Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Freelancer life

How to get paid to read

In my blog posts I mostly write about writing. But in a recent post I wrote about ‘talking about writing’, which is something I do frequently in my teacher training role. In this blog post I’m writing about ‘reading about writing’. And in particular, I’m writing about ‘getting paid for reading about writing’. Yes, it’s possible and I’ve been doing it this week.

A new challenge

I’ve been commissioned by a publisher to write a white paper. I’ve never written one before, but they deemed me to be the right person for the job, so I decided to say yes. I can’t write about the focus of the paper yet, but I’m sure I’ll be shouting about it when it’s published. What I can write about is how privileged I feel to be in a position where I get paid to read. I have to write too, of course, quite a lot as it happens. But mostly it’s been reading; articles, blog posts, podcast transcripts, reports, and other such things.

Something fun

This week too, fellow ELT writer and friend, Ken Wilson got in touch to ask me if I’d be a judge on a writing competition he has set up. I said yes to that too, even though it is unpaid. It’s a nice thing to do for a few reasons, one being to connect with teachers around the world and see their creativity in action.

This got me thinking about other times when I’ve been paid to read, in my capacity as an English Teacher, a teacher trainer, a consultant or a materials writer. And I realised it’s something that others might be interested in too. Because sometimes it’s a good way to break into materials writing as a profession, to get a foot in the door. Here are a few examples.

Four ways to get paid to read

Read. Then write a report

Publishers pay teachers and other professionals to write reports about materials that are in the process of being prepared for publication. They usually provide a specific brief with a checklist of things to look out for. This is a bit like writing a review. You read the materials and you evaluate them according to a set of criteria. You might be asked to try them out with a class, but not always. If you have experience teaching learners of a specific age or level, or with a specific exam focus, for example, it could be a good idea to get in touch with publishers who produce materials with the same focus and offer your services as a reviewer.

Be a materials competition judge

If you know of a publisher or an institution that is running a lesson plan competition, get in touch and offer your services as a judge. This might not always be a paid role, but it is a good way of getting your name out there and you might be able to negotiate an alternative to a fee, such as a dictionary, a resource book, or an online course.

Read an old edition and give feedback for a new edition

Sometimes publishers decide to bring out a new edition of a course book. When this happens, they often contact teachers to ask them for help in identifying sections of the book that could benefit from being updating or changing. If you are familiar with the original course book you are ideally placed to do this work. It’s similar to writing a report for unpublished materials but the criteria-focus will be different.

Read a new book and write a review

When a publisher brings out a new book, they use reviews to get the book noticed. They can be written for all kinds of journals, websites, and other media. While reviews are unpaid, you will receive a copy of the book in question and, again, your name will start to be noticed. Don’t wait for a publisher to get in touch about this. It’s unlikely to happen that way. Take the initiative to contact publishers and journals to offer your services, perhaps stating some areas of interest or expertise.

So, a few ideas of how you could get paid to read. And if you need a reason to read, remember what someone famous once said:

‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’

Dr Seuss

Find a writing buddy!

Collaboration isn’t just for our learners

As teachers we recognise the importance of developing collaboration skills in our learners. As materials writers we create activities that involve working together to successfully complete a task. So if we take this one step further, surely a good way to make our materials really good, is by working with others, or just one other. There are a number of ways you could do this. I’ll mention them later. First, here are five reasons why I think it’s a good idea, especially (but not solely) for less experienced materials writers.

1. Someone to spot your flaws

When you have a co-worker, you have someone to throw around ideas with. Sometimes a great idea has a flaw that isn’t immediately visible to you. This isn’t something to get upset about. All great creators have first drafts in their waste-paper baskets. As Julie Andrews said, “Perseverance is failing nineteen times and succeeding the twentieth.” We don’t usually spot our own flaws as easily as someone else might. A good example is the way that we all (yes, all) are blissfully aware of the fact that we have been misspelling or mispronouncing a word forever. We are convinced we know the right way and sometimes even argue the fact. I once corrected my mother’s pronunciation of ‘gazebo’ – not a word I’d ever actually heard spoken, I realised later, having looked it up to prove her wrong, only to find that she was right, and I had to eat humble pie. Incidentally, my spell check just notified me that I’d been misspelling ‘perseverance’ too.

