My Journey into ELT Materials Development
After completing my BA and MA degrees and TESL certificate, I spent five years in Taiwan and South Korea with my husband, Tom. It was in Seoul, as a relatively new teacher, that I started writing professionally. I was invited to co-author three Ministry of Education textbooks for Korean high schools. My TESL training in the early 1990s had been firmly rooted in the communicative approach and this was pure grammar-translation, but I like to think I brought something positive to the project. For the first time, I had my name on the cover of three books.
This was followed by two series of books for the chain of language schools I was working at. This was very different from the Ministry project: Our team members were all creative and enthusiastic, and we could really go to town creating fun and engaging materials. Looking at these texts 30 years later, I am amazed that (a) we managed to produce them with no online resources (this was in the pre-Internet era); and (b) they still look pretty good, even today!
I left Seoul with twelve books to my name.
Developing EAP Expertise
Tom and I came back to Canada and had two children. I taught at the university level, and I continued to write for my own classes. By this time, I identified strongly as an EAP teacher. I worked in a small and relatively new EAP program where there was little in the way of formal structure. I ended up as Curriculum Coordinator of the program and had a lot of input into how it should be structured. At the time, the EAP program operated as part of the university's writing centre, which had a small publishing program. I authored five booklets specifically for international students on topics ranging from avoiding plagiarism to building vocabulary skills.
While I was working at the university, four important things happened. First, I did a Master of Education degree. Second, I started to give conference talks. Third, I joined IATEFL. And fourth, in 2010, I became editor of IATEFL’s Conference Selections publication. Suddenly, I knew a lot of people. I went to the IATEFL Conference every year, and I learned a lot. When IATEFL established the Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MaWSIG) in 2013, I went to the launch party. I would later end up becoming Coordinator of MaWSIG.
An Idea Is Born
One of the courses I taught was an advanced-level course called Critical Reading. I taught this course for several years, and because I could not find a suitable book, I ended up writing all my own material. My role as Curriculum Coordinator brought me into contact with publishing sales reps. One day, in a conversation with the sales rep from Pearson Canada, I mentioned that I was writing all my own material and was thinking about turning it into a book. She suggested I write up a proposal, and she gave me the name of the person to send it to. Long story short, Pearson Canada liked the idea, and the result was my first book with a major publisher, Critical Reading.
I left my secure, full-time job in 2012 with the goal of establishing myself as a freelance writer and editor. Critical Reading was in progress, and around the same time, I was offered two freelance projects: a writing project with the British Council and a curriculum consulting project with another university. I spent the Christmas holiday reading everything I could find about running an independent business, and in January I started my new projects.
In my early freelance days, I did whatever I could to stay busy, build my reputation, and make money. My work fell into four areas:
Writing. After Critical Reading, I wrote a speaking book for Pearson, Say What You Mean, co-authored with Tom. I wrote various supplementary materials for different publishers. As someone who grew up in the UK and now lives in Canada, I did British/American English localization projects. I adapted ESP books for the Middle East. I wrote an academic upgrading book for Indigenous students in northern Canada who had not completed high school and who now wanted to enter college. That’s my least visible book, but in some ways, it’s the one I’m most proud of.
Editing. I continued to edit Conference Selections until 2019, by which time I had taken over as editor of IATEFL’s Voices magazine. This was a much bigger job and a more time-consuming commitment. When I became editor of Conference Selections in 2009, I took courses in editing and proofreading, and over the years I have done a lot of editing—some for publishers, but mostly for academic researchers. I sometimes think there is nothing I love more than a good copyedit.
EAP curriculum writing. I have had contracts to write custom courses in EAP for universities and colleges in Canada and overseas.
Other. I took part in a project designed to train CLIL editors in Kazakhstan. I went to Cuba to train EAP teachers and academic writers for the British Council. I also didn’t give up entirely on teaching. I did some teaching at the local college, and being freelance gave me the opportunity to teach pre-sessional EAP at the University of Warwick, UK, just down the road from where I grew up. I did this three times (twice in person and once online during Covid).
In the dark days of 2020, while the world was reeling from the effects of Covid-19, I wrote a sample unit for a new EAP series, to be published by National Geographic Learning. The result was Reflect Reading and Writing, Level 6 (CEFR C1), published in 2022. Since 2020, I have completed six print and digital writing projects for NGL, most recently, Pathways Listening and Speaking, Level 3 (CEFR B2).
I divide my time between EAP materials development, especially at the higher levels, and academic editing. I enjoy both, and having two main income streams means I’m never short of work. These days, I’m quite selective in what I take on, and the result is that I love almost everything I do.
Tom and I are not getting any younger, and the inevitable discussions about downsizing and retirement are happening. Honestly, I can’t see retirement happening; there is still more that I want to do, and that I am doing. Watch this space…
Tips for Aspiring Writers
Educate Yourself about Writing and ELT Publishing
I don’t think anyone on my early projects had any formal training in materials writing. I certainly didn’t. I’m not sure there was much available back then. Today, there is more you can do:
Look at the writing courses offered by highly experienced authors John Hughes and Katherine Bilsborough of Writing ELT Materials. They offer a five-week and a ten-week course. If these had been around when I started writing, I would definitely have signed up. They also have a useful blog on their website.
Read the ELT Teacher 2 Writer books. Titles in this series include How to Write Speaking Activities, How to Write Business English Materials, How to Write Film and Video Activities, How to Plan a Book, How to Adapt Authentic Texts, and much, much more. There is great advice here, much of it from very experienced authors.
Go to conference talks and webinars, especially those given by IATEFL’s Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). These range from big issues like diversity and inclusion to more specific topics like writing multiple choice tests.
Consider attending the annual ELT Publishing Professionals Awayday, held every year in Oxford. This is great for getting to know people and for learning more about the business of ELT publishing.
