Authoring Framework

26 Ten Tips for Authoring Success

Linda Frederiksen

This chapter was written by Linda Frederiksen, Head of Access Services, Washington State University Vancouver.

From generating awareness and finding partners, to developing and completing projects on time, to assessing and sustaining resources and funding, writing open textbooks can be both a highly rewarding and challenging enterprise. Based on conversations with authors and project managers who have successfully developed and produced open textbooks, this is a list of authoring tips for success. It describes practical and philosophical strategies for authoring, particularly in a higher education environment, and provides support for those considering this worthwhile and exciting prospect.

In early 2017, I contacted OER authors and project managers and asked:

“If you could tell a new open textbook author one thing, what would it be?”

Here I share the thoughtful comments and helpful tips each provided. Some of the suggestions may already be familiar to you, or are included in Chapter 4’s Checklist. Other recommendations may be surprising or unexpected, and more than a few may inspire you to think more about your own authoring process. It is my hope that all of them will be helpful as you move from aspiring to successful open textbook author.

10. Good authoring begins with planning

Writing well takes time, patience, practice, and planning. David Lippmann is the author of Math in Society and co-author of Precalculus: An Investigation of Functions. He believes having a good plan in place before sitting down to write is critical to success. With a clearly thought out structure, including a fairly detailed table of contents, mapped out in advance, writing becomes much easier. He recommends spending 2-3 weeks planning the book structure, during which time authors can also think about purpose, audience, voice, technology, accessibility, distribution, and more.

Along these lines, Julie Lang the OER Coordinator at Pennsylvania State University, suggests asking yourself a very specific question: where are you going with the resource you’re writing? If your intent is to replace a commercial textbook, what are the learning goals and objectives for the course and what content will be needed for students to meet those objectives? Get those materials in place before you begin writing. In other words “think about the end as you begin.”

Both Lippmann and Amanda Coolidge, BCcampus Open Education Senior Manager and co-author of the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, urge new authors to think broadly about who will read, adopt, or adapt your work. As Coolidge says, “Are you standing on the other side of the world from the reader?” And, if so, how should you plan for that? For example, in an online, blended, hybrid, open learning, or MOOC environment, will students in South Africa or Singapore relate to very specific or localized examples and scenarios or will these become barriers to learning?

9. It’s going to take longer than you think

Even with the best preparation, authoring an open textbook is not a fast or easy process. While all those I interviewed mentioned this tip in one way or another, a couple of comments stand out. Chapter author and Director of Open Oregon State Dianna Fisher has managed numerous open textbook projects, including bringing a popular geoscience text Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest by Robert S. Yeats into a digital format. She says: “Even if you are taking content such as your class lecture notes – content that you think is fairly substantial, when you sit down to reformat those to read like a book, it still takes more time than you think it will.”

And, according to Lauri Aesoph, BCCampus Open Education Manager:

In my previous career I was a writer specializing in integrative medicine. For 15 years, I published hundreds of articles and wrote two books. When I work with new or even experienced faculty authors of open textbooks I tell them of my experience and then say: “Writing a book — any book — will take much longer than you expect. It will require more of your energy that you anticipate, and you will run into problems that you need to plan for.”

8. Share the load

Because of the time commitment involved in authoring an open textbook, several interviewees mentioned the benefits of working with others. Authoring is hard, often stressful, work, especially if you are trying to balance it with other equally important responsibilities. It may be that you can share the load by working with a librarian to identify what’s already available or asking a colleague to proofread and edit your work. Perhaps you can find a student or entire class to provide feedback on content or test ancillary resources. Whether it’s collaborating with a project manager who will keep you on track, an instructional designer to do the heavy technical lifting, or a contributor to write additional content, or all of the above, distributing the myriad tasks involved in open textbook publishing is better than trying to do everything yourself.

Quill West, an open education project manager in Washington State, and frequent OER presenter, believes strongly in the team approach to open textbook authoring. She says those who go it alone have a more difficult time getting the work done. Multiple authors make the work not only go faster but can provide important peer review along the way. West knows additional support also makes the content stronger. For any authoring project, it’s important to have a reviewer, project manager, or student reader who may be unfamiliar with a topic who can say, “I don’t understand that part, explain it to me.”

7. Do the prep work

When writing any learning resource: have a style guide (see one option in this guide). Create one of your own or find one elsewhere, but use one. Keep the same font, citation style, and – perhaps most importantly – voice throughout the resource. A good style guide makes the end product look better, read better, and be more credible. A style guide is particularly important if working with co-authors or contributors.

You should also know what Creative Commons (CC) is and how you are going to license your work. Nick Johns, an Enterprise Analyst with Lumen Learning, says new authors should have a working knowledge of Creative Commons and other open licensing models, a thought echoed by West when she notes the value of the CC BY license to the larger open community. If your intention is to share your work openly, then others have to be able to edit, revise, and adapt it. As she says “If you can’t edit it, you aren’t sharing it.”

For more info:

6. Learn the ropes

This tip is about the publishing aspect of authorship. What kind of technology will you be using for authoring – Word? Google Docs? Pressbooks? If you are authoring something in the STEM field, how comfortable are you working with software that generates diagrams, formulas, charts, and complex tables? Lippmann suggests selecting the technology you will use  before, not in the middle of, the authoring process. Work in a format that you’re comfortable with and make sure the software and license allow for editing.

If you’re using Pressbooks either as an authoring tool or as the publishing platform for your open textbook, you should have some idea of how the software works or how content created elsewhere integrates with Pressbooks, and what to do when it doesn’t. BCcampus and other open textbook programs often provide the instruction needed. Aesoph says adequate training is necessary before starting, along with preparation for technical issues that may occur during the writing process. If your institution provides this type of training, take it.

