How to get into materials writing: six authors share their advice

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Materials writing in ELT

As we gain more experience, many of us start looking for new opportunities in the English Language Teaching (ELT) field. This might be teacher training, research or academic management.

However – we often spend so much time during our careers creating engaging materials for our classes – why not get paid extra to do so?

As you can imagine, it’s not that easy to get hired as a materials writer, so we decided to ask six leading ELT authors for some advice.

This is what they told us:

Ken Beatty

Ken has written over 138 textbooks to date. He’s currently involved in the new editions of the four-level series Learning English for Academic Purposes for Pearson Canada, and working as a consultant for a new eight-level adult series, StartUp, for Pearson USA.

At my first conference presentation, I was introduced by an international publisher’s Editorial Director. I was already interested in writing and, once we’d got to know each other, she offered me the chance to write a small series that would eventually lead to a career of 138+ textbooks and counting.

Many teachers already develop their own materials so it seems a natural step to do so for a publisher. Here are a few key ingredients that teachers should consider:

1) Write. Practice your craft, putting words together in new and interesting ways and create materials and be critical about them.

2) Be an academic first – everyone has ideas, but they need to be pedagogically sound.

3) Publishers, not teachers, usually come up with ideas for new books, based on intensive research of market needs. If you think you have a new idea, do market research to make sure it’s not already out there.  

4) Be friends with publishers; start by getting to know your reps and offer to help in any way you can, such as reviewing and piloting new materials.

5) Be perfect and punctual; obsessively check your work to ensure that editors are not rolling their eyes at stupid mistakes. Also, never miss a deadline; too many other people depend on you being on time. Being perfect and punctual is what gets you your next job.

Clare Walsh

Clare is an EFL teacher with 20 years of experience preparing students for exams, such as Cambridge Advanced and IELTS, working with both adults and teens. She has worked in assessment and test construction and has authored many courses, including Gold and Gold Experience.

I got into materials writing by approaching publishers directly. I’d done some materials development for my own school and classes, but writing for others was very different. That meant starting small and a lot of early starts, writing before the teaching day began. I was able to write things like grammar lessons from teaching experience, but there are rules for putting together interesting and effective Listening or Reading tasks. I had to learn that slowly!

I think the biggest barrier for teachers who want to get into materials writing is that they like the idea, but not the reality. It’s a huge privilege to be trusted with another person’s lesson. You have to learn to do things other people’s way and accept negative feedback, and there’s always a lot! But if you’re serious about making it in materials writing, you will.

Margaret O’Keefe

Margaret has been teaching business English in companies and to university students for more years than she cares to admit. She is co-author of several courses including Business Partner, Market Leader Advanced and English for International Tourism.

I got into writing entirely by luck –  being in the right place at the right time – the academy I worked for made contacts with publishers and I was given the chance to work on a project as part of my teaching contract.

New writers can expect to get offered smaller assignments at first – e.g. workbooks, online exercises, teachers’ notes. If you do a good job, more work will generally come over the years and there can be long periods without any writing work at all.

When you’re offered any writing work, my main advice is – meet your deadlines and keep a detailed record of all the hours you’re putting in – I use Excel or Google spreadsheet (date /tasks/ start and finish times, total time). That’s a good basis for knowing how long the project takes you.

You could also try registering in the ELT Teacher 2 Writer Database.

David Nunan

David is a world-renowned education expert. He’s published over 100 scholarly books and articles on teacher education, classroom-based research and teaching grammar in the communicative classroom. He’s written numerous best selling courses including the middle-school series – Go For It, which has sold more than 3 billion copies worldwide.  

I got into materials writing in the late 1980s by being invited, first by Cambridge University Press, then Heinle/Thomson (now National Geographic Learning) to demonstrate how my theories on learner-centredness and task-based language teaching might work in practice by writing an ELT textbook series. To date, I’ve written about 14 series for a wide range of publishers. Each series posed its own challenges, and it took me years to learn the ‘tricks of the trade’.

These days there are far more aspiring writers who want to become coursebook writers than there are opportunities to do so. One way not to get in is to approach a publisher with a nifty proposal that you firmly believe will change the field. Publishers have their own publishing plan laid out for at least a few years.

The best way to draw yourself to the attention of a publisher is to offer to review draft materials that are in development. If the publisher likes your review they may ask you (or you may offer) to be involved in writing ancillary materials (workbooks, teachers’ manuals, quizzes, online games etc.) to accompany the main course.

If you’re reliable and produce decent stuff on time, you will be noticed and may then be invited to become part of a writing team. Sadly, materials writing is no longer as lucrative, either for publishers or writers, as it once was. As a consequence, publishers these days very rarely offer royalties. You are more likely to be offered a fee. However, if you enjoy the writing process (as I do), have an instinct for it, and the patience to learn the craft, who knows where it might lead?

Good luck!

Iwonna Dubicka

Iwonna has over 25 years’ experience as a Business English trainer in Barcelona. She’s the co-author of various Business English titles including Business Partner, Market Leader Advanced and English for International Tourism.

I started writing by designing my own classroom materials. Then I was asked to work on a project at the academy where I worked. After that, the team leader recommended me and a colleague to a publisher, we did a sample unit and things developed from there. If you’re going to send your writing to a publisher on spec, don’t send a complete tome. Send a one-page proposal and a couple of sample lessons you’ve created.

My first piece of advice is to start writing. Begin with comprehension and discussion questions for topical videos and news articles. Next, create your own ‘text’. This could be a personal anecdote using phrasal verbs, or a short dialogue practising small talk that you see yourself using again next year. Perhaps record it on your mobile phone. Then see how you can develop it with vocabulary work, language practice, a role-play, and even a follow-up writing task.

Think of original exercise types – not just ‘true/false’ and gap-fills! Add some attention-grabbing images to your slide version. But, before you click ‘send’, or upload on the intranet, take a break, or better still, sleep on it, and then proofread it. You’ll be amazed at all the bits you’ll want to edit. Next, share with colleagues and students and don’t forget to ask for feedback.

Amanda Davies

Amanda is an experienced teacher, teacher trainer, materials developer, author and editor, who has also worked extensively in Primary ELT academic management. She’s passionate about young learner teacher professional development and regularly presents at conferences, writes articles and blogs.

Like all teachers around the world, I’ve been creating my own materials since my first day in the classroom. From small alterations to ‘tweak’ existing activities to creating lesson materials from scratch, it’s imperative that teachers ensure the things they do in the classroom are tailored to the needs of their particular students.

Rightly or wrongly so, you need to be proactive in the world of ELT which often means looking for your own professional development opportunities, and this is certainly true if you want to get into writing materials. For me, that meant creating lessons, and later cultural workshops which were shared across the network of schools I was working for.

Making the jump from creating for my own students to a more universal context was an important learning experience.

My advice for aspiring materials writers? Look for opportunities to share your teaching ideas – set up a teaching blog, enter a lesson planning competition or simply share ideas in your teacher’s room. Most importantly, get feedback and reflect on what worked, and what could have been done differently.

So what are you waiting for? Start writing today, always ask for feedback and who knows – maybe one day you’ll be writing coursebooks and materials which are used by teachers and students all over the world.

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