Becoming an ELT Writer - Ask the Publishers Q&A - with Neil Wood, Oxford University Press
There’s no one profile that will meet the requirements of every project, but there are a few key attributes that all ELT writers need to possess. The ability to follow a brief and work to a deadline are essential, as is a willingness to collaborate with and be guided by the editorial team.
It’s important that you have relevant experience of teaching the target users. So if you’re interested in writing business English materials, or a coursebook for the Italian secondary school market, you really need to be familiar with the kind of material and approach that will work for both learners and teachers: a sense of what will engage and motivate them in terms of input material (e.g. images, texts, topics) and output material (activities/tasks), and an understanding of what difficulties they are likely to encounter (and how to address these).
Obviously you need a sound grasp of English grammar and ELT methodology (including anything specific to the sector you’re writing for) – I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but unfortunately it’s not always a given.
Creativity and originality are also desirable. Depending on the project, we sometimes want people who can follow a brief to the letter, but often we’re also looking for the ability to take the brief and run with it, to give it that extra ‘something’ that will engage learners and make the work stand out from the crowd. Flexibility is also important – you won’t get it right first time, all of the time, so you need to be willing to accept feedback and to act on it. It’s normal to go through two or three draft stages before the ‘final’ draft is approved.
Lastly, when you write classroom or practice/self-study material, remember you are not just writing for yourself and your own teaching situation. Teachers and students operate in a variety of environments; you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes and ensure your material is appropriate for all of them. It shouldn’t be dependent on your own classroom approach in order to work.
2) For someone looking to become an ELT writer, what is the best way to get started?
Commissioning a major piece of work carries inherent risks and most projects are on a tight schedule, so publishers have a tendency to play safe and stick with the writers they know, who are tried and tested. That said, at OUP we are always interested in identifying and encouraging new writing talent.
Don’t wait for publishers to beat a path to your door – they probably won’t, unless you already have a track record. Show an interest. Cultivate any contacts you have in the ELT publishing world. Attend conferences and events; approach people on publishers’ stands and say you are interested. Find out the names of commissioning editors and email them.
Be prepared to start small and take on relatively modest, fee-paying jobs – for example, writing photocopiable activities for a teacher’s book or worksheets to accompany a video. If you demonstrate that you can meet the brief and deliver good material on schedule, you’ll have established a reputation and are more likely to be offered further work.
3) Do you have to write a full coursebook before submitting a proposal?
No, definitely not. These days it’s comparatively rare for an unsolicited proposal for a complete coursebook to be accepted. This is because most ELT publishers plan their core publishing three to five years ahead (or more) and commission to this plan. However, if you have a good idea that you think deserves consideration, especially in more niche areas like ESP or teacher development, it’s definitely worth submitting it to several publishers. Most editors have heard stories of ‘the one that got away’ – a proposal turned down by one publisher that was taken up by another and became very successful.
4) Is there a particular form a proposal should take and how many words should it be?
Quality is more important than quantity, especially early on. Initially, it’s a good idea to send a concise description of your ideas before submitting a detailed proposal, to find out if there is interest in the kind of project you are considering before you spend valuable time preparing a lot of material. If that leads to a more detailed proposal, this should include: a covering letter and your CV, a brief outline of the project (what it is, who it’s for, what levels it covers, what components it needs, etc.), a detailed rationale (reasons for the submission, underlying principles, methodology or approach, key features, potential markets), and some sample material (ideally a complete syllabus and two or three units/chapters, depending on length). Sample material is important – you need to show that you can write.
5) Everyone knows about coursebooks, but what other kinds of writing work do publishers commission?
An increasingly broad variety. Obvious examples are teacher’s books and workbooks, together with things like photocopiable activities to supplement classroom material, video worksheets, course-based tests, exam practice, additional skills development activities, teacher development materials, and classroom management tools (e.g. lesson planners, CEFR mapping documents). Additionally, publishers are developing an ever-expanding range of materials for online delivery and use.
