MATSDA is a non-profit making international association, based in Leeds, which was founded in 1993 by Brian Tomlinson to bring together researchers, publishers, writers and teachers to work together towards the development of high quality materials for the learning of languages. SPOTLIGHT is their journal. Peter was interviewed for the 2007 issue. Each Writer Spotlight includes an “Author test” by Dorothy Zemach, which I have included below the article.
Folio Journal, Volume 11.2, April 2007
Featured Writer Questions: Peter Viney
When were you born, or born again, as a materials writer?
I first taught English in summer holidays from university from 1967 on, and my first full-time job was at Anglo-Continental (ACSE) in Bournemouth in 1971. ACSE always relied mainly on home-produced material and had a Research & Development Department. We used to do a weekly sketch revue for students (to an audience of 400) and I met Karen, my wife and co-writer while doing the shows. They were called “Drama Evenings“. In the summer of 1971, our basic team was Colin Granger, Guy Wellman, Karen and me. All became material writers. I started writing original sketches with Karen when I took over producing the shows after Colin left in September 1971, so Karen and I have been writing together that long.
I wrote several internal courses for ACSE, then I met Bernie Hartley, and we started what became Streamline. It had been used with 2000 students before we ever approached a publisher. I started writing full-time in 1980.
Karen and I resumed writing together for our first video, A Weekend Away, in 1984.
Which materials writing project are you proud of the most/least?
The most? I’d find it hard to draw a line between the main contenders.
Streamline Departures because it has been such a major course and it was the biggest thrill to hold in my hand for the first time. People remember the humour, but in retrospect the ‘Everyday Conversation’ sections were attempts to stress the importance of formulas and fixed expressions, or lexical chunks if you want to sound up to date.
Karen and I have done thirteen video series, and Only in America stands out, partly for the cast, including a young, just-graduated Edward Norton, and partly because we refined our approach to Video Activity Books.
Handshake was our most innovative book, basing the syllabus on communication skills, and we’re both very proud of that ten years on.
But for most writers, the most recent is the best, and if I could only choose one it would be the IN English series, where the format and attention to illustration finally achieved what we’d been aiming at for years – Grapevine Two is very close to it in our minds.
It’s great when teachers approach you at talks and say ‘I learned English from your book, and I enjoyed the lessons so much I became an English teacher.” It always used to be Streamline they meant, but increasingly it’s Grapevine.
I wouldn’t put my name on anything I was ashamed of, but the first Mary Glasgow version of Survival English was badly illustrated and the writing was strictly divided between the two authors, rather than shared. I got the chance to totally re-write it working on my own for Heinemann in 1994, replacing 80% of it, then again more recently I did another major rewrite for Macmillan. I’m proud of the book as it is now (with nothing of the original left), but the 1978 Mary Glasgow version would be my least favourite of my books.
Streamline Destinations was a salutory lesson too. We kept strictly to the single page unit format, when really we should have changed format for the third level (as I later did in the fourth, Streamline Directions). As a result the pages were too cramped. I have fond memories of writing it though. Bernie and I rented our first office very cheaply. No one else would rent it because it belonged to a condom distributor, whose name was writ large over the door. We reasoned that as we never had any visitors we could live with the shame of walking in there on a daily basis. Then halfway through writing it, we moved to a tiny triangular office next to a dressmaker with a parrot which talked all day. At that point we were still writing well together (in spite of the parrot), in retrospect for the last time. It’s not true that the parrot influenced our methodology on repetition work.
Who or what has had the greatest influence on your materials writing?
Other ELT writers, definitely. I have the greatest respect for ELT writers and have argued that popular coursebooks are far more influential than the collected works of (e.g.) Krashen. So a few …
Colin Granger, for introducing me to the idea that humour was essential. My first day at ACSE consisted of watching Colin teach.
Alan McInnes, the DoS at ACSE, who stressed the need for a step-by-step foolproof teacher’s book.
Louis Alexander for meticulous attention to structural progression from simple to complex.
Robert O’Neill for the pairing of situation with content, and for being an inspiring speaker, writer and teacher.
The late Bernie Hartley who had defined and refined a micro-skills approach to teacher-training better than anyone I’ve seen. He used to say, ‘there’s no magic to this – anyone can learn to apply the techniques.’ He was wrong though, because he definitely had the magic as well.
What do you regard as your Achilles heel as a materials writer?
I thought of a few (which I decided to keep quiet about), then asked Karen. I was surprised at the answer, but she has been writing with me for a long time. She reckoned over-attention to minor structural detail, and flogging a dead horse (continuing to argue the point with editors rather than just getting on with something different). Then she added eternal optimism; my faith that publishers will do their job and promote effectively. It’s an Achilles Heel because it’s so often been proved wrong.
