Authoring and Content Creation Overview

This section of The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) is designed to help you with one of the biggest parts of your project – creating the content! This section will run through everything you need to keep in mind while authoring the book, creating ancillary materials (slide decks, question banks, assignments, sidebars, workbooks, etc.), adapting a book, and more. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY) and you are welcome to print this document, make a copy for yourself, or share with others.

Read through the sections below, and consider the suggestions as you begin writing or creating the content of your book. These sections are also intended for anyone who is adapting a book, or remixing multiple resources. If you have any questions about the guide, please feel free to post them in the Rebus Forum. This document is an evolving draft, based on our experience managing open textbook projects and community feedback. We welcome your thoughts and contributions, so let us know how it works for you, or if you have any suggestions to improve the guide.

Going solo vs. working as a team

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of creating content, let’s first take a look at the people behind the work. No two projects will take the same approach, and as such, the process of creating content will always be very different. In general, though, there are three options: one author creates all the content, a small team share the work, or a larger group of authors split it into smaller pieces. Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages, so if you’re trying to decide on the best option for you, or want to know what to expect, read on! We’ll use the example of writing the main text of the book here, but the same can apply to any other kind of content.

If you’re taking on the challenge as the only author, the resource is, of course, entirely your own work, and you will know it inside and out. This makes it easy for you to keep track of what is happening in different parts of the book, avoiding duplication or conflicts, and maintaining consistency in structure, tone, etc. In addition, there’s almost no external wrangling or organising to worry about (yay!). However, writing a lot of content on your own is a big job. Staying motivated and on track without a team around you can be difficult, but ultimately you know better than anyone what you’re able to manage. If you are the only author on a text, keep in mind you will need to rely on peer review for feedback and different perspectives or expertise, as it’s your main chance to get other eyes on the content, so be sure to give good guidelines to your reviewers so you can get the specific kinds of feedback you need, along with anything else they see fit to highlight.

Small teams operate slightly differently than solo authors. If you’re part of a small team, keep in mind that most importantly, you will need a shared vision of the resource, and a clear schedule to help drive creation and ensure a cohesive end product. A team can develop a clear sense of shared ownership over the project, without the same level of work needed if you were to go it alone, but it takes some effort to keep everyone on the same page. In addition, small teams will also hopefully contain a few different perspectives which can, together, shape what content looks like. However, since you are all still a small pool, and very close to the content, you will benefit from the input of external reviewers. Lastly, small teams do require some organizing and coordination throughout the process that needs to be managed carefully and it should be noted that one person dropping out or failing to meet their commitments can have a big effect on the other members of the team.

If you’re part of a large team, you will also require a shared vision and a clear schedule and timeline. Large teams will require more organising, wrangling, and documentation to get started and keep on track – and a good leadership team is critical. However, the workload on such teams is much more manageable for each author, as content can be broken down into as many pieces as desired. Large teams will benefit from have a champion (or two or three) who is keeping spirits high and motivating the team to keep going, and as a whole, it tends to be easier to pick up the slack if any members drop out. Large teams are potentially full of interesting, original and diverse perspectives, which can have a wonderful impact on content, but review becomes critical for ensuring consistency and cohesiveness, as well as accuracy. Overall, the experience can take some work for the organisers, but it can be an excellent opportunity for everyone involved to grow their networks, form a vibrant community around the resource and ensure its long term success.

Choosing between these approaches really depends on the type and structure of the content you are creating, your vision for the resource, your expertise, and your capacity to commit to writing. Any one of them can be successful, and keep in mind that you can adjust to bring on more authors if you find that a one-person effort or small team is proving challenging.

Process

Whatever the makeup of your writing team, putting in time to plan out your content and make some key decisions up front is the single-most important thing you can do. Approaching writing with the right (write) foundation will make not only the writing process easier, but also editing and reviewing down the line. This section is written mostly with team organising in mind, but a solo author can still pull out some useful information on preparing for and managing the writing process. If you’re planning to work with a team of authors but haven’t yet assembled them, check out our recruitment guide first.

If you already have your authoring team assembled, one of the first steps is to start working on a detailed outline. You can approach this collaboratively, as a team or with each author working on their own chapter, or the lead author may set the framework themselves. In any case, be sure to solicit input from everyone involved to see if there are any gaps or additions that they would make. This process is vital to lay out a clear structure or skeleton of the resource, that can be filled in over the course of the writing/creation stage, and everyone on the authoring team should know it inside and out.

