Writing for digital

Looking ahead to our upcoming MaWSIG Conference in February, this month we’re thinking digitally. Jeremy Day writes about keeping the creative flame burning when you’re constrained by the requirements of technology.

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Writing for digital … without losing the spark of creativity

by Jeremy Day

 

These days, ELT writing often involves creating materials for digital platforms – websites and apps that deliver content on computers and smartphones.  Your editor may ask you to write directly onto the platform using an authoring tool (i.e. a hidden part of the platform), or else into a set of tables in a Word, Excel or Google document, called a template, from which your content can be copy-pasted onto the platform later.

From an editorial point of view, this makes sense: your editor doesn’t want activities that would only work in a printed book or in a teacher-led classroom. Similarly, if the platform can’t cope with a particular activity type (e.g. crosswords), you’ll need to achieve your aims with the tools available, creating materials that are tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of your platform.

The problem with writing for digital

Writing directly into an authoring tool or template has one huge disadvantage: it stifles creativity. For a start, it all looks horribly complicated. You might need to identify reference codes for audio files and images, supply feedback and hints for answers, and decide on all sorts of settings for each exercise. To make matters worse, if you change your mind in the middle of writing an activity, you often need to delete the old activity and start again from scratch.

As a creative writer, you want to play around with different ideas, to see how they might work, and to change your mind frequently during the writing process. You want to move things around just to see what happens, and to write scripts and reading texts long before you know how you’re going to use them. So how can you remain creative when writing for digital?

The three-sweep system

To strike a balance between these competing demands, I use a three-sweep system, where I ‘sweep’ (i.e. work my way) through a set of exercises (say, a lesson or a complete unit) from beginning to end three times over a few days. The first sweep is the creative sweep, where I want the ideas to flow; the second sweep is the transitional sweep, where the lesson takes shape; the third sweep is the technical sweep, where I deal with all the fiddly settings and get the lesson ready for my editor.

Let’s say I’m writing a reading lesson. For the creative sweep, I’ll start by planning everything on Word (or, dare I admit it, using pen and paper). I’ll work out my aims, write (or adapt) the reading text, and sketch out my pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading exercises, based on my aims. I won’t think about the mechanics of the platform and the actual form of the exercises. I won’t worry if my text is too long or the language still needs grading. I won’t plan all my questions yet. I just want to get a general feel for the shape of the lesson: does it fit together logically; is it interesting and useful; will I achieve my aims?

When I’m happy with my creative sweep, I come back to the beginning of the lesson for my transitional sweep, still using Word. Here, I work out how to squeeze my lesson into the templates, how to make best use of the functionalities available and how to overcome the platform’s limitations. I’ll split up exercises that feel too big, and merge or cut exercises that are a bit thin. I’ll rewrite exercises that don’t work well. I’ll polish my reading text (including word counts and grading), my questions and my rubrics. Because I’m still using Word, I can move things around effortlessly, and make snap decisions to change the activity type for a given exercise. I can also use Word’s word-count and spell-checker tools – two things that are often missing from digital authoring tools. At the end of my second sweep, my lesson feels more or less complete – but there’s still work to be done.

Last is the technical sweep, which mostly involves copy-pasting my content into the templates or authoring tool. I still need to do some basic tidying and formatting, fix anything that’s broken, add anything that’s missing (e.g. answer feedback) and make sure all my settings are correct. It’s a bit tedious, but it’s got to be done.

Finally, I’m ready to show my unit to my editor. This is the first version that my editor sees, and as far as he/she is concerned, I’ve followed the brief and written ‘directly onto the platform’.

Why three sweeps are better than one

The advantage of the three-sweep system is that it keeps the creative side separate from the technical side. You’re not bogged down in technical details while trying to be creative, and you’re not forced to come up with big new ideas while you’re trying to be systematic.

You might think it’s a waste of time to go through everything three times, but I’d say it’s simply good practice: no one gets everything right on the first sweep. Three sweeps gives you three chances to generate ideas, spot flaws and plan improvements. You may find that your best ideas come to you on your third sweep, when you already have a deep understanding of your lesson aims and shape. Or you may find that your wonderful ideas from the first sweep are totally impractical a few days later when you’re sweeping through them again.