What do you regard as your strongest attribute as a materials writer?
Contextualization. We spend more time choosing the context that anything else, trying to get something striking and / or original whenever we can. At this point in my life, I could sit down right now and dash you off a five page unit on used to in a morning, with long coffee breaks, while listening to music, and it would work (and not look much different from a dozen other textbook units on the same topic!). But we never work like that. The unit on used to in IN English took us about a week with both of us working full time. That’s how much stuff we rejected. And we researched all the pictures ourselves.
In the last twenty years we’ve worked as much on video as on textbooks, and with video, finding the context and the story for the short humorous vignette takes days. Then actually writing the script at that point is relatively easy. We always act out dialogues between us.
When Grapevine was first published the blurb described us as having ‘the common touch’ whatever that is. I think they meant that we use all sorts of popular media for ideas, and don’t make the assumption that students are would-be Radio Four listeners, desperate to listen to five or six minute monologues. A journalist friend of mine said we must be the only people he knows who buy both The Guardian AND The Daily Mail on a regular basis. Here’s a tip. We rarely use authentic extracts, but if we see a news story that’s interesting, we check for it in every newspaper for that day. Inevitably, the serious press will have too many long words and hard structures. The tabloid press will have far too much current slang. Nine times out of ten, the Daily Mail extract will be the most useful.
What is your pet peeve concerning ELT materials?
This crosses into question 8. It’s the prevalence of the “one size fits all” mentality. I’m over six foot tall, and Karen’s five foot, so we’ve never found a one size fits all garment that fits either of us. A few years ago, I was talking to a Director of Studies in Europe who discussed the great variety of courses her school ran; early teenagers boosting their school lessons, housewives, retirees, job seekers, business people, exam preparation, first year university students, technical courses, travel and tourism etc. I asked her which textbooks she had selected. Her answer was just one (one size fits all). They used the same series for every class because teachers found it more convenient. I asked if that one course was more suited to the more academic groups, and she said that it was. The less academic groups didn’t have the English nor the confidence to complain. The more academic groups did. The tendency to “one size fits all” has got worse. It suits publishers.
What is the strangest, funniest or most embarrassing thing you have seen in ELT materials?
I have quite a collection of ELT textbooks and some of the funniest moments from the past are used in the current talk that Karen and I are doing, English As A Funny Language: A Short History of ELT Dialogue. I won’t spoil it by revealing them.
Favourite ELT book title: The Secret Key To the Mastery of The (sic) English (seen in Greece). The subtitle “In only 8 hours!” improves it.
Most embarrassing thing? One of our books went out to readers. The editor thought that our two pages of illustration notes for one page of text was not necessary, so decided not to include it. How readers made any sense of page one of a beginner’s book without illustration notes is beyond me. But bravely they tried to comment on four short lines of text. Then in the grammar section, the same nameless editor decided to change “possessive adjective” to “possessive pronoun” several times without telling us. When challenged, s/he said “but ‘my’ is a possessive pronoun.” Not one reader commented on it.
What one thing would you like to tell the world of publishing?
Tempting! ELT Publishing has changed so that there’s a huge gap between the UK four big publishers and the rest. Go back to when I started writing, and there were ten or twelve reasonable sized publishers. It’s become harder to innovate and harder to take risks. There isn’t the authors’ training ground of writing for smaller publishers in the same way.
Then the way things are researched (with each publisher asking much the same group of people to pilot materials) leads to everyone reaching the same conclusions. In my experience, editors are aware of the problems of piloting, but no one knows what to do about it. In short, the people who will give an articulate pilot report are an elite, and it’s near impossible to pilot to a broad enough base of teachers.
As a result, we’ve seen twenty years of publishers competing to clone the same successful textbook. My feeling is that the next Headway in terms of massive global success won’t be a clone of Headway. But everyone still keeps trying.
with questions by Dorothy Zemach
and answers by Peter Viney
Dorothy: So… you’re thinking of writing a book! How nice. But are you sure you have what it takes? This simple diagnostic can let you know. Each prompt is something an editor might say to you. Circle the response that is closest to your own. If you pass the test, an editor will be in touch with you shortly. Please don’t call us, though, we’ll call you.
1. We’re thinking of launching a new low-level series of writing books.
- Sure! How much will I get?
- I have one already finished. It doesn’t need any changes because I already used it with my class. How soon can you start selling it?
- Could we schedule a phone call sometime soon? I have a few ideas about writing I’d like to discuss with you.
Peter: (C) though (A) should come up quite swiftly in the scheduled phone call, but realistically it’s “How much might I get IF it actually happens.” Because most projects never get off the ground.
