Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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

Commissioning Editor vs Sample

I was recently invited to pitch to a major ELT publisher for a Teacher’s Resource Book to go with their new Adult coursebooks.  Simple brief – a truly communicative activity to go with the unit selected. The unit had past simple vs past continuous for interrupted actions or vocab associated with feelings. I chose the grammar.

I wrote the below pitch in one evening mid another very consuming project, unlike me, the day before the deadline. I didn’t get the gig I should say. At the risk of everything I say sounding like sour grapes rather than offering an insight and asking for further insight, I was, at the time, quite pleased with what I came up with.

With any kind of writing – EFL, fiction, blogs, whatever, I feel an enormous sense of relief and Go Nicola! when I have sat down with myself, demanded that I create and come up with something from nowhere. And in this case, I thought and think I did a pretty good job of coming up with an original take on a familiar game – Alibi.

So, at the very least this post gives you a halfway decent classroom activity for free (download below). Always nice.

But the interesting part is the feedback. You’ll see what editors are looking for (as did I) and you can suggest improvements if you see any. Here’s the feedback.

We have had a number of submissions where the level was very high. However, we have had to make a decision based on the following criteria:

Level of material; Originality of the activity; Adult feel of the activity; Staging and support through the stages of the activity

I’d say mine satisfied the first, second and third criteria and that the negative comments following relate mainly to the fourth criterion.

We enjoyed reading your activity very much, but your submission does not quite meet all the criteria we are looking for in this course. We have some points of feedback which we hope will help in future submissions:
  1. The idea for the game is solid and the lead-in stage sets the activity up very well.

  2. There is a problem in that no individual student is designated as being guilty, so the most convincing alibi is likely to be awarded to the best student.

  3. The level of challenge up to stage 7 is rather low – students merely read the sentence on their card – but the steps beyond stage 8 require a much higher level of language manipulation and creativity, which leads to a slightly imbalanced sequence.

  4. The follow-up task provides a good opportunity for post-class activation.

Now, what do I know? And this is where it’s going to sound like sour grapes. I looked at it again and I am disinclined to agree but I will at least disagree politely and am quite happy should anyone feel like correcting me.


Firstly, I don’t see point 2 as a problem. The best student wins? Er….yes. Best in terms of creativity, interest, effort…not necessarily best in terms of grammar and ability to reproduce the form accurately so working on fluency while enabling the teacher or peers to correct. If you designate someone as “guilty” there’s no motivation to be creative, interesting, make an effort or work on fluency. A short, robotic grammar reproduction will do.

And point 3? Also deliberate. Students get scaffolded practice building up to free practice. That’s imbalance? I think they firm up the structure and then might be more likely to repeat it when the fluency part starts. Weaker students will have had that structured practice and can participate to their own level aided by the support of the Q&A format.

So, I see that if this wasn’t what they were looking for, I didn’t get the commission and fair enough. But in terms of learning something I think what I’ve learned is this:

Course book editors are not willing to take anyone that might need – God forbid – editing. As certainly the build up could be altered to take in their wishes (even if I don’t understand why the activity would benefit or actually be more “balanced”) and I suppose a designated winner could be introduced by having students choose from 3 alibis written for that particular crime.

Much more boring if you ask me but I’m a very flexible writer. If you want boring, I can do it!

Anyway, I’d love to hear what you think, as readers, students, editors, teachers. I am open to changing it, especially if anyone tests it in class. Here’s the past simple cont Photocopiable Activity if you do want to try.


Title:          It wasn’t me!

Level: B1

Aim:    Practise past continuous and past simple

Time: 15-25 mins (depending on how creative the class is)


Lead in (5 mins)

  1. 1.    Teacher says/writes a crime that happened yesterday e.g. My cat was kidnapped at 7 o’ clock last night.
  2. Teacher tells the class she suspects them and needs an alibi from them. She asks a few students “What were you doing when my cat was kidnapped?” and boards answers, tweaking them to past continuous if needed. Teacher asks a couple of follow up questions to get more details.

e.g. Who were you with? Did anyone see you? (The more creative and imaginative the questions the better)

  1. Teacher says which student she thinks is guilty and innocent based on their “alibi”.
  2. Teacher could drill or board the question “What were you doing when…?

