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5 things I learned writing my first book

This time last year I was beginning to work on my first ever ELT publication: a grammar resource book for Polish high school students (high school leaving exam aka Matura). Here are 5 things I learned from that (long and often painful!) process. Keep reading if you are interested in ELT materials writing.

Back in August 2018 things were really looking up for me. I got approached by Polonsky publishing house to collaborate on the newest resource book in their growing series for Polish high schools. The job seemed perfectly suited to my interest in exam teaching and grammar and, although it was not the most creative assignment, it offered just enough leeway to experiment.

The book I was invited to write focused on one Matura task only: sentence building. Students are supposed to complete each sentence using the words in brackets in their correct form. They mustn’t change the order of the words given but they might have to add extra words if necessary. They mustn’t use more than 5 words to complete each sentence.

Example: Esther was upset about her daughter’s behaviour and said she (not / go / help) ________ her that time.

Answer: Esther was upset about her daughter’s behaviour and said she was not going to help her that time

The example above comes from the chapter focusing on reporting statements.

The idea for the book was that it would allow students to practice the same exam strategy across various grammar points leaving a couple of chapters devoted to phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions. We had agreed on the table of contents before I left for my summer job in England and I wrote a couple of sample chapters before the summer break. So, all there was left for me to do came August was to sit down and write … 58 more chapters before the end of September! Easy peasy, right?

The material I wrote went through two rounds of corrections and a lot of behind the scenes editing voodoo that probably deserves a separate post. It was all done by the end of 2018 so I was able to finish the year with a sense of satisfaction and a bunch of reflections about what had just happened. Below are 5 most important things I learned about the writing process while working on my first book.

#1 It is important to find your process

The P-word often appeared when I read business articles with my students but I never really paid much attention to how it might play into my own work. Having a trusted process of writing all the remaining chapters turned out to be essential in order to preserve my sanity. I realised I needed to come up with one quite quickly and the final outcome actually surprised me.

Even though I consider myself more of a digital person now (I do 90% of my work online!) it turned out I worked best when I planned each chapter by hand in an A4 notebook. Depending on the type of grammar structure I first made a list of its different variations I had to include (e.g. making sure to include all the past modal verbs a Polish high schooler is expected to know in the chapter about past modal verbs) I also made lists of phrasal verbs or collocations that I wanted to include in each chapter in order to make the sentences more or less challenging for the students. I did all of that by hand and only when I had a complete list of 22 sentences I typed it up. This step served as an extra layer of proofreading on my part before I sent the files to my editor. 

I also found it incredibly helpful to draw a progress chart and cross the chapter off the list as I sent them off. This turned out to be one of the more satisfying things I ever did in my professional life! I worked best in the late afternoon and Hans Zimmer’s movie scores were the best for my concentration. Even though I have always understood the main function of the laptop quite literally, I soon discovered I just couldn’t get down to serious business unless I was sitting at my desk. Also, no snacks or beverages allowed in the working space. All of these elements fell into place by the end of the first week and my writing process turned out to be completely different from what I remembered to be my studying process back at uni (snacking on the floor was the name of the game back then) which was quite an interesting personal discovery.

#2 It is important to be consistent 

This is definitely not something I discovered for myself but rather was made painfully aware of by my editor, Roman Ociepa

I consider my enthusiasm, energy and somewhat boisterous demeanor strengths in my teaching life. All of that turned out to be a tad problematic in my writing life, though. I was so full of energy all the time, determined to get through my pages, thinking about the next chapter before I was even done with the current one that I paid very little attention to consistency in my writing. Let’s face it, I was quite often sloppy about the details.

Being correct – absolutely! Remembering not to mix American and British English expressions (as per my editor’s request) – not so much. The material I submitted was also a nightmare to edit as far as spacing and numerals went (did you know you are NOT supposed to start a sentence with a number?)

You might think that paying attention to such detail is not necessarily the job of the author and it is precisely where an editor comes in. As much as it might be true, I still believe that improving one’s writing skills always boils down to such details. Once I got the hang of it, I felt greater control and ownership over what I was doing. It also influenced the number of necessary corrections and sped up the process of completing the book. Everybody won!

#3 It is important not to repeat yourself

The resource book I wrote was not supposed to tell a story, there were no recurring characters or themes. Its aim was to expose the students to as many varied and different sentences as possible in order for them to practice using all the prescribed grammar structures. Still, when you don’t have all the time in the world to plan and execute, you discover you actually are writing a book containing a story and populated with recurring characters and themes. And this is NOT good for this particular kind of publication.

I wrote over 1200 sentences in English in a bit over a month so I guess it is safe to say my system got a bit overloaded. Each round of corrections revealed a couple of slips: the names of people in the sentences kept repeating (for some reason, “Josh” was at the centre of a lot of what I wrote!), some expressions kept cropping up on every second page (everybody was suddenly “in charge” in my chapters) and the theme of school was just played out. 

The simple remedy for the names predicament turned out to be thinking of any given film or TV series and googling the names of cast and crew. Rereading the sentences a couple of times helped fish out repetitive vocabulary or settings (oh, the chemistry lab!). Still, I was often not able to notice all of that until it was pointed out to me during the correction phase. If I were to do it all again, I would add an extra step to my chapter planning: have 6-8 different settings/contexts for each chapter plus a bank of names and roll with it.

#4 It is important to choose your battles

I am glad to say that my working relationship with my editor was amicable and supportive. We communicated chiefly by email, which as we all know is fertile ground for various forms of miscommunication but we managed to avoid passive-aggressive exchanges and writing in all caps. Still, as much as I accepted 90% of the corrections with a “thank you”, there were a couple of instances when I felt very protective of what I had written or even irritated it didn’t with approval.

If there is one piece of advice I would give to any aspiring ELT writer it would this: once you decided to work with a certain publisher, trust your editor and believe they have the best interest of the book (and you as the author) at heart. Don’t take criticism personally, be open to rewriting your work and don’t get too precious with your own words. The writing part is not a test, you already got the job so there is no need to prove anything to anybody. If you feel particularly strongly about something, be honest about it and see whether you can compromise. Fighting over every detail is not worth your time and energy not to mention endangering the professional relationship you have established.

#5 Double, triple, quadruple check!

I won’t lie, proofreading my own work was my least favourite part of this whole process. The precision which helps me check my students’ work quite well suddenly disappeared and I was sometimes unable to catch a simple typo in some basic words.

Not pressing the Send button immediately is definitely a rule of thumb worth following here, as is taking a look at your work with a pair of fresh eyes. Sometimes it helps to print out the pages in question as opposed to reading from the screen, sometimes it helps to ask a friend to spare a couple of minutes. It is strongly advisable here not to burden your editor with files full of silly mistakes as is to understand that it is also our job as authors not to put out an inferior product out there. Every time I felt bored and discouraged reading the same passages over and over, I tried reminding myself of every time I got irritated during a lesson when I noticed a mistake in the material I worked with. It served as a wake-up call and helped me stay focused.

Still, some mistakes are just going to remain undetected and it will be up to an observant reader to catch them and inform you in a (hopefully kind!) email. 

I hope my experience can help some of the aspiring writers reading this post. Let me know if there are any more questions you have about working on your first ELT publication.

 

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