I’m a Guest Writer. I’ve never been called that before.

These are some of the titles I’ve gone under: teacher, assistant director of studies, director of studies, teacher trainer, school director, head of teacher training, MA student, coursebook author, conference speaker, panellist, plenary speaker, advisory council member, methodology writer, series editor, associate professor… But not Guest Writer. Until now.

How did I become a Guest Writer? Well, how did I become a writer? Not along after I finished my MA (at Reading) I was asked to write a report on a new coursebook series that Longman was bringing out.

The authors happened to have been fellow MA students, and had put my name forward. Having written the report, I was asked if I’d be interested in submitting a proposal to do the workbook for the beginners level course of the same series. The proposal was accepted and so began the laborious apprenticeship into learning to write to a formula.

I started off writing THEIR workbook as if it were MY coursebook – trying to implement all the ideas I had accumulated over years of frustration with published materials, their vanilla-flavoured texts and the unengaging tasks. I was quickly disabused of the notion that it was a) a coursebook and b) mine.. I had to write closed exercises (that could be answered using the Key) and use carefully graded texts. It was agony, but I caved in. I had a wonderful editor who spent hours talking me through it. The publishers were happy enough with the result to offer me two other workbooks in the same series.

I soon became expert at mining newspapers and magazines for suitable texts (this was pre-Internet, of course), dumbing them down without losing their flavour, and writing (what I thought were) ingenious exercises to contrast will and going to, for example. Workbook writing is an excellent training in learning to write to someone else’s formula (an important skill in educational writing) and learning to be innovative even under enormous constraints (how many exercises CAN you write to practise the present perfect continuous, for example?) The discipline involved in writing workbooks meant that I was well prepared for taking over the writing of two new levels of an existing coursebook series, when the original writer was already committed to another project. I was still writing to someone else’s formula, but I had more freedom to design the syllabus, for example, and choose the topics. Co-writing a secondary course for yet another publisher also taught me valuable skills – the necessity for compromise, again, but also the value of having someone else to bounce ideas around with.

 What lessons can be learned from this experience and what advice would I give to someone who wants to get into writing? Let publishers know that you are interested in writing and that you are prepared to do some of the spadework involved in coursebook production, e.g. trialling material and writing reports, reviewing material, writing supplementary resources, such as test packs, website content, teachers’ notes, and workbooks. Be prepared to stick to their formula, but at the same time, try to be original. And, above all, stick to deadlines! If you don’t, you’ll never be asked back, however good your material is.

Scott Thornbury