Photo credit: Jody Hartley Photography
Working with editors, having the confidence to speak up, and what it takes to succeed within educational publishing. EWG member Irene Lofthouse spills all.
How did you come to be an educational writer?
I was a trainer in the youth and community and health and social care sector back in the 1990s, designing and delivering specific training courses for young people and adults. So I’d been writing learning and development material for some years when NVQs were introduced. One had to qualify as an assessor/verifier to continue to deliver training in the field once the standards were in place.
I attended courses where content was completely unrelated to the field I was in. Looking at the standards, I realised that I was being asked to do things that weren’t detailed in them, like producing reams of written work for a portfolio.
So, like Yozza Hughes in Boys from the Blackstuff, I thought ‘I can do that’, and began to write an Assessor’s Guide, which I marketed to care staff. It sold well (I still have the first cheque), and Gizmo Publications was born. I was the main writer, editor and developed our marketing strategy, targeting all health and care organisations, and then childcare and playwork.
Our byline was ‘Making sense from non-sense’ as for many care and health staff, the standards were incomprehensible, making them feel insecure and ignorant. I felt it was important to translate academic jargon back into understandable English, and to ensure that any learning session was cross-referenced to the standards. So, if a care worker had made a cup of tea, or enabled a client to use the toilet, this is what the learning session covered: the content was cross-referenced to performance standards to enable the learner to easily see what they had achieved.
Gizmo became successful very quickly and we retailed learning and development materials across the UK and Europe, adapting as standards were changed. We also developed an electronic tracking system so that organisations could easily see the progress staff were making with their qualifications. We developed almost 100 resources, some of which are still paying royalties today through ALCS.
What do you think are the necessary skills for working in this sector?
Resilience, flexibility, research, willingness to adapt, keeping an eye on trends, learning, being able to challenge commissioners and employers, willingness to compromise.
Once we sold Gizmo, I moved out of the health and social care sector and focused more on the areas I love: history, myths, storytelling. Although I’m also a playwright who has written, performed and directed pieces about history, etc, I didn’t have a track record with potential commissioners for educational and learning resources in that area. So I had to create that by piloting pieces at a reduced cost, or for free initially – to get work and my storytelling skills in front of people.
'So I had to create that by piloting pieces at a reduced cost, or for free initially – to get work and my storytelling skills in front of people.'
History is full of stories; myths relate the human condition and each of these are treasure troves of educational resources. I had to research where and to whom work could be targeted, and build relationships and networks, which meant being out of my comfort zone, cold calling, and a lot of travelling.
However, over a few years, this has led to many commissions with museums, theatres, libraries, NHS, Historic England, First Story, art/cultural organisations, education departments, schools, environment agencies, festivals and a host of others.
It does mean a lot of research, revamping material for diverse audiences and having an eye for gaps in the market. It also means being assertive in relation to remuneration; often what’s on offer for a project looks attractive until you break down the time needed for writing, editing, traveling, meetings, etc. Several projects have been below minimum wage when I’ve done the calculations, which I now have confidence to point out and challenge.
This is where organisations like the Society of Authors are so useful to writers. Being able to refer commissioners to observed rates takes the heat out of financial pitches.
Sometimes, there will be compromise on rates for work. I now always put in writing what my rates are, and that if the rate is lower than this, it’s a one-off. Being business savvy is very important; having a contract that’s signed; detailing what happens if contracts are cancelled; being clear about what is expected on both sides.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The challenge, the research and the buzz that comes from seeing a child, young person or adult enjoying the learning that comes from what I’ve written. To hear them talk about the content; to read work that’s been inspired by the content, or a picture, piece of art. To know that my passions are being communicated and interacted with is a real joy.
We have recently announced the first nomination for our Editorial Best Practice Award. What do you think is the most important element of the author-editor relationship?
Honesty and diplomacy are really important, as is the ability to listen.
An author writing for a specific audience may have a very particular way they wish to communicate ideas, learning and knowledge. They may know their target audience well and be aware of what works best in terms of language and layout. This can sometimes lead to arguments with editors, especially if there is a house-style which the editor wants the writer to conform to.
'Honesty and diplomacy are really important, as is the ability to listen.'
Often that’s the right approach, after all, that’s why the writer has been commissioned. However, sometimes it isn’t. I’ve had arguments with editors where resources are being targeted at a young audience, but the house-style hasn’t adapted, and I’m aware that the resource won’t be successful because of that. Similarly with formal vs informal language in the text.
Having an open and honest debate, being able to evidence an argument and coming to an agreement or compromise can make the author-editor relationship work effectively. Taking on board comments from both sides enables a balanced working relationship, rather than it feeling one-sided, as authors do sometimes feel it is.
Do you have any advice for those starting out in educational writing?
- Decide what it is you want to write about, what’s your passion, how do you already communicate this
- Read resources and materials that are already being used
- Surf the net to look at examples of online content
- Compare and contrast hard-copy with online learning
- Talk to other writers of educational and learning resources and discover how many different approaches there are; which fits and floats your boat?
- Find somewhere that could trial your resource and give feedback (I’ve used schools, community/youth groups, CPD)