Stephanie Ashford

Hi Scott and others,

ELT Editor’s points ring true. While people shouldn’t be discouraged from writing a complete work before submitting it for publication, they do need to be aware of the risks. Also, there’s a great deal to be gained – not lost – from the experience of working with a good publisher willing to ‘invest’ in you.

When I started out as a rookie ELT author some years ago (textbooks for German secondary schools), I benefited hugely from working with experts in the field. They included editors, co-authors, project managers, graphic designers, layout people and consultants. Most of them were skilled and talented people willing to share their expertise with me. The consultants were mostly directors of studies and teacher trainers, chosen for their understanding of the market, curriculum requirements and teaching methodologies. I had the privilege of having my materials piloted and then receiving reports on what teachers liked or thought could be improved. I had to learn to deal with very blunt criticism and keep an open mind. I also had to learn how to stand my ground if I felt I knew better. It was a baptism of fire, but a great education.

It hasn’t always been a bed of roses and know other authors who have had less rewarding experiences than mine. So my immediate advice would be this:
1. See yourself as apprentice learning a craft.
2. Choose your publisher(s) carefully.
3. Learn from the experts around you.
4. See the positive side of criticism, however unreasonable it may seem.
5. Respect deadlines.
6. Keep innovating.
7. Keep teaching.

Easier said than done, of course!

Stephanie

24 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Excellent advice, Stephanie. I’m still grateful to the commissioning editor of my very first project, who “held me by the hand” as she talked me through the material I had submitted, often for hours on end over the phone — she was incredibly patient, supportive and encouraging, even when the material was patently cr*p! As an editor now myself, I realise how important it is — although not always easy, especially at a distance — to get the interpersonal side of this apprenticing process right.

Good point, too, about keeping to deadlines. Publishing projects typically work to very tight schedules, and no amount of brilliant material will compensate for a reputation for not meeting deadlines!

23 01 2011
Chuck Sandy

My own coursebook writing experience mirrors Scott’s in many ways with an early journeyman’s role as an ancillary writer who paid his way thru grad school by writing reviews first & then later (and because of that) had the chance to author teacher guides and workbooks for one of the big courses of our time. This led some long years later to an extended apprenticeship, as it were, with a master, maybe the master of those times, and with him I coauthored two series before striking out on my own. Along the way I learned many things, slowly, and sometimes painfully, yet of all the things I learned, there’s been nothing more enduringly true than this: there’s no room for ego in course book writing. It’s all about collaboration. A great idea for an activity, for a unit, for a book, for a series always becomes a better idea when a team of people have had a chance to work together on it. Or as one of my current colleagues at large, Steven Herder, says: “Anything I can do, we can do better.” Word.

This is a very hard lesson to learn but one that will serve any new coursebook writer well: forget the idea that activities you dream up in your own classroom and then refine in the middle of the night all by yourself are so inviolably good that they can’t become better. They can and do if you’re willing to enter into the the coursebook writing process as a process – as a collaborative process. In this process you’ll find, if you allow yourself to, that coauthors, editors, reviewers and piloters, even marketing types and publisher’s sales reps are often able to shape and reshape your original work into something much more than it was in its original form: something better.

And if you’ve got something that you think is SO good that it IS inviolable, then be ready to argue for it and defend it. Even then, if you give yourself a little distance, tone down the ego, and listen, you just may find what I found: those great inviolable activities you wrote in the middle of the night look less inviolable in the morning after a walk when the ideas of others not only make more sense but also are much more palatable. As in all things, the ideas of others are worth attending to. Revision makes things better. Collaboration is key. Ego is your enemy. The sooner you learn this, the happier you’ll be.

No one writes a coursebook alone and no idea is so good that it can’t become better. It’s for this reason, more than any other I can think of, that writing an entire manuscript all by your lonesome and then sending it off to a publisher as a masterpiece is a very bad idea. Coursebook writing is not about one person creating a masterpiece. It’s about a team of people rolling up their sleeves to work together on translating a vision into a shared vision and then into a published piece of work that is transparently simple enough to be useful to a variety of teachers and their students across a variety of contexts. It’s hard to do that alone.

