Avoiding rejection in ELT

This month, Nicola Prentis shares with us some secrets of successful sample tasks.

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Avoiding rejection in ELT

by Nicola Prentis





Writing sample tasks for ELT publishers is a bit like dating. You’ve got an idea the editor is interested in you – but if you ruin the first date, you’ll never get to the relationship.

Despite having published three books under my own name, I still consider myself as being at ‘foot in the door’ stage. This means I regularly complete sample tasks for publishers as a kind of written audition for the job. More often than not, I get a sample rejected. I think, or at least hope, that this is normal! But I wondered how to get the best possible success rate. After all, these tasks are not always paid and you don’t even get dinner out of them.

So, I asked four experienced ELT commissioning editors* what they consider when they evaluate these tasks. Specifically, I wanted to know what leads to rejection, as this feels easier to quantify than the magical ingredient that an editor is looking for.

What are your chances of a second date?

If you’re asked to do a sample task, it means the editor has already decided you might work for their project. They’ve seen your CV, checked you out on LinkedIn and, perhaps, read something else you’ve written, even if it’s not published. But, in the face of frequent rejection, you can sometimes wonder if the sample exercise is designed to give editors reasons to say no. You might wonder why bother doing any more sample tasks. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my four editors all look for reasons to say yes. Hearteningly, the first time doesn’t even need to be perfect.

‘Even if there are things in the sample that aren’t what I want,’ says one coursebook editor, ‘if there is time we do a revised sample and if the author responds well to feedback then things that might have put me off before become a plus once you see how the sample has developed. […] It’s not just the first sample, but also how the author responds to feedback that will impact on the final decision.’

What are the turn-offs?

Just like with dating, there are things to definitely avoid doing.

  • Being late

Deadlines are critical in publishing and many other stages of the process depend on you getting your part done on time. While you might be able to negotiate when you’re already on the team, there’s no excuse for missing a deadline on a sample task.

  • Forgetting your briefs

If your date tells you they’re a vegetarian and you take them to an Argentinian steakhouse, they’re not going to be happy. Neither is the editor whose brief you don’t follow to the letter – which includes bearing the target user in mind. If there’s something you’re not sure of, asking for clarification won’t make you look bad. Sending back the wrong thing will.

  • Being boring

Crimes here are things like sending in something that has been seen a hundred times in ELT, is old-fashioned or out of date or bland and lacking in intrinsic interest.

  • Being a weirdo

There’s a fine line on a date between being too dull and being so out-there that your date can’t imagine introducing you to anyone they know. Likewise, your sample should be creative but not too wacky. You don’t want to be ‘over-risky in terms of being too “of the moment”‘, nor ‘be perceived as too quirky or risky by more conservative markets’.

  • Telling dodgy jokes

You might find it funny, but humour in ELT materials needs to appeal to the widest possible audience and it’s never acceptable to offend anyone. Stereotypes are definitely off the menu. Anything inappropriate just tells an editor that you have no appreciation for other cultures and can’t be trusted to produce materials that are suitable for the age range and target audience.

  • Being incoherent

Maybe you’re nervous so you jump around from topic to topic with no logical flow. Your date can’t keep up and neither would a student of your disjointed material. This is another common mistake in sample tasks: material that ‘lurches from one thing to another with no sense of the content building on itself’.

  • Responding badly to feedback

If you’ve got spinach in your teeth, wouldn’t you want your intended to let you know and give you a chance to correct it? Whether a writer responds positively to feedback is a huge consideration for an editor, as it shows how easy you will be to work with. I mentioned it above, but it’s worth repeating because it might well matter more than being experienced or brilliant. A good response is one that takes on feedback without attitude, gets it right and has a fast turnaround – or at least one that meets a mini-deadline.

  • Not minding your Ps and Qs

It’s the writing equivalent of being rude to the waiter to send in a sample that’s not properly proofread, spell-checked and punctuated.

Happily ever after

Obvious as some of the advice might sound, editors see these mistakes often enough that simply by not making them, you have a chance to stand out. Even if you’re not right together, they might hook you up with someone (or something) else ‘with the aim to helping [you] work towards being commissioned for the main component in the future’.

