Katherine Bilsborough - From teacher to materials writer

Most materials writers start their careers as teachers, sometimes moving into teacher training as they gain experience and maybe starting to give talks at conferences or writing blog posts. 

Lots of authors have their first experience of developing materials when they create things for their own classes, either through necessity or because they want to personalise or substitute a course book they are using.

I started writing materials for my own classes because, when I started teaching English, I was mainly teaching private classes so I didn’t have access to many resources and I couldn’t afford to buy much. Over the years I’ve worked in many staff rooms but despite being in the privileged position of having a well-stocked library of materials and every kind of teaching resource you can imagine, I continued to make my own materials - and soon realized that this was one of the aspects of the job that I loved most. At this point I started to show an active interest in materials development and started to write for ‘the publishers’. Times have changed since then and these days there are more opportunities than ever for would-be writers. Here are five tips for getting started.

Write materials! 

No matter how much you know you can write materials or how convincing you might sound, nobody will give you a contract without some demonstration that you can write. This means putting your materials somewhere where they will be noticed. You could start by sharing materials with colleagues, on your school’s intranet or blog or on your own blog or website. You could also share materials with colleagues in a teachers’ group on social networking site like Facebook. If you aren’t in such a group, look for one and ask to join or start up a new group for teachers in your area or with your special interest.

Go to conferences and local teacher events

Most materials writers are freelance and need to get to know other professionals in the world of ELT publishing. If you attend a talk at a conference, you’ll be able to meet up with people who can offer you advice and maybe even tell you about work opportunities. To find out about teachers’ events near you, sign up to publishers’ mailing lists or join a local teachers’ group if one exists.

Be prepared to start small

My first paid writing work was a primary poster pack for OUP. It consisted of a giant poster and 10 worksheets to practise different grammar and vocabulary depending on the level. Other small jobs I’ve been trusted with are: lesson plans, activities and tips for websites and sections of books such as the revision pages of a primary book or some ‘How to’ teacher guides for things like doing projects and teaching vocabulary.

Mingle with other materials writers

These days materials writers are connected. They meet up at conferences and online and they form collaborations for all sorts of interesting projects. We are starting to find our way through the complexities of self-publishing, sussing out ways of collaborating in writing books and marketing books. We are sharing our hard-won experiences and advice. You might consider joining MaWSIG, the Materials writers’ special interest group at IATEFL. Check out their website at: http://mawsig.iatefl.org or look for their group on Facebook.

It’s also a good idea to just chat to writers too. The reality of being a materials writer might not be exactly what you imagine and any first hand experience will help you to make an informed decision about whether this is really for you.

But if it is …

Add your name to a database of materials writers so that commissioning editors will come across you

Most ELT publishers keep a record of writers with contact details and areas of interest or experience. Other, newer organisations have similar databases which are used by the main publishers when they are looking for a writer. Check out http://www.eltteacher2writer.co.uk for starters.

Above all, have fun writing. When things work out it’s one of the most rewarding jobs in our profession.

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