MWIS Newsletter

MWIS News, Volume 16:3 (August 2003)

by User Not Found | 10/27/2011
In This Issue of the MWIS Newsletter...

Ed. Note: Here are two delightful articles by MWIS members Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz and Rachel Spach Koch. Lynn moderates our e-list while Rachel moderates the Grammar Exchange list.

Many Faces of Co-Authoring
Living Online
About This Member Community

Many Faces of Co-Authoring

by Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz, with Larry Zwier

New Co-Authors Look for a Raison d'Etre

As a relative newcomer to the arena of co-authoring, I recently sent a questionnaire to nine fellow materials writers with co-authoring experience. My purpose was to find some hidden truth about co-authoring, to compare my experience to that of others, and to try to understand why so many authors choose to work in teams. After all, materials writers, as a group, are well known for their independence, for liking to manage their own time, and for having unachievably high standards. So why not stay within the tidy borders of lone authorship?

Like well-intentioned adolescent musings on marriage, my questions had no black-and-white answers. The "hidden truth" I was searching for was not to be found. Instead, what emerged for me was a new, variegated picture of co-authoring. My very definition of "co-authoring" expanded to reflect the personal and distinctive experience of individual author teams. Most importantly, respondents to my questionnaire articulated the unparalleled value of co-authoring, despite its obvious risks and complications.

How Co-Authors Divide Labor
Chapter-by-Chapter Split

In one of his current co-authoring projects, Richard Firsten participates in a classic co-authoring relationship. Firsten and his current co-author are working closely on the four workbooks for Contemporary English, 2nd edition. They have divided their labor in a basic unit-by-unit split. Each writes one complete unit. Then, they swap their writing for editing, suggestions, and revision.

Firsten's neat, 50-50 division of the writing is a classic and it serves many author teams well. Joan Glasner, Keith Folse, and Larry Zwier have all tackled co-authoring projects with a basic, chapter-by-chapter writing split, but other splits are also common.

Author-Editor Split

One is that of writer and editor, where each co-author takes primarily one role. David and Peggy Kehe, a husband-wife co-author team, have written three books together. In their working relationship, David discusses ideas with Peggy. Then, he writes a complete first draft of the book, which he counts to be about 85% of the work. Peggy then edits his work. David says, "If we were forced to reverse roles, we'd never get anything published."

Regardless of the division of labor in a co-authoring team, all co-authoring teams capitalize on editorial input from their co-author. Marcia Fisk Ong values the immediacy of feedback in working with a co-author. She notices that feedback provided by an outside reviewer is slow and doesn't provide a forum for dialog. E-speed exchange encourages developmental discussion with a co-author.

Skill Sets

Many co-author teams take advantage of the varying skills and experiences of each author. For example, Valerie Whiteson co-authored The Play's the Thing (CUP) with Nava Horovitz. In their arrangement, Whiteson had completed most of the manuscript when Horovitz came on board in order to focus the book for the Israeli market. Whiteson felt she had lost touch with the Israeli market, but with her co-author, she was able to add new sections to the existing manuscript. In the end, they split the royalties. (Ironically, the book was never published in Israel.)

Those co-authors who have divided work according to skill sets praise the sum of their complementary abilities. Larry Zwier says that with some co-authors, he is "finally starting to experience the thrill of seeing an idea grow through collaboration... . It's like seeing a basketball team get better as they anticipate each other's moves."


Some writers earned their early stripes by contributing mainly eagerness and diligence to co-authorship teams. Valerie Whiteson, for example, was chosen as a co-author for her first co-authoring project, More Varieties of Spoken English(Oxford University Press) with Ronald Mackin. Mackin brought experience, connections, and faith in Valerie. Valerie brought the workhorse attitude of a first-time author. Deborah Lazarus had a similar experience in co-authoring 101 Activities for English Language Learning with Charles Hirsch. He had connections in the publishing world and he "knew the ropes." She had 20 years of ESL teaching experience and the grindstone mentality.


The majority of co-authors who answered my questionnaire set their work schedules according to their own needs or situation. However, life is not always so predictable.

While collaborating on the New Wave series, Marcia Fisk Ong had to cope with the death of her co-author, Bob Maple, who fell fatally sick while they were working on the project. Their publisher, Longman, was able to negotiate with the author's heirs to rewrite the contract. Marcia took the project to fruition single-handedly, but she now watches a fair percentage of their royalties go to her co-author's estate. (In their case, Bob's initiation of the project and authoring of other books in the same series entrenched his rights to royalties, even though he didn't ultimately write the books in question.)