None of my degrees or TESL training offered any options in materials writing. Now, some do. If you’re thinking about another degree, look carefully at the options you can take.
Find Your Niche
Decide what you do best. Do you write ESP materials (business, medicine, etc.)? Materials for children? Graded readers? Test-prep materials? Something else? Get known for something specific. In my early freelance days, I wrote whatever anyone would pay me to write. I even wrote materials for children, but not happily and probably not well. As an EAP writer, that isn’t what I do. Today, I leave children’s materials to the experts. Here’s a blog post from my other website on finding your niche.
Most writers learn by doing. Write as much as you can for your own school. Get your colleagues to test your material and give you honest feedback. What worked? What didn’t? Was the level right? How was the timing? If you’re going to use your materials in class, just be careful to check whether your employer has any claim to ownership of materials that you create while on their payroll.
Choose the organizations that work for you, and commit to them. This will be different for everyone, depending on where you live and what you specialize in, but these are the organizations that have been the most important to me:
For many years, my professional home was IATEFL. I spent five years editing IATEFL’s Voices magazine and ten years editing Conference Selections. For a short time, I was joint coordinator of MaWSIG (I left the role when I became editor of Voices). It is my IATEFL involvement that really cemented my role as an ELT writer and editor, and that brought me into contact with a lot of people. I’m no longer a member of IATEFL, but I will always be grateful for the impact the organization had on my career.
IATEFL’s Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MaWSIG) has a useful blog and lots of events. There is also a YouTube channel, with videos including How did you get into writing?, Where do you get your ideas?, and What’s the most important skill for materials developers?
For an ELT freelancer, ELT Publishing Professionals is highly recommended for (a) networking; (b) skills development; and (c) job adverts. Membership costs £50, and it can be the best £50 you’ve ever spent. In the last four years I have completed six projects for National Geographic Learning, including two coursebooks. That all started when I responded to an ELT PP job advert; my £50 membership has paid for itself thousands of times over!
As an academic editor, I am also a member of Editors Canada.
Opportunities won’t come knocking if no one knows who you are. Some things you can do:
Give conference talks. It can be a little nerve-wracking to speak in front of a group, so start small. Speak at a local event, and go from there. Share your ideas about your materials, how your students have responded to them, what’s different about them. You could also give a webinar, either locally or for an international organization. Personally, I dislike webinars because I like to see my audience, but they are a great way to reach a large number of people.
If you don’t feel confident enough to give a talk, you can still make the most of your conference attendance. Go to social events, and don’t be shy about introducing yourself to people—even “famous” people. I got one of my early contracts by sitting next to someone at lunch. You never know when an opportunity will present itself. At IATEFL I was often in the Exhibition during the morning plenary. It was a quiet time to catch people I wanted to connect with, and I could watch the plenary online later.
Publish articles and book reviews in ELT magazines. As past editor of IATEFL Voices, I know there is a need for high-quality articles from IATEFL members. If you’ve developed an innovative approach to teaching something, write about it!
Take part in online discussions, answer questions, and post updates. I am not very active on social media (I should be more active…), but I do have over 2,500 connections on LinkedIn. Two weeks ago, I posted on LinkedIn about the forthcoming publication of Pathways, and over 7,000 people have seen that post.
Build a website. You could hire this out, or it’s fairly easy to do it yourself. I have two, one for writing (this one) and one for academic editing. I built both myself using Wix. Decide whether you want to include a blog as part of your online presence.
Keep your branding consistent. At the recent ELT Publishing Professionals Awayday, I took part in a networking activity where we were asked to exchange business cards. Mine has my photo on the back. One woman took my card and said, “I know this picture!” It’s the same one I use for everything, and she had seen it in Voices. Her comment: “Great branding!”
Don’t pester commissioning editors; just quietly establish yourself as someone who knows what they are doing. Produce good work, share ideas, show an interest in engaging with fellow professionals, and you will be noticed. Today, a lot of my work comes from personal contacts.
A few things to keep in mind:
You may have a great idea for a book (as I did with Critical Reading), but depending on where you are based and what you want to write, it may be difficult or impossible to attract the interest of a publisher. ELT publishing is generally publisher-driven, not author-driven. I was fortunate in being located in a country where publishers are open to proposals from authors. I wrote about this in this blog post on the MaWSIG website.
If you are not immediately presented with a contract to write a book for a big-name publisher, there is still a lot you can do. Many (perhaps most) ELT writers don’t start by authoring books. They start by creating supplementary materials: worksheets, online practice materials, testing materials, teacher guides, and so on. Some writers prefer to work on these materials; they get to work on a variety of projects. Some writers specialize in teacher guides, others in grammar or vocabulary exercises. Also, remember that there are lots of publishers besides the big four or five. Working for a smaller, more regional, or more specialized publisher can be very rewarding. There’s much more out there than just writing student books for big-name publishers.
It may be enough for you to keep teaching and writing excellent materials for your own classes. Many teacher-writers find that writing custom materials for their own school and staying in the classroom provides a good balance.
I would warn against quitting your day job in order to pursue a writing career. I did, but (a) I already had a book in the works; (b) I had a lot of contacts; (c) I had more than one income stream; and (d) I have a husband who has a job with a good salary and great benefits.
See It As an Ongoing Process
You haven’t suddenly “made it” when you see your name on the front of a book. The shelf life of most books is only a few years; there’s always something new that comes along. I get a thrill from walking into a conference venue and seeing one of my own books on display, but I know it won't last forever.
Never stop learning, networking, marketing yourself. At the same time, carry out regular self-evaluations: what is working, what isn’t, what comes next? Do you want to expand your offerings, limit what you do, change your focus?
Enjoy the process!