It’s almost embarrassing for me to go back (as I just did) to compare an original draft of a coursebook unit with what finally got published or even an early proposal for a coursebook with the way it finally turned out. I save those early drafts for times when my ego rises up and threatens to undo me. Looking at how awful those are and thinking about how pigheaded I sometimes was in the writing of them is always a cure and a reminder. A further cure is then to look at the published work and think back over every discussion which took place in shaping it and to remember every person who had a role in that shaping. When I do that I see once again that it’s all about collaboration. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s not even about the process. It’s about being willing to learn, grow, and collaborate.

So, if you’re going to go into coursebook writing keep this in mind: Tone done the ego. Welcome collaboration. Be ready to learn and you will.

24 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chuck — excellent advice about “parking the ego” that I can’t possibly better. On the other hand, it is not always the case that everyone involved in a project understands, or a sympathetic to, its underlying rationale– and this is especially the case when the marketing crew get involved. If you turn your back for a second, you’ll find that your life’s work has been repackaged as Headway Intermediate!

25 01 2011
Karenne Sylvester

Hey Chuck,

I often think about ego, it’s one of my favorite things to think about🙂 and I think this

– If your ego is not your amigo, chuck it out

And by that I mean, if your ego hurts you – makes you pigheaded to the point of being non-collaborative you have a problem. But if you have no ego, you’ll never have enough self-confidence to even write a first draft!

I like your comparison’s of drafts and the learning process, that’s very useful advice. I write a blog and honestly, there are times when I go back to old posts (even posts which I thought were great at the time of publishing them) and I absolutely cringe with embarrassment and can’t possibly believe I could have written so utterly awful.

And then I pick up my socks and try to do better!
🙂

23 01 2011
Delpha

I wonder if anyone had any idea about the American coursebook market. After teaching abroad for the last four years (and being DELTA trained), I’ve returned home to find the American materials I have to use less appealing than those produced in the UK ELT realm. Even the American versions of these materials (for example American Headway, American Cutting Edge and American Framework) are less developed and generally unknown. Also, here in the States the industry is not celebrated with Oscar award-like ceremonies like the ELTons. I would be very curious to hear any comments on the discrepancies between these two markets.

Delpha

24 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good question, Delpha – and not one that I’m qualified to answer, although I do get the feeling that there is even greater editorial control over textbook publishing in the US than in the UK, and that this may account for their somewhat anodyne quality. Anyone else have an opinion on this?

24 01 2011
John Hughes

My background in writing is mainly UK/Europe-based but I’ve had a little involvement in US materials/course book writing. My imprssion is that the US market prefers (or at least publishers do) a book which feels more academic so it tends to be more text-based with less reliance on images and design. I’ve often wondered if this is because the background of the teachers etc tends to be ESL and teachers come up through a university MA background. In the UK on the other hand, ELT publishing is still heavily influenced by the world of CELTA or Cert TESOLs and an approach to course books which appears less academic in feel and tone. Hence also there seems to be less interest in events like ELTons which don’t fit in to academic way of approaching things. How these two styles adapt for online materials in the future remains to be seen. As I say this is only my impressions. Maybe others will have something more concrete for you.

25 01 2011
lclandfield

As a coursebook writer regular visitor to this blog, I think many of the good points have been made.

One thing that can help get a foot in the door is to show the publisher that you already know (and hopefully like) at least some of their material.

If you’ve been using a book you like, and have developed additional materials to be used with it, then that’s an excellent way to approach a publisher. You may find that this then leads to making that additional material paid work, which leads to more paid work and so forth.

If you are going with a new idea, think of how it might fit for them. To do this, you have to know what’s in their catalogue. It’s embarrassing to go with your “big idea that no publisher has figured out” only for them to show you something very similar that they did publish or are going to publish and that’s in the catalogue. Do the homework first.

Some ideas are quite new and interesting and get published right off. The guy who wrote 700 Classroom Activities, according to legend at Macmillan, just approached them and said I have a book with 700 simple classroom activities for your teacher resource series. He got the contract shortly afterwards. This is not the norm though.

26 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Lindsay — it’s good to have a comment from someone with such a ‘global’ reach.😉

Your story about 700 Classroom Activities does give one hope. I am told that more or less the same process occurred with Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use — which also started life as a collection of materials that Murphy had used in his own classes, and which he trotted along to a publisher with. I wonder if, had the Internet been around then, he would still have taken them to the publisher, or just shoved them onto a website (where they might well have languished)?

26 01 2011
jeremyharmer

Well the one thing that seems to be missing a bit here is a bit of good old passion!

