Getting started

Our guest blog’s first year ends with a look at beginnings. Sandy Millin writes about the questions she has found it useful to ask as a new materials writer. MaWSIG members will receive an ebook of all twelve posts from 2015, plus two bonus posts. 

The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

Millin 2Getting started as a materials writer

by Sandy Millin





Over the last couple of years I have started to work with publishers, and it’s been quite a learning curve. I’ve produced downloadable worksheets for two different publishers, and sections of a print workbook for a third. The people I’ve worked with have all been very good at answering my questions, but I wasn’t always sure what to ask. As I found Tamzin Berridge’s blog post Rules for Rookie Writers useful, I wanted to share some of my own experiences as a new materials writer.

How do you start?

The first step is finding the work. Here are three ways I’ve used.

My first work for a publisher came after I entered a materials writing competition I heard about on Twitter. It was commenting on manuscripts, and I’ve repeated this over the last few years as the course has been updated and extended. This led to me producing online worksheets for the same publisher nearly five years later.

Another writing job came as a result of writing a review of an ebook app on my blog. A few weeks after posting and letting the publishers know about it, I was contacted to see if I’d be interested in producing some online worksheets.

The third place I found work is from the ELT Teacher 2 Writer database of writers. It’s free to join and publishers can use it to search for potential authors and product reviewers. You can also find ebooks there to help you to develop your skills as a materials writer.

Questions to ask yourself if you’re offered work

  • Do you have time?
    Will you be able to fit it in around other commitments? There’s no point taking the work if it’s going to make you tired, depressed, or unable to do your day job. It’s important to be realistic. And yes, writing often takes longer than you expect!
  • Is it financially worthwhile?
    Although a lump sum may look good, how many hours of work is it likely to translate to and what kind of hourly wage does that represent? How much is it after tax, and how will you organise paying the tax on it?
  • Do you have strong feelings about particular aspects of pedagogy?
    If so, will the writing work fit with these or will you have to make some compromises in order to complete it? How willing are you to make those compromises?
  • How confident do you feel with technology?
    You may be asked to use a template or to set up a document using styles, which show the editor or typesetter what kind of text it is – for example, a rubric or a section heading. Many people are unfamiliar with this feature of Microsoft Word.

Questions to ask the editor/publisher

  • What is the specific brief? For example, can you base your writing on authentic materials or should it be completely self-created?
  • Is there a single deadline for the whole project, or separate deadlines for different parts of it?
  • Should you send your work as you complete it, in batches or all together? In my experience, the answer is usually all together; but your editor may want to see one or two documents to make sure you’re on track before you proceed.
  • Can you see completed examples of the kind of document the publisher would like you to produce – for example, from other levels? This can help you get an idea of how much work is involved.
  • If you’re using Word, how many pages should your finished document be? For example, does a one-page Word document correlate to a single page in the finished product?
  • Where should the teacher’s notes and answers be? After each exercise, at the end of the document or in a separate document?
  • If you’re producing writing tasks, do you need to include a model answer?
  • Should you include worked examples for the first question in each exercise?
  • What are the publisher’s codes for design elements, such as gapfill spaces? For example, [GF] would indicate that the designers need to print a gap in this sentence: ‘I need [GF] to the supermarket after I finish work.’
  • Can images be included? If they can, where should they be sourced from? Or should you include an image brief for somebody else to find the right picture later? If that’s the case, how detailed should the brief be?

A few last tips

  • Save each draft of your writing as a new document and clearly label it as draft 1, draft 2, etc. This means if you change your mind about something you can still find it in a previous version. Your editor may ask you to use specific filenames.
  • If you need to learn about styles, the LibroEditing website has useful blogposts about features of Word; see the section on ‘Headings and tables of contents’.
  • Check if your editor would like you to use ‘track changes’ (also explained on the LibroEditing website) when you are editing later drafts. This way the editor can see what you’ve done.
  • ŸAsk your editor if they would like you to use the ‘comment’ function (on the ‘review’ toolbar in Word) to ask questions. For example, I’ve had times when I’ve been stuck for inspiration so have added a comment to ask for ideas. I’ve also used comments to justify a decision or to ask if it’s OK to include a particular topic.
  • Write the answers as you go along, rather than when you’ve finished writing everything.
  • If you’re producing a text based on facts, give yourself a set time to do research or it will take forever. Make a few notes, then move away from the computer or close your browser while you plan your text. By getting a bit of distance, I’ve found it’s more likely to be my own writing rather than sentences from what I’ve read.
  • Take regular breaks from writing so that you’re not spending too much time in front of the screen. I also find that doing as much work as possible on paper before I get to the screen makes the whole process faster.