2. Thanks for sending the first chapter. However, I didn’t see the listening scripts. Could you send those as well?
- I can’t write the listening scripts until the art is in place. It might also be better to have the actors just look at the art and then speak naturally, rather than using something scripted. We don’t want it to sound too “ESL.”
- Oh, it doesn’t really matter what goes there. I’m sure whatever you do will be fine.
- Actually, I haven’t written them yet. I wanted to make sure the exercise types were OK first, and that the topics were all right. If those things look OK, I’ll go ahead and write scripts and send them to you. Is by this Monday OK with you?
Peter: None of this would apply. I wouldn’t submit anything with “important bits to follow” because it would have to be integrated in my mind.
3. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to use the photo of your sister in Unit 12. Its resolution isn’t high enough.
- You have to use that photo, or the entire unit falls apart.
- No problem—I have LOTS of other photos of my sister. I’m attaching all of them to this email.
- Oh, that’s a shame. Well, as long as you can find another photo of a woman in a city stepping out of a taxi, that’s OK.
Peter: We spend more time on art than other authors we know, and the resolution would be high enough if I’d taken it. We don’t use many library photos. We prefer to commission photos with very detailed art briefs, or use ones I’ve taken myself. It would be close to (C), but it would actually be “OK, I’ll research a photo of a woman stepping out of a taxi on Hulton-Getty myself.” and I’d clip a low-res download into the manuscript and list the Hulton-Getty prices for different resolutions. Once a commissioned photo for a recent book was dark and gloomy because it was raining hard when it was taken in London. I took my son and a friend of my daughter’s down to the beach at Poole and retook the scene on a bright sunny day with them as models to replace it. (IN English Starter page 24). It’s not perfect, and has a few shadows a professional photographer would reject, but it’s a more interesting setting than a gloomy street.
4. Exercise 3 in Unit 7 isn’t working.
- The hell it isn’t.
- Really? OK, let me know how you fix it.
- What isn’t working—is it the exercise type or the content? If the level or the vocabulary is a problem, I’d like to revise it. But if you’d like a different type of exercise or different content, I have some other ideas we could discuss.
Peter: I’d think (A), but I’ve been doing this job too long to expect to get away with it, so I’d swallow hard, force a smile, and say (C).
5. The pp. 66-67 spread comes in at 2,500 words, but we briefed you to write no more than 600 for this feature. Could you re-work it?
- Everything in there is essential. Just have the designer use a smaller font.
- OK, just cut the last 2000 words, I guess.
- Oh, sorry. 600? OK, I’ll re-work it.
Peter: That can only be (C). But if it was an article for a magazine, it would be worth trying, ‘Yes … why don’t you publish it in four parts? I’ll give you a discount and only charge for three …’
6. Did you finish Chapter 9 yet? Remember, you were going to send it to me on Monday, so I’m just checking to see how things are going.
- Oh, you wouldn’t BELIEVE the week I’ve been having! First, my plantar fasciitis flared up. So painful! I couldn’t go to my aerobics class all week, I can barely hobble around, it’s just awful. Then my in-laws came, and while they’re lovely people, they never help out around the house, so you can imagine all the extra work! I was going to work on Chapter 9 on Thursday, after I finished grading my stacks of papers! (oh, my!) but then the dog ate something funny and got sick and we had to rush him to the vet. I brought my notes for the chapter to the vet, but someone else’s cat sat on them and, well, anyway, I’ll have to start again! Unless my fibromyalgia acts up again!!
- I sent that on Monday. I guess your email wasn’t working correctly or something. Just in case, I’ll send it again next week.
- I’m really sorry. I got tied up with other things at work. But I’m mostly done and should be able to send it to you by Thursday morning your time. I hope that’s OK.
Peter: In the hypothetical event it would be (C), but in my experience it would usually be me asking the editor why it hadn’t been commented on as agreed. Then asking again a week later. And again a week after that. They’d reply that they were far too busy to edit it because they’d been tied up on management appraisals followed by a three day course on “How to keep your authors happy.”
7. Unfortunately, feedback from our Turkish and Middle Eastern markets is indicating that the reading in Chapter 3, “Prostitution: A Great Business Model,” isn’t really appropriate. I think we’ll need to replace that with something that doesn’t mention selling one’s body or pimping.
- Big publishers are so racist, homophobic, sexist, and backwards that I cannot believe it. No wonder all coursebooks look the same—you’re afraid to use fresh, interesting material. I used that reading with dozens of classes and all my students loved it. If you want me to trot out another tired topic like hobbies or directions or ordering in a restaurant, I’m just going to take my book to a different publisher, and then you’ll be sorry when it makes a million bucks.
- OK, just change “body” to another noun and “pimping” to another verb. I think the rest of the article will still work.
- Oh, too bad—I liked the structure of that article. However, I have another article that might work as well, an interview with the president of a small organic food company that has had great success. I’m sending you the article, and if you think it works, let me know and I’ll redo the exercises to fit it.
