Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

B is for … brief

This is a new series of short blog posts, ‘An A-Z of ELT materials writing’. I’ll be writing about important aspects that we need to keep in mind when we create materials, whether for our own classes or to be used by others.

B is for … brief

In publishing, a brief is a set of instructions and information explaining what is expected in a manuscript. Briefs come in many shapes and sizes, from a sparse paragraph outlining a topic and one or two key points, to a multi-page document with very precise details about every single aspect of a project.

You might wonder why I’m talking about a brief in this ‘A to Z’ series when many of my subscribers are teachers who write materials for their own learners, and not writing for a publisher. But two things occurred to me.

  • Firstly, that some of you might want to start writing for a publisher or another organization producing materials.
  • Secondly, that a brief is such a useful document that you might like to write your own as a preliminary stage before getting stuck in to writing. Think of it as a framework, something to hang your materials on. I think it could be a good way to make sure you aren’t forgetting something important.

Here is some typical information to be found in a brief:

  • A page plan for each lesson in a unit, or each section in a module, etc.
  • Information about the target users, such as level, age, context-specific details, etc.
  • Methodology which should be used
  • Conventions about cultural aspects, such as names, topics to avoid, etc.
  • Information about use of images, where they can be sourced, etc.
  • Information about file-naming
  • A proposed schedule for writing

But no two briefs are the same! Some really are brief (my shortest was a paragraph), others can be lengthy, containing lots more information and (between you and me) sometimes over complicated.

What to do if you receive a brief

If you receive a brief from a publisher, congratulations! This means you are being offered some work. Make sure you:

1 Acknowledge receipt and say you’ll get in touch if you have any questions.

2 Read it carefully, making a note of anything that isn’t clear.

3 Ask for clarification about anything that is either unclear or ambiguous. Don’t worry about sounding silly. It’s much better to start writing when everything is 100% clear. Sometimes a good way of doing this is by rephrasing using your own words. E.g. I assume this means ….

4 Use the brief as a reference throughout the writing process, as a framework, a reminder, and a checklist.

What if you don’t receive a brief?

If you take on a materials writing job for which you haven’t been provided a brief, you can ask for one. Or, alternatively, you could gather all the information you have about the project and write your own. I’ve done this a number of times and although it isn’t ideal, it’s a good way of getting the commissioning editor to say ‘Yes, that’s what we want’ in writing.

Tip: Look at a course book that you are familiar with and think about what the author brief would have included. Make some notes. Then consider the importance of each point. If you were writing a course book for the same target users, is there anything you’d change in the brief?

This kind of reflection is useful to gain a better understanding of why publishers do what they do regardless of whether you agree with those decisions.

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