A teacher recently asked me for advice on breaking into educational writing. It made sense -- I have 18 years experience in the business. At the same time, I felt a little rusty, like a middle-aged, married lady giving tips on picking up guys. Plus, despite signs of returning health, the publishing world is still weak-kneed from the recessionary flu.
But after recommending some resources (and checking them out myself), I don't think my aspiring colleague will lack for opportunities. Yes, a leaner industry is emerging from the recession. Some jobs have been outsourced overseas. Some divisions have met their demise. But the useful life of the printed textbook is only about three years; like laying hens, replacements are continually needed. Also, the drive to stay competitive in this age of high-speed electronic information is opening doors in digital publishing.
Schools don't buy textbooks -- they buy textbook programs. That includes the student edition, plus a slew of supplemental material, called ancillaries, to help teachers use it more effectively: a workbook with review questions, enrichment booklets with articles that further explore specific topics, and possibly a handbook with lab activities. Teacher's editions are chock-full of classroom strategies, suggested resources, and nuggets of information to amuse and enlighten. (Did you know the tomato was once called mala insana - "unhealthy apple"?)
Add to that an expanding array of electronic components: test banks that let teachers design their own tests; companion websites with articles and self-check quizzes for students; Web-based lessons that direct students to use selected Internet resources.
All of this material employs an army of writers and editors. But while options abound, the writing is in many ways restricted. "Educational publishing, particularly among major publishers, is highly structured," says Sue Scott, an editor in Peoria, IL. A long-time editorial director for McGraw-Hill, Scott now freelances in retirement. "Textbook and textbook programs usually are carefully outlined before they are written. State curricula, analysis of competitors, focus groups with teachers, educational trends, and other factors are blended into the plan."
In other words, you're told what to write, and how. Writing in textbooks must be -- well, textbook, answerable to The Chicago Manual of Style and written at a grade level that matches the reading skills of your audience. Some topics must be covered to meet standards set by local and state education boards. Other, thorny issues are avoided according to the individual publisher's sensibilities. Length margins are slim, as text competes with headers, photos, and other space-eating elements that add appeal and help with learning.
On the other hand, these dictates call for a kind of poetic creativity. You're challenged to communicate effectively, to sound fresh and say it all, without straying outside the lines (e.g., making molecular bonding relevant and understandable to seventh graders in 250 words or less). They require the ability to shift professional gears easily. You might write on decorating a bedroom one day, avoiding drugs the next.
You also need professional humility. Says Linda Perrin, a freelance editor in Yardley, Pennsylvania: "It's useful... to have an awareness that (your) work will often be heavily edited, and a willingness to turn on a dime when the rules change." When, say, the marketing team decides the student projects you're writing need an Internet-based activity as well.
Though not essential, teaching experience can help with writing realistically. Cheryl Duksta, a school teacher turned editor living in Austin, Texas, gives this example: "I remember hiring a writer for an art book who wrote a great lesson on papier-mache for kindergartners. Only problem was... no management information was included. A first-year teacher trying to do papier-mache with a room full of kindergartners following the writer's activity would have had paste and soggy newspaper littering her room and chaos on her hands."
As with any market research, nothing beats a thorough, hands-on inspection of the product. "It's useful," says Perrin "to determine which books would interest them as writers -- subject matter, reading level, and so on," so survey a variety of materials. If you're a parent or know people who are, ask to borrow the kids' books for a night. Otherwise, contact the nearest university with a teacher education program. It likely has a teaching (or curriculum) material center filled with a range of components, which may be available to the public.
What should you look for as you peruse the pages? In particular note:
Don't overlook teachers' opinions about a textbook program. Teachers make most of the buying decisions regarding supplemental materials. They know what works and what falls flat. Publisher representatives solicit their advice. You should too.
Once you think you have a feel for this type of writing, whose door do you knock on and how do you get your foot inside? For teachers, Scott advises: "Attend conferences and talk with publishers' representatives. Express an interest in becoming a reviewer, as well as in writing, and ask whom to contact." It worked for Duksta: "A friend told me about a textbook publisher that was looking for teachers specifically to review some materials. I... completed the reviews, and then they hired me to do some other projects. Things took off from there."
For others, Perrin suggests visiting publishers' websites to get an idea of where to offer your services, "to know which publishers publish which kinds of materials."
Besides the big-name companies (like the McGraw-Hill and Pearson empires), check out smaller development houses and school library publishers. Development houses are something like general contractors. Publishers sometimes hire them to produce a textbook program. They in turn hire writers, editors, illustrators, and proofreaders to create it. School library publishers may produce teacher's guides and other supplements for their books.
Approach possible clients by asking whether they work with freelancers and if you might send your resume with a few writing samples. If invited, submit handouts or activities rather than chapter content. "Ancillary materials... are less heavily scrutinized (than textbooks)," says Perrin, "and they give writers exposure to the overall requirements of educational materials." You might repurpose something from your portfolio. A poem on honeybees might morph into a fill-in-the blank for first graders. Got an argument between pre-teen wizards in your middle-grade fantasy novel? Add critical thinking questions ("Why do you think...? Imagine that, instead of...") for a small-group discussion on conflict resolution. However, creating a new piece lets you practice your research skills, which are as important as writing ability. Either way, model the format after examples culled from your research.
Industry trends bode well for writers who are familiar with digital formats and editing software. Publishers see digital products as the growth area of the future, as schools see the advantages of computerized materials in helping teachers customize lessons -- to create supplemental materials that are tailored to advanced or lagging students, for example.
Duksta recommends following trends in pedagogy, which can change every few years, only as needed: "Often textbook publishers will toss out the buzz words in writer's guidelines, and writers can Google for more information." Also, "look at the front of recently published teacher's editions for the types of theory the book is addressing." Duksta taps her teacher friends to hear what new instructional methods and materials they learn during in-service training. She then researches those topics online.
Editors may give direction, adds Perrin, by "provid(ing) background materials on learning styles, skills to be tested, (and) types of questions to ask" for the project.
Writers who master the particularities of this field often earn a steady client. "The company I worked for kept a list of contributors who worked for us in the past," says Perrin, "and we used those who worked out as regularly as we could."
They get a respectable paycheck too. Flat, per-project fees are common, which may help novices decide what to charge when given the opportunity. To set competitive rates you need to weigh the size of project and the publisher, and your own experience. "My rates are kind of all over the place," says Duksta. "I think I do get more project rates than hourly, but if I broke it down, I'd say I make an average of $30 an hour for writing."
Scott suggests an approach for newcomers, a proposal along the lines of "my hourly rate is 'blank,' but since I have not worked for you before, I would be willing to do this job, as a sample, for 'blank.'"
On the other hand, as the ad says, making a positive impact on kids' lives is priceless. Good educational writing encourages enthusiastic learners. Perhaps more importantly, it reaches out to those (Did you know yeast raises bread by burping and farting?) who need convincing.
Copyright © 2011 Christine Venzon
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.