Amy Hofer, the Statewide Open Education Library Services Coordinator for Oregon State and co-author of the forthcoming Transforming Information Literacy Instruction: Threshold Concepts in Theory and Practice, thinks composing in Word or Google Docs is fine, but at some point authors should set up the structure and formatting in the publishing platform. She suggests creating the first 10% of content in Word, then testing it in Pressbooks.

Hofer is also a strong proponent of setting up mechanisms or forms to keep track of sources (see Managing Assets in this guide). Too often, she says, new authors don’t plan for how they’re going to incorporate images, copyright-protected, or public domain works into content, making attribution at the end of the project more cumbersome.

Finally, don’t forget about accessibility. Mark-up language and alt tags are easy to incorporate as you go along, less so if you have to go back and add them later. For more information see the accessibility chapter in this guide.

5. Beware of scope creep

If the scope of your open textbook is the amount of authoring required to successfully complete the project, then scope creep is the addition of content or features that were not in the original plan. Without a clear target or scope, projects can quickly become hard to manage. Both Lippmann and Mike Caulfield, the Director of Blended and Network Learning at Washington State University Vancouver and author of Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers recommend authors  avoid aiming for encyclopedic comprehensiveness.

It can require concentrated effort to stay focused. What will you include and what will you exclude? This is a significant and sometimes philosophical or political question. The need for clarity is especially important if working with co-authors and collaborators. BCcampus’ Aesoph and Coolidge recommend authors think about where to draw and hold the line on scope. They also say revisit the scope throughout the process, so that the project stays on track.

4. Don’t reinvent the wheel

As an open textbook author, you may have many goals. You may want to make college more affordable for students by replacing a commercial textbook; you may want a resource that more closely resembles how you teach; your department, university, student organization or state legislature may be strongly encouraging OER adoption or setting OER benchmarks. Whatever the motivation, spend some time looking to see what is already available. You may want to adopt or adapt an already existing resource. The beauty of OER is that it provides teachers, learners, and open textbook authors with the legal permissions to Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute a work (David Wiley).

Ashley Miller is the Affordability and Access Program Manager at the Ohio State Universities. In her experience, the best projects have been with faculty who “grasped the remix” by finding content and revising it. She says, “For faculty, the textbook publication lifecycle starts with a landscape evaluation in your discipline – what can you remix?” Or, as West says, “Look at what’s already out there. Make sure you’re not recreating the wheel for no reason. There is plenty of good stuff to start with.”

3. It doesn’t have to be perfect

In the same way that scope creep can stall a project, perfectionism can as well. Accept that there will be edits and revisions, and that one of the strengths of publishing in an open environment is the ability to gather feedback and make changes more quickly than in a traditional environment. Fisher says new authors should be ready for feedback, especially from students using the work, and that their comments and suggestions will make the work stronger. As Caulfield says, this is an opportunity to think about your book and your teaching in a different way than a textbook; it’s more modular than a traditional textbook and far more open to revision.

According to Miller, “it’s not really a textbook, it’s a growing, living document.” Lippmann recommends adapting the open software model of ‘release early, release often’ to ‘publish early, revise often.’

2. Think about ancillary resources

One of the early (and continuing) criticisms of OER has been the lack of ancillary resources. Question and test banks, solution manuals, slide decks, and multimedia tutorials are examples. According to Caulfield, these additional activities, exercises, and multimedia features are the ‘secret sauce’ of a successful project. If CC BY licensed, ancillary resources can be adapted by others who can then add local examples.

There are existing ancillary resources that you may want to add to your work. Lippmann’s MyOpenMath and iMathAS along with James Sousa’s Mathispower4u offer ancillary resources for mathematics instructors who want to adopt, adapt, or develop their own open textbook.

1. Embrace open

Creating an open textbook is an opportunity to embrace a new way to think about the teaching and learning experience. As Miller summarizes, the value of authoring an open textbook goes beyond student savings and becomes “just another way to support the teacher/student relationship and learning experience. So in that way, the deliverable is not an artifact like a textbook, it’s the (new and improved, and less expensive) teaching and learning experience.”

Rajiv Jhangiani is a University Teaching Fellow in Open Studies and Psychology Instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, a Senior Open Education Research and Advocacy Fellow at BCCampus, and the co-author of Research Methods in Psychology-2nd Canadian Edition and co-editor of Open: The Philosophy and Practices That Are Revolutionizing Education and Science.

To your question, “What Is The One Thing Every New Open Textbook Author Should Know?”, I would say that although constructing an open textbook is easier when you think about it in terms of a conventional textbook structure (e.g., sub sections within chapters that may also be grouped into sections), know that the most exciting elements of OER have to do with the greatest weaknesses of conventional textbooks. With an open textbook you have the ability to update content frequently, so write with this in mind (e.g., do not keep referring to one particular study as this may be replaced over time). Think about how you might take advantage of the digital platform by embedding interactive simulations, videos, and online activities. Consider how you can invite students into the process of OER creation, even if through personal application questions or small exercises. And finally, do not wait for your open textbook to be in some mythical “perfect” state before releasing it to the community. Pilot it, collect student feedback, and revise. Consider this an iterative process that you own. And if you are feeling a bit bolder, develop the textbook itself in the open, permitting and even inviting feedback from colleagues as you develop each sub-section. It may seem daunting to open yourself up to that level of scrutiny, but the resource will be far stronger for it. If you think about it, this is what the process of opening education is all about.