Creating or reviewing an outline together can also help to identify potential areas of overlap between chapters, or complementary sections, allowing authors to write with an eye to the larger text as they go, which will help reduce the need for substantial editing down the road. In addition, be sure to think clearly about the goals and final use of the resource established during the project scoping phase, and its positioning relative to existing materials or resources – this may lead you to structure things differently, address areas that are commonly excluded from or underrepresented in existing texts, or help you to make sure you cover the core areas of interest.

With the outline in hand, you can also prepare an author guide. This is another central tool to ensure shared understanding and consistency, and can include a style guide, chapter template, model chapter, as well as information about writing tools, licensing, accessibility, media, author expectations, submission information, and contact details for the lead author or project manager. Check out our author guide template for some guidance if you need it – it includes all these elements which you can to adapt to fit your project. We’ve also collected a few examples of author guides used in some of our open textbook projects so you can see the different approaches people have taken: Introduction to Philosophy, History of Science and Technology, and Introduction to North American Archaeology. Overall, the author guide is an important part of making sure the content created is coherent and consistent, even if it’s written by a range of people, and to ensure that all these authors have the information they need to do their best work!

As the project manager or content coordinator, you should also put together a simple tracking sheet to keep an eye on status of each piece of content. Having this information collected in one document will save you the time and mental frustration of looking through emails, chats, or other conversations with authors for an update. We’ve prepared a content tracking template that you can copy and adapt for your project as needed.

Next, make sure you share these documents with the authors, and use this opportunity to conduct an author call and introduce various members of the team with one another. If your team is spread across different time zones, you could instead share the information on a public discussion forum, email, or using whatever agreed upon methods of communication suit your project. Relay information about deadlines, expectations, and process with the authors, address any questions that come up, and incorporate any other information authors identify as being useful to them. Then, it’s time to let them write!

It’s good to give authors the space they need to make content, but at the same time, it can be a solitary process and it’s good to make sure that they don’t feel isolated from the rest of the team and any other progress being made. Ongoing collaboration and communication between authors and the team will help, and it can also provide some gentle nudging to help keep people on track. It’s also good to be able to course-correct as you go, rather than only catching issues or confusion later in the process. If possible, conduct regular check-ins and author calls, and if authors contact you with any questions over the course of this period, start building a list of FAQs to share with the team.

Lastly, once you’re collecting content that has been drafted or is ready for the next stage, thank the author for their time and provide clear details regarding the next steps in the process so they know what happens next. If the author’s involvement will be needed down the line (e.g. to implement revisions after editing and peer review), let them know now so this work doesn’t come as a surprise later. Now’s also your chance to make sure you can to keep the author engaged going forward, by providing project updates or more (see our engagement guide for ideas). Authors can become great champions and even adopters for your project in future!

Considerations when creating content

While authors are subject matter experts, creating quality educational resources requires other skills and considerations that should, again, be given some thought up front. The following is not an exhaustive list, but should help prompt you as you’re entering and navigating the creation phase.

1. Audience

First of all, the most important thing to keep in mind when creating content are the learners and instructors who will be using the book. Authors should have a clear sense of who the resources is for, why it is being created, what need it fills in the field, and how best to keep it culturally relevant. These details should be kept front of mind throughout the entire creation process to help shape and strengthen the text – for instance, through learning outcomes clearly presented at the start of each chapter or section, or examples in the book that ensure that all students will see themselves reflected or represented in the text.

To help with this, you should also, if you can, draw on support from your campus or faculty’s instructional design team who can help you find the best ways to deliver content to students. This perspective should be included from early on to avoid the need for retroactive changes, and so that the end result is an effective and valuable teaching resource.

2. Accessibility and Inclusive Design

In a similar vein, it’s important that you think of all learners when creating your content, which means making sure it is released as an accessible resource that doesn’t require much, if any, remediation to meet the needs of the students using it. We believe very strongly in building accessibility into content from day one, not only in terms of technical accessibility, but also language and inclusive design [1]. It’s also worth remembering that designing for the margins is, well, just good design! It’s remarkable how many best practices for accessibility make the text better for everybody reading it (e.g. clear hierarchy & structure, captions on videos, etc.), as well as the obvious benefit of supporting students with recognised disabilities.