2. Someone to show us another way of seeing

We all have a unique life experience which informs our belief systems and our sensitivities. Despite being convinced of our integrity and fairness, we regularly get it wrong because we simply don’t consider another angle that is outside our usual sphere of experience. This is especially true of issues related to diversity, inclusion and equity. Thinking of where this has happened in my own experience, numerous examples come to mind. We are all constantly learning, and we shouldn’t be complacent. Obviously, if we are writing materials with an inclusive label, we can speak to people who belong to the group we are hoping to represent. But even when this isn’t our main focus, we can still benefit from another person’s perspective.

3. Someone to help us with one of the publishing tasks

When traditional publishers make classroom materials, they rely on a large team of collaborators who work together, each with their distinct role within the project. These days it’s common to have author teams working on a coursebook, with each writer specializing in a particular aspect. Besides the writers are project managers, copy editors, proof-readers and the like, all briefed to notice different things that might be wrong, and to make sure they are flagged to get righted. We don’t all have access to such teams, of course, but it’s a good idea to try to mimic some of this practice. The only way to do this is to get the help of another person.

4. Someone to keep your ego from inflating

Talking about materials is the best way to generate new, fresh ideas as we make connections. In fact, making connections is a key aspect of creativity. I’ve recently been reading about the ecosystem vs the egosystem, albeit in a different context, but I think it’s valid here too. In an egosystem, the individual places value on their own desired creation above all else. In an ecosystem, they work with others, in supportive and constructive ways in order to achieve the best possible outcome – the outcome, in this case being materials. It’s common sense really.

5. Someone to keep us company

Creating ELT materials is usually a solitary pastime and many of us enjoy this aspect. But joining in with someone else to work on a project jointly, in some way, can be very rewarding too, and can make a pleasant change. Long-lasting work relationships and even friendships can be formed. And sometimes, what begins as a mini collaboration can lead to bigger, more exciting projects.

All shapes and sizes

I could probably think of more reasons too, but five is a good round number.

Collaborations come in all shapes and sizes and don’t need to be fifty-fifty authoring. I do most of my paid authoring work with my co-author partner and husband. We either divide the work according to our strengths and weaknesses or we see who has more available time. The way we work things out is very fluid but after collaborating for thirty years, it mostly works itself out.

I’ve also worked with teams of co-authors, sometimes working closely together, sometimes never communicating directly, except through a manager. Recently, I’ve done a lot of joint projects related with ELT Footprint [click here if you aren’t yet a member] with Ceri Jones. We’ve even drawn up a joint ‘to do’ list in Google docs. Ceri and I have co-written articles and blog posts and prepared several joint presentations. But there are lots of ways that two (or more) teachers creating ELT materials could collaborate.

Here are nine suggestions

  • Co-write a lesson plan, a series of plans or a book..
  • Find a writing buddy, to proof-read each other’s work.
  • Share each other’s work with your communities.
  • Schedule a 30-minute meeting to discuss your ideas informally. Sometimes just talking them through will be helpful.
  • Set up a Google doc, a Padlet, or similar, to share useful tools and resources.
  • Pilot each other’s materials with your learners and then offer feedback.
  • Do a joint presentation on a subject you are both interested in.
  • Start a joint blog or space to share materials.
  • Make a Venn diagram together of your material writing skills. See where they overlap, but, more importantly, where they don’t. This is where you can help each other most.

A final word

Don’t be afraid to send a message to someone suggesting a collaboration. But don’t get stressed if they say no. Some people might be too busy right now or they might have other valid reasons not to join in with something new. Finding the right person is key. If you’ve connected (online or in the real world) with someone already, and have similar professional interests, a collaboration is a logical next step. And if you have already been involved in interesting collaborations, I’d love to hear about them.

How many projects should we work on at the same time? Which is better, one big one or lots of small ones?

One big dog and lots of small dogs

One

For the first time in years, possibly decades, I’m only working on one project for one client. It’s a big one, but it’s just one. There’s a small ‘but’ here which I’ll add to the end of my post. For now I’ll just focus on the rarity of working on a single project. This might seem perfectly normal for some freelancers, but it certainly isn’t typical for me. For as long as I can remember I’ve been juggling writing jobs, sometimes enjoying the variety but often feeling overwhelmed by trying to keep too many things afloat. The main reason for taking on lots of work is that as a freelancer I’ve been afraid to turn down a work offer in case I don’t get asked again and my income dries up. Freelancing can be tough because you just don’t know what’s around the corner and you can never be 100% sure when you’ll get your next work.

I primarily classify projects that I work on into two kinds, big ones, and small ones. Both have their pros and cons.

