The physics of educational writing: Q&A with Miles Hudson

Each quarter, our Educational Writers Group (EWG) interviews a different member. Here, Group committee member Miles Hudson talks about making the move into educational writing from teaching physics.

How did you come to be an educational writer?

I’m a physics teacher by trade. I was just starting in my second school, and a new textbook came to the department, unsolicited. There was a note from the publishers:

‘Please keep this book and pay for it, or return it in the envelope provided, or … complete this feedback form about what you think of it and you can keep it for free.’

Either they liked what I said, or I was the only person to reply, but they sent me a second new book with the same options. So, I did that form and then had two shiny new books. They sent me another letter (it was 1999), something like:

‘We’re thinking of getting one of these website thingies, and we want some content for students to look at. Could you write us a page of stuff about light and sound, and we’ll get the IT guys to put it up as a webpage? We’ll pay you £50.’

That final sentence nailed my answer down!

They steadily asked me to do bigger and bigger bits of writing: worksheets, updating a chapter, working as part of an author team, and so on, until in 2006 I got my first solo contract for an A level book. I’ve now worked for several publishers and have a back catalogue of maybe 30 textbooks.

What do you think are the necessary skills for working in this sector?

In educational writing, I only do physics materials, and that now includes teachers’ guides too. You couldn’t write successfully in this area unless you’re a competent physics teacher. The materials are all written to the tests and you have to know the levels expected of different age groups and the details of the syllabus (beyond just the statements in the syllabus document). If you have a strong understanding of the common misconceptions, then addressing these in your books makes them more popular as they hit the needs of the readers.

Tell us about your typical working day.

I now work fully freelance (I do work part-time on the PGCE course at Newcastle University, but I consider that a freelance gig too!). I’m usually at my desk by around 9.30am, work till 1pm, have lunch, go to town for a coffee and any errands. By the time I get back, I’m mostly out of steam creatively, so I’ll do some more mechanical jobs like the accounts, or emails. I don’t really do any work after 6pm, but I don’t have any rules about my work schedule. Many days are different.

I also write two different fiction series, and I run for which I’m also the main author. The number of plates I have spinning at once seems to get ever larger, so I’ve taken to writing out increasingly long to-do lists. Most days seem to include little bits of every project.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I’m a big traveller, so I’ve often spent months at a time backpacking abroad, with my laptop (I left the classroom in 2014). On those trips, a couple of hours a day ‘working’ tends to keep me on top of things. These are the times when I really can say I’m living the dream.

The longevity of my work helps too. I might spend a year writing a textbook, but it’ll be bringing in good royalties for at least five years after that. So those trips abroad can often be slotted into the down-time in the cycle.

What would you consider to be the main challenges currently facing educational writers, and what can be done to address them?

Time. I don’t have any family, and I can’t imagine how a teacher with kids of their own could possibly find any time for moonlighting as an author. Teacher workload has increased over the last 30 years from incredible to unreal. Moreover, publishers have accelerated their publishing workflow schedules. All the offers I’ve had in the past year have been expecting me to start writing, significant amounts, within the next couple of weeks. I’m hopeful that the standard cycle for replacing exam texts when a new syllabus comes along will continue, as that tends to give a good few months’ warning for me to free up my schedule for significant writing.

There’s now a big push to writing for digital products. Whilst I wouldn’t say this is too troubling, it is more of a challenge to try and envisage how my work might look in the finished product than it is when writing for a paper book.

Do you have any advice for those starting out in educational writing?

Never miss a deadline. You’ll always have several chances later to upgrade or alter what you’ve submitted, so better to send in something you’re not totally happy with than miss the deadline. One of the key things that will stop you getting future work is if you develop a reputation for missing deadlines.

Miles Hudson’s main income is from writing physics textbooks for secondary schools. He’s self-published the Penfold series of detective mysteries set in Durham, as well as the audiopt surveillance series of dystopian future stories. As a trainer of physics teachers, he also contributes to teacher resources for various learned organisations.

Miles’ latest project, PostcardsFromSpace, is aimed at 8-12 year olds and is a unique, epistolary educational resource. / Twitter and Facebook: @milesmhudson