Good luck with taking your first steps as a materials writer – and let me know if I’ve missed anything important!


Sandy Millin has been the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz since August 2015. She’s also a CELTA tutor and has been dabbling in materials writing when the time permits (and sometimes even when it doesn’t!) She tweets from @sandymillin and blogs at You can find out about her previous writing work using the ‘Writing’ tab on her blog.

14 thoughts on “Getting started

  1. A great post as always, Sandy! After talking a lot about materials writing and print to digital transformations at the recent meetup ELTABB organised in Berlin in association with MaWSIG, it’s really interesting to hear about the nitty gritty of actually writing!
    And with regard to images, don’t forget about permissions: they were the bane of my life when I was an Editorial Assistant, and when you had authors who understood the problems with obtaining rights in different formats, it was a dream to work with them!
    Good luck for more work; I’m sure you always do a fab job!

  2. Great post, Sandy! Tons of tips!
    As an editor, I appreciate that writers can sometimes get blocked, so your point about leaving comments asking for help in the manuscripts is a good one.
    Your point about the brief is also important – you do need to make sure you have a clear brief before you start writing, and as a writer you do need to make sure you follow it. You don’t want to waste your time, or the editor’s, writing too much (or not enough) and finding you have to spend the same amount of time again cutting.
    Good luck with your future writing projects!

  3. Hi Sandy,
    Great post and great tips. I got burned with saving edits on a document only to later change my mind and then had to redo everything back to what it was.
    It’s always fun reading what you write, whether here or on your blog.

    1. Thank you very much for the comment Gerhard. Having different versions as different drafts is something I didn’t do in my first project, and have since always done – so much easier if you do want to backtrack!

  4. Great post Sandy and loads of really useful tips here!

    One of the things you mentioned about was the artwork brief and finding photos to accompany your work. Most publishers will already have deals with picture libraries so as a writer if you are starting to think about the images (which is great as lots of writers don’t) then it would be worth asking the publisher what libraries you could focus your search on.
    They probably have a team in place for ensuring that the correct permissions are adhered to and for most publishers they will also have someone responsible for researching photos that fit the brief. So as a writer if you can provide a good brief as to what image you’re envisaging then this will help the publishing team save time when sourcing the final image. Equally if they already have plans for the images to be sourced and permissions cleared then as a writer you probably don’t want to spend too much time searching for images that someone else will have to do anyway and will get paid for!

    One of the other things that we’ve been finding really useful is doing photo selection meetings with the authors and editors of the project. This really helps as decisions can be made very quickly taking into account the authors initial ideas, how it works on the page and pedagogically whether it fits with the material and learning outcomes of the material.

    Best of luck with your next writing tasks and see you soon,

    1. Thanks Sophie. Knowing about picture libraries is very useful. One set of worksheets I did was accompanied by pictures, and having specified images I discovered later that I actually had to choose from a picture library, which was obviously a lot more restricted. I should definitely have added something about that!

  5. This is very good indeed. Terrific set of bullet points, including some that might seem obvious – keep drafts as separate dox – but really need to be clearly stated. New writers should print this out and stick it on the wall near their workspace!

  6. Lots of great ideas here, Sandy. You’ve clearly got your finger on the pulse of the current set of issues and challenges for all ELT writers – new or experienced.Your tip about giving yourself a time limit for research is a really good one, and then moving away from the original source to allow your brain the time and distance to re-organise the ideas into your own words. Getting permission for authentic materials is becoming increasingly troublesome for publishers. Most publishers’ standard rights cover everything (all territories, in perpetuity, all languages, all media, etc) and getting the copyright holder to grant these at a reasonable price is often impossible – much better to avoid the issue altogether. Great advice!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Having a time limit for research is a tip I think I got from the MaWSIG PCE at IATEFL this year – it’s a great idea, because it’s quite a rabbit hole otherwise!

  7. Fab ideas and a great post Sandy! So many useful tips which I can say I have already put into use! The “what to ask your editor” is a must, reading over some of what you wrote made me realise things I needed to ask but hadn’t realised before… if that makes sense 🙂

    Another thing I found useful is to ask about draft and re-submission deadlines. Is the deadline they have given the one for the final draft or will I be getting feedback?

    Looking forward to more posts!

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