Activity (15-20 mins)

  1. Students in groups of three. (If there’s an extra student make one group of 4 and use 8 Crime cards and 16 Alibi cards)

Crime cards (9) in a facedown pile in the middle. Alibi cards (18) shared out facedown between the three students. Students should not look at the cards they are given.

  1. Student A takes a crime card and reads it out. The other students take a random Alibi card.
  2. Students A asks “What were you doing when…?” using the crime on their card. Other students must answer using the alibi they have. “When…I was…” or “While I was…XXX” (Controlled practice)
  3. Student A then asks follow up questions and the other students can add as much detail as they want. Some alibis will incriminate them with certain crimes and they will have to talk their way out of it, other alibis may be easier to pull off etc. (Freer practice)
  4. Student A awards the card to the student with the most convincing alibi.
  5. Student B takes a Crime card and repeats the game and so on until all Crime cards have been used up.
  6. Teacher monitors for correct use of target tenses and encourages students to give details to flesh out their stories.

Optional follow up (15-20 mins)

  1. Students can write up their alibis like police statements for homework.


Suggested vocab only as it can be changed to recycle vocab from lessons.

Crime Cards (9)

A fire started in my school yesterday morning at 10 o’ clock.
Someone took (or stole) my wallet this afternoon at 4 o’ clock.
Someone killed my goldfish last night at 8 o’clock.
Someone broke my window this morning at 9 o’clock.
Someone used my phone to call London for 3 hours yesterday afternoon.
Someone put insects in my bed yesterday.
Someone crashed into my car last Monday morning.
Someone ate all the food in my fridge on Sunday night.
Someone deleted all the files from my computer at lunchtime.


Alibi cards (18)


I was sleeping. I was eating dinner with friends.
I was flying to Spain. I was cooking lunch for my mum.
I was feeding my cat. I was doing my hair.
I was reading a book. I was watching a film.
I was having a shower. I was cycling home.
I was walking my dog. I was studying English.
I was listening to music. I was playing football.
I was chatting on the internet. I was writing a letter.
I was tidying (or cleaning) my room. I was driving to work.



12 comments on “Commissioning Editor vs Sample

  1. Rachael Roberts
    September 30, 2013

    Writing a sample is always going to be a bit of a stab in the dark, so I wouldn’t take it too personally. I once got rejected on the basis that while my work was ‘highly competent’, the tone ‘didn’t quite feel right’ for the series. A week’s work that was. Go figure. So, while you could, of course, make adjustments to what you’ve written, if someone else has done something which fits better with what they’re looking for, then you won’t get the job that time. On the bright side, you’ve had an opportunity to showcase your work and get your name known.
    For what it’s worth, I think I’d agree with you that not specifying a winner is more interesting, communicative and motivating. On the other hand, I’d tend to agree that the level of challenge is a bit unbalanced, with the first stages very controlled and the latter ones very free. I’d probably assume that students who were able to do the later freer stages wouldn’t need quite so much hand-holding. But that’s just my opinion, and any feedback you get will be just that editor’s opinion and not necessarily representative of every editor. And what they’re looking for will vary from book to book, depending on the exact audience they’re trying to aim the series at. Writing a successful sample is as much about intuiting from the brief exactly what they’re looking for and producing it as it is about writing good solid material.

    • Nicola
      October 1, 2013

      You’re right. I never really thought that someone else might have done the exact thing they were looking for so meant there was no need to twiddle other submissions to get them to fit. Like meeting Robert Redford when he was younger, why would you wait for Brad Pitt to turn up?

      The hand holding aspect, you’re right but that’s looking back from the POV of someone thatcan already cope with the latter stage, rather than someone that needs the help to get to that with accuracy. Actually I think the activity could do with less careful staging, which was put in to not leave any loose ends, but in reality a student that didn’t need the scaffolding would just improvise the structured part perhaps. Thinking of my own Int class, they’d like the starting off on structured ground to give them confidence. But I’m not a very precious writer, I change most of what I’m asked to, unless it’s a really big thing I hold fundamentally and it’s my own name on it. If you were my editor, I’d do what you wanted:)

      But I wasn’t bothered, actually. I was happy with my pitch and didn’t expect to get it and busy enough not to be counting on it. And the sad blogger that I am, happy to have something to write about! I LOVE blogging and have three on the go, a fourth in mind and a load of content suspended from a fifth that I have some different plans for.

