Another kind of brief

When we talk about briefs, we usually talk about the ones a writer gets from a publisher, outlining exactly what’s needed so that everyone is on the same page. You can read more that kind of brief in B is for Brief. But there is another kind of brief too, an artwork brief. This is a set of instructions in the manuscript which the writer adds for editor but more importantly, for the illustrator. This blog post is specifically about artwork. Writers also write briefs for photos, of course. This will be considered in a separate post coming soon, P is for Photos.

Who writes artwork briefs?

Any materials for publishers which have illustrations need artwork briefs. These are written by the materials writer. Take a look at any coursebook for Young Learners and Very Young Learners and you’ll see that the content relies heavily on images. If you write materials for children, artwork briefs are very important and often take up more space in the manuscript than the actual text for the page.

What kind of information is important to include in an artwork brief?

The quick answer is ‘as much as possible’ but it isn’t always as simple as that. If the purpose of a picture is to present vocabulary then the key items of vocabulary need to be listed, of course. But it is sometimes necessary to add information about what not to include. For example, we might ask for a scene in a forest to present some things from nature but we don’t want any people in the scene to distract from the details. It’s a good idea to spell this out. For certain markets with restrictions, we might also need to include information such as ‘not too much skin on show’ or ‘no flags please’. Sometimes we try to get range of something such as ethnic groups across a set of materials, so we will brief the illustrator to draw people with specific features, skin or hair colour.

A picture-based exercise

If the artwork is going to be used with an exercise, make sure that all of the key information needed to successfully do the exercise is briefed. This might seem obvious but sometimes we assume that the illustrator will automatically know things about language learning. This is rarely the case. Look at these two artwork briefs, A and B below. A is pretty basic and just gives the minimum information but B contains extra details which could be key for an exercise in which children have to use thinking skills to deduct information from the picture. For example, to answer questions like:

Where is Tania?

Who is Tania with?

What time of day is it?


[A/W Two children sitting side-by-side watching TV and eating popcorn from a bowl. They both look happy.]


[A/W Two children, a boy (about seven) and a girl (about ten), sitting side-by-side, on a sofa watching TV and eating popcorn from a bowl. They are dressed in casual clothes such as track suits. They both look happy. They are brother and sister so please give them similar features. The sofa and TV are in a living room. We can have other decoration or furniture in the room but no other people and no animals. The room is clean and comfortable. A lamp is lit and there are drawn curtains but we can see a glimpse of dusk outside.]

How can we help the illustrator?

We can help the illustrator in a number of ways.

Firstly we can a clear brief, using simple language and avoiding anything too complicated. Sometimes an illustrator will not have a high level of English.

Secondly, if a picture is a bit complicated or detailed, we can provide a rough sketch or attach a screenshot of something similar that we’d like. This is especially useful with something like a street map, which we often use to teach giving directions. Don’t worry about not being good at drawing, a simple sketch with the main information and perhaps some arrows and labels will be just fine.

Thirdly, if the finer details in a picture aren’t important, we can give the illustrator permission to use their own initiative.

[A/W A park scene on a sunny day with the following features included: a pond, some ducks, a tree, some flowers with butterflies and a bee, fluffy clouds and a couple of birds. Please feel free to add any other details as you wish.]

An artwork brief in a manuscript

When writing for a publisher, we often use different styles in a publisher’s template to indicate different content on a page: text that will appear on the page, answer keys, examples, instructions for a page designer, and last but not least artwork briefs. We can also do something similar using simple colour-coding, with, for example, text for the page in black, design features in red, audio scripts in green and artwork briefs in blue. A manuscript for children’s materials will always be heavy on the blue.

Why don’t you …?

One way you can develop your skills as a writer is by looking at existing artwork in a coursebook and thinking about the details which the author might have included in their artwork brief. This kind of working backwards is a great way to notice things.


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