And that could be the beginning of a long and fulfilling relationship in ELT materials writing.

*The editors were experienced in coursebooks, teachers’ books and workbooks, ESP, digital content, primary and pre-primary, secondary and adult courses, as well as other aspects of ELT publishing for the major publishers. They preferred not to have their names published here.


Nicola Prentis is the author of two Graded Readers, Collins Skills for Life: Speaking and more than a few sample tasks. She has another Reader in the works and recently won a Language Learner Literature Award for her first. She blogs at www.simpleenglishuk.wordpress.com and tweets from @NicolaPrentis.

9 responses to Avoiding rejection in ELT

  1. Thomas Ewens 15 July 2015 at 11:34 am #

    Thanks for this, Nicola.

    Fortunately I seem to have a reasonably good record so far of having samples accepted. But I have had something rejected in the past for being bland. My response was ‘Yes, I agree. I thought that’s what you wanted.’

    Forgive me, but at least 50% of published ELT materials are incredibly bland. It’s a real shame and quite discouraging for teachers and prospective authors.

    • Nicola 16 July 2015 at 4:12 pm #

      I think it’s a tricky balance. As one of the editors said, being too “out there” is a problem. I’ve had things rejected for trying to do something new when I could easily have done something more boring. Sometimes I have wanted to ask “please tell me how bland you want it to be and I will write it accordingly”.

      But writing an interesting text that is still ELT-ish is possible. I think Buzzfeed and all those clickbaity sites are the easiest ELT rewrite ever. Masses of easily replicable content on hundreds of topics, some harmless, some to avoid, that are already entertaining millions every day.

  2. Rachael Roberts 15 July 2015 at 7:37 pm #

    Great post, Nicola. Lots of really good points. One thing I’d add is that publishers do sometimes seem to ask more than one person to submit a sample, so you can sometimes do a good sample, but one that isn’t quite such a good fit as someone else’s.

    • Nicola 16 July 2015 at 4:12 pm #

      Also true and also a bit like dating!

  3. Thomas Ewens 16 July 2015 at 11:45 am #

    I didn’t mean to come across as quite so cynical there.

    Of course there are some fantastic materials out there. I suppose the point I was trying to make was that I’m not sure that ‘too bland’ is necessarily such a terrible problem in the long run for an ELT materials writer.

  4. Katherine Bilsborough 17 July 2015 at 10:02 am #

    Useful post! I’ve had samples accepted before they’ve been written! Ha … this means that sometimes asking a few people for samples is a formality, a legal requirement or at least a norm for a company. It also explains (maybe) why a sample might be rejected … i.e. if another sample-writer has already been ‘accepted’. I think too that when commissioning editors get samples from a few people they can make a better informed job of partnering people up to work on joint projects. You are right, sometimes a sample for a class book will lead to an opportunity to do a work book, etc. I think even the most experienced and prolific writers usually have to write samples. On the question of payment, the better publishers pay for samples. Of course this means they then have ownership but it’s something to think about. My best rejection comment ever was ‘Sorry Kath, your suggestions are much too exciting for our market’. Hm

    • Nicola 17 July 2015 at 3:16 pm #

      That’s depressing! Why would they do that and waste everyone’s time? If an editor is that sure someone can do the job they should put them forward. If they think someone else can do it better they should give them a real chance.

  5. Sarah Ali 21 July 2015 at 9:30 am #

    A great post and in many ways reassuring, at the same time as being frustrating. I’ve written quite a few sample units, but have yet to have anything accepted. I follow all the points above, but still get “we like your sample. It was really strong and we liked the ideas, but we’ve gone with someone else”. I’m finding it hard to know what to do to break through that ‘barrier’ and get my foot near the door.

    • Nicola 22 July 2015 at 10:47 am #

      I suppose Kath’s comment above could be part of the reason for that. But it’s worth sending out emails every once in a while to people that have expressed an interest but rejected samples to see if they have anything else on offer. I got some work that way (once)!

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