At its basic core, ELT materials writing for digital components (e.g. interactive CD-ROMs, LMS, Moodle) isn’t hugely difference from writing for any other form (e.g. paper-based course books); the principles of good materials writing remain the same. However, there are few points that are worth listing as ‘emerging’. The following list is based on some of my own experiences of writing for digital plus those of the speakers and participants at the MAWSIG Pre-conference event at IATEFL Harrogate 2014.
Writing into a template/software-first approach
At present, writing for digital often means writing into a fixed template with a set range of activity types such as drag and drop, matching two halves of a sentence, multiple choice, gap fill and so on. A writer has to work with the template provided and learn how to use it very quickly. The more templates you work with, the easier it becomes. From a personal point of view, I first began writing digital content by creating my own teacher training courses with Moodle; this experience made it much easier for me to quickly understand the workings of a ready-made template.
Awareness of coding
At a minimum, some basic knowledge of how to use HTML and the ability to code will add valuable bullet points to your CV. The writer who can add digital content or even fix a glitch will have a competitive advantage to those without. Writers with no abilities in this area could begin by visiting sites like code.org to gain a basic overview in how coding works and to try out some coding.
Writing for audio and video
Online digital content means an even greater demand for audio and video materials. So it isn’t a new skill or requirement for the writer but it is clearly one which is going to grow and require the writer to create more imaginative scripts that make full use of the medium. It may even go beyond simply writing the scripts; after all, software like Audacity allows materials writers to produce their own audio as well as script it for actors to record. Similarly, the relative cheapness of video production (either in a studio or something simpler like a video app on a tablet) and then the ease of delivering video content to the learner means this is a growth area for the materials writer who can also create and produce video content.
Ability to work with ‘agile’ publishing
In traditional book publishing there are three distinct stages: planning, writing and publishing. Writing digital content, on the other hand, allows a publisher to create new content very quickly and to rewrite and update as and when it’s needed. This type of publishing is ‘agile’ and demands a great deal of speed and flexibility on the part of the writer. In real terms, I can imagine that digital writers will be asked to make instant changes, to accept substantial changes to the brief while writing, and to update or revise their work on a regular basis.
Understanding and awareness of other digital products used in ELT
The digital writer will need to develop the kind of understanding and awareness of digital software that they perhaps once had with the many kinds of course materials available on the market. By this I mean that in the past you might have started work on an intermediate course book with a thorough knowledge of the other kinds of books and competing products on the market at that level. Now, you will also need to know what other kinds of digital products and software are available on the market with which you might be competing.
Understanding and awareness of how digital is being used by teachers and learners
Of course, writers have always needed to keep up-to-date with how methodologies and approaches may (or may not) be evolving but the speed of change in digital teaching and learning requires an even greater devotion of time and energy to building understanding alongside your day-to-day writing commitments. It’s a skill which requires ELT writers to know what’s going on inside the classroom with all things digital and it means much more than just maintaining a healthy PLN. You need to set aside time to go back into the classroom and teach with digital, and – possibly even more useful – observe other teachers using digital with their students in order to understand the real needs of the end users.
Ability to work in a team
Most ELT course books are developed in teams of authors nowadays; there are few that are the work of only one writer. So we’re familiar with co-writing which may involve drafting one unit together, giving each other feedback and suggesting sources and content – even tolerating another author rewriting parts of your work. With digital writing there will be little room for a writer who preciously guards every aspect of their work. They will need to be open to the views of the co-authors, the editors, the designers and – most noticeably in the future – the software developers.
Ability to self-promote
The days in which a writer’s name appears on his/her published work may be over. This already may not be of concern to you since it’s of no consequence to many purchasers of a book. However, digital writing is likely to do away with the need to associate an author with a work. Unless the author’s name helps to support some kind of branding effort to the level (e.g. the association of a name like ‘Murphy’ with a blue grammar book) then the writer becomes anonymous to the presentation of the end-product. This means that a writer will need to network and self-promote even more actively in order for potential employer-publishers to become aware of their work.
Ability to negotiate contracts
As an increasing amount of digital writing work is fee-based, authors need to negotiate more aspects of a contract than in the past; for example, you might want to define how many draft stages are expected and what happens if the brief or software changes halfway through. If the idea of negotiating a contract fills you with dread, perhaps it’s worth remembering that the practice of asking for a reasonable change or requesting greater clarity in a contract is perfectly acceptable with most publishers. It’s always better for both sides to raise such issues at the beginning of a project than halfway through.
© John Hughes 2015
John Hughes is the author and co-author of many course books and digital course components. A version of this article first appeared on John’s blog www.elteachertrainer.com