From a practical point of view, a big advantage of working in Word is that I don’t need to be online for the first two sweeps, meaning I can work anywhere. Also, while I’m using Word, I only need a single copy of my reading text; once I’m using the authoring tool or templates, I’ll need a copy of my text for each reading exercise. Any changes to my text will have to be replicated across all those copies, so it makes sense to get it as polished as possible before making the copies. Finally, it’s never a bad thing to have a semi-finished back-up version of my unit on Word, just in case the platform crashes.

But for me, the biggest advantage is psychological: it’s always a nice feeling to reach the end of a lesson or unit. If you do everything in a single sweep, it feels like wading through mud, making painfully slow progress and never getting to the end. With a three-sweep system, on the other hand, you get that nice buzz three times as often.

 

Jeremy Day is a full-time freelance writer and editor. He writes a lesson a day for Newsmart and also writes scripts, stories and exercises for learndirect English, an immersive 3D environment for learners of English. He was Editorial Director of English360, Series Editor of the Cambridge English for books, and co-author of books including Active Grammar 3 (Cambridge University Press) and Success Upper Intermediate (Pearson Longman). This article is based on an extract from How To Write for Digital Media, published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer.

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14 responses to Writing for digital

  1. Sophie O'Rourke 16 November 2015 at 9:27 am #

    Thanks for this Jeremy, really useful. I didn’t realise writers use sweeps/passes too – but of course this makes perfect sense. I’m only familiar with it from a production point of view but it makes sense to build this into your writing practice too. Thanks for the insight. Sophie

    • Jeremy Day 17 November 2015 at 9:05 am #

      Hi Sophie. I’m glad it was useful! And I didn’t realise you used the same routine in production, but again, it makes sense when you think about it. You live and learn! 🙂

  2. Thomas Ewens 17 November 2015 at 8:01 am #

    The digital materials which are currently being developed are (to my knowledge) either meant for self-study or have a strong self-study element to them. I suppose that is one of the fundamental differences compared to the traditional paper coursebook which is designed to be used in a teacher-led classroom.

    The traditional paper coursebook is divided into units which should take a certain amount of time for a teacher to complete and which have a warmer, a pre-task activity, etc etc. It is designed for teachers, by teachers and is, in some ways, really quite teacher focussed. My experience of writing for digital has been that I had to think a lot less about how the materials would be used by a teacher and start thinking a lot more about how it could be used by a student.

    • Jeremy Day 17 November 2015 at 9:24 am #

      Hi Thomas. Yes, that’s similar to my experience, but I’ve also worked on digital projects for classroom-based, teacher-led learning. So I’m not sure we can call it a fundamental difference, more of a very strong correlation.

      One of the biggest challenges when writing digital teacher-led classroom-based materials is often to provide guidance for the teacher, who might be tempted to feel like a spare part, whereas in fact they can/should still play a vital role.

      You make a really interesting point about the standard way of running a lesson (with warmers and pre-readings, etc.) and how that may or may not be appropriate for self-study materials. I’ve worked on self-study materials where the brief was to skip straight to the meaty part of the lesson, leaving out all the things that we teachers think are important, based on learners’ supposed need for instant gratification – a quick fix.

      But I’ve also worked on self-study materials where that traditional step-by-step structure was stronger than ever. It was as if we (the writers) had to make up for the absence of a teacher by playing the role of a super-teacher ourselves.

      It’ll be interesting to see which way things go over the coming years.

  3. Ed Pegg 26 November 2015 at 5:33 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    When I’ve written for digital, I’ve focused on the technical side first and this has indeed stifled my creativity.

    If your not careful, it’s easy to get into the mindset of just filling the template and creativity definitely suffers.

    However, I’ve also noticed a difference in editor behaviour between print and digital products.

    On some of the digital products I’ve worked on, I got the sense that editor buy in was fairly low and there wasn’t the sense that the product has to be perfect, as there was with print.

    Because the focus in digital is on speed, there’s less opportunity for both editors and authors to become invested in the product and I think quality suffers as a result.

    This detailed planning and project management is where print wins for me and I think it’s a key reason why many digital products are poor.

