Why I work for free (sometimes)

I take on materials development work for free sometimes. I appreciate that not everyone has time to do that, can afford to, or might want to. I choose to do it for different reasons.

  • It might be for a good cause – I don’t get many requests like that, but it has happened in the past.
  • It might lead to paid writing work.
  • It might help my professional development.
  • It’s good for networking.
  • I don’t have any contracts on and just fancy keeping my hand in with something.

Here are some (TRUE!) examples of how offering my materials development services for free has been worthwhile:

I was contacted recently by a publisher in India. They were in the early stages of a new coursebook project and asked for some input, in return for potential writing work. I shared some ideas for syllabus design and had a nice chat. By the time they got in contact to offer me something concrete, I’d already taken on other contracts. Still, the few hours I spent helping them with ideas in turn helped me learn more about the ELT market in India – bonus!

I was contacted by a publisher asking for a chat. They wanted to learn more about a particular ELT market I’m familiar with. You could argue that it was free consultation… I just wanted to learn more about the publisher to be honest. I’m nosey. They didn’t set any formal rules so I got on Zoom, cracked open a beer and had an informal chat one night. Kept beer out of shot just in case. They eventually asked me what resource I thought was needed the most in that market, I told them. Then they said ‘how do you fancy writing it?’ Cool. Watch this space…

I contacted DLA a while back about their new platform (new back then!), intrigued to learn more about it. One of the guys there set up a chat and gave full access to the site in return for an honest evaluation of resources. This was me dipping my toes in the water of ELT consultation. The experience I built up doing free work like that has helped me get paid work as a materials/syllabus reviewer. I did review DLA’s product, Ready to Run, for ETAS the other year – they’ve made some improvements since then I’d say.

Sergio Durand recently asked if I’d contribute to a new app for learning English through football. This type of project really gets me intrigued! I like to learn about new products, it’s good to find out more about developing content for apps and it’s lovely to contribute to a project which relates to my own interests! It’s funny – all the years I was working at the British Council I used to contact the editors of Premier Skills English being ‘please let me write for you!’ No luck – competitive no doubt. When a fellow materials writer asked me to collaborate on a similar project and I was like SIGN ME UP! I wish Multilingua all the best with their launch 😊

Miranda from Twinkl ESL once got in contact after a tweet I wrote about their resources. She asked for my feedback on the product and how I thought the ESL materials could be enhanced. In return for an hour-long chat, Miranda offered to share her expertise with my audience. She wrote this awesome blog post which has been viewed over 5000 times, and has helped me with tips for my own writing. Again, providing this free feedback has helped me learn more about different target markets, provided an impactful opportunity to critique existing resources, and helped develop my craft as a consultant.

A few years ago, I was asked to do a content review for a product. It was paid work, but then the budget got a bit tight, so I just did some more anyway. There was method in my madness! The draft documents were fascinating. They included lots of back-and-forth comments between editors and writers which offered a really good insight into the writing process. Writer autonomy, institutional constraints, professional(!) dialogue… I’d have paid to be that fly on the wall! I took more on for free as it was compulsive reading!

Those were the first examples that sprang to mind, but hopefully they highlight some of what you can gain from offering your services for free sometimes. Learning about different markets, new products, or professional dialogue and jargon are all perks. Networking is a big one too. Work offers? Yeah, sometimes.

Above all, it’s helped me to hone my processes and understand my own skill set better. The materials evaluation course during my MA offered a great overview of how to go about critically and objectively reviewing resources, but I needed more practice before I could confidently offer my (paid) services as a consultant for review work. Writing subjective reviews on my blog was one thing, but speaking directly with publishers and offering more constructive feedback f2f is a completely different skill. Being an ‘expert’ and offering ‘insight’ gives many of us (including me!) impostor syndrome. Freebies can help build the confidence needed to say ‘I do have some valuable insight to offer*, and I can put that in writing for you. For a price…!’

Besides all that, who could possibly turn down the opportunity to write free lessons about football?!

*Me? Valuable insight?! Pffff!

