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.
The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.
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.