Getting into ELT writing: how I did it.

At conferences and on work trips away, teachers often ask me how I “broke into” materials writing. I usually only have time to give them the skimpier version of my story: I met an ELT agent, he found me work, the end. Although meeting my agent was my one huge lucky break, it’s fair to say the story doesn’t begin and end there.

You can find “how to get into ELT writing” advice aplenty on the Internet (skip to the end of this rather long winded post if you want to check out some good links) but I suppose every ELT material writer has a different take on how they came to be doing what they’re doing. I’m telling you my tale firstly because you might find it useful and secondly because writing about writing is, at the moment, a more attractive prospect than actually doing the writing work I have sitting beside me.

So here goes.

Past simpleton

It was 2012. I had fewer forehead wrinkles, and had almost completed the DELTA. I was wondering what use I could make of all the fresh knowledge and new ideas which were swirling around in my head. The last section of the course materials  mentioned ELT writing  as a possible career path for newly minted DELTEES to pursue. I liked the sound of it and decided to give it a go.

I visited publishers’ websites and fired off enthusiastic emails to all of them, asking if they needed a materials reviewer (I’d heard this was a good way to get your foot in the materials writing door). I have yet to receive a reply from any of them.

Next, I decided to enter the onestopenglish lesson share competition with  a lesson I’d just taught. To my delight, it won. I waited a decent interval of time (a month, I think) and submitted another one (it won again).

After this, I joined IATEFL. I couldn’t afford to go to the conference in Glasgow that year, but watched all the recordings on the website. As I wistfully gazed at the list of far-flung, exotic sounding employers who would be visiting the IATEFL recruitment fair, my eyes fell on two advertisements. One was from a new ELT agent, looking to hear from aspiring writers. The other was from a well-known publisher, also wanting to source new writing talent.

I got in touch with the new ELT agent (Nick Robinson, who is now well known for being the co-founder and CEO of eltjam and flovoco). We met via Skype shortly afterwards and had a chat. Nick then sent me a brief and asked me to write a sample, which I did. After a tense week or so of waiting, Nick contacted me to say he liked my work, and would be happy to represent me. I was thrilled, although Nick had made it clear that his representation alone would not guarantee work – publishers would require me to submit writing samples for each job.

Meanwhile, the well-known publishers I mentioned earlier had got in touch saying they liked the lesson idea I’d sent them. I was given a detailed brief and asked to write another sample. After submitting that, they invited me to attend a writers’ workshop. Post workshop, I’d be asked to submit a unit for a student’s book. If my unit made the grade, I’d be one of the authors on a brand new new course, travelling the world to promote it. It all sounded unbelievably glamorous and exciting!

Sadly, although I learned an incredible amount from the workshop, my unit didn’t make it. This was down to naivety and professional immaturity on my part. Did I really think that an interminable listening task from a gritty drama set in a Scottish women’s prison would delight and enthral international language learners? The feedback, however, which described my work as “quirky and a bit depressing” would prove invaluable and provide me with two lasting musts- to -avoid. Today I still meticulously check my work for signs of quirkiness or depression inducing qualities.

I was devastated that I’d thrown such a good chance away. However, I’d almost forgotten my agent, who came back to me in my darkest hour with an offer of work: writing Teacher’s notes,  tests and photocopiables for Pearson. Then came the nerve wracking bit – I had to write yet another sample. To say I took my time over this would be a complete understatement. I polished it till it shone. My hard work didn’t go unnoticed: the feedback I received commented on “the high quality” of my submission. I was offered the job. Phew.

My first proper writing job and pay cheque were in the bag and other jobs followed on their heels: some big, some small. For each job, I had to write a sample. I received many rejections (and still do, believe me!). Nick found me lots of openings, but even so, I still actively looked for work myself. I landed a couple of jobs by subscribing to the esol research forum and following up advertisements (British Council resource writing vacancies were advertised there, for example).

One more thing about the early days. I worked very hard: blogging, writing articles for newsletters and magazines and sharing lesson ideas online. When I travelled to give talks at conferences, I paid my own way. All this unpaid work led my husband to joke that I was “really putting the free into freelance”. It was a very busy and far from financially lucrative time, but I saw it as a kind of apprenticeship, and it turned out to be well worth it.