Again, try to reach out to accessibility and inclusive design teams or instructional designers (as mentioned in the previous section) on your campus for support if you can, so that you can incorporate good design practices into your book that benefit all students. Here are a few of the kinds of things you can do to improve your resource’s accessibility in the writing phase:

  • use heading styles in your documents to create a consistent hierarchy
  • consider reading levels of the audience and adjust your tone accordingly
  • state the full-forms of acronyms during their first use in each chapter
  • include alt. text for functional images
  • use appropriate and clear link text (don’t link words like “here”, “there,” etc.)
  • prepare clear tables with appropriate header information, captions, and more

For more information and guidance on creating an accessible open resource, we highly recommend the BCcampus Open Education Accessibility Toolkit. We’ve also included a short list of basic considerations in our author guide template.

3. Build for Adaptability

Shifting focus slightly to the instructors who will be using the resource, wherever possible, we encourage you to create content that is easily adaptable and modular. One of the major goals of any educational resource is to encourage a wide use, and a major advantage of openly licensed resources is that they can also be adapted and localised by those users. Take some time to consider the changes that other instructors may want to make as they set out to use your resource in their courses, and do what you can to make it easy for changes to take place. One way to do this is to keep context specific examples in blocks that can be swapped out for localised content (e.g. discussion of national policies, course, or institution specific information, etc.). Another way is to be clear about licenses and attributions of different elements in the resource (images, excerpts, videos, etc.) so that future users will not need to spend added time looking these up. This is especially important in the case of anything that has been included with a one-time permission or relying on fair-use, and including a back matter section with this kind of information is one way to make it clear to future adapters.

4. Think Ahead

With a bit of foresight, there are a few tasks you can simplify by laying the groundwork while you write. For example, identifying and tracking where glossary or index terms appear as you write can be much easier than trying to locate them all at the end! Other examples of this kind of forethought we’ve seen include keeping track of the citations/references in each chapter for a bibliography, tagging key concepts using HTML classes to make it easy to format them consistently with CSS, or keeping a spreadsheet to track images and other media to simplify licensing checks. Knowing what appears where in your book is always useful, and the more you can do along the way, the easier life will be in the long run!

5. Creation can be Iterative

We also encourage taking the approach that creation can be iterative, meaning that content can be expanded on, revised, and improved over time. The first release doesn’t need to contain everything you want to include in the long run, so you could, for example, release the core theory sections of each chapter, then expand over time with case studies, media elements, quizzes, in-class assignments, or other ancillaries. Alternatively, if your text has clearly defined sections, you could work on these one at a time, releasing them as you go. This helps to give a sense of progress (both to yourself and others), and can be a great way to encourage others to get involved – seeing the text coming together is often the best way for people to understand the project and see how they can contribute. And, with OER, releasing content is in some ways just the beginning! Other versions can emerge through the work of others that may then feed back into the original.

6. Make the Experience Rewarding

Lastly, as a project manager or lead author, think carefully about what your authors (and you!) get out of this process. Authors should get out of the project as much as they put in, so do what you can to reward them, recognize their efforts, and make their experience on the project a good one! Ensuring that you do so will not only leave you with a happy team and community around your resource, but will also reflect in the final product. For more on how to manage and reward authors, see our volunteer management guide (coming soon!).

7. Model Good Practices

As you might imagine, ensuring these approaches are embedded in the creation process is a little more tricky when working with a team, which is where a good author guide is critical. In addition, you can prepare a model chapter that you can share with authors that lays out the various elements and formatting. You can use the author guide to surface particular points about your audience, share best practices for writing with accessibility in mind, and use the model chapter as an example of the tone, format, and structure a chapter should take. Doing so will make it clearer for authors how they can do their part, which also helps to reduce the amount of work needed in the editorial or formatting phases.

Need further assistance?

We hope these suggestions will help you plan and oversee the authoring and creation phase of your project. We’ll continue to add to this guide as we work with more projects, and we welcome your ideas on what else we could add, or your feedback on how these approaches have worked (or not!) for you.

If you have questions, or anything to add, please let us know in the Rebus Forum.

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This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


  1. Note: According to the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) at The Ontario College of Art and Design University, inclusive design is “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.” Like the IDRC, we use the term inclusive design as opposed to universal design deliberately – see the section titled “Why not use the term Universal Design?” on the IDRC’s website for more.

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Authoring and Content Creation Overview by Apurva Ashok and Zoe Wake Hyde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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