Image by S K from Pixabay

6 comments

  1. Not for a moment suggesting you shouldn’t continue to do such work, but are you in IATEFL’s MaW-SIG?

    I would guess that you are and I just wonder how the benefits of being in a more or less closed group of materials writers from all over the ELT world helps you with some of the same kinds of benefits you mention here – getting to work on projects you might not otherwise have done, getting consultancy work on writing projects, learning about a market you’re unfamiliar with, and getting to see the writing process (comments and responses on a draft) and so on.

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    1. Hey, hope all well. Cheers for comment.

      Yep, I’m in MaWSIG. I enjoy the webinars and CPD they offer, they do a good job with that and their presence on social media.
      Beyond that, I’ve personally got no real benefit from MaWSIG when it comes to writing, consultancy, etc. I’ve been unable to attend any f2f things like pre-conference events so it’s hard to really get known. I guess I could volunteer for them in some way but I’m not entirely sure it would have the benefits that other closed groups do. For example, some of the Facebook groups we are both members of (I think?) are far more useful when I comes to advice, sharing job opportunities, etc. MaWSIG is less ‘present’ in that way, though still useful of course.
      For good opportunities (which I’ve been unable to take advantage of to its full potential) it’s good to be affiliated with the likes of ELT Consultants. I’ve been offered some great opportunities through them, but just had other commitments at the time.
      How about you? What closed groups do you feel you have benefitted from? (No obligation to answer if confidential)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi, yes, not too bad – surviving what has been a bit of a grim year tbh! Hope you’re good too.

        I was briefly a member of MaWSIG (I like to rotate my SIG memberships and change them each year) and made it to one of their PCEs at IATEFL Glasgow (or maybe Brighton!) – anyway, it was good.

        I think initially when Nick Robinson and ELT Jam were involved it did have a more direct kind of ‘pipeline’ into writing work – although I think that may be because when it was first set up the members were mostly already quite expereinced materials writers, many of whom were also already in that Facebook group you mentioned.

        My situation is different now as the only writing I do is for in-house courses at the university I teach at.

        I have to say, I do appreciate the freedom that gives me in terms of content and it also nice (or at least instructive!) to see how well (or not) the materials work when they meet the actual students.

        There are downsides of course – a copy editor / proofreader would be nice for instance, but I think on balance I prefer it to the kind of commercial publishing projects I had involvement in.

        But overall I prefer the freedom to be responsible for my own decision-making. The one time I was involved in a consulting capacity (or something approaching that), I found it very difficult to manage the various demands of the stakeholdiers involved and ended up making a bit of a hash of it all (much to my regret).

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        1. Interesting, I didn’t know that MaWSIG was started by the ELT Jam lot. I bet they would be awesome to work with. One of them did approach me once about a project but couldn’t take it on – my big regret!
          What I would give for a copy editor! My own resources are full of mistakes.
          I’m the same as you in that I’m mainly writing in-house syllabus stuff for my school. I deal with intensive English courses for teens and then syllabus for IELTS etc, dipping into a range of resources and creating my own. I’m largely left to my own devices – freedom! But now and again it’s nice to get a writing contract where the deliverable is very black and white. Best of both worlds being a teacher-writer… tiring though!

          Here’s hoping I can get more out of MaWSIG this year – I might contribute to their blog perhaps, if I can think of a good topic.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, I don’t know if they launched it alone, but they (or at least Nick Robinson) was definitely in there from the start.

            They’ve a base in Spain / Barcelona now I think and with so many well-known ELT writers based there it might have been something that grew out of local events and meet ups maybe.

            Is it Thailand you’re based in? I seem to remember you being there before but not sure if you’ve moved on.

            “I might contribute to their blog perhaps, if I can think of a good topic.”

            Heh ; – D I’m pretty sure you can!

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Yeah still in Thailand at the moment. Two great TEFLers here, Matt Noble and Tiago Bueno – we have our little meet up when we can!
            Spain certainly a hub! And Barcelona it seems. There’s the SLB Coop there too that I see the odd event/podcast etc from (like your one!).
            When I was at the British Council I’d find that Spain was a bit of a hub for them too – lots of the writing would go there, many of those involved in their website were based there, plus their conference organizers, established writers, etc. Not necessarily a bad thing, although some of the global resources written by those in Europe were really Eurocentric!

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