Present continuous

I’m still writing and constantly learning as I go. I don’t work for free any more and when I fly to conferences it is with all expenses paid. I feel confidence in negotiating a decent fee, terms and conditions now.

ELT writing is changing and developing all the time, and I’m aware I need to keep on top of this if I am to continue to thrive. I’ve had to adapt to writing for digital: quite a feat for someone who studiously avoids self service checkouts at the supermarket (I never get through my transaction without an alarm being sounded and a whole team of staff being deployed to sort things out).

Becoming an established ELT writer has also given me the confidence to write for other genres. Five years ago, I dreamt of “being a writer”, but never did anything all that serious about it. Now I regularly write for the local press, and I’m working on a screen play too.

Future perfect?

Who knows? As a freelance writer, you’re never quite sure what lies ahead. I have some projects in the pipeline for this year, but next year (and all the years after that) is anyone’s guess.

Top Tips and links

  • Join MaWSIG (The IATEFL special interest group for anyone with an interest in materials writing).
  • Register on the elt teacher 2 writer data base, and have a look at their courses (very good value for money and written by experts)
  • Have you just taught a blinder of a lesson? Write it down and share it as widely as you can.
  • Follow publishers on social media and keep your eyes well and truly peeled for opportunities. They are out there, believe me.
  • Offer to write articles for IATEFL’s Voices, IATEFL Sig newsletters or publications such as English Teaching Professional. This will help you establish a presence in the ELT world.
  • Learn from rejection – but don’t get hung up on it. Focus on what you’ve achieved so far and keep trying. It can be a long process.
  • Got any more good tips or links? Please share in the comments!
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8 Responses to Getting into ELT writing: how I did it.

  1. racheldaw18 says:

    Fascinating to hear your tale, Genevieve 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  2. joco75 says:

    Thanks, Rachel! Glad you enjoyed it – I had fun writing it. 🙂 Would be interesting to hear other ELT writers stories, I think…

  3. I enjoyed your piece. I recently entered the unknown world of ELT writing. Congratulations on your success.

  4. joco75 says:

    Have you? Good luck, Patrice! I will be looking out for your work!

  5. paulwalsh says:

    I’m interested in the lesson from the Scottish prison – ‘quirky and depressing’ – sounds great!

    A book containing the ‘lessons that the industry rejected’ perhaps?

  6. joco75 says:

    Hi Paul,

    Reading your comment made me want to go and check out that writing sample again (I haven’t actually looked at it for years!). I was bracing myself for a big cringe, but found myself chuckling instead. The play extract (‘Iron’ by Rona Munro) is pretty depressing, but the dialogue is great: really natural. That said, I would never include a text like that in a sample nowadays.
    With regards to your suggestion – sounds interesting! Would it be for use as a teacher’s book or an instructional manual for aspiring ELT writers (“How not to write a sample”) I wonder?

    Many thanks for popping by and commenting!


  7. ven_vve says:

    Hi Genevieve,
    Great post! Over the past three years I’ve mostly been teaching online, and have often thought about getting into materials writing. Apart from just normally taking ages to go from thinking about something to actually doing something about it, I’m also scared of getting turned down – or maybe not even being given a chance – as a non-native speaker. Maybe I’m overthinking the whole thing. In your experience, how do publishers of ELT materials feel about NNS writers?

  8. joco75 says:

    Interesting question, Vedrana! As I’m not a publisher myself I’m not sure I can answer this question with any great authority (although I will make enquiries for you).

    I don’t see why being a NNS writer should hinder you from achieving your goal. For every writing job I have ever got, I have had to submit a sample – you are judged on the quality of your writing first and foremost.

    On one of the first writing jobs I had (for the British Council) I worked in a team alongside a NNS writer. I may well have worked alongside NNS writers on other projects too, but as I don’t always get to meet the people I am working with then it’s hard to say for sure.

    Good luck! I wish you every success in becoming a published ELT materials writer.

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