11 July 2012

Confessions of a coursebook-writing rookie

I’ve not been posting much recently. Partly this is because I’m preparing to leave my job in Borneo and all kinds of stuff has been happening in my personal life, but partly it’s because all my free time has been sucked up writing an EFL* textbook. It’s the first book I’ve written, the learning curve is steep and I’ve allowed myself to back-burner almost everything else…but this morning I thought, well, isn’t this exactly the sort of thing I should take time out to reflect on, and blog about? So here I am.

Power On Level 2. I'm writing Level 3.
First to say a little about the book I’m writing: it’s called Power On and it’s for upper-intermediate/advanced university students in Asia (the publisher is based in Taiwan). It focuses on reading skills, so each unit of 36 includes:

Lead-in exercises
A 350-word reading passage
Exercises on a dedicated reading skill
Exercises on a dedicated grammar point
Reading comprehension questions
Target vocabulary exercises
Critical thinking questions

This tightly prescribed format has proved to be both a blessing and a curse: on one hand, each chapter has been easier to write than the last, since I am merely slotting information into holes rather than evaluating different pedagogical approaches; on the other, I’m feeling increasingly ambivalent about having my name on the cover of a book which looks so unlike something I would have designed under my own steam. But we all have to begin somewhere, and the prospect of having my name on the front of a book is still rather thrilling (may the ELT gods strike me down for my vanity).

Aaaanyway. Here are a few rambling reflections on the past few months of writing.

My 10 year-old self knew best
When I was a kid, I wrote and wrote and wrote. My teachers told me I was good at it, and I had faith in my own abilities. I wanted to be an author or a journalist (I also wanted to be a detective, briefly, and spent a number of Saturdays experimentally dusting the neighbours’ fences for fingerprints and running errands for my mother ‘in disguise’, but it’s easier to gloss over that for the purposes of this post). But something happened during adolescence that even now I can’t explain – I left school not knowing what I wanted to do. Where did the writing dream go? Did I start to understand how competitive a field it was, and how much I was opening myself up to the possibility of failure? Had I just gotten distracted by too many teenagery things? I drifted in and out of jobs and courses until I found teaching which, don’t get me wrong, I still love. But having started purposeful writing again I realise how much I also love that process, and how much I wish the confidence of my younger self had managed to smother my later neuroses.

You become what you say you are
When I joined Twitter I wrote on my profile that I was a ‘teacher / trainer / freelance writer’. A somewhat surprised friend asked me what I was writing, and I was forced to admit that I was only actually um applying for things and it was all a bit presumptuous; a month later, I had the Power On contract in my hand. A month after that a restaurant owner friend asked me to write the copy for her recipe book, and a few months after that, a local photographer asked me to write copy for his website. Believing I had the right to call myself a writer has made other people believe in me too. What other areas of my life can I apply this to…?

Interesting work doesn’t feel like work
...and the sun rises in the east, giraffes are quite tall, etc. We all know that tailoring classes to students’ interests (within reason) is likely to produce better results. You wouldn’t force a class of young adults to read about, oh I don’t know, insurance policies, would you? Ahem. The last Power On unit I wrote was on the topic of insurance – not my decision, needless to say – and I may be way off the mark here, projecting my own preferences onto a class of financial-services-obsessed undergraduates, but I just can’t see it capturing the imagination. Writing it was an interminable struggle (although I became quite disturbed by how easy it was to vomit such gems as ‘Home is where happy memories are made. Safeguard yours by investing in our ever-popular building and contents policy. Exemptions may apply’) so I can’t imagine how dull it will be for the students upon whom the chapter is eventually foisted. Conversely, for the previous unit, I did a personal interview with a teacher here in Borneo. It wrote itself.

There are 36 separate reading skills?!
Reading skills – that’s skimming and scanning, right? Wrong. It’s been educational.

Am I contributing to a faulty system?
This sounds ridiculous, but I’m not sure whether I’m writing a class book or a self-study book. The introductory exercises are supposed to include ‘work with a partner’ type activities, and yet the grammar page must be written as explanation >  example > instructions > exercise, with no open-ended questions like, ‘Can you see a pattern in the phrases below?’ that could be discussed in lessons. I can only surmise that the books will be used in classes where the teacher doesn’t speak much English, and sees their primary role as reading out a handful of answers every 20 minutes and assigning any uncompleted exercises as homework. Not a cheering thought. Is it unethical of me to write this kind of book without challenging its structure?

Does the contemporary ELT world even need any more coursebooks?
Just a thought.

Corpora have got a whole lot better since 2006
The last time I used a corpus in any real sense was six years ago, as part of a degree module. We received a trimmed-down version of the BNC (British National Corpus) on CD-ROM and in terms of usability it was roughly akin to BBC BASIC (10 PRINT “LOOK AROUND YOU” / 20 GOTO 1O etc). How things can move on without you even noticing! A quick Google search now yields a plethora of user-friendly corpora, which have been invaluable in creating vaguely authentic sentences to test target vocabulary. I know I’ll be using them much more often when I return to classroom teaching this September. (By the way, you should totally watch this 10-minute Look Around You video. Edtech at its zenith.)

I have more free time than I think
I’m managing to write a coursebook at the same time as working, and I’ve managed to write this post in two hours today at the same time as writing a coursebook. I need to sharpen my time management skills J

If you have any experience of coursebook writing and would like to chuck any advice in the direction of this rookie it’d be gratefully received below.

* Or is it? Check out Michael Griffin’s blog post on EFL vs ESL vs ESOL vs TESOL vs ELT here.


  1. I really enjoyed reading you post..as an ELT (or whatever acronym!) writer, it's fascinating to get some insight in another writer's process.
    I think I've been lucky in that I haven't been given quite such strict guidelines or topics as you seem to have been. I say lucky because I completely agree with you that when you can engage with what you're writing it just flows and is completely absorbing. When you can't (generally progress tests for me!), it is much more like wading through treacle.
    I don't think it's unethical to write something which you aren't comfortable with (as no doubt it's exactly what someone somewhere really wants), but I do think it isn't much fun.
    Having said that, constraints, as long as you're OK with them, can be quite pleasantly challenging (going a bit Shades of Grey here?!). I'm currently writing a digital product (no names, no details!) which aims to develop the microskills needs for a well known English language exam. It's quite tough to develop skills (rather than test them) using only tools like drag and drop and multiple choice. But I'm kind of enjoying the challenge.

  2. Thanks so much for reading / commenting / reassuring! Grateful :)

  3. Great post - it really rang a few bells! I've spent a lot my EFL writing career doing lots of rather proscribed activity-writing type jobs - some of which I quite specifically asked NOT to have my name on! I think it's great training and also means that when you get onto a project where you've got a bit more freedom (if you decide to carry on down that route), you'll have lots of basics in place which your editor/publisher will love and will make the whole thing much easier.

    I'm actually just writing my first proper, full-on - here's-a-load-of-blank-pages-fill-them - textbook too and I'm itching to blog about the experience, but will have to wait until it's finished for reasons of confidentiality. (Oh know, have I said too much already?!)

    I really hope the book does well (are you getting royalties or was it for a fee?) and you carry on writing :)