Defining Co-Authorship

Co-authoring, obviously, is not the single, definable beast I had sought to capture. Instead, it's a dynamic, fluid connection, shaped by the players and needs and by destiny itself. This realization led me to ask my questionnaire respondents a follow-up question, "How do you define co-author?" Here are some of their responses:

1. "Is this a trick question? ... Co-author: The other person that I wrote the book with." Keith Folse

2. " ... those with whom I have actively collaborated and with whom I share royalties." Marcia Fisk Ong

3. A co-author is "someone who signs a contract with you to write a book and will receive a percentage of the royalties." Deborah Lazarus

4. A co-author is a "person who contributes enough to the book without whom the book would not be written or would be written but at a lower quality." David Kehe

One common thread in respondents' definitions of co-authoring relates to the notion of collaboration. Regardless of royalties, initiation, or the division of labor, for many co-authors, the key to "co-authoring" lies in the chemistry of merging thoughts. Consider Marcia Fisk Ong's comments:

Just having my name on the cover with other people's names doesn't qualify [as co-authorship]. I've done a number of "versions," writing alone, with the inclusion of my name on the cover of the Americanization, and while those works are undeniably a blend of the original authors' work and my own, there was never any collaboration with them. I guess a library would consider me a co-author, but it doesn't "feel" like a co-authorship.

On Track and Off Track

In the same pragmatic way that work is allocated, success is defined by need and circumstance. Several co-authors who answered my questionnaire relayed stories of dissolved contractual agreements. In many cases, one co-author felt that s/he was pulling more than his/her share of the weight. In other cases, a co-author felt that s/he had to accommodate inept writing for the sake of his/her co-author's ego. In such cases, the co-author partnership has been known to jeopardize not only a project, but even a friendship. Larry Zwier says, "I think I've managed to avoid losing any [friends], but it hasn't been easy." Valerie Whiteson has lost two good friends in her co-authoring history.

In my own experience in co-authoring a picture process dictionary with Larry Zwier, I was the lead author. Zwier was both co-author and series editor. So, I would write the entire book, which Larry would edit, and he would also create the art specs. Because contracts have to have numbers reflecting the division of labor, Larry and I agreed that ours seemed like a 70%-30% split, which we could discuss later if warranted.

In retrospect, I think our co-authoring actually was about a 70-30 split. However, it's taken time and hindsight for me to realize this. After writing and revising the first draft of the book, which included worksite interviews and lots of language-data collection, I recall feeling that I had surely taken on 90% of the labor. Shortly thereafter, Larry began the laborious task of writing the art specs, fitting each unit onto either one page or two, and improvising where my materials were either too short or too long. In fact, his tasks were proportionately time-consuming, twice as tedious, and immeasurably less appreciated than were mine.

Patience was the name of our game. As Valerie Whiteson points out, co-authoring is "never 50/50 but usually works itself out in the long run if you tackle a few projects together." In fact, Larry and I will do just that, as we signed our second co-authoring contract last autumn for an academic skills, test-prep guide. We will co-author with Cathy Mazak, in her first-time role as co-author.


As a group, the materials writers I know (self included) are independent people. They do have high standards. They do like to manage their own time. And these are precisely the reasons that many materials writers become co-authors. For independent people who spend long hours working alone, co-authorship provides an opportunity for collaboration and brainstorming. Co-authoring serves authors' needs for quality work, because a competent co-author brings new ideas and editorial critique to a work in progress.

With its inevitable quirks and foibles, co-authoring is a slightly messy business, but it pays off in the long run. Each and every one of the nine respondents to my questionnaire answered positively to the question, "Would you co-author again?" All had caveats about their choice of co-author and their "dream-division" of work, but none said 'no.' Indeed, Joan Glasner gave a resounding endorsement of co-authoring: she would absolutely want to do it again, "In fact, I would not want to write on my own at all. ONLY with a partner, but a partner who is equally responsible and capable of course." Even Keith Folse is ready to enter another co-authorship agreement, despite having seen some co-authoring arrangements dissolve completely. Why? Because it saves him time, he gets a better product, and "he's learned a lot about [co-authoring] along the way."

