Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Ten Questions to Ask Before You Write a Sample by Mike S. Boyle

Mike has been kind enough to rework some extremely insightful comments he made on my recent blog post, tongue in cheek titled The Cult of Celebrity in ELT. Some of the things he said would have taken me years to learn and already shed light on experiences I’ve had. So, my first guest blogger should take the stage and I’ll follow up the original post when I’ve had time to assimilate all the things my ELT writing forefathers have had to say 🙂


Ten Questions to Ask Before You Write a Sample

I’ve been thinking about Nicola’s blog entry on the frustrations of submitting sample material for ELT writing projects and having no idea why you weren’t chosen. This can happen to any writer in the industry. It is very difficult to know how decisions are made inside publishers and how projects are developed, commissioned, and approved.

Before I became a materials writer I spent seven years as a staff editor for major publishers, but even so I am often unsure about why I wasn’t able to land a project. Did they choose another writer? Or did the project simply fall apart? What happened?

The reality is that you’ll probably never know what happened. The only thing you can do is learn everything you can about the project before you write the sample so that you have the best possible idea of what the publisher wants. Also, the more you know ahead of time, the better you can manage your own expectations and emotions.

With that in mind, here are the 10 questions I always try to ask whenever someone wants me to submit sample material.


1 Has the project been approved? Approval is a process with many stages, starting when a project appears on a multi-year publishing plan, and then going through other stages like concept approval (we like this idea) and budget approval (we like this idea and it will make money). A project that has budget approval is definitely going to happen, so that’s usually a good thing to hear.

This doesn’t mean that projects which haven’t yet gotten final approval are bad and you shouldn’t write samples for them. (You should always write the sample because it builds your reputation with editors, even if you don’t win the job.) If you’re trying to be a lead author or a Student’s Book writer, you will almost certainly have to write samples for projects that might never be published. It’s just a risk you have to prepare yourself for. On the other hand, fully approved projects that are very far along have their own downsides – there might be very little time (or money!) left over for you, or you could find yourself working on a course with lots of problems, drama, and constraints.

2 What is the schedule? Obviously you need to know if the project fits your own schedule. But you will also want to know whether you’ll be given a realistic amount of time to do your work and how many rounds of revision the publisher expects you to do. Also, if the schedule is not very specific it is a sign that the project is in its very early stages and might not be fully approved.

3 How much does it pay? It’s reasonable for you to want to know this before spending lots of time on a sample. If you get a vague response, it doesn’t mean someone is trying to trick you. But it is probably a sign that there is not a budget yet and therefore no budget approval.

4 How will I be credited for my work? Publishers often have more flexibility on this point than most freelance writers realize. After all, putting your name on the cover doesn’t cost them anything. However, you probably won’t be credited for anything if you don’t ask.

5 Is there a brief? Writing a sample when there is no editorial brief is a real crapshoot. Try very hard to get your hands on one. In most cases the whole point of the sample is to see whether you are disciplined and flexible enough to write to the brief, so treat this document like your bible and make sure that all of your questions about it are clearly answered before you write. Also find out if a model unit, previous editions, audio scripts, a syllabus, or other components already exist, and be sure the publisher sends them to you before you write.

6 What are the main markets and competition? Discussing this with the editor will often turn up very helpful information that didn’t make it into the brief but will help you write a more attractive sample.


7 What kind of sales are you expecting? You’ll never get a specific answer to this, and understandably so, but even a very general answer can give you an idea of how important the project is to the publisher. If they tell you that expectations are high and it’s a key project, you can feel more confident that the project will be approved. Also, as sales expectations rise, so do the number of people who want to have a say about everything, so you can expect the author selection process to be slower and more opaque.

8 Who are the lead authors or series editors? Obviously, working with a big name is good for your career and you can also learn a lot from them. Of course, it’s also possible that you wouldn’t have any contact with the lead author at all, so you should ask about that. Either way, knowing who the lead author is can also give you a better idea of what sort of sample the publisher is looking for.

9 What roles are you looking to fill? The answer to this isn’t always as obvious as you might think and can give you an idea of what you might be offered if you aren’t chosen for the specific bit you’re writing a sample for.

10 Who will be choosing the writer and how does the decision making process work? The editor you’re speaking to might not be choosing the writer on his or her own. Try to get a sense of who will be involved in the decision. The editor, his or her boss, senior management, sales and marketing, and the lead authors all might have a say.

Anyway, I hope that some of these questions will be useful to you the next time you’re asked to submit a sample, and I’d be happy to try to help anyone who wants to discuss this more. You can find me on Twitter: @heyboyle

Mike S. Boyle is an experienced course book writer and editor in ELT, most recently having co-authored Smart Choice and Skillful for major publishers.


6 comments on “Ten Questions to Ask Before You Write a Sample by Mike S. Boyle

  1. Sue Jones
    May 5, 2014

    Useful advice. I’d be more demanding in asking for forecasts of author revenue – no reason to expect publishers to tell you their sales figures, but they should be able to tell you the revenue forecast for the main sales period they themselves are forecasting for in order to get approval (3 or 5 years typically).

    It’s also important to know the typical proportions of revenue across the levels (30% is level 1, 20% level 2 etc) which you can then apply to the revenue forecast – you don’t want to find yourself stuck with a higher level (5 or 6) which may earn a very small proportion of the whole revenue yet takes just as much work to write.

    Under European copyright law, an author has the absolute write to be identified as the writer of a work. You may not find yourself named in big letters on the cover as a lead author, but you can if you wish ask to be named as the writer of e.g. additional material or whatever reflects the work you actually did. This can be useful if at some time you need to assemble all your work for resume/cv purposes.

    • Nicola
      May 6, 2014

      Hi. I’ve never dared ask about sales figures forecasts but should. Having said that, someone who works in editing/publishing told me he’d never have given that info to an author! And also never thought about levels but, of course, you’re absolutely right.

      You’ve reminded me that I was told that the updated version of Touchstone now carries, or will carry in the reprint, some acknowledgement of writers that contributed texts which was something I assumed didn’t happen so was a nice surprise but also makes m realise I should be asking for that!

      • Sue Jones
        May 6, 2014

        Sorry I wasn’t very clear about getting sales and revenue forecasts above – I wouldn’t share those either, but it isn’t unreasonable to ask for a forecast of the author revenues. Even if it’s just a global figure for the entire forecast period – of course something more nuanced would be more useful e.g. by level, by year etc. By year doesn’t seem to me to be very controversial but by level might be for the reason I mention in my second paragraph!

      • Nicola
        May 8, 2014

        Ha, my sceptical adviser says he wouldn’t have given those out either. Makes sense, since those figures are just a part of the sales figures and you could then calculate what they expected to make from a series.

  2. Walton
    May 5, 2014

    Hey, this is great advice.
    Can I link to this and possibly quote bits of it in the TESOL Materials Writer Interest Section blog? at

    • Nicola
      May 6, 2014

      Sure, link to whatever you like and quote away! 🙂 Thanks

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This entry was posted on March 25, 2013 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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