To explain: most writers that I admire write because they have to or want to or feel impelled to or something like that. Of course a route into EFL writing may be (and often is) writing reports, then bits of supplementary material, then workbooks and then finally A COURSEBOOK. And that is the kind of apprenticeship model preferred by many publishers because, let’s face it, they invest enormous sums of money into any new project.

But for the writer? Well can’t we aim just a bit higher? By FAR the best way to start writing is because you kind of HAVE to. It’s like when you can’t find a book that you like to use – or all the advanced books around just don’t do what you are looking for. So what ARE you looking for? You can’t find it? Well then go one, go on (it’ll be worth it) write your own stuff.

That’s how many EFL writers start and started! Vainglorious, egocentric perhaps. But they think they have something interesting or original to say. So they say it, write it, tell people about it, try to get their colleagues interested, tell publishers about it, anyone who will listen. It may not work, but material written from the heart (with or without the earning-a-living brain) is the best kind of material!!

In the meantime other people’s advice here is perfectly sound. Make yourself known to publishers. Offer your services to review materials in development. Find out what other books there are on the market so that you don’t keep offering a Headway alternative (yes, but what’s your vision, what are YOUR ideas?) etc etc

And as for editors and editing? There is not a single book I have written that hasn’t been better because editors got stuck in and challenged and suggested and provoked.

(Of course in the market-comodified world we live in idealism and creativity may often get squeezed, but hell, it’s a start)

Jeremy

26 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Jeremy, and for reminding us that writing, including the writing of educational materials, need not be motivated only by greed! Mind you, how much of that ‘passion’ is dissipated, even frustrated, in the actual process of writing itself? Writing coursebooks in particular is often a fairly prolonged and lonely activity, where, if there is any real creativity, it is in figuring out how to knock the square peg of one’s teaching principles into the round hole of the grammar syllabus!

26 01 2011
Matt

More and more ELT teachers, teacher trainers, educators, critics and commentators are taking a bold Canute-like stand against the ever-swelling tsunami of coursebook material that is being generated by the Big Publishers who bankroll the profession. Or are they?

27 01 2011
Jonny

Thank you Scott for answering my question.

Yes, I know it’s highly competitive to get into. Slightly in the spirit encouraged by TEFL101 and a few others, I’m going for it anyway and it’s about the process for now. Some of us are going to have to be there to step in as the next generation of writers. I have also made sure that I am specialised in the area in which I will write.

I find everyone’s advice (and/or experiences) very helpful. I could name a good five or more things that I will now follow up on thanks to everyone’s input. Glad that others have benefited as well.

27 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Jonny – thanks for giving me permission to publish that extract from your email to me. I hope the discussion has been useful, and I’m glad to see you haven’t lost your determination!

27 01 2011
Jonny

By the way, I am thrilled that so many distinguished ELT authors and course book writers are on here. Don’t suppose any of you would feel like taking a chance on me and allowing me to directly contact you with my ideas (and my resume) to see if I can persuade you to invest a little tutelage and mentoring?

Jeremy, I’m living your advice – telling anyone who will listen (been on the backs of half the publishers already), and writing from the heart with compulsion.

27 01 2011
jeremyharmer

Scott,

yes coursebook writing can be very frustrating, and by year 4 when you are still on the same course it is difficult to muster the same enthusiasm as you ahd when the first ideas came rolling in.

And oh, the pain of having to find new and interesting material when you feel all ‘ideaed’ out!!

Yes, compromises have to be made all the time. You cling like mad on to the ‘classrooms in my mind’, and you try be as transparent as possible for the teachers who will use your material. It is backbreaking work, sometimes. But then so is teaching. It’s the nature of the beast.

Two last things: if you are a half-empty glass person then publisher constraints etc is all about painfully square pegging. But there’s another way of looking at this….as a challenge, an exciting creative ‘reto’ to be met and conquered!

But writing methodology? Ah, now there’s something to be a full-glass about most of the time – and I am confident that you will agree!

Jeremy

27 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, again, Jeremy – yes, there is a certain perverse pleasure to be had out of creating yet another workbook exercise that contrasts will and going to, I agree. It’s a bit like the secret joy of the crossword compiler, perhaps, or the composer of advertising jingles. And there is fun to be had by pushing the boundaries of the PARSNIP prescriptions (for more on PARSNIP see Jason Renshaw’s blog post on the subject or my own less-recent post T is for Taboo).

