Emerging skills for ELT digital writers

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


Image by Kaptain Kobold via Compfight cc . Text added by ELTjam.

5 thoughts on “Emerging skills for ELT digital writers”

  1. I have to wonder just how ‘agile’ publishing works from the perspective of the freelance writer who needs to plan their schedule to keep a managable flow of work (and income!). From where I stand, so far ‘agile’ (be it in digital or more traditional publishing) seems to mean ‘messy’, ‘disorganised’ and ‘uncertain’. I’m happy to be flexible, but if the goalposts are constantly moving with changes and delays, it becomes difficult to manage in practical terms. Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly being messed about with schedules, which leaves me in a tricky juggling act either twiddling my thumbs and losing income (see my recent blog post: http://www.lexicoblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/the-long-wait.html ), potentially turning down work that it later turns out I could have done or suddenly snowed under when all those delayed projects kick in at the same time. Will contract negotiations need to involve payments for time lost due to delays? Do we need to be asking for contracts and schedules earlier in the process?

    • Hi Julie,

      Thanks for your comment and you make an excellent point. Freelancers do certainly end up bearing the brunt of projects that are unpredictable and prone to slippages for the reasons you mention. I would suggest that these are symptoms of a badly organised project, however, rather than one adopting the agile approach. A project run on agile principles would be demonstrating (among other attributes) regular, incremental release of content and iteration, the completion of set stages before proceeding on to the next and fixed time frames (although requirements may be subject to change and revisited regularly). A publishing project taking this kind of approach *should* have a schedule that is quite rigid but there will need to be a continual reassessment of what’s being worked on at each stage.

      Your question about contract negotiations is an excellent one and I’m sure there will be changes to how such documents are structured and called into action when necessary.

    • Hi Julie. Thanks for commenting. With regard to this word ‘agile’ – as far as being a freelance ELT writer I think it’s always been a required skill (and not emerging) because being ‘freelance’ (in any field) means you have to be agile to make a living; after all we do our own marketing, sales, accounts etc etc so being agile goes with the territory. I think you’re right about schedules changing and greater uncertainty. Projects can get delayed (and even brought forward) with little or no notice so we probably need to say ‘yes’ more often on the assumption that at least one project may falter. Of course, if they all come at once, then somehow the work gets done – again, I think that’s the choice we make by going ‘freelance’ With regard to your point about contracts, actually my impression is that clients/publishers are issuing them earlier to reflect the changing processes. Wonder what other people feel?

  2. John, you raise a number of interesting points in your article, and give a useful list of skills that digital writers may need to develop. I’d just add a few comments …

    1) You say, “At its basic core, ELT materials writing for digital components […] isn’t hugely different from writing for any other format”.

    Sadly, this may often be the case, and is perhaps why many digital ELT materials end up as little more than ‘old wine in new skins’ – the same content as always, but served up with flashy bells and whistles.

    2) I think ‘agile publishing’ can be positive when it means an agile response to user feedback or problems, without the need to pulp stock or print revised editions. However, the word ‘agility’ may also be a euphemism for ‘pumping stuff out ASAP and then dealing with the glitches later because nothing is actually printed’.

    3) It’s useful for writers to know what digital products are in use, and how teachers and learners are using them. However, fee-earning writers have little opportunity or freedom to apply that knowledge (or motivation to do so, if the fee is low). When most fee-earning writers appear on the scene, the template has been set, and suggestions for changes may not be feasible/welcome, given the schedules. You might even shoot yourself in the foot if your suggestions are actually accepted, but then require additional meetings, rebriefings, and rescheduling. Been there. Done that. Not fun. At all.

    4) You say, “With digital writing, there will be little room for a writer who preciously guards every aspect of their work”.

    Really, this is just as true for paper-based publishing. There’s never much room for divas or divos, unless their surname is a guarantee of sales and/or bums-on-seats at conventions. For the rest of us mortals, offers of work will more likely depend on the reputation that we’ve earned behind the scenes, among editors, project managers, and co-writers. And as you suggest, a lot of that reputation will ride on your ability to ‘play nicely with others’, as well as getting the job done properly and on time.

    • Thanks for the above. In reply…
      1. My real meaning for the first point about things being similar for the writer whether digital or paper-based was more linked to the idea that at its core ELT writers need to write materials with flow, content and level. (See my post for OUP on this at http://oupeltglobalblog.com/2014/11/03/how-to-write-your-own-efl-materials-part-one-writing-for-different-levels/) For me, these three things apply regardless of the form, be it paper or screen.
      2. I like your positive view of ‘agile’ – responding to feedback and problems can really galvanise a project.
      3. Yes, sometimes you might be writing into a template or writing to order but there’s always something a writer can bring to project in terms of creativity. And if you can’t use a great idea on one project, save it for the next.
      4 Not much to add here and I think this is true in any job and especially for freelancers. It’s just a question of being professional in your approach.


Leave a comment