This month, Genevieve White – who we believe is our most northerly member – tells us about writing for the Far East. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

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Cultural conundrums: writing for a Chinese publisher

by Genevieve White



As ELT writers producing material for international markets, much of our work may be geared towards the archetypal ‘communicative’ classroom. As we write, we may be visualising a teacher moving freely around her twenty or so students, facilitating lively discussions and overseeing creative projects. The students we envisage are generally willing to express opinions and take part in appropriately pitched speaking tasks, enjoying group work more than they do teacher-led lessons. With a little thought and imagination, we can confidently suggest contemporary and interesting topics which have a broad appeal.

What happens, though, when we are asked to write for a specific teaching and learning context in a culture very different from our own? All of a sudden, our usual points of reference melt away.

I speak from personal experience, as in December 2013 I was asked to write a sample unit for a Chinese ELT coursebook. The brief described a multi-level course aimed at Chinese vocational students. This course aimed to motivate Chinese students (who often regard English learning as a tedious chore) through taking a new and innovative approach to skills and activities.

Always up for a challenge, I submitted my sample unit. After a fair amount of emailing back and forth, receiving adjustments to the original proposal and rewriting my sample unit accordingly, it was confirmed that I had got the job.

Over the following months, I was to learn a lot about China – both the country and its education system. The experience of writing this coursebook, although not without its difficulties, was overwhelmingly positive. I’d like to share some of the challenges I faced, explore the personal and professional benefits of working on this project and reflect on key lessons learned.

Challenges faced

  • Firstly, I learned that my summer’s worth of teaching experience in Shanghai (in which I taught a class of confident postgraduate students) was not wholly representative of China’s educational system. As a result, unit drafts were frequently returned to me with the dreaded comment ‘This would not work in a Chinese classroom.’
  • It sometimes took a certain amount of time to establish what was required. For example, my editor frequently stressed the importance of developing students’ speaking skills and yet many of my speaking tasks were initially rejected. In time, I learned that very structured speaking tasks (broken into small chunks and accompanied by lengthy phrase banks) were deemed necessary for Chinese students. Discussion questions needed to come with a set of potential answers to choose from rather than being left wide open.
  • Although I was writing an intermediate coursebook, I was essentially writing to a higher level for writing and reading than I was for speaking and listening. This was to reflect Chinese students’ strengths and weaknesses, but getting the balance right took a little getting used to.
  • My editor frequently requested I write ‘short funny stories’ to be used as reading and listening texts. Being amusing for a completely different cultural audience is not easy. I was glad I was not around to see the bemused faces of the editors as they pondered my attempts at jokes. A little research into Chinese humour helped here.

Benefits gained

  • A project like this is a great opportunity to learn a lot about a different country and culture. During the course of my writing I learned about Chinese festivals, cuisine, traditions and even attitudes to dating.
  • An experience like this can stand you in good stead for future projects involving the same country or culture, as you will develop specialist knowledge regarding a different educational system.
  • If you develop a good relationship with your publisher (see below), you stand a good chance of becoming the person they turn to when they need English language advice. Since completing my coursebook, I’ve been asked to do a number of copyediting jobs on different English language materials.
  • Communicating across cultures is a skill which can be transferred, if working with a different culture in the future.

Advice for cross-cultural writing projects

  • Think carefully about class sizes and relationships between students and teachers in the country you’re writing for. Watching YouTube clips of Chinese classrooms (with seventy students sitting in rows listening to a teacher with a headset and microphone) helped me to visualise my audience.
  • Develop a thick skin. Some of the delicacies in feedback can get lost in translation and you mustn’t mind too much if a task you’ve designed is described as being ‘boring and old-fashioned’ or (rather more ambiguously) ‘too abroad’.
  • Put yourself into your audience’s shoes and plan your content accordingly. What films and TV shows are popular? (In China, The Big Bang Theory and Sherlock are huge). Conversely, what will be unfamiliar or inaccessible to them? (In China, Twitter and Facebook are not used, and so social media topics were off-limits.)
  • Embrace ambiguity. Having corresponded on an almost weekly basis with my closest in-house contact for over a year, I am still no closer to finding out if he or she is male or female. Searching for this person’s first name on the internet has offered me no further clues and I have not yet figured out how I can establish my contact’s gender after all this time without asking directly.

Writing materials for a different culture has been an invigorating and, at times, humbling experience for me. Sharing these experiences is useful for writers working for the first time in a new culture and it would be great to see comments here from other writers who have their own cross-cultural writing tales to tell.

My own story has a happy ending. While writing this blog post, I received an email offering me further work with my Chinese publisher. Perhaps this time around I will manage to ascertain the gender of my in-house contact.


Genevieve White is an ELT materials writer and an ESOL tutor at a community centre for adult education in Shetland. She has written a wide range of print and digital materials, including teacher’s notes, tests and the speaking component of an online course. Her first book, Collins English for Life: Skills – Writing was published last year. She blogs at and tweets from @ShetlandESOL.