Ten tips for getting into digital materials writing

Alex Case’s article 30 ways to get ahead in ELT publishing is mostly accurate and worth checking out. It does, however, have a couple of, “hmm, not sure about that…” examples. It also misses some important ones. So here’s our list, which, while not comprehensive, is the real deal and reflects the big changes happening right now in ELT publishing as a result of the rush to digital. It’s aimed more at those trying to get in as new writers, rather than established authors.

Tip 1 – online presence
Have a popular ELT blog and Twitter account, and use it to review publishers’ products. This will be noticed. Nick’s written more on building your ‘platform’ here.

Tip 2 – targeted talks, ideally on tech
giving a talkGive talks at conferences that publishers go to and pick topics that will attract them. Technology, mobile, adaptive learning and gaming are good topics at the moment. Make sure your talk is brilliant, of course, and if possible use it to show off your great content. Also, don’t forget that publishers want writers who are great at presenting their products, so you need to show your skills in winning over an audience.

Tip 3 – industry knowledge
If there’s an industry you want to work in, then make the effort to understand how it actually works. It’s amazing how few people do this. If a publisher senses that you have some inkling of what will actually sell and can be produced at a reasonable cost, you’ll be a more attractive prospect. Pitching a lovely creative idea for a pronunciation iPhone app for Swedish speakers containing 3D animations and a series of videos is a waste of everyone’s time. If you suggest something that would involve massive software development (e.g. ‘why don’t publishers look at what the big games developers are doing and take a leaf out of their book?’) you’ve shown you don’t know the business and you’ll probably be hard to work with. Do you know how apps are created and distributed? How about online courses? How is that different from the book business? What are the things that are cheap and easy to do, and what’s prohibitively expensive? You’ll be ever more useful and valuable if you know this kind of stuff. If you’re only interested in books, then don’t try and get into ELT publishing. But if you know the industry, then you already knew that.

Tip 4 – start small
Take any work you can – writing worksheets, whatever, even if it’s not economically worthwhile in itself. It’s a way in; it’ll help you learn how the business works; it’ll help establish you as a reliable author and a safe pair of hands. As long as you do a good job, of course.

Tip 5 – don’t expect royalties
royaltiesIf you’re a new writer, don’t expect to get juicy royalties. Royalties are on the way out. Digital publishing is so much more expensive to do than print, and content is only one element of a successful product these days. If you think that’s outrageous, maybe you need a different outlet for your skills. At the same time, though, make sure you get a fair fee for your work. Don’t be afraid to ask the publisher how they’ve calculated the fee. Is it based on an estimate of hours? If so, what if the job takes longer? Is it based on a similar job? If so, how long did that job actually end up taking. And make sure that what you’re being asked to do is clearly measurable. If you’re working for a flat fee, you’ll want to be sure it’s clear when the work is done.

Tip 6 – already be an author
downloadHave you already published anything? Why on earth not? There’s no excuse nowadays. Put some Kindle books out under your own steam. They might not make you any money, but they should demonstrate that you’ve got what it takes to write. And if you really want to show that you’re serious, go to the trouble of getting your ebook edited by a professional; it’ll show that you understand how important the editorial process is and that you care about quality, even if it costs a bit of extra time and money. For more on self-publishing, check out this post and its follow-up here.

Tip 7 – ‘get’ digital
Be someone who can write well for online and mobile learning. Learn about topics like instructional design, UX, authoring tools, LMSs. You will be gold dust. The most common question Nick is asked when he visits publishers to talk about new authors is, “Have you got anyone who can write for digital?”

Tip 8 – keep it simple and professional
comic sansDon’t use Comic Sans (personal bugbear…) or try to be quirky. Alarm bells will ring. Creativity is important, of course, as are interesting, new ideas. But the ability to understand what truly engages teachers and learners — especially when it comes to digital content — is more important than being a maverick.

Tip 9 – it’s not really your content
Don’t be precious about your content. It will be edited. You may not agree with all of the changes. It will be stolen. It wasn’t commissioned in the name of great art and it only exists to fill a commercial need that the publisher has identified. And the publisher is paying all of the money to turn it into an actual product. Be prepared, in some cases, to not have your name attached to the work either, especially if it’s going to be disaggregated and put in with a bunch of other content. Can you remember the name of the person who wrote the last great post you read on Mashable, Huff Post or Vice? Probably not. But that writer is probably still getting regular work from them.

