I wrote this in 2019. Just came across it again. My loose thoughts on a random post-writing, pre-COVID evening…
Balancing writing alongside teaching (and other) commitments isn’t always easy. I try to be realistic about the amount of time I can give to writing. My general rule is that I never take on writing projects which require over 20 hours a week – that’s when things start to get stressful. Having said that, sometimes you just can’t turn the work down, especially when it’s a gamechanger for your career.
I’m more of a supps writer: digital resources, workbooks, and so on. But when I was asked to write a student book recently I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t? One of the world’s biggest publishers comes calling – I was hardly going to say ‘Er, sorry. That will max out my 20 hours-a-week quota’. Pfff. Clear the schedule, stockpile the ingredients for a post-writing Negroni. Let’s do this.
I learnt a lot from my first experience as a co-author which, on the whole, was extremely positive. Even so, there were things I wish I’d known/thought about beforehand. If you get the chance to take that big writing contract as a full-time teacher, here are a few things you might want to consider…
You will be anxious at first
The GANTT chart for a student book writing project is epic. If you’re used to writing smaller components then you might not have seen a full project schedule before. Whatever you do, ignore it for as long as you can! Otherwise you’ll feel like you’ve taken on something insurmountable.
The first part of the process is BRUTAL
The editing process for the first few units of a student book is, er… put it like this. Did you see the Deontay Wilder vs Tyson Fury fight (number 2)? So, imagine you are Deontay Wilder, stumbling around and trying to keep your balance while the World’s best boxer pummels you relentlessly. Then imagine that rather than one opponent, there are three opponents pummelling you. The only place to retreat to is your corner of the ring. However, rather than there being a team of people there to dab your wounds, there are actually more opponents who poke at your cuts. And your ribs (already bruised). And your eyes. Until you’re like ‘WILL EVERYONE JUST GIVE ME A BREAK! JUST FOR ONE SECOND!’
All I mean is that there are a lot of people involved in the book to begin with. Development editors, commissioning editors, portfolio managers. There are a lot of eyes. You need a very thick skin at this stage, especially if you’ve got to be on your game teaching-wise. Just try not to take things personally, which I know is easier said than done.
Deadlines will change
I was scheduled for an intense three months or so of work. Once mid-July hit I was expecting to take some hard-earnt R+R. In reality, well, it’s the same as any project really. Things overrun, there are slight additions or amendments here and there, and so on. Such is life. But these student books are a big undertaking, and the process is more dynamic than I expected. Don’t line up a contract for straight after that final deadline – you might find that things get too tough with teaching, tying up loose ends, and further writing.
You’ll take punches teaching-wise
Just because something works well in your classroom that doesn’t mean it finds its way into, ahem, ‘your’ student book. I found that my ego got in the way of my writing at times. I’d look at feedback and think ‘How can you say this doesn’t work in the classroom?! I followed the same approach in class yesterday and everything was fine thank you very much. If you don’t want my input as a teacher…’ etc. Being a teacher rather than a full-time materials writer gives you no added value. The book isn’t being written for your learners, it’s being written for lots of learners in very different contexts. Taking a step back from your own situation is important, and don’t assume that the methods you use when teaching are suitable for a global coursebook. The editors know best.
Writing might make you a slower planner
Writing a student book is a MEGA upskill on the planning front. All of a sudden, adapting materials or writing a lesson from scratch suddenly feels much more doable and desirable. You can get your eye in to the finer details of existing resources, your select/reject skills certainly improve, and you (might) develop a better understanding of lesson flow (plus tighter beginnings and endings). However, there’s a downside. As a writer, you’re now used to making sure that everything is perfect. It can be tough to shake that perfectionism in your everyday planning. Prepare yourself for a phase of never being happy with what you’ve produced.
Look, it’s just a book. I don’t want to get all melodramatic here. However, emotional support and understanding is important if you want to do a project like this. A day’s work followed by an evening of writing means you might be absent at times. So, be nice to those around you, especially if they are stepping in or stepping up in your absence (e.g. family-wise). Also, editors are your friends. Most of them are actually quite understanding and accommodating. You might need their support so keep them onside. Puns help.
Would I recommend being a teacher-writer? Of course! Would I recommend taking the big projects on offer? Deffo. Just, you know, be prepared for some ups and downs.