  2. stevebrown70
    September 30, 2013

    Thanks very much for sharing this, Nicola.
    If I worked for a publishing company (which I don’t) my criticisms would be:
    a) It requires/expects students to use a specific language item, which makes me question its true communicative value.
    b) It’s not very original, in that this kind of activity (use the past continuous to give alibis) has been around for decades.
    However, this doesn’t seem to be what they have a problem with, as they find the idea “solid”. They do, however, seem to have a problem with the fact that the student who is best at communicating wins the game. So if anything, they seem to think it’s TOO communicative.
    Of course, this is why I don’t work for a publishing company 😉
    If you would like to join me in railing against a system that claims to be communicative but isn’t, please read this and leave comments:

    • Nicola
      October 1, 2013

      Thanks for commenting.
      I am not sure I think that using specific language makes something not communicative. If someone is engaged in an activity, it doesn’t matter what you call it or what the point of it is beyond that. They want to get from A to B and the route to that is language. As long as they care about the journey, good language will get them there and can go off onto as many tangents as it then takes them, providing your true communicative aspect.

      I don’t especially like the often academic, hot air debates about what is or isn’t X. Are the students engaged or not? Entertained or not? That’s it. I don’t care what you call it, or whether it’s task based or communicative or CLIL. Is it engaging?

      I think course books have way too much grammar in them and their syllabus doesn’t dare break away. I’ve tried pitching ideas that are less like that – publishers aren’t interested and as someone pointed out to me, the majority of teachers need that framework as they’re not native speakers and don’t have anywhere near good enough English to let students riff away in English.

      I’m not a fan of grammar as the vehicle all the time, but as long as the activity itself isn’t too grammatical, I can cope with it. Left to my own devices, I’d probably loosen the instructions so the students weren’t forced to use structures. On the other hand, I think if grammar instead, of being analysed and taught, is repeated and then maps or scaffolds future speaking is the way to absorb grammar.

      And originality, I’ve not seen Alibi used quite this way and I think putting something into a different framework is original. Alibi as a competitive game, instead of an open more role play/interview situation is different. Original doesn’t have to mean totally new from scratch. I guess it might that be this variation already exists and I haven’t seen it but then the Aztecs and the Egyptians overlapped on pyramids!

  3. Michelle
    September 30, 2013



    • Nicola
      September 30, 2013

      Hi Michelle,
      I think they give you feedback and a chance to improve it when they want you. As someone said, perhaps they just had the perfect submission so didn’t need to go through that with mine. My experience in Graded Readers has been that proposals that need tweaking are given that space, which is maybe more the case with fiction as it will always be a work in progress before being edited. So, for the coursebook, teacher’s book etc proposals, I think they just prefer to work with people and things that they’ve already decided on.

      For how long to wait…well this one came with a guideline for when I’d get my answer and then an email to say that had been put back a bit. I think if you’ve not had a reply, send them a gentle reminder. I’m sure no feedback doesn’t mean it’s bad, it would just mean they’ve not got time to comment and are using someone that either they know (pardon my cynicism) or they can see has done exactly that work before or magically got their sample 100% “right”.

      I suppose if you look at mainstream publishing, getting a deal without an agent is almost impossible and getting an agent is even harder, so actually EFL is more of an open door. That was meant to be cheering but it didn’t quite come out that way.

      Good luck with your proposal. And thanks for the honesty comment, I fear I am sailing too close to the wind sometimes! Maybe I am. Oh well.:/

      • michelleworgan
        September 30, 2013

        Thanks for such a comprehensive reply, Nicola! I understand how you may feel a bit wary about sharing your feelings on something that pays your wages. The truth is most people avoid anything that might be even slightly controversial so your blog is a refreshing change. I don’t think you need to worry as you are not being negative, just expressing your view of things.

        As for my situation, I think I’ll send them an email to remind them about me! I really would like to get some feedback as it was a lot of work in a short time – I think I deserve it!

      • Nicola
        October 1, 2013

        Yes, well I was always rubbish at not opening my mouth or, at the very least, filtering, so I am trying to turn it into a positive trait!

