What are the skills of a materials writer?
Recently, Kath and I were honoured to give a plenary at the Braz TESOL conference entitled ‘Are materials writers born or made?” We were particularly fortunate to have a very active audience and so when we asked the question, What skills do materials writers need in addition to the skills of a teacher? the chat quickly filled with responses. Here’s a selection of skills from that chat: research skills, creativity, awareness of pop culture, ability to edit audio/video, eager to learn, stay up-to-date, flexible and reflexive, design skills, creativity and curiosity, digital literacy, resilience, inclusivity, audience understanding, open to receiving feedback, writing effective instructions, time management, putting yourself into students shoes, proofreading skills, adaptability to different formats, organizational skills, working with authentic texts, cultural awareness.
Categorizing the skills
As you can see, it’s a broad list and I’d invite you to add more of you own at the end of this post. For the purposes of training materials writers and developing their skills, Kath and I have spent some time considering how to categories these types of skills. Let’s consider how we might do this by offering a few categories:
For writers of materials for language teachers, it’s assumed that you have proficient knowledge of the target language and that you are experienced in aspects of teaching such as classroom management, planning a lesson that flows, motivating students and so on. I’d add to this, that a wide knowledge of how other teachers teach is also important if you intend to write materials for others. So being able to observe other teachers at work is really helpful.
Basic principles and technical skills
By this, I mean skills such as knowledge of how to write a basic gap fill exercise, how to write clear instructions, the ability to prepare answer keys. These are skills that writers need to master early on in their development. In addition to this, ELT writers also need to develop the technical skills of using text analyzers, concordancers and more recently – AI tools like Chat GPT.
On the reverse side of technical skills, is creativity. Materials need an element of predictability about them, but they also require a bit of ‘wow’ factor when possible; a writer needs to be able to surprise the teacher and students with something they haven’t seen before. Creativity also means having a ‘materials radar’ in your head which notices and develops texts which will be relevant to the students or discovers high impact images to spark the students’ own creative thinking.
Editorial skills and publishing awareness
Editors reading this might not appreciate the idea that materials writers try to develop their editing skills. In fact, I’m not suggesting that but the ability to self-edit your work before sending it to an editor or handing it to a colleague to use in class is helpful. Doing basic proofreading or reading your words aloud can help check your work. And preparing an answer key will help prevent any basic errors. In addition, as you start to write materials for publishers, it’s useful to develop your awareness of how publishing processes work and an understanding of terms such as briefs, proofs, and permissions.
As a writer, I know one of my main weaknesses is design. I’m in awe of the designers who can take my written work and turn it into a beautiful-looking books through the use of well-designed pages. But writers having an awareness of what is possible when it comes to design is very useful. Provide notes for a designer on how images might be placed on the page, suggest colour schemes or fonts to assist reader accessibility. Or you can also learn to use tools like ‘Canva’ to improve the appearance of your work.
Digital and media skills
Increasingly, writers need to write directly into online platforms (such as Moodle) or software (such as Avallain). Some writers develop higher level digital skills involving coding. Add to this, it’s helpful to be able to work with audio and video and – for example, be able to edit video or have an awareness of how to brief a media company when writing for video.
Finally, for the materials writer who intends to make a living out of writing, you need to approach your work like a business. You might have to promote yourself, organize your working day effectively, negotiate contracts, learn to compromise or know when to defend your point.
Feel free to add your own ideas for other material writing skills or suggest additional categories of skills below.
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