Peter: (C) – I’ve seen this too often not to self-edit in advance.
But another answer is:
“When you commissioned the book for your ESP list as ‘An English Manual for Sex Trade Operatives in Northern Europe’ you failed to mention that your marketing department would subsequently try to sell it to high schools in Turkey, and primary schools in Greece as a general English course. I am sorry to hear that you’ve never had a distributor in the Netherlands or Germany, but this should have been mentioned at the outset. If I’d had your highly optimistic marketing intention made clear to me at the beginning of the project, I wouldn’t have spent so long researching the retro Victorian photographs (royalty free) for the unit on Flagellation (Chapter 4) nor would I have agreed to pay the Estate of D.H. Lawrence £100 for the short but pithy extract from Lady Chatterley’s Lover on page 169. I agree that the change of title to ‘Ups and Downs: English for Manual Sex Trade Operatives The World Over’ has created potential problems in selling it into Faith Schools. I am flattered by the proposed cover blurb ‘A novel and exciting way of teaching imperative forms’ but think it unfair as well as potentially actionable to link it to the TPR (Total Physical Response) methodology.
While we’re on the topic of your marketing department, please thank your marketing director for the list of countries where he thought the original plan for the book was “right on the spot” but this could be read as a list of countries which are highly unlikely ever to pay royalties, as most are centres for book piracy. I would add that the G!!! in parentheses after “right on the spot” is hardly the sort of vulgar comment one expects from a senior representative of such an old and distinguished publishing house. Writing “Gettit?” in red ink in the margin was hardly necessary either.”
8. We’ve had a lot of requests from the markets to add a grammar presentation box to each unit. Do you think you could do that?
- Well, excuse me, but the research shows that grammar boxes are worthless.
- Sure, go ahead.
- I’m not really sure that will work best with the units as they are. Could we maybe put the grammar boxes in the review units, at the back of the book, or in the teacher’s edition?
Peter: (C), but I’d add “I could clip them in from the many examples I already have on file … it won’t take long.”
9. The piloters reported having difficulty with the open-ended test questions. Students didn’t know what to do, and teachers had trouble with the grading. Could we go with some more standard formats, such as multiple choice, matching, tick the boxes?
- Oh, don’t even get me started on standardized testing! That’s what’s wrong with 90% of English classes out there. See, this course is teaching students to actually think. And if teachers don’t know how to teach, that’s really not my problem.
- That sounds fine. But please send the revised tests to me when they’re done so I can look them over.
- OK. I’ll rework the material and send it back to you. It will probably take me about a week.
Peter: (A) would run through my mind, but age and wisdom should make it (C). However as these are certainly going to be free photocopiable tests that I’ll never see a penny for, (B) is the choice. I couldn’t have done that ten years ago, but I’m less of a control freak now.
10. You’ll be pleased to know that first pass pages have come back from the designer. I think they’re looking pretty good!
- Please send me 25 copies, bound, so I can use them with my fall class. I’ll look for typos while I teach.
- I hope you got that photo of my sister in there. I already told her we were going to use it.
- Oh, good news! Thanks for letting me know. And let me know if you need any changes from me.
Peter: I’d go into my “standard reply” file and press (C). It starts out “Dear ____. Thanks for letting me know about ____.” I hope I’d remember to fill in the blanks.
11. Your book is finished! Congratulations! We hope to launch it at several conferences this year.
- I’ll go to Brazil, Tahiti, and Thailand. I’m bringing my wife, small children, and dog, too, so please book a double suite. And please arrange a meeting with the general manager to discuss my next books.
- Great. Please send the royalty check as soon as possible. I really need the money.
- Wonderful! Thank you so much for all your hard work. I’m really pleased with the way the book came out. By the way, I have some free time this summer and fall, so I’d be available for conference presentations. Just let me know.
On promotions, I’ve done far fewer in recent years, but did enough in the past. People often speak about them as if they’re free jaunts or “jollies”. They’re not (for authors at least). They’re extremely hard work with the advantage being that you learn a great deal about the ELT situation in different countries. Normally, you get the chance to eat in good restaurants chosen by locals, but opportunities for “tourism” are limited or non-existent. I did most of my travelling when I had young children, and never wanted to add days at either end. I chose to make the maximum use of the time, by attending other lectures and speaking to teachers on the publisher’s stand. If a place took my fancy, I’d visit it later with the family and do the tourist bit then at my own expense. I’ve even flown to Paris, arrived at 12, got in a car to the venue, checked the video equipment, spoken from 2 to 3, got in a car and been on the 5 pm flight home without either hot food or the French language passing my lips in France. “Going to Paris on Saturday” is not necessarily fun.