Ignaty Dyakov discusses getting into educational writing and his plans as the new Educational Writers Group (EWG) Chair.
How did you come to be an educational writer?
By sheer accident… it was August 2012, the London Olympics. I had my own consultancy company back then. As the politicians kept promising that London would be full of opportunities for SMEs, I stayed in the city. What do they say about trusting politicians? The phone line was dead, no emails, and on the streets you could barely meet a Londoner. So, I thought that I had better use this time productively and prepare some materials for several business students I was teaching Russian language to privately. First, I wrote a short story for them to practise endings of nouns, then another one for adjectives, then yet another one to practise days of the week and months. The banker, called George, moved from one story to another. With each new page he would get further biographical details: he is a Guadeloupean, a fashionista, he loves Russian songs, but has no idea where Russia is. etc.
The autumn came and with it the realisation that I might as well make it one book – a detective story which would help learners of the Russian language practise basic grammar and vocabulary in context. The rest is history. I contacted a publishing house, they loved the book, but offered really low royalties. As I already had some experience in academic publishing and was in contact with a good team of editors, proofreaders and designers, I decided to self-publish. In 2013, my first book got into bookstores and classrooms. Then the second one was written the following year, and yet another one the year after. Since then, the audiobooks, e-books and further sets of exercises have been created. With my co-author, I am now working on an EFL book.
What do you think are the necessary skills for writing educational books?
I think these would be attention to detail, an ability to explain things correctly, clearly and in as concise a way as possible. Where a fiction writer can get away with something being interpreted as an author’s peculiar personal style and an academic can rely on their readers’ in-depth knowledge of a subject, an educational writer has to be very attentive, precise and clear.
We should also engage our audience, ensure that the learning process is fun: detectives and romances are hardly ever dreaded, but subjects like physics or grammar quite often (and undeservedly) are considered incomprehensible, dull or terrifying. A good educational writer will ensure that a reader (or user, if one prefers) experiences none of these feelings.
"Where a fiction writer can get away with something being interpreted as an author’s peculiar personal style... an educational writer has to be very attentive, precise and clear."
Tell us about your typical working day.
Well, I wake up at 5am, do an hour of Aikido, followed by a half-hour meditation session. I follow this with my freshly blended smoothie and work for five hours straight through until lunch, which I have with a group of like-minded individuals discussing art, culture or some other pleasant topic. I, of course, then come back to my desk and work for another five hours. After that, I retire to my lounge and enjoy very quiet and relaxing family time…
Or do I? Maybe, next life I shall.
In reality, I tend to wake up at about 7am, drink a glass of water and stay in bed reading for half an hour or so. This time of day, it is mostly non-fiction. Then I either have my breakfast or do emails for some time (I really hope to drop this latter habit soon) and walk to the village high street (about 40 minutes away) where, in a local café, I have my Earl Grey with soya on the side, whilst I write my morning pages (an idea introduced by Julia Cameron in her book: The Artist’s Way). This normally takes about 30-40 minutes to complete before I proceed to writing or researching for my new book or articles.
I normally get back home for lunch, sometimes a nap (still dealing with side effects of cancer treatment four years later) and then start teaching or life/health coaching via Skype – three or four clients a day. I have dinner with my fiancée and, in the evening, I choose to do either more research and finish articles and emails or close my laptop at 8pm and just watch a film or documentary. I do my best to get to bed before 11pm and read some more.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
It is, of course, very satisfying to know that even if I am not physically present in the classroom, I help language learners understand the subject, enhance their knowledge and apply what they’ve learnt in an engaging and fun way. Judging by the reviews and emails I receive, my books bring plenty of smiles to people when they battle Russian grammar or try to decipher the Russian psyche. It is great to know that I can make someone’s experience more positive and remind them (even indirectly) how important it is to have the right attitude to whatever they do. I also choose to weave important messages about life, compassion, ethics, humankind responsibilities into my texts in a light-hearted way.
"We also need to ensure that young people consider educational writing as a profession, which is rather rare these days."
What, in your view, are the specific challenges for educational writers, and what can be done to address them?
I think the major issue is increasing bureaucracy, which, for instance, makes it more difficult for teachers and lecturers to experiment and try more unconventional approaches. They are so busy with other tasks that getting to know new books or other educational materials happens to slip from the list of their priorities. Together with limited funds for libraries and a more uniformed approach to curricula, publishers feel that they should play safe and avoid engaging authors with new ideas. This leads to authors restraining their creativity. It also has a detrimental effect on writers’ earnings, which means that some of us must look for opportunities elsewhere – we lose very valuable talent. We also need to ensure that young people consider educational writing as a profession, which is rather rare these days.
What would you like to achieve during your term as Chair?
First and foremost, to keep up with the standards Anne Rooney has set as a Chair of our Group. It has been great to see her chairing our events with style and ease and read her views on various issues as they arose, when they were arising. I suppose, I would like to organise some events for our members outside of London – be it seminars, cultural trips or networking events. Webinars perhaps might be an option too? I would also like to look into the possibility of working with other organisations, like the Chartered Institute of Linguists et al., to run events together. I feel it would be of great benefit to us all, if we know better what our fellow group members do. It might lead to cross-section collaborations and new friendships.