        Definitely send the reminder. The number of times I’ve got something from sending that reminder is far more than I’ve ever got anywhere by sending pitches in the first place. People sometimes give you something because you’ve just come to the top of their inbox, or they had missed your original thing or read it but then got sucked into something else and forgotten about you. Then they read your new email and someone else’s thing gets forgotten about while they give you a job they just got in!

  4. Mike Butler
    March 11, 2014

    The biggest problem with the Alibi game, and I have seen many versions, is the unreal nature of the game. In real life an Alibi doesn’t need to be good it just needs to be true. So the problem with this game is that in reality there is no such thing as a good Alibi– there are only alibis that can or can’t be corroborated by facts. So to have a winner and a loser seems a bit unrealistic if you don’t have the ability to check facts. So here we have a game with an arbitrary winner. Not really something I would want to bring into my class. People enjoy winning and don’t enjoy losing. Why have this decided on an individual whim? The hardest thing in a game is to produce something in which people care about winning and losing, and they understand clearly what the winning position is and hopefully what tactics or strategies are necessary to get there. Games that don’t offer this probably shouldn’t be called games. They are past times, a way to kill time, or activities. Call it a game and you better make me want to care about who wins.

    I hesitate being critical to someone so talented as you but 1. I wouldn’t submit a game unless I play-tested it a number of times and 2. as I said before, make winning something that everyone will care about.

    By the way, that was a killer posting on how to make graded readers more interesting. I have been using graded readers for 20 years in private classes and I will definitely be using some of your ideas.

    • Nicola
      March 11, 2014

      It’s so long since I made this, I can’t remember exactly how it went so forgive me if I go off track a bit. I think, isn’t Alibi more about role playing and the winners are those that invent things better? It’s a test of strategies of lying, speaking and creativity. I’d care about winning that and I’d speak well and be creative to win. Life also rewards those who do that! My students often beat me at the LIAR type games until I learnt from some of the better ones how to lie better!
      You’re right, it’s not a game, it’s an activity. I have seen Alibi work very well many times so the general concept is not untested for me. I have found students love safe role plays and lying! They know no real crime has been committed so their requirements of the Alibi scenario are of course a matter of suspension of disbelief.
      And criticise away! It’s useful even when I disagree as it makes me think about why. Ultimately this was not commissioned so I’m not going to insist I am right – which it’s not about anyway – it’s about thinking like that particular editor. And when a criticism comes before this sentence: “I hesitate being critical to someone so talented as you” it’s almost more welcome than agreement!
      And thanks for the Graded Reader comment. It really makes me very happy to hear. I love Readers and so keep plugging away at getting them commissioned despite advice to do something that earns me more and actually gets marketed by someone other than just me! But I believe in them as beneficial to students, fun for teachers and students, and they are an outlet for stories so matter a lot to me. I hope I can think of some more things to do with them, and may be adapting things I pick up at conferences for songs/film etc.

  5. Mike Butler
    March 12, 2014

    Ah, so we have an interesting conversation between a person who likes games and one who likes role-plays. Role-playing is not for me and in my experience something like 25% of my students also share ill feelings towards them. I wonder what the downside is to game playing as I do know that there are people who don’t like games with winners and losers.

    I can’t say enough good things about graded readers. For the last 20 years every class I have ever taught has used a reader of some kind. They are far and away the main reason I keep teaching to this day. I have seen wonderful things happen to students who are hungry, involved readers.

    • Nicola
      March 12, 2014

      I see I have to be more careful what I call things. I only meant roleplay in the sense that the person is getting into a flow, in this case lying essentially. People love lying! I hate roleplays too but I think a teacher that loves drama and theatre style teaching can get a lot out of it in class because we transmit our discomfort to the students. Which is odd when you think that life is all about playing roles, different ones in different situations. I’m very different in the classroom compared with real life where I keep away from centre stage in a group. The downside to games, is not people who don’t like winners/losers but people who find it trivial and just don’t care either way. Then there’s no purpose and they will just as happily cheat as participate if it’s quicker.

      But yes, Long Live Graded Readers and all the great things they bring. Stories matter to people – it’s not hard to access that and make it useful for anything, including language learning. How inspiring that you say you are still a teacher because of them!

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This entry was posted on September 30, 2013 by in Teaching English and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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