Five Uncomfortable Realities of ELT Writing

by Laura Phelps

Are your worksheets the envy of your friends? (Get some friends who aren’t teachers!) Could you write the next Cutting Edge? I certainly haven’t and probably couldn’t, but I’ve written some other bits and pieces, and it’s a peculiar sort of job. If you think you might be peculiar enough to join the fold, the simplest test is to see if you can leave an uncorrected typo in a text message. No? COME IN. And if you’re still not put off by these five things I’ve learnt in the last five years, I hope to make your acquaintance very soon. 

1. Nobody has the slightest idea how to ‘break into writing’.

 I’ve been asked many times how I got into writing. And every time I say huh dunno I (understandably) get looked at like a simpleton, or with the suspicion that I am keeping secrets and contacts under my conical hat. But truly, I don’t know. ELT writing is a murky pond that you sort of topple backwards into. There’s no central job listings website, no obvious point of entry or route of progression. You can join the ELT Teacher2Writer database and hope that someone contacts you, but it’s frustratingly passive. Or you can try the classic ‘in’ of offering to review resources for Cambridge et al, but it’s long and dreary and a bit pre-internet.

I found my first job on a freelance writing website in 2011. I wrote a reading skills book for Taiwanese uni students, and the pay was terrible but the experience invaluable, because once you’ve written something, you’re magically a Writer. Letting that be known on social media is perhaps the new ‘in’ – my two meatiest jobs have come through friends, real and virtual. So if I have any advice at all, it is this: (1) think bigger than the ‘big four’ (CUP, OUP, Macmillan, Pearson) because there are loads of international publishers looking for people; and (2) get on Twitter, start a blog, and humblebrag about that cover with your name on it until you become what you say you are.

2. You’d better like instant noodles. For breakfast. At 3pm.

After a non-exchange about how you got into writing, most people will go on to tell you how they’d never have the discipline to work from home. At this point, you have two choices: smile beatifically and say that one adapts as one must, or be honest about the fact that you have not once sat down before midday at an actual desk in actual trousers. It’s not really a matter of discipline; it’s a matter of do this or be skint, like any other job, so it always gets done. It just gets done between Pet Shop Boys videos and at the expense of eating anything that isn’t beige, ever. Google ‘ramen hacks’. You’re welcome.

If you like routine, writing is probably not for you. Your editor will want to Skype at 10pm because she’s on a different continent. You’ll set 6am alarms for online training sessions that you can’t hear and didn’t need. You’ll become that 20 minutes honestly person on your laptop at a Sunday picnic, which can vex, until you remember that your Monday contains neither a commute nor eight hours in an open-plan with Amanda Thing who laughs like a barn owl (if you like other people, writing is probably also not for you).

3. You might want to hold off booking that trip to Turks and Caicos.

Nobody ever went into ELT to get rich or die tryin’, but writing is particularly unstable because it’s almost never salaried and you can forget about sick pay, holiday pay and pension contributions. I’ve been paid by the word and the hour, but most commonly and inconveniently on completion of a large project, which means no money coming in for months at a time. To survive you need to be a hardcore make-do-and-mender, or have a recently deceased great aunt, or move to southeast Asia, or – the least bothersome option, in most cases – take on bits of teaching / training / admin to top up your income.

Rates of pay for writing also vary enormously, with little rhyme or reason. There will be times when you shut one eye to your pedagogical principles because you need to get a few grand in the bank. There will be other times when curiosity triumphs over dollars, even pride. Overlaps of interest and pay are rare but magical when they happen, and you might not make it to the Caribbean but the location independence of online work is a luxury money can’t buy.

4. You need to know what that button does.

 While there are still jobs out there writing print resources, these days you’re much more likely to be developing online content. Every company uses a different platform, and if you’re patchworking a few jobs you have to keep a lot of bitty information about asterisks in your head. Not only that, you need the nous to troubleshoot simple problems on your own because your editor can’t answer six queries a day about ghosting icons and text that won’t italicise. Harsh but true story: a colleague of mine was sacked after three weeks for failing to get to grips with Moodle. So if computers give you the wig, seek out jobs where someone else will be doing most of the technofaff.

 Actually, I think it’s worth admitting that most of my ‘writing’ jobs have involved 40% writing and 60% ghostbusting errant icons, resizing stock photos, assigning tags, triple-proofreading, comparing corpora, verifying CEFR levels and trying not to slam my laptop shut in Google Hangouts. If you want to finger your quill while staring out to sea, write fiction. 

5. Amazing teachers aren’t necessarily amazing writers.

ELT is weird. When you’ve taught for a few years and fancy a challenge, you apparently have to choose between training, which is notoriously hard to get into, or managing, which is basically being paid to let people despise you, or writing. None of these jobs requires the same skills as teaching, yet we’re encouraged to believe anyone can make a swift and simple transition. Most of us can’t. It took me six months of being a godawful ADoS to realise how damaging this myth is – I liked the sound of being a manager, but in reality I had to go for wet-eyed walks round the block several times a week. Likewise, while the idea of seeing your stuff in print is hugely appealing, not everyone is sufficiently pedantic to write for a living.

It’s not enough just to be in love with words, as all English teachers surely are. Faced with three drafts of 50 reading texts of 100 words each (no more than five percent at A2 level please) on topics you know nothing about with image descriptions and can I have them by Friday thank you smiley face – what’s your reaction? If it’s to rub your hands together at the chance to create a bit of order out of chaos, you’re going to be fine. But if it all seems a bit particular and fenced-in, you’ll be saying hello to a lot more wet-eyed walks round the block.

This is my counsel, such as it is. For infinitely sager advice, you might enjoy reading Materials Development in Language Teaching (2011, Brian Tomlinson (ed.), Cambridge University Press) or following the activities of MaWSIG (Materials Writing Special Interest Group) online. And if you do COME IN and find out anything concrete at all, I shall thank you for writing another, better version of this article in due course. Courage!

Author’s Bio: Laura Phelps is a freelance teacher, trainer, writer and postgraduate art history student. She is based in Asia and currently nomadic. Laura has worked in eight countries and written three coursebooks, including English for the Cultural and Creative Industries. Twitter: @pterolaur