27 01 2011
jeremyharmer

For Jonny

I love hearing about your enthusiasm! Keep on at it. Create a blog. Tell people about your material. Spread it around. Put some up on Facebook or make a Youtube video. Tweet. 2011 is a good time to make that kind of a noise!

Good luck!

Jeremy

27 01 2011
Antonia

Great reading and lots of useful advice here. Thanks everyone. My two cents:

– Please don’t write whole coursebooks before you’ve found a publisher. I did this in the early days and my publisher literally laughed out loud, and went through the material with a red pen rejecting almost everything. It was gutting. Keep it simple. Write a sample, a unit, a lesson idea, a syllabus – something that will help to explain your ideas. But be prepared that you will – there are no doubts about this – you will need to adapt and rewrite material (probably many times), so writing a whole book is likely to be a huge waste of your time and energy.

– Keep your vision. It is really hard to persuade publishers to take risks, but if your ideas are good, stick with them, and eventually people will listen to you. You need to listen to them too though. The problem with your good ideas is that they may seem good to you, but they might not work for a lot of other teachers. You have to be prepared to adapt, but try to keep the flavour, or the magic you were trying to create.

There’s so much more, but most of it has been said before. Thanks again, Scott.
Antonia

28 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Antonia, for your comments. You’re absolutely right – about not ‘losing your vision’ – but be prepared to compromise.

By the way, no one has mentioned the importance of having someone to advise and represent you on contractual issues etc. I belong to The Society of Authors, and although it costs me 80 quid or so a year, I’ve not regretted it. Their advice on contracts is speedy, informed, helpful and discreet.

28 01 2011
Jonny

Thank you Antonia, Jeremy and Scott,

Yes, I’m definitely going no further than a sample unit for now. I will be very comfortable working as a team and letting others (editors, more experienced writers) steer the ultimate direction of the book. That’s no problem.

In my original question I was also trying to find out what the most up-to-date methodology and approach to ELT coursebook writing is.

Is there still a place for writing coursebooks with a strong underlying lexical approach, or have we moved on?

My target market is business and they are advanced / proficient. I am thinking I will apply a strong lexical approach and demote the place of grammar considerably (although not completely). Could this be justified, or what else might I do?

Someone mentioned genre analysis and corpus linguistics to me. What about them? What else?

What is the right mix that the publishers are looking for here?

28 01 2011
Antonia

Jonny,

It’s a good question (and one that publishers and coursebook writers are asking themselves all the time). I think a strong lexical foundation is taken as a given now, but you will struggle to convince any publisher that there isn’t a necessity for an equally strong grammatical syllabus. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! Lindsay Clandfield in his talk at the recent IH DOS conference in London gave a very clear synopsis of what is and isn’t ‘hot’ in terms of current thinking on this topic. You can watch it here.

http://www.ihworld.com/video/category.asp?c=5

Then, I think you have to establish your own ideas of what you think would work, and present the publishers with your take on the situation.

29 01 2011
Jonny

Much appreciated. Thanks🙂

28 01 2011
English Raven

Some good advice and perspectives here. After reading through it all (and agreeing with pretty much everything recommended in terms of attracting major publishers), it occurred to me that there are other avenues for would-be ELT writers that don’t necessarily involve dancing through the big publisher hoops. I blogged about one of these potential avenues here (not wanting to take up Scott’s blog with a lengthy set of comments!):

http://jasonrenshaw.typepad.com/jason_renshaws_web_log/2011/01/another-path-for-would-be-elt-writers.html

Cheers,

– J

29 01 2011
Jonny

Thank you English Raven.

28 01 2011
Tara Benwell

I really enjoyed this post. It was fun to read about how others made their way into the world of material writing! I apprenticed for a few years doing all of the grunt work that I didn’t want to do and am so thankful I stuck it out. The worst was the writing or updating of answer keys. I realized later that even when you get to research and write fun portions of a textbook (such as reading and listening passages), you may never see that textbook and even if you do, you certainly don’t see your name written anywhere in it. Writing exam prep materials was how I got my initial break to get the apprenticeship, and I’m always thankful I answered an ad that was posted in a freebie newspaper for a “TOEIC teacher who has writing and editing skills”.

PS-Karenne, your journey was so different, yet so interesting!

