In the seventh of our posts covering the MaWSIG-LitSIG joint Pre-Conference Event Creative Arts and Materials Writing at IATEFL in Liverpool on 1 April 2019, Cheryl Palin shares five highlights from her fascinating talk about taking inspiration from past masters. If you weren’t able to get to the PCE, there is another chance to see Cheryl give the talk as MaWSIG’s contribution to a Society of Authors one-day event in London: the Educational Writers’ Group Seminar Day. For details of other speakers and to book, visit the SoA website.

In my presentation Taking a leaf out of the books of great writers, I explored the advice successful writers of literature have shared with aspiring ones, and the relevance of this to ELT materials writers.

Here I’ve selected five quotes from famous authors, which provide useful insights into the writing process, and offer us practical tips for our own craft.

1 ‘Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.’
William Faulkner1

This advice is as relevant to us as writers of ELT materials as it is to writers of literature. We can’t put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – without first taking a keen interest in the kind of materials we want to write, written by others. And when we read or use these materials, it needs to be with the eye of a writer – or Faulkner’s ‘carpenter’ – looking closely at how all the pieces fit together, and questioning why exactly it is that something works so well, or could work better.

Reading ‘everything’ we come across related to our specific area of ELT – from recommended methodology books to newspaper articles to social media posts – is guaranteed to keep us up to speed with the latest trends and newest thinking, a sure-fire way to ensure our writing is fresh and current.

Reading for pleasure, too, may be a great source of inspiration – whether we glean creative tricks and ideas from prose and poetry, or find interesting contexts for our language teaching in works of non-fiction.

2 ‘The thing about a novel is it’s rather like a giant hoover – it just hoovers up everything that comes through you.’
Ali Smith2

Successful writers are avid collectors. They recognise a gem of an idea when it appears, and joyfully hoard their treasure. Some are never without a notebook and pen; others keep an electronic ideas folder on their PC. The benefit of a good stash is that it is ready and waiting when they need it.

ELT writers also need a healthy pool to draw from. For ‘novel’ in Ali Smith’s quote we could pretty much read ‘Student’s Book’, also an extensive piece of work which can suck up our entire collection of ideas. As a writer of primary coursebooks, I keep lists of all kinds of things – from names and nicknames which I’d like to use for characters to jingles and chart toppers, which might be a helpful reference to brief the composer when I’m writing songs. I’ve been known to bring home a crisp packet because the look and feel of the artwork and lettering might be useful. I also actively chase inspiration, mainly by reading the latest best-selling children’s books and taking myself off to the cinema to watch new releases of animations.

If our creative resources aren’t to be depleted, we need to be mindful of the constant need to replenish them. In other words, we must gather enough gold dust for when it’s time to hoover.

3 ‘Sometimes you have to look the other way.’
Maggie O’Farrell3

We’d be extremely lucky never to experience writer’s block. Even the literary greats did not escape it. When we find ourselves all tied up in knots, it’s essential that we know when to walk away.

This might mean quite literally going for a walk. It’s no coincidence that many well-known writers are – or were – walkers. Charles Dickens, it is said, worked for four hours at his desk in the morning, and then walked 12 miles in the afternoon.

Other writers choose physical activity of a different nature to stimulate the writing muse. Some use their hands. The children’s author and illustrator Lauren Child draws when she’s stuck, and explains, ‘Sometimes the movement of the hand releases something else that’s stuck in my mind.’4

The poet Helen Farish once described to me how she swept her garden path, the repetitive and rhythmic action coaxing a poem. (Remembering this often leads me to my ironing board to iron things out in my mind, along with the bed sheets, when I’m well and truly stumped.)

If difficulty arises, then, it’s probably better that we don’t try to sweat it out at our desks, but go and do something else for a while.

4 ‘Parameters are the things you bounce off to create art.’
Neil Gaiman5

Creativity is often associated with freedom, yet nothing is quite so overwhelming as too much freedom. Contrary to what we might first assume, it is often set limitations that spark ingenuity and innovation in writing.

Writers of fiction not only understand this, but some have been known to purposely impose constraints upon themselves in order to reap creative rewards. Dr Seuss famously bet his editor that he could write a book using only 50 different words, and the highly successful children’s classic Green Eggs and Ham was the result.

Similarly, the columnist and novelist Philip Hensher bet his partner, Zav, £10 that he could write a novel in a month, and won the bet by producing the original version of his novel The Fit.

As ELT writers, we are certainly no strangers to word count or time restraints. In reality, these are but a few of the limitations we are faced with on a regular basis. An ever-growing list of requirements – from level, age and cultural appropriacy, to fit on the page, to the most up-to-date methodological approach – causes us no little frustration. Yet, if we fail to write within these essential parameters, our materials risk not being fit for purpose.

Rather than seeing these necessary constraints as obstacles, we can, then, learn to recognise their benefits and embrace their potential.

5 ‘Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.’
F. Scott Fitzgerald6

Writing is hard. Some of the hardest lessons we have to learn are that students do not always respond to our classroom materials as we’d hoped, editors do not always share our enthusiasm for our efforts, projects from publishers are frequently put on hold, altered drastically at the last minute, or cancelled altogether.

What we need, then, is the courage and resilience to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and give it another go … and another go … and another go.

Accepting the inevitability of some degree of failure is part of the process – as is the willingness to make mistakes along the way. We should keep in mind that many of the most creative and original accomplishments were born of happy accidents.

The key to success, of course, is never giving up.

Cheryl Palin is a freelance teacher trainer and writer of educational materials for primary, secondary and pre-primary young learners. She has authored multiple levels of bestselling Primary ELT courses for Oxford University Press, including Ace! and Great Explorers (with the pen name Suzanne Torres), and most recently Big Questions, Bright Ideas and Amazing Rooftops. She has also written numerous fiction and non-fiction readers, for international ELT markets, as well as UK Primary schools.

Leaf illustrations by Kati Bilsborough

1The Paris Review Interviews, Vol.3, Picador, 2008. (as cited in Your Creative Writing Masterclass, Jurgen Wolff, Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2012)
2 BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Discs, Ali Smith 11.11. 2016
3 100 Ways to write a book:#40 The O’Farrell method, Mslexia Issue 40, 2009
4 Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: 11 ways to be more creative, The Guardian 25.8.2018