In the second of a series of summer blogposts on the MaWSIG website, and following up on last month’s blogpost ‘Adventures in self-publishing’, teacher and writer Clare Maas outlines some ideas for getting started in writing.

At our recent annual conference at Oxford Brookes University, we held break-away discussions on materials writing challenges and opportunities. I moderated the one on ‘Getting started with materials writing’. This post is a summary of the most interesting points of our discussion, which may provide some guidance for anyone looking to break into writing ELT materials.

What are publishers looking for?
We were lucky enough to have in our break-away group the first day’s keynote speaker, Michael Kedward, who is a managing editor in the Adult group at OUP. He explained that commissioning editors are mostly on the lookout for potential writers with recent teaching experience in a context relevant to upcoming projects. The person would also need to show intercultural awareness and creativity, be able to work well in a team and respond well to feedback. This is apparently more important than academic qualifications, though some training in materials writing might be helpful. If you’re interested in online training courses, check out iTDi and NILE, both of whom donated raffle prizes for our event at OBU.

The comments of other participants in the break-away group highlighted that most writers would start out by writing reviews or trialling new materials. This kind of work enables those new to writing to gain insight into the commercial materials development process, and allows those on the publishing side to see how the person works and writes. There may also be scope for novice writers to produce add-on components such as worksheets, teacher’s books or tests to accompany coursebook packages. Publishers might ask to look at a sample of materials you’ve produced, before offering you this kind of work.

According to Michael, commissioning editors often find new writers via existing contacts, for example at conferences or by recommendation. OUP even has a specific email address,, set up for potential writers to contact them. There are also databases (like ELT Teacher2Writer) you can add yourself to, so that publishers can find you. As a group, we discussed how sharing materials you have written could also be a means to catch the attention of a publisher. Ways to share include blogs, teaching magazines, or writing competitions, such as the MaWSIG and GISIG competition. Sharing materials through these means is also a great way to get feedback on what you’ve written.

Feedback that group participants have received on their materials allowed us to compile a list of things publishers might look for when they judge competitions, browse blogs, or evaluate sample materials. The key word here seems to be innovation. Publishers look for things that are different, innovative and have a clear ‘USP’ (unique selling point). The target market should be obvious and worthwhile. This may mean that materials need to have long-lasting and wide, if not global, appeal.

What about self-publishing?
We discussed self-publishing as an option for taking an idea forward if it doesn’t seem to fit into a publisher’s mould. The availability of digital tools, and a shift in the market towards non-traditional media, bring self-publishing within the reach of many teachers and writers. Participants mentioned Smashwords, Apple iBooks, Amazon Kindle, eBoox and Flipsnack as platforms for writing and selling ebooks. TES, Twinkl and Teachers Pay Teachers were mentioned as sites where you can sell worksheets or short units of work. A lot of these platforms are apparently easy to work with if your product consists largely of plain text, but more interactive page-layouts may require specialist software.

Of course, we discussed the dangers of lacking quality and limited sales, and shared ideas on how to counteract these. Here are the top tips:

  • Develop your own style sheet or template.
  • Find an editor (for example using the database of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, who sponsored our event in Oxford), or at least use some editing software such as Perfect It or the website
  • Try your materials out ‘for real’ before publishing them. Ask your colleagues to do the same and to give you constructive feedback.
  • Use social media and conferences to promote your ideas and product. Try to build a ‘fan base’.
  • Use a blog to trial ideas and get feedback from teachers outside your immediate context.
  • Make sure you get all the copyright permissions you need! (Including rights for print/electronic versions, countries you’re aiming to sell in, etc.)

Have you got any ideas or experiences to share about how to get your materials published for the first time?

Clare Maas holds post-graduate qualifications in teaching and in translation from the University of Wales and Trinity College London. She has been teaching English in tertiary education for over 10 years. Her professional interests include EAP materials development, translation in ELT and CPD for teachers. Clare is also very busy in her role as Joint Events Coordinator on the MaWSIG committee.