How did you come to be an educational writer?
I taught for a few years after my PGCE, then moved into educational publishing when my children were small, so I could work flexibly from home some of the time. Also, as a teacher I had seen so many textbooks I didn’t think were very good, I thought I might be able to help make something better. A few years later I was editing some GCSE maths books when an author dropped out, and as the publisher couldn’t find a replacement author he asked me to take over the writing instead. Since then I have moved in and out of teaching, writing and publishing as opportunities have arisen, which has led to an interesting and varied career. This year I have founded Writing for Education, with a colleague, to support and train potential educational writers and address the ongoing shortage of mathematics authors in particular.
What do you think are the necessary skills for working in this sector?
Subject knowledge, teaching or tutoring experience and knowing how to explain so students understand, interest in current pedagogical trends and curricula.
More general writing skills: ability to stick to deadlines, being able to work independently and follow instructions (briefs), attention to detail.
You are both a writer and a publisher of educational materials. What insights does this give you into how can authors and editors can most effectively work together?
Having a foot in each camp certainly helps me to understand the challenges from both sides. Publishers often find it difficult to recruit authors, especially in some shortage subjects, so they do appreciate approaches from established authors and teachers who want to have a go at writing.
Publishers have real problems when authors don’t deliver on time, don’t write all the sections required, or don’t follow the brief, as these create extra work that affects the schedule. In educational publishing schedules are often extremely tight because being first to market, or getting the books out in time for the new school year, are paramount.
Authors may feel they have sent in their manuscript on time and heard nothing for a month – while in the meantime the design is being created, covers discussed, marketing strategy developed and lots more ‘behind the scenes’. Also, in my experience many authors deliver late for a variety of good and not so good reasons, so particularly for multi-author works publishers may set early deadlines, to ensure they can still meet the publication date.
When it comes to editing, as an editor I can see how authors’ text can be improved, or where they haven’t quite followed a brief. But as an author my first reaction to suggested changes is always ‘Why have they changed that?’ Good communication between editor and author is key. Never fire off an angry or defensive response to suggested changes, as you are bound to re-think it later. You may have had good reasons for writing it as you did, but if the editor can’t see that, maybe the end users of the book won’t appreciate it either – so it is worth giving the matter some thought.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about textbook usage in schools. What is your impression of how curriculum materials are being used and is there anything authors can do to help promote their importance?
I don’t think authors can do much, it needs a change from top down including Ofsted, teacher training, etc. Publishers could perhaps do more to publicise the amount of planning and research that goes into their books. But while so many teachers learn that using textbooks is ‘cheating’ and they should make all their resources themselves, many will still be proud to say they have a ‘textbook free’ classroom, without realising that this is contributing hugely to their workload and producing teaching materials that are not always particularly well thought out, or part of a clearly defined scheme of work.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Freedom to explore my own ideas and teaching practice, and work with other teachers, authors, educational researchers and publishers to develop and produce interesting and inspiring print and digital resources that fulfil a real classroom need. The creativity – probably not the first thing most people think when I say I am a maths author - but finding new ways to explain or test concepts and understanding requires imagination and research. I also pick up (possibly) useful facts along the way, such as the shape of teabags and why the sequence of Winter Olympics dates changed. I love it when I see the finished product and when I go into schools and a teacher shows me their favourite resource, which turns out to be one I have contributed to.
Do you have any advice for those starting out in educational writing?
Write a good, short, sample and send it to a publisher, making it clear who the intended audience is and what classroom need it will address. Be prepared to be asked to write something completely different instead, once they see you can string a sentence together! Talk to publishing sales representatives, who will often be happy to pass your name on to publishers. Find a course in writing for your subject, which will provide insights and shortcuts that can take a while to learn the hard way, and give you good contacts in educational publishing.