29 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Tara, for that insight into the life of a ‘grunt worker’! Writing teacher’s guides to coursebooks is very much of that order – quite dispiriting knowing that no one ever reads them!

29 01 2011
Jonny

As an academic manager, I saw some of my newest teachers reading them once. Well, maybe it was skimming and scanning.

29 01 2011
Matt

Nobody likes the idea of being an unsung hero, but on the other hand I think English Raven offers some great ideas about publishing closer to home, and on a smaller scale. Home publishing and POD are now within the reach of everyone’s pocket. As ELT continues to fragment into niche markets it gets harder for the global giants to cover all bases, and they probably won’t bother with things they don’t see as globally profitable. So there are opportunities out there, as long as your writing is brilliant!

And after all, who wants to become a pawn of the neoliberal conspiracy, where all is commodified and globalised under the big brands – a bucket of golden grammar Macmillans, a giant CUP of latte froth to go, and a tankful of Longmans Unleaded to keep you on the right road.

29 01 2011
Marcos Benevides

Looks like I’m rather late to the party! Hopefully there’s still room for one more perspective. I just wanted to say that I’m in particular agreement with Jeremy’s point about passion; specifically, what he wrote about writing a book because one has to, because there are no other books that fit into one’s teaching situation. That’s how I got started.

What happened to me with both of my published coursebooks so far is that I was busy teaching, and perennially frustrated with materials that didn’t work in my situations–so I wrote ones that I thought were better. It was that simple. In both cases I worked with a teacher-colleague who became a co-author only much, much later. And in both cases we completed the whole course before we even approached a publisher. We never paid much attention to what publishers were or weren’t looking for (well, not until the proposal stage anyway). And we definitely did NOT start out by thinking, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great to be a textbook writer?” or “Extensive Reading is hot right now, let’s do a book on that, I bet it’d sell!” We just did what we needed to do, and let the rest sort itself out later.

So while I think Scott’s and others’ advice on how to break into the industry is certainly very sound, I do also think there is some room for alternative approaches. It IS possible to get your “masterpiece” published–though to be honest, that has its drawbacks too. For instance, it can also be terribly frustrating to survive the ravages of the marketing department unscathed, to then languish in the “Other” section of the catalogue…

29 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Never too late, Marcos! Especially for a voice like yours, associated with several highly respected and original writing projects (and prize-winning ones to boot!). I can’t help thinking, though, that you are the exception that proves the rule. I can count on the fingers of one hand the published courses that have truly broken the mould in the last 10 or 20 years. Prove me wrong!

29 01 2011
Luiz Otávio

I am a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim’s work and back in the 80s he wrote a musical about the practical constraints of making truly innovative art. One of the songs was about BALANCE: your vision and others’, creativity and tradition, money and feeling. So, in a way, this is the sort of mindset that I hope will keep me sane and focused throughout this new project I’ve just embarked on.

Once I read something about lesson observation, feedback and innovation in ELT that made a lot of sense: If you can’t change the method, change around the method – can’t remember who wrote it, though. (Maybe H.D.Brown?)

Over the years, this person’s advice has helped me in a number of ways (giving feedback to highly resistant CELTA and DOTE candidates comes to mind immediately!) and I intend to take it on board during the writing process, too.

Quick example: there’s a very successful series published by one of the big four that only includes gap-fill exercises made up of “personalizable” sentences, which students can respond to at the end (i.e., say whether each sentence is true for them etc.) This is a minor change (it’s not like the authors were able to get rid of gap-filling or anything, tried as they might have), of course, but one that has been copied by lots of other coursebooks since then.

Plus, I have used these books in class and these quasi-semi-pseudo-transfers actually do work well in practice.

My point, I think, is that small, easily digestible changes can sometimes have a bigger impact than we give them credit for. For example, the authors’ decision to stick to personalizable gap-fill has also impacted their choice of language and, partly because of that, this particular series is almost devoid of unnatural and contrived sentences.

29 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that thoughtful and measured comment, Luiz — your example of the personalizable gap-fill makes the very good point that, yes, small changes can have relatively big impacts. I remember another series that introduced, quite unobtrusively, short unscripted monologues into their range of listening tasks — this was in the late 1980s I guess – which prompted many of us teachers to do the same, i.e. make our own unscripted listening texts, simply be recording our colleagues. Likewise, the introduction of translation tasks, even if of only a few isolated sentences, shook the foundations of what was then a purely monolingual methodology.