Living Online

by Rachel Spack Koch

I've been living online for almost ten years. I started living online when I became co-monitor of ENGL-SL, the English language discussion list for students, an offshoot of TESL-L. In 1994, Marilyn Martin asked me to be her co-monitor on the list. I didn't know at the time what "co-monitor" meant, but I was delighted to be involved in a project with Marilyn and in a project that had to do with grammar.

What followed was two years of pure fun. It was really hard work but it didn't feel like it. Marilyn and I started the list as a Q and A. Before long, we were presenting our own materials to the list. We embedded grammar materials in a soap opera script every Sunday night and sent it out to the list members. Known as "The Puzzler," the script presented grammar questions for our readers to puzzle over and respond to by noon Friday every week. We had several hundred readers, and we heard from ten to twenty-five individuals with each mailing. We responded to every person who sent in his/her answers, with short explanations. Then, we published all the answers, with more complete explanations, every Friday. We were told that our project was wildly successful - I'm not sure what that means in non-commercial terms - and we stayed with it until the characters in our soap operas were safely engaged to be married or had found the culprit they had been looking for.

In terms of virtual human contact, we had a lot. Our readers - the "dear ladies and gentlemen of ENGL-SL," as I addressed them every week - sometimes wrote to us with more than the answers to the questions or with other grammar questions. Occasionally, they would get involved in the plot of the story, and write about what they thought would happen or what Amanda, my heroine, should do next. They sent Christmas cards and Mother's Day cards and sometimes wrote of their lives.

The activity for ENGL-SL ended but I'm still online. I've written software materials and online testing materials for commercial companies during the last several years, but mainly I've been online. For more than two years I've been the moderator of the Azar Grammar Exchange on the Pearson website. This site was originally conceived as a discussion group for people who wanted to discuss English language topics; it has become, however, almost 100% Q and A. At the time of this writing, 821 members are on our list - from every continent except Antarctica -- and new members come on every week. People write in with questions, averaging five or six per week. I post the question and let it stay on the board for a few days, hoping that one of our readers will answer it and a discussion will follow. That happens occasionally, and when it does, it is a thrilling experience; the high language ability of these few active participants is awesome. However, except for these few grammar enthusiasts, almost no readers respond to others' questions. The answers come from me, or from Marilyn, who joined me on the Grammar Exchange about a year ago. Our correspondence had grown too much for one person to handle.

It's not that I know all the answers-- far from it. But I do have a good idea of where to find them, after a hundred years of teaching grammar. I look in Quirk, Swan, Collins COBUILD English Dictionary (as well as its online concordancer), American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Chicago Manual of Style, New York Times Style Book, Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Longman Essential Activator, David Crystal's Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics... and more. Sometimes it takes hours to research a question. I'm fairly confident that the answers are right when I post them, but I like to leave a question open for any further discussion that might be stimulated.

Here's a sampling of questions from our Newsgroup:

What's the difference between "shall" and "will"?

Is the sentence/phrase "It's my way or the highway" some kind of expression? What does it mean? Where does it originally come from?

Why do we say: "I'm going home" and NOT "I'm going to home"? We say: "to the store," "to the airport" -- why is "home" different?

Do sentences with "was/were supposed to" always signal past unfulfilled expectation?

How do you explain "a girl," but not "a Judy"? "The US.A." but not "the Canada"?

What's the rule about forming compound nouns or noun phrases? Is it "cow milk" or "cow's milk"? "Car battery" or "car's battery"?

My question is whether there is any difference in the use of "talk" vs. "speak," and what the difference is.

I wonder if the plural of mouse (computer device) is "mice" or "mouses."

I wonder if it is correct to say "women jobs"? Wouldn't it be better to say "woman jobs"?

Hi! I'm a second year student, and I cannot understand what is the category of aspect? What is the difference between aspect and tense? I've consulted Longman Contemporary Grammar, but still, it's not clear for me.

A typical day for me means checking the Newsgroup five or six or seven times, writing an e-mail or two to a reader who has written with a question or a comment, and doing the research and writing necessary to answer a couple of questions. Periodically, I send out a newsletter and I keep up a mailing list. I work with the Pearson people on maintaining the website and the archives. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of this job for me is the virtual contact with our readership, a few of whom send me holiday cards and warm greetings as the ENGL-SL readers did. Living online is what I do and for me it's anything but lonely.

