The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, November 17, 2017

Creative Control and the ELT Writer

So as an ELT writer, I come up with an idea for a coursebook, submit a proposal to a publisher, then I have full creative control over everything from the approach and the syllabus, to the page format and design. Right?

Well, in 18 years as a full-time writer, I’ve never submitted a proposal for a book (publishers have always come to me) and I’ve only co-authored one coursebook. Most of my writing involves supplementary and often self-study materials or it’s a contribution to a larger project. Given that context, the degree of creative control I have over the material I write varies enormously and I certainly never get a completely free hand.

A number of recent blog posts have got me thinking about exactly how much creative control I have and how I feel about it.

Publisher-led projects
Verity Cole wrote a couple of really interesting posts about the rise of publisher-led projects, which one editor quoted in her post defined as those “conceived and created primarily by a publisher in response to a specific market opportunity”. This is particularly true, I think, of the large, multi-level General English coursebook series where a publisher is investing a lot of money and, increasingly, is demanding more control over the writing to ensure the product ticks all the market-driven boxes and, hopefully, sells. When writers are brought on board, they are generally given an incredibly detailed brief explaining exactly what they have to write and how. Sometimes to the point where it can become very much a case of ‘writing by numbers’. 

It can be a creative challenge in its own right trying to come up with material you feel happy with but still sticking within a rigid brief. But it can also be very frustrating and de-motivating, especially when you end up feeling that you’re being asked to go against the principles you believe in. Which brings me onto …

Sticking to your principles:
Katherine Bilsborough has written a number of blog posts about the principles that we, as ELT writers, hold to when we’re writing (see here and here). It’s something I’ve mulled over quite a bit and, sorry Kath, I haven’t quite managed to formulate my own principles into a post of their own yet (but watch this space …). There’s no doubt though that there are principles I consciously try to stick to when I’m writing, some of which I’m prepared to compromise slightly if pushed and others which are clear red lines that I won’t cross. Some of these principles come from experience as a teacher, teacher trainer and writer, some, especially in my specialist area of vocabulary, come from my understanding of the research (see Penny Ur’s MaWSIG blog post for my comment on the limitations of that research foundation). This makes working on many publisher-led projects something of a professional tug-of-war. If you agree to a job, you inevitably have to accept a degree of compromise and you have to pick your battles carefully. 

Recent experience:
I have worked on some of those big coursebook series, but largely, on workbooks. And as the kind of material in workbooks is, by its nature, already very limited, it generally raises fewer issues of principle than  producing the main students book material might involve. Working on smaller, more niche titles, I find, may be less high profile (and possibly less lucrative), but can bring a bit more freedom. Take two projects I worked on that were published at the start of this year.

The first consisted of two academic vocabulary practice books designed primarily for self study (Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice, OUP). I was lucky enough to have a lot of input into the initial development, producing sample units that were reviewed and discussed and fiddled with until we were happy with them. And by we, I mean primarily myself and my in-house editor and later on, a co-author, not a huge, unwieldy team. That’s not to say I had complete control. I was asked to cover as much as possible of the Academic Word List, largely for marketing purposes. I have a number of reservations about the AWL, but I didn’t have to stick to it slavishly and there was still plenty of scope for including the vocabulary I felt was most useful and important. Then, there were some technical constraints on the types of activities I could use because they had to work in a potential ebook version as well as in print, but nothing that I couldn’t get around with a bit of creative thinking.

The second project was a book of photocopiable vocabulary-focused lessons for IELTS prep (Timesaver IELTS Vocabulary, Scholastic). As this was part of an existing series, it naturally came with some things already decided in terms of general format; one or two-page standalone photocopiable lessons which had to be ‘teach-off-the-page’ as they don’t come with any teacher’s notes. And as IELTS prep, it had a narrow focus dictated by the format of the exam too. Beyond that though, I was given a lot of creative control in terms of what vocabulary I chose, how I wanted to organize it and the types of activities I went for. It turned out to be fun to write and again, I had a great working relationship with a (freelance) editor who really helped shape the material in a friendly, collaborative sort of way.

This year’s writing projects have been, let’s say, more of a challenge and as I come to the end of several months of busily writing to meet tough deadlines and at the same time, being in the middle of that professional tug-of-war, I’m feeling just a bit battered and bruised. But perhaps I’ll save those battles for another post …

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