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 and tweets from @NicolaPrentis.