    • Jeremy Day 27 November 2015 at 7:41 am #

      Hi Ed

      Exactly. It’s so easy to get bogged down in all the templates and settings, isn’t it. Sometimes you just need to take a step back, forget the platform and go right back to basics, i.e. pen and paper. It works for me, anyway.

      I’ve also worked on online products where I’ve had the impression the editorial focus was on quantity, conformity and deadlines rather than creating something special. It’s a horrible feeling when you’re in the middle of writing something and you realise that (a) your editor doesn’t really care, (b) the learners won’t really care and (c) why am I making so much effort? It’s the commoditisation of content, unfortunately. Some publishers seem to be pining for the old glory days of print bestsellers, so their hearts aren’t into digital.

      But … there are publishers (mainly new entrants in our market) that are doing really creative and ground-breaking things with digital, where the focus really is on quality and innovation. I do a lot of work these days for both eltjam and LearnDirect English, neither of which existed a few years ago. In both cases, we’re creating things that have never been done before. As a writer, I absolutely love working for both of them.

      So I can see why you say print wins for you, but digital definitely wins for me.

      🙂

      J

  4. Katherine B 27 November 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Hi Jeremy, really interesting post. I’ve had all sorts of experiences writing for digital, positive and negative. I’ve noticed things changing rapidly and the latest stuff I’ve done has given me opportunities for more creativity – we just did a 12 level course for Primary and were able to include AR features in the stories. That doesn’t have a huge impact on the actual writing but it means the kids get to do all sorts of fun, interactive stuff. And that’s inspiring. Thanks for teaching me a new word ‘sweep’ – it’s what I was doing anyway, I just didn’t know what it was called. It definitely makes sense to me to work that way. I’ve worked directly in templates and … ehm … the results were pretty dire.

    • Jeremy Day 30 November 2015 at 9:31 am #

      Hi Katherine. I’m glad you liked it. I’ve no idea if ‘sweep’ is the official word – it’s just the word I’ve been using in various teams over the years. And yes, I’m sure most experienced writers use the same system – we’ve all tried the alternative (writing directly into templates) and found it impossible.

      I love the idea of using AR (augmented reality, right?) in your stories. It sounds like lots of fun, and a chance for you, the writer, to get creative.

      I think this is the direction we’re heading in. The days of repurposing old print textbooks, trying to salvage what we can from the glory days of print, seem to be behind us. In front of us, there’s a whole new world of exciting possibilities. (OK, maybe I’m getting carried away … it’s Monday morning. I’ll be all cynical again by Friday.)

  5. Jemma Hillyer 27 November 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Hi Jeremy
    A fascinating post and thank you for giving us an insight into your brilliant three-sweep system. A staged review system works really well when the release reaches an editor. Offline checks are still as valid and printing out material really helps to focus on the content first before we start checking functionality and usability. A ‘three-screen system’ works well too as there is a growing need to ensure consistency across mobile, tablet and desktop devices. Thanks very much!
    Jemma

    • Jeremy Day 30 November 2015 at 9:41 am #

      Hi Jemma. Thanks for your positivity!

      I certainly don’t claim the three-sweep system as my own invention, but of course it’s still useful for us all to share our experiences. I totally agree with you about the value of offline checks and printouts (with apologies to environmentalists) – sometimes, you simply can’t beat a pen and paper. I do my best work when I’m not using a computer.

      I love your three-screen system too. I certainly try to think about what my content will look like (and how it’ll work) on a smaller screen, but my current writing situation doesn’t allow me to test anything live – the stuff I’m writing today will probably go live in about four months, after an army of editors and developers have worked their magic on it, so I really hope it works!

  6. John Allison 29 November 2015 at 1:41 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,
    Lots of interesting points here. Personally I’ve found it’s easier to fit the activity to the format than the other way round, but it’s certainly difficult to argue with the logic of your three sweep system.
    The discussion reminds me of a comment by Charles Stross, SF and urban fantasy author, along the lines of ‘ideas are ten-a-penny, it’s the ability to transpose those ideas into engaging and readable prose that defines a writer’. A great many practising teachers have good ideas, but only a very few of them actually make it into print. The constraints of writing for digital platforms add yet another hurdle to an already highly selective process.
    I suspect that at heart many of us are (frustrated – or just realistic?) writers of fiction. While writing for print seems to preserve an acceptable balance between creativity and technical skills, perhaps digital tips the scales that much further away from ‘fun’ towards ‘hard work’? At any rate, unless you’re writing for a living, before taking on a digital project it’s worth thinking twice about whether you really want to jump through those extra hoops.

