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Creating a textbook: my first year as a Modern Foreign Languages Editor

Harriette Newcombe provides an insight into the life of an Oxford University Press editor. This article was first published in the Independent Schools’ Languages Association magazine.

At school I was far too busy trying to distinguish my relative pronouns from my infinitives to give any thought to the work that goes into breathing life into a textbook. I never for once considered how much energy goes into a title before it gets anywhere near a classroom, nor did I ever imagine that one day I’d be part of the Oxford University Press Modern Languages Editorial Team working on resources for the UK secondary schools market.

In my first few months as an editor, two things have surprised me. Firstly, I’ve realised just how much work and collaboration goes into publishing a course. It can take up to two years to get a new course written and published – and it involves an extensive team of people: authors, editors, designers, picture researchers, photographers, artists, and video and sound producers. Secondly, I’ve quickly realised that being an editor isn’t just about sitting in front of a computer screen or behind a pile of proofs in a quiet room, silently reading and marking corrections to pages. Although I do spend time on this, most of my time is spent ‘project managing’ and discussing queries and schedules with authors and designers and the rest of the project team.

A team effort: working with authors and others

We rarely publish unsolicited manuscripts; the ‘idea’ for a book or course is usually based on our consultation and research with teachers, in which we aim to pinpoint what they want from the resources for their students. Refining the idea is very much a team effort, involving authors, editors, sales and marketing feedback, and further market research. The idea is proposed to our publishing board, and if investment is approved then formal commissioning takes place – contracts are issued to authors, a tight brief is sent out, and writing starts.

From that point on, as an editor, I am trying to ensure that a high quality book is published both within budget and on time.

Our language courses consist of a large number of components, and therefore rigorous cross-departmental scheduling must take place. Right from the start, I work very closely with the author as I diagnose and suggest ways to avoid any potential problems with the manuscript.

The creative aspect: ‘development editing’

When working on and developing the draft manuscript, I refer to the brief, and, if appropriate, the exam board specification, the GCA grammar list, and past exam papers from the relevant exam board. This ‘development editing’ is arguably the most well-known aspect of the editorial role to those outside the industry and I think most editors would say that they enjoy it due to the creative element involved. The main things I look out for are difficulty levels of exercises, engagement and variation of activities, progression, skills coverage, length of content, and relevancy and sensitivity to topics covered.

It is also important to implement style, and if there are two editors working on titles within the same series, as is currently the case with our Zoom Deutsch 2 and Zoom español 2 11-14 courses, we have to keep in constant communication about the stylistic elements that feature in our units.

Should a title be endorsed by an exam board, as are many of our titles, it is my responsibility to send first drafts to be reviewed by the board and feedback to the author. Otherwise, I send material to be reviewed by a teacher. Some units can be fast-tracked in order to generate sample material which is often sent to teachers, not only to make them aware of any new publishing that might be of use to them, but also to allow for feedback which we will have time to implement before final publication.

Copyediting for the typesetters

When I’m happy with the next draft, I send it to a copyeditor who formats the text and edits grammar, punctuation, style, consistency, language level, and ease of reading. One of my first ever editorial tasks was to copyedit some worksheets for our OxBox CD-ROMs. Copyediting was explained to me as a type of coding for typesetters to understand, i.e. all headings to be formatted in a certain way. A copyeditor’s role may also extend to cutting material if it looks as though there is too much.

Generally an author writes the answers as they are writing the manuscript and these are then sent to be copyedited and compiled in the Teacher Book. The copyeditor can also be asked to compile an audioscript for recordings and artwork briefs, as authors will have included image suggestions within the text. The copyeditor plays quite an instrumental role in preparing the manuscript for publication.

The excitement of first proofs

First proofs are always exciting; the notion of a freshly printed textbook hot off the press becomes a lot more tangible as I get to see for the first time how the designers and typesetters have interpreted my ideas and transferred them to a page. I then mark up the proofs and include feedback from native speakers who also receive a copy of the first proofs so that by the time a book goes to press it has been scrutinised by multiple pairs of eyes.

Audioscripts are native speaker checked, updated, and sent to be recorded. Later, when the producers send back the tracks, I listen to each one with the transcript and ensure that everything matches and that the speed and accents are appropriate for the level. The design team, with my input, creates the covers and booklets for the Audio CDs, as they do for any other printed parts.

Meanwhile, depending on the project, I may have to travel on location to shoot the videos for our OxBox CD-ROMs which feature native speakers and cover the content for each unit of the Student Book, as was the case with Clic! and Zoom. These videos are scripted to engage students and pull together all aspects of our course. The producers edit the material filmed and invite editors to attend a mini-premiere further down the line.

Cross-referencing challenges…

Another challenging part of working with language resources can be the cross- referencing between the components, particularly when a series consists of multiple languages. I have to make sure that each component contains consistent referencing (e.g. correct track numbers on transcripts) so that teachers can navigate through them as smoothly as possible. The Student Book is the core component for a course, and a course like Zoom can include OxBox CD-ROMs which include assessments, copymasters and interactive assessments, as well as separate workbooks, audio CDs and a Teacher Book, so it can take quite some time.

As soon as I’m sure that no other improvements can be made to the final proofs, I notify the production team for printing. After this point I have minimal involvement with the process; apart from one final check of proofs.

Advance copies – a great moment!

I can then breathe a brief sigh of relief, but before I know it I’m already working on the next project. Advance copies of the finished product arrive from the printer – a great moment! The stock is received in the warehouse and distributed so that classrooms across the country can enjoy their shiny new language courses in the full knowledge that the editors here at Oxford University Press have worked to cater to their every need! I then keenly await feedback, as it helps us improve our future courses.