Here's what it helps to have for a rewarding life online:

  1. You would expect "discipline" to appear on this list. Discipline is, of course, essential, setting a schedule and sticking to it desirable. However, since you have freelance writing jobs, I assume that one of the reasons you chose freelancing is to have a high degree of flexibility. Discipline, in this kind of job, is not necessarily working a regular work-week, but still making sure to have the required work done by a certain time - in other words, meeting deadlines (which are often of your own making).
  2. Flexibility --- certainly as regards work schedule - is key. You may have a life, with family responsibilities, a day job or jobs, friends, a social life, a community life, maybe even a hobby, and you may occasionally take a trip. You still need to write the product within a time limit, so necessarily your working hours have to fit in; you might not write every day, but certainly you should count on writing 30 hours per week - the 30 hours including all the writing projects you are working on.
  3. Since flexibility of working time is so important, it really helps if you have insomnia. I have done some of my best work in the wee hours of the morning, maximizing the fact that I can't sleep anyway.
  4. Reliable equipment and internet connections are vital. Since you are not part of a system with its own IT department, you'd better have your own, trusty computer person, who can attend to you at the drop of a hat.
  5. If you are interacting with readers, it's good to have an ability to form instant relationships on line. People on interactive sites appreciate not only a quick response, but also the idea that the writer at the other end cares about them personally.
  6. As a corollary to having successful online relations, you need a good feel for public relations. Sometimes there are requests - sometimes appropriate, sometimes not - to be forwarded to the publisher. Occasionally you get an outrageous question that must be answered tactfully. Every communication to the website must be addressed, and addressed diplomatically.
  7. An ability to stay at the computer for eight to ten hours a day, if necessary. Of course, it is not always necessary. But when the question load is heavy, when you've set a deadline for yourself, when you need to do a lot of research, when you can't work for a few days due to family matters, dental work, travel cross-country to a wedding or funeral, you still have to be able to see the assignment through in a timely manner.
  8. Caller ID to screen out calls when you're working is pretty cool. By now, my personal callers are not surprised if I don't pick up the phone.
  9. A laptop helps. Mine is so small that I can easily take it with me on planes, work while waiting in doctors' offices, even as a passenger on long car trips.
  10. You do need discipline as regards regular exercise. All this sitting at the computer is bad for many parts of the body. Try to get some physical exercise every day - an hour's walk or swim or exercise class. I think exercise really does stimulate the creative process.

Here are some lovely benefits of living online: the satisfaction of knowing that you are reaching people all over the world, even in remote parts; receiving e-mail from readers; finding soul-mates in Siberia; doing the research for esoteric questions and writing comprehensible answers that are appreciated. Some unexpected benefits include having exposure and a certain amount of recognition at TESOL, and, once in a while receiving a job offer and certainly making contacts should you want to extend your client base. For me, though, the most satisfying part is feeling connected to our readers, knowing that I'm giving them information that they want.

For me, there is almost no downside to this job. I have worked through some weekends, and missed a couple of events, but that's the trade-off. The only traumatic event was when my computer crashed, and I was not able to retrieve all of my data. I was told I was exhibiting symptoms of a nervous breakdown. Now I'm careful to back up everything on disk.

I am living the good life online.

About the author(s): Rachel Spack Koch, or

About This Member Community

Materials Writers Interest Section

MWIS is open to TESOL members who are published writers and to other members who are interested in producing ESL or EFL materials. MWIS recognizes the different features of materials preparation:

  • medium refers to materials that are carried in print, on tape, film video, or by computer;
  • audience refers to materials that are aimed at specific age groups, geographical, national, or regional areas, linguistic populations with unique needs;
  • use refers to materials for group instruction in classroom settings or for individual self-instruction;
  • skill treatment refers to materials designed to develop listening, speaking, reading, writing, or any combination of these skills;
  • focus refers to materials based on the presentation of form (grammar and vocabulary), function (social purpose), and content or any combination of the above.


Chair: Irene Schoenberg,
Co-Chair Elects: Deborah Gordon,, Susan Iannuzzi,
Immediate Past Co-Chairs: Pat Byrd,, Cynthia Schuemann,
Newsletter Editor: Deborah Lazarus,

E-list: Join MWIS-L online at or e-mail

More Resources:
  • President's Message: April/May 1998
  • President's Message: August/September 1998
  • Designing a Distance Education Program for ESP
  • Teaching in Cyberspace: Tales From the Trenches
  • Wondering What's Worth a Visit on the Web?