Nevertheless, the iron grip of the grammar syllabus seems to be resistant to most of these innovations. (I write this with one eye cocked on the BBC’s live news feed from Egypt, where major political change seems to be imminent but only because the people have arisen en masse. Will it need a similar mass rebellion to topple the grammar syllabus!?)

29 01 2011
David

I’m really, really surprised that there is no mention or even thought of self- publishing? Is this a case of the fish not being able to notice the water?

Self publishing is not that difficult. You also don’t have to sell too much to make an income (when considered over the long term / against the pittance of the royalties publishers give). Yes, the marketing is difficult but if it is a good book – I still believe nowadays with social media, crowdsourcing etc… it can be done. Further, I don’t think it should be a given either that you have to “pay your dues”, “work your way up” and all the other conventional b.s. A book is a book and they can be wonderfully produced by inexperienced but perceptive teachers/individuals. They can be horribly produced by experienced professionals.

I’m done with producing book upon book (for inhouse use) and getting hardly anything from it / for it. And also having to produce course book material that is tired, ineffective and only what is “expected”. I could almost write that kind of course book in my sleep. (And to me, the major problem with a course book is that they have no willingness to be adaptable / flexible for classroom use. They overwhelm the whole teaching/learning dynamic).

I echo Jeremy’s and Marcos’ comments about passion and “need”. I say , “Just Do It” , “gavte la nata” , take the cork out and create. We desperately need that innovation in the TESOL community.

My course book Teach – Learn comes out next week. Just bantering back and forth with the designer in Argentina. I am putting my mind where my mouth is… I welcome anyone to review it or critique the student created content premise on which it is built.

Again – let’s stop feeding the big fish and start self publishing. I wonder what would have happened if in 1991 if you had had the possibility to publish what you wanted and the ability to reach people, that exists today?

David

30 01 2011
Delpha

David,
Great post! Self-publishing is exactly what’s on my mind recently. In the state that I live in small independent businesses are driving the economy, and most of them are responding to some very obvious trends in the world. The first trend is the decline of regularly distributed print media (have you noticed how small your daily newspaper is becoming, or how flimsy and cheap the pages of the TIME magazine have become?) and the second is an increase in internet-driven, on demand technologies. Nowadays, many specialist publications like photo journals and other artsy rags are being printed on demand by companies like Lulu.com. This eliminates a lot of up front costs and overhead. Now, how to get the word out about your stuff? Of course, it’s the internets! Check out esl-library.com for an example of how ‘small’ self-publishers could potentially disseminate their materials. I like how well this website is set up – it’s slick and easy to use, and it looks more professional than a lot of other sites that are offering similar downloadable materials.

2 02 2011
Jonny

Thanks guys.

Well, here’s where I am for now regarding my multi-layered syllabus (should anyone care to critique it, make suggestions, etc):

An overarching lexical approach with an underlying structural syllabus to satisfy key publishers (although am most definitely considering self-publishing as an option). The most important lexis introduced early on and recycled throughout the book. At first a heavy emphasis on listening, in line with Lewis’ and Krashen’s suggestions (lexical approach; natural approach). I have developed some of my procedures for applying the lexical approach (something Jeremy Harmer once said was lacking). Also, basically task-based in the way Cutting Edge does it (if not as per Willis and Willis). A lot of consciousness raising activities, promotion of ‘noticing’, techniques for memorising vocabulary, etc. A mix of PPP and the observe-hypothesise-experiment paradigms.

This is just a work in progress. Suggestions welcomed.

3 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Sounds good, Jonny. You may have a hard time persuading the publishers (for a start, the term ‘task-based’ usually has them running screaming from the room) but Marcos Benevides managed it, so what not you?😉

2 02 2011
walton

As someone who does put lesson plans and material out for free (most of it at any rate), I’d love to hear more about sites where one can submit lessons. Karenne mentioned One Stop English and Dave’s ESL Cafe. Any other suggestions where an up and coming genius materials writer, like myself, might get noticed, or at least get some feedback good and bad about materials?

Great post by the way, always good to hear about the other niches in the ESL industry outside of the classroom.

1 02 2012
thereska:)

i still haven’t found a proper coursebook to use.. that is why i’m trying to create my own. I hope one day somebody will help me turn them into a real book.🙂

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