And here’s the most important one:

Tip 10 – be reliable and easy to work with
Common crimes which stop people being commissioned again: missing a deadline without warning the editor as early as possible; writing something that wasn’t in the brief;  not writing something that was in the brief; handing over twice as much content as asked for; submitting messed up document formatting that takes hours to sort out; being hard to contact or disappearing for long periods of time; and being rude, disrespectful or uncooperative. Easy to avoid, you would think.

Basically, if you make life easy for the publisher, you’ll get lots of work. If your content is also interesting and creative while still being safe and suitable for a global audience, and you happen to be a great presenter, then fame and glory awaits!

At ELT Jam, our interest is in how ELT is changing as a result of EdTech, gamification, etc. – these things are in the process of radically transforming what ELT publishing is all about. This list of tips is quite challenging, but if you want to future-proof yourself and build a meaningful career in ELT writing, they represent the bare minimum. Creative ability and great ELT knowledge haven’t been given much of a mention, but they’re a given, aren’t they?

Image credit: bartb_pt via Compfight cc Text added by ELTjam.

8 thoughts on “Ten tips for getting into digital materials writing”

  1. This is fantastic, thanks so much! I am currently working in academic publishing in a digital team, and soon moving to Berlin to try my hand at some ELT, with a view to returning to the UK and moving sideways into ELT publishing. I’ve recently set up a blog, so I’ll have to get to work on the rest of the tips 🙂
    Thanks again,

  2. As someone coming from the other side (that is, representing the digital publisher), I concur! Tips 3-5 and 8-10 resonate with me in particular. Thanks for this post.

  3. You say Alex’s article is ‘mostly accurate’ but has one or two ‘“hmm, not sure about that…” examples’. It would be helpful if you could point out what issues you have with his article. This would give readers a better chance to engage with the specific points in his article that you disagree with. Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Peter – I thought Alex’s advice was good. However, from an in-house publisher point of view, the ones we weren’t so sure about were:

      5. Do your own illustrations, or find someone who can do them (but making it clear that using those illustrations is completely optional)
      I’m sure there might be exceptions, but in my experience a publisher would much rather handle the illustrations themselves – much easier. In fact, as an aspiring writer, providing illustrations might actually put a publisher off, even if it’s made clear they’re optional – the worry would be that this is someone who will want too much creative control.

      6. Need no editing (for example because you have lots of proofreading experience)
      Yes, great if your content is spot on first time, but content always needs editing, and a writer who claims their content won’t need it would set off alarm bells.

      15. Always have a few (extra) publishing proposals or ideas up your sleeve
      This won’t necessarily do any harm, but these days it’s pretty unlikely a publisher will be looking to aspiring writers for new publishing proposals.

      • Your comment about illustrations is very interesting, Laurie.

        Plenty of people trying to break into ELT publishing are quite naive, and I’m sure that publishers expect a bit of naivety from new and inexperienced authors. I can’t really follow how an author offering to draw some illustrations is a good indication that that author would want too much creative control.

        What would be a better indication would surely be their attitude to advice and criticism. If you explained to the author why drawing their own illustrations wouldn’t work and they accepted that and didn’t complain or try to challenge the decision, and if they generally had a responsive and positive attitude, I can’t see the problem in being a little bit naive or coming up with some odd ideas.

        What matters, surely, is that an author is willing to collaborate and listen?

        • Hi Thomas – sure, it’s not a complete no-no, and it’s unlikely to wreck someone’s chances – but why do something that probably won’t help and which might sow seeds of doubt? Publishers might expect aspiring writers to be naive about the industry, but taking steps to shed that naivety would surely be a good move for any aspiring writer – it shows you’re serious about it and you’ll probably be easier to work with than someone who doesn’t know how things work. Dealing with irrelevant stuff and unworkable ideas takes up time that people don’t have to spare. Someone who doesn’t need as much hand-holding is more valuable and will get more work.

          You’re right, though – a willingness to collaborate and listen, and the ability to take feedback well are more important.

      • OK, thanks. From those three points, it seems like you’re saying ‘know the limits of where your skills should lie’?


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