An Interview with Marc Helgesen
by Tim Newfields
Marc Helgesen is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women's University in Sendai and adjunct lecturer at Columbia University
Teachers College in Toyko. Marc is the author of over 40 books – including the English Firsthand series,
Workplace English series, and Impact. Teaching in Japan since 1982, his interests include
language planning, Innervoice, extensive reading, and listening. This interview was conducted in the autumn of 2003 by e-mail.
How have your concepts about text writing evolved over the years?
Two things have happened: my own thinking as a writer has changed and the publishing business has changed.
About my own evolution as a writer: The first edition of English Firsthand came out in 1986. That was the height of the communicative revolution - and we really thought of it as involving radical change. This was also the crest of Krashenism, which asserted lots of comprehensible input was all it took to develop fluency. Since then, I think we've recognized that "it ain't that simple" and a more balanced view of grammar and function has been found. Focus on Form (FonF) is now recognized as important. Overall, books and the ideas behind them are more complex and focussed. Not just my EFL books – nearly all of them. Many of the basic ideas behind communicative language teaching, however, remain solid. We still believe students don't study to someday communicate - they communicate and that's how they study.
The publishing business has also undergone significant transformations. On the positive side, textbooks are more professional. Authors, editorial staff, and marketing people are generally more knowledgeable now than two decades ago. . . On the down side, books have gotten more expensive to produce. As a result, publishers tend to resist taking risks because a lot of money is at stake. However avoiding risks is a mistake since doing new things is necessary for progress. I've been lucky with Longman because since English Firsthand is already successful, they are more likely to listen to new ideas . . . The general trend, however, makes it harder for new people to break into publishing. Please keep in mind I'm talking about large-scale professional publishing in which manuscripts go though a rigorous editorial revision, review feedback, and design process. It is pretty easy to self-publish or do small-scale publishing. However, such books tend to last only a season or two because they aren't well edited or promoted.
What do you like most about being an author?
Why do we become teachers? For most of us, it is a way to make a difference . . . we are all part of the educational profession. As a teacher, I have just over 300 students. As a writer, I have thousands of students. Of course, I'm not naive or egotistical enough to think teachers use my books the way I do. But they do take the material and use it in ways they think will help their students. And if what I do facilitates that, it is pretty exciting.
Recently English Firsthand has been revised. What are the key changes?
We've always tried to break some new ground. In the previous edition, we were one of the first course books to provide student CDs, a web site, and a section with questions directly for learners. In the new edition, we've continued this trend by adding new features such as the "Plan Ahead" section, which has a language planning syllabus that lets learners think through what they want to say. . . We've also put all the homework pages online. Students can do the homework on-line, check it, then print it out. It gives them immediate feedback and saves teachers time (always good). We've also introduced pronunciation tasks with a "repeat it silently in your mind" step. Pronunciation work, to be effective, involves more than mechanical repetition - students have to be able to hear and reproduce sounds mentally before they can do so aloud outside of very controlled situations.
You're an editorial advisor for the Monkasho-approved New Columbus text series.
Can you mention something about this series, and also how Monkasho guidelines have influenced editorial decisions?
It's fascinating to work on. The process is very different than publishing with Longman or Cambridge. And that's not a put down – I'm not saying worse, just different. Publishing with western publishers is usually driven by the personality and vision of one or two authors, coupled with the editorial, design and marketing teams. Working on a Monkasho book is a larger team effort. All those people listed on the back page are really involved. So developing broad consensus among many parties is necessary. Monkasho books are adopted by whole school systems – cities and prefectures, so such books to work for teachers with a wide range of beliefs, experience levels, and types of training. I have a lot of respect for the teachers who do such writing.
The Monkasho guidelines are something to keep in mind, but are seldom much of an issue. Trying to do new things while making it transparent what precisely you want readers to do is more of a concern. The biggest way the Monkasho guidelines are an obstacle is how they limit the vocabulary: certain words have to be included in each text. Generally those are no problem because they are all high frequency words. The difficulty is in introducing new words, because you are limited in the total number of words you can include.
We are revising the New Columbus series. The new edition will deal with some issues not usually seen in Monkasho approved textbooks, including stuff about the weird mix of emotions that junior high students deal with in terms of love, self-confidence, and issues like that. 13-15 has to be about the strangest years in anyone's life, so it is interesting dealing with that.
What advice would you give for people who are starting out developing EFL materials?
Gee, how about a "top 10 list"?
Marc's 10 things you need to remember if you want to be an author.
- Put your ideas on the road. JALT presentations. Your local ETJ chapter. Newsletter articles. Anywhere. The experience presenting ideas
on paper and in person are valuable. The feedback (feed forward?) is even more valuable. Also, this is how you get "discovered" by a publisher
– and that's how it usually works. Publishers find potential authors, not usually the other way around.
- The sooner you get that you are part of a team, the happier you will be. The editor, designer and marketing people are just as important to a project as you are. If you think an editor is mainly a person who spells better than you, either be prepared to change your opinion or don't bother getting into the game.
- If those other people (editor, marketing etc.) aren't an important part of your project, you are probably dealing with a second rate publisher (more like a printer than a publisher) and you will end up being disappointed. It isn't that hard to get a book into print. Actually getting it used by lots of teachers is the way to make a difference.
- Don't set out to write "the new ________" (Firsthand, Interchange, Side-by-side, whatever). If you do, you are looking in the wrong direction. Look forward, not backward. Innovate.
- Yes, innovate. But about 80% of the book has to be instantly transparent to a teacher. That sounds like I'm saying be conservative. I'm not. If you do 20% innovation, that is a huge space to play.
- Learn the basics of how to do a proposal. It's been written up dozens of times. One easy place to find the guidelines is at www.longmanjapan.com/EHTML/Main/Editorial/Pub_Gui.html [Expired Link].
- A couple other resources are Materials Development in Language Teaching, edited by Brian Tomlinson (1998, Cambridge) and the Materials Writer Guide by Pat Byrd (1995, Heinle [Thomson]). Read them both. As someone who's a lousy speller and a lousy — but fast — typist, I love the fact that a typo made it onto the spine.
- A few years ago, some other Japan-based authors and I did an article about our experiences. It is at http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/files/00/feb/helgesen.html. Have a look.
- Don't plan on making any money. You're almost certain to be disappointed. I once joked that writing books works out to about ¥100 an hour. Another author commented: Your books are doing that well?
- You're going to write. Then rewrite. Then rewrite. Then the work starts.