Teaching the Martians to Make Apple Pie

Teaching the Martians to Make Apple Pie: Points to consider when writing about practical skills 

By Lucy Lepchani

A book or an article that seeks to explain and teach skills to adult learners, needs to be considered as a teaching and learning situation. You, the author, are a teacher in the setting of printed media. If the work is boring, muddled, or if the instruction is inappropriate for the skill level of participants, your publication will fail on at least one level.

What is not so important, is your ability to spell, or to reproduce nuances of grammar. If you are writing an instructive book, you are clearly capable of some degree of mastery, so it is relatively unimportant that you understand rules about apostrophe use, the Oxford comma, or other such detail. Authorship concerns other matters; copy editors and proofreaders will nit-pick your punctuation and grammar on your behalf.

Adults learners do not all learn in the same way. We have different aptitudes – for example, some are quick to learn practical things, others are afraid to risk, or are cack-handed; some people have trouble listening to instructions and others need to feel secure in detailed knowledge about procedures before they even begin. Some people are physically strong, dextrous or rhythmic, others are less able. We all have different strengths and challenges.

Some experts have recently ‘proved’ that the concept of learning styles don’t exist, but I have yet to meet a fellow Adult Education teacher who has not had a student who struggles with spoken instructions, or organising physical materials, or lacks the ability to read confidently.

The information provided in your book will reflect your own learning insights and enthusiasm, and is likely to reveal, although not address, your blind spots. This is the way of all teachers and why self-reflection is part of any teacher’s practice.  The following is a simple aid for reflection on some points to consider, and how to organise your material to best effect.

The analogy of teaching Martians to make apple pie is a useful way of seeing the familiar through unfamiliar eyes. Consider your craft as the apple pie, your readers as Martians. You will have some sort of idea about the Martians’ skills and abilities: for example, the fact that they understand how to orientate objects and understand simple instruction; that they speak your language and have most likely eaten apples but might never have experienced pie before, or, that they might have eaten plenty but have never made it.

First, Martians need to know what apple pie is: how it is meant to look, taste, and how it fits into our culture, or daily life. 

  • In the beginning of your book, you will need an introduction: something that sets the subject in a context: why you think learners should learn this skill what will it do for them; what makes it important or meaningful to you?
  • Some books will require a preface: historical disasters in pie making technology or meaningful knowledge about apple varieties would go in here. Not all books require this, and the introduction can accommodate all if need be.
  • A foreword is optional, written by someone of status, to help market your book.
  • This creates a foundation of knowledge, the ground from which all learners will proceed with the information they need to know beforehand.

Only then, can the method be applied confidently. With apple pie, the pastry is made separately from the apple filling. Recipes vary: which, specifically, is yours? 

  • Identifying diagrams, maps, plans and introductory theories go first. Make them clear.
  • So do lists of equipment and materials go here, and measurements of any kind.
  • If risks/health and safety haven’t been included in the introduction or preface, consider key points here too, including specialist equipment or clothing that might be required.
  • Remember, that if in a later chapter of your book you use a specific tool or identify and name a specific part of an item not on the initial diagram, you need to go back to your diagram or tool list, and insert/name those things appropriately.

Making the pastry for apple pie first, will give it time to ‘relax’ while you work on the apples. Getting pastry right requires very specific finger movements and rolling techniques. Be exacting.

  • Instruction material, whether text or visual or both, must be placed in exacting sequence order and with extra explanation, or supporting diagrams,  given to ‘tricky bits’. Visualise or rehearse the process several times; keep language clear and simple.
  • Ensure the correct timeline of images, and that this timeline is obvious to the reader.
  • Make sure readers understand WHY as well as HOW, with your instruction, because reason can instruct method is carried out correctly.  It can be confusing to the reader to read an explanation of a procedure if they don’t know why they have to do that. Explain what part of the procedure is coming next. Blind faith is not good teaching.

Also,  reflect back to important points you have made previously. For example, rub fat into flour using the fingertips only. This statement will reinforce previous information given, about the theory behind light pastry (preface) or your love of light pastry (introduction).

  • Cultivate an exacting sense of overseeing the process as if you are there, and include every necessary action about WHAT happens and WHERE events take place.
  • Be consistent with angles, positions, placing, location, or other relevant orientation.
  • Specific diagrams/images can assist with understanding complicated instructions given predominantly as text: zoom in, if necessary, or provide more than one image.
  • Diagrams/images need captions, or numbering in sequence, or clear references. Don’t let them ‘float’ un-named.

If the Martian is directed to …take the pastry…lay on the work-surface with the rolling pin and roll until thin… imagine…and yes, many people do get that confused with instructions or specific aspects of language. Be specific and use simple, clear language.

  • Watch for abbreviations of speech, jargon, lazy terminologies, and pointless brevity. It is easy to take this sometimes tedious task for granted, and omit a detail from the text.
  • There is also the writer’s turn-of-phrase to consider: Take the apples and peel them… take them where? Or how? Do not be fanciful. It is better to say ‘peel the apples.’
  • Be clear and consistent with words such as underside, beneath, below, and lower; or sides, edge, end, other side; or other words that are easily interchangeable in the mind. These can mean different things in relation to the 3- dimensional space, where they are not similarly interchangeable.
  • Consider health and safety during moments where there is a risk in the making process. Risks should have been mentioned PRIOR to the making process ever taking place, and then mentioned again at points in the making process where risk is specific. So:

Using oven gloves, take your pie out of the oven and place it on a pot-stand or heat-proof surface. Serve.

As the last statement demonstrates, words can be our faithful servants, of just tricky blighters.

  • End well. Mention presentation, or taking care of the object or items being made, or present a good visual image. ‘Serve’ is a risky, unsuitable instruction for Martians.
  • Provide a glossary for technical terms/index at the end, if you didn’t do so at the beginning.If you ask others to read through your work, ask them to note inconsistencies, jargon, or anything else that draws their attention. Ask them to point out where they get confused, because that is where you, the author, most likely need to review your work.

Some useful links:

https://www.simplypsychology. /learning-kolb.html


The copy editor will look at every aspect of the work: sequence, language, grammar, presentation, jargon, clarification, consistency, spelling, typos, conventions, and whatever else to best produce your book. This will then be changed, with your (the author’s) guidance and permissions, so as to reduce the chance of misunderstanding. Major inconsistencies will be referred back to the author.

This work then goes to the proof-reader or 2nd copy/proofing editor, who will use his/her fine skills for rewriting/pointing out the editor’s errors and oversight.

If the text is not already laid out in book format by now, this is usually done at this point, by the technical editor. A copy is sent to the author for their examination and comment.

This then goes to a final proof-reader, who looks with a fresh eye, and who seeks to nit-pick.

Sometimes, we need to contact the author again, to clarify details and any loose end matters.

By then, the editor has hopefully stopped being word-blind to the familiar text and so, looks again, and particularly at details that are peripheral to the main text, such as title page, the spine, title page verso, the author’s biog., and so on. We also scrutinise the text for further errors that have escaped several pairs of eyes. At Crafty Little Press, Sean and I both carry this task out.

At some point, or several points in the process, we send the work off to be printed (single copies) to check the accuracy of layout, colour registration, printing problems and so on.

Hopefully, by this point, the manuscript will be perfect. A final, printed version (albeit might be covered in final correction marks) is sent to the author for comment and final signing-off.

Then, and only then, do we commit to a print run.

Note: in the majority of books and other publications I read, including all those published by the best known publishing houses, I spot mistakes! 

Editors also have blind-spots. We are only human.