    • Jeremy Day 30 November 2015 at 10:01 am #

      Hi John. Yes, I know what you mean about fitting the activity to the format. Sometimes, though, it feels a bit too easy to do it that way, and I find I get into predictable habits. Sometimes perhaps it’s better (but harder) to think in terms of “What would be the perfect exercise here?” and then “How can I use the platform to achieve that?” rather than starting with the easier question, “What’s the most natural way to use the platform here?”

      And yes, it does seem to be a very selective process, requiring a very specific set of skills (the combination of creativity and systematicity, plus the patience to work to an ever-changing brief because nobody on the team has ever done anything like this before). But if you can get through that process, and jump through all those hoops, it can be extremely rewarding.

      As for tipping the scales from fun to hard work, yes, I agree that can be the case with digital. I’ve certainly worked on many digital projects that just felt like a long slog from start to finish.

      But … I’m currently having the best fun I’ve ever had in my career. My current project involves creating an entire 3D world filled with dozens of characters, all interacting together. We’ve created rich backstories for them (we’re finishing the third level now, with the same characters throughout), so it’s amazing to see what happens when we drop those characters into new situations. I really feel like a fiction writer, for the first time in my life. I absolutely love it. 🙂

  7. Mike Cryer 16 December 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    Bit late to the party, but an interesting article. I can’t help wondering that the process is the same as writing for print. A course book also represents a fixed template of sorts, the same as digital and if authors and publishers employed a similar template system for authoring for print I can’t help thinking that this approach might reduce the corrections in ELT publishing. As an owner of an ELT design studio corrections are perhaps as much as 50-60% of our business, so I shouldn’t complain. But if there’s one area where costs could be reduced it’s this.

    As designers of the (InDesign) template used in production for page layout, it would be possible to provide some form of usable template to authors with limits on text (depending on the amount of illustration and other page elements) for different page designs within the book. This could be Word with styles already set up and limits on word counts, for example. Or even a digital template. Then if authors used the same three sweep system for writing into this format then there would be more thought put into providing a finished page ready for layout. There seems to be a culture in ELT that the manuscript is not the ‘final product’ and that the fine tuning can be done in production. This of course adds considerable cost.

    But perhaps this is locking the stable door after the print horse has bolted?

    • Jeremy Day 17 December 2015 at 11:55 am #

      Hi Mike. Yes, I think there are certainly parallels with the world of print publishing, but my experience of writing for both has been quite different.

      With print, I guess authors have a more instinctive idea of what’s possible. I mean, if it can be done in Word, it can be done in a book. (Whether it’s any good, of course, is another question entirely.)

      But with digital, authors (especially new ones) don’t have that same instinct for what works and what doesn’t. Digital’s full of traps for authors – things that would work in print but don’t work in digital. So that’s why editors tend to be really firm throughout the process, telling authors to “write straight into the authoring tool”. (At least, that’s my experience.)

      But yes, I can certainly see the benefit of using templates for authoring printed coursebooks too. They’d certainly reduce a lot of the grief and back-and-forth. I remember I once had to reduce the word count on a print book by 25%, which I did (it was agony!) but after I’d done it, I was told it should have been only 10%, so I had to put loads back in to fill the masses of white space on the page!

      That said, I think we’d lose a lot of creativity by using templates from the beginning of the writing process in print. I really think it’s better for the writer to start with an idea of what’s perfect, and then make it doable, rather that starting with doable but mediocre content and trying to add sparkle to it. I’ve worked on formulaic print books before, working to a template, and the results were, predictably, formulaic.

      The time-wasting that you see in the unfinished products that reach you might simply be part of the creative process, i.e. an investment in time that we simply need to go through. But of course there’s a difference between productive time-wasting and pointless time-wasting.

      As for the print horse, I’d say it hasn’t bolted yet, and isn’t likely to. As long as we all realise that print and digital are very different beasts, I reckon there’s room in the stable for both. (And sorry for the mixed metaphor!) 🙂

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