6) What particular skills does a new writer need? Do you need to know about online platforms?
It certainly helps to have an awareness of and affinity with online platforms, and digital content generally. Writing and editing for digital delivery presents a different set of challenges from print materials, and the user experience is fundamentally different. Creating content often involves the use of templates which need to be written into, with their own set of very precise parameters, and the content itself often needs to work across different devices or platforms. Aptitude, or willingness to learn, are key. That said, the most important attribute for a writer is still the ability to produce good quality content that achieves its pedagogical aims, irrespective of the medium of delivery.
7) How are writers usually paid, i.e. by the word, by the hour, by the book, etc.?
Typically, writers receive a royalty on sales of coursebooks and workbooks, and a fee for most other kinds of material. A royalty is a percentage of the net price the publisher receives for a book in any given market – this is not necessarily the same as the catalogue or cover price. Royalty rates vary, but you are unlikely to receive more than 10%, and bear in mind that this will be lower if the package on which you receive a royalty includes components not written by you (e.g. online practice or video). If you’re given the option of a royalty or a fee, consider carefully – there are pros and cons either way. For some items, such as teacher’s books which may be given away to support adoptions of coursebooks, it’s often better to take a fee – you get the money up front rather than having to wait for it, and how much you get is not dependent on sales performance. On the other hand, a coursebook or workbook which remains in print for a long time may provide a useful addition to your income over a number of years and amount to significantly more than a one-off fee – but be aware that there are no guarantees.
8) A question I would still like to ask after writing materials for approximately five years is: how do writers find out about job openings? There are freelance writing sites, which tend to offer uninteresting or underpaid work, or submitting a coursebook proposal to a major publisher, but how do I find content writing work in between those two extremes?
This is a really good question. Essentially, I think the answer is good networking – it’s about who you know, or who knows you. You do need to be proactive: make yourself visible, use your contacts, email people regularly and remind them that you are available. If you have a track record, don’t be afraid to showcase what you’ve done. Evidence that you have written good material that sells will help your bid to be commissioned for something else.
You are more likely to be a problem-solver if you take this approach. At any given time, most established writers will be booked up for several months and have limited availability. If a publisher has an urgent need for a writer at relatively short notice, as is increasingly the case, it may be difficult to find someone with time to spare. If you are in the habit of flagging up your availability you’re therefore more likely to get a call. If you can be flexible and deliver to tight deadlines, so much the better.
And talk to other writers. Check out the ELT Writers Facebook forum and the IATEFL materials writers’ SIG (http://mawsig.iatefl.org/).
9) Do you have to be based in the UK to work for a publisher?
No, it doesn’t matter where you’re based. In fact, if you’re writing market-specific materials, it’s clearly an advantage to be based in that country.
10) Do publishers provide support and guidance for new writers working on their first projects?
I can’t speak for all publishers, but at OUP we certainly offer guidance and support for all new writers. This is normally provided by the editorial team working with them, and would include: clear and detailed briefing; allocation of appropriate tasks; help with planning, scheduling and drafting; regular updates; and constructive feedback and coaching during the content development process. We also make an effort to match the right person with the right project, to allow new writers to play to their strengths and develop their skills and confidence early on.
11) Can a writer work for many publishers or does it have to be just one?
As a writer you are essentially a freelancer, and are therefore free to work for whoever you choose. However, your contract with one publisher may well include a non-competition clause, prohibiting you from writing a similar work for another publisher (e.g. a coursebook for the same target learners at the same level). Logic dictates that you wouldn’t do this anyway, as you would be competing with yourself, but it is nonetheless something to be aware of.
Neil Wood is a Publisher in the ELT Division at Oxford University Press. He has more than 20 years’ experience of publishing general English, business English, ESP and EAP titles, mainly for the adult global market. Prior to this he taught EFL for ten years in the UK and various parts of Europe. He is DELTA-qualified and has a Master’s in English Language & Literature from King’s College, London.