Materials Writing: Samples

Question from a reader: Can you give me some advice on how to write a sample?

Ummm…

The free ‘No Nonsense Guide to Writing’ from ELT Writers Connected includes a good overview on this topic (see page 27, written by Damian Williams). That covers the basics tbh – it’s well worth a read.

 I’m not sure what more I can add really, apart from just what works / has worked for me.

Track record

I’ve been lucky. Most of my samples have been accepted and have led to writing contracts. I’ve had a couple of rejections, both of which were for internal writing contracts while I was at the British Council. I remember not making the cut as a writer for Premier Skills English on a couple of occasions, which hurt at the time as in my head it was my ideal writing gig (football and ELT? Come on!). But since then I’ve written a few published resources that were football-related, so that’s made up for the disappointment.

Other than that, my samples have gone down okay. Well, maybe it was the samples, maybe it was the accompanying emails in which I begged the publishers to give me a chance. One of the two.

What’s the secret formula?

There isn’t one! Sure, close attention to the brief will certainly help, clarity, clean copy, clear lesson flow, etc. See Damian’s tips, they’re all useful. It can be quite a subjective process though. One editor’s ‘lovely, creative task!’ is another one’s ‘this is a bit esoteric…’.

Besides, every project is different.

  • I’ve written samples for exams titles when the commissioning editor has been ‘stick to the brief – STICK. TO. THE. BRIEF. OK?’
  • I’ve written samples for digital resources where it’s like ‘do it how you want, we’ll work out the functionality’.
  • I’ve written samples where is been ‘it’s for a task-supported syllabus, give us your take on it’, and for teacher guides where it’s been ‘you’re addressing early-career teachers fresh off a CELTA’.
  • I’ve written ones for BIG projects when they’ve been ‘write us a text with activities. We will come back to you with suggestions. You make the edits…’

Some of what I’ve listed there shows the process might be interpretative, hence there’s no magic formula. I’ll tell you why I like that last one the best in a minute.

How do I approach samples?

Sure, sure. Sometimes the process is just a case of ‘can you deliver what we ask you to?’. But in my experience, writing a sample can be as much a showcase of ‘overall you’ as it is your writing. It can be a chance not only to show what you can offer writing-wise, but also to show… (*depending on context*)

  • how you think (as a writer AND as a teacher)
  • how well you can anticipate potential problems with your sample resources
  • how open or aware of alternative approaches you might be
  • how forthcoming you might be with ideas or workarounds
  • how you might interact with the team during a project

‘Oh no it’s not!’ I hear some commissioning editors cry! None of those that I’ve worked with, though – they’ve all warmed to more of an honest take on things.

Give me clear examples, Pete.

Okay (I do love a ramble!).

Almost all my samples include a ‘running commentary’. This mainly consists of two things:

Rationale

I rarely send a sample without a rationale. Regardless of how tight the brief is, I still explain things like:

  • the approach I’ve taken
  • the approach I might expect a teacher to adopt when using the resources
  • how I’ve tried to accommodate that, or possibly suggestions for the teacher notes  
  • How I interpreted parts of the brief, and how that shows in the resources
  • Areas in the lesson or unit I might expect to be negotiated or discussed.

I try to limit this to a front page (often just a half in bullet points – not overkill). And yes, sometimes I ramble. But the upside to this for me is that it shows my intent. If I’m putting effort into a sample then that means I’m willing to dive into a project. It’s a dynamic process, and something that starts with questions and discussions rather than clear answers. So, I engage early on. I want in, I have ideas.

If you choose to do this, then I’d say be honest! Don’t write a rationale just to be full of yourself and suggest you know a lot. Write one that says ‘look, this is how I’ve interpreted what you want, it could be right, it could be off, but here’s my thinking to help guide you as the reader. And this is a working document – I’m open to feedback’.

When I said ‘full of yourself’ – sometimes there’s a fine line between being arrogant and just being an ELT geek. I always re-read my rationales as sometimes I’m in full geek-out mode when writing, only to realise that I sound like a bit of a **** at times. But I’m passionate!

Comments

They’ll always be stages in any sample when you’re like ‘arrgh, this needs something’. It might be a question for the editor (e.g. how they feel about the fit of the activity, the wording, etc). It might be an alternative approach. It might be an anticipated problem. It might be a reference back to your rationale. It might be a note for yourself about your thinking for an activity – something to come back to IF the sample is successful.

My advice is: just add it. At worst (at worse? No, at worst… hmmm), it’s clutter. But on Word you hardly see the little comment bits unless you click anyway. At best, well, you’re pretty much showing an editor what you’re like to work with. You are capable of critiquing your own work, you have other ideas, and you want their input as it’s a collaborative process.

Back to that last point

When I said

  • I’ve written ones for BIG projects when they’ve been ‘write us a text with activities. We will come back to you with suggestions. You make the edits…’

You can probably see why that’s the best sample I’ve written. It totally aligns with my preferred approach. I knew it wasn’t a one off ‘test’, it was going to be a collaboration/negotiation/etc… It was like a materials writing simulation, and that’s how I treat samples.

So anyway… I’m sorry to the person who asked this, as the main advice was in the first paragraph. Read what Damian Williams has to say. My bit? Well, it’s something to consider. That’s how I do things, and it’s been relatively successful. But then again, someone might have just liked the activities in the sample and thought ‘blimey, this guy goes on a bit, but his materials are alright’.

Other writers – what works for you?

Image by Shahid Abdullah from Pixabay 

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