Big projects

Big projects give me a chance to get stuck into something meaty and to have work planned out for months or years ahead. This offers peace of mind in terms of financial security. Another benefit is that the work becomes more systematic. By the time you get to unit three of a fifteen-unit course book, for example, you’ve worked out the best way of approaching everything, you’ve got your head around communication systems with editors and, all being well, the work just flows. The flip side of this is that there might be a danger of boredom setting in. But with the right kind of work this shouldn’t be an issue.

Small projects

Small projects can be very rewarding in that the work often feels more dynamic and if you take on several small projects the variety can spice up your working life. Small projects can take many forms. I just spent a moment brainstorming some of those I’ve been involved with over the past few years. I came up with this list but I could probably have made it twice as long with a bit more thinking time.

  • lesson plans
  • worksheets
  • guest blog posts
  • multiple choice questions for a digital product
  • differentiated activities to go with some existing video resources
  • scope and sequence documents
  • ‘How to’ pages for teachers
  • sample project pages for a primary course
  • a sample animation brief for a new course component  
  • crosswords for a Publisher’s puzzle page
  • tips for a Publisher’s website

Looking for a change

About a year ago, it occurred to me that I’d quite like to dedicate my time to doing fewer big projects and more small projects, and especially small-but-regular work. I decided to let people know by announcing my availability for such work on social media. I was blown away by the response and within a short time I’d taken on all kinds of interesting work. Some things were one-offs. Others were monthly or, in a couple of cases, a series of three or four.

Be careful what you wish for

At first it was exciting but then two things happened. First, I was offered work on a new, big project that was going to gobble up a large chunk of my available time. And second, I realised I’d miscalculated the amount of time I’d need to spend on doing several of the smaller jobs I’d taken on. I concluded that while variety was stimulating, it also meant spending a lot more time working. Not just writing but doing all the other jobs that being a freelancer involves. This is probably a post for another day but I’m talking about things like writing emails, organising and sharing folders, preparing invoices, etc.

Oops!

I have to admit that this miscalculation sent me into a bit of a turmoil. After all, I’d got exactly what I’d wished for. Yet here I was wondering how to turn the clocks back. In the end I completed all of the work I’d undertaken but sent apologetic emails explaining that my circumstances had changed and I would no longer be able to continue on those projects that were on-going. I suggested replacement writers where appropriate and felt good that at least I was helping colleagues find work.

Lessons learnt

On reflection, I should have known what was going to happen. Instead I let my rather naïve daydream of seeing myself as some kind of assignment-driven journalist flitting from scoop to scoop, detract from common sense. I won’t do that again in a hurry.

Busy bod

I said I’d come back to a small ‘but’ at the end of my post and here it is. While I’m only working on one project right now, I am engaged in other stuff. I’ve started writing some books which I plan to self-publish. They’ve been on the back burner for ages so if not now, when? This has been a dream for several years and would have remained a dream if I’d carried on doing all those small projects. I’ll be writing more about this soon as I’m trying to keep a journal of the process. I’m also doing other bits and bobs, preparing webinars and training, doing some volunteer work and doing a lot of professional development in various shapes and forms. So while I’m still a busy bod, a lot of what I’m doing feels more rewarding than ever. Oh, and if any commissioning editors are reading this, I’m always interested in new projects, big or small!

What about you?

The whole experience has got me thinking about a question: do you prefer to work on one big project or lots of smaller ones? And why? So I think I’ll do a survey and find out what other ELT freelancers think. It’s always interesting to share experiences about the way we work and why we make the choices we make.

I’d love to hear what you think about this, so please drop me a line.

35 ways to improve your life without really trying

In my last blog post [here] I wrote about four possibly life-changing intentions I have for the year ahead. They involved time, money and the work I choose to accept. I mentioned a fifth intention and that’s what this post is all about. I thought it deserved an entry of its own.

Self care as a freelancer

On the face of it, it isn’t work-related and has little to do with creating ELT materials but in actual fact it’s got everything to do with those things. Because it’s all about the practices I’ve chosen to adopt for my own well being which will have a knock on effect on everything I do, including, and perhaps especially, my work.

Keeping it real

I recently read an inspiring article, put together by a team of writers, called ‘100 ways to improve your life without really trying’. I loved it for its simple, common sense and, more importantly, do-able ideas. I shared this link with friends on social media and in the course of the discussions that followed I said I’d write my own version. You can read the article I refer to here.

Do It Yourself

Just as I found reading the original article uplifting and motivating, I also found planning my own version, thinking about realistic and do-able small changes, therapeutic and inspiring. So I’d urge anyone who might be contemplating writing their own, to do just that. You don’t have to write 100 or even 50, any number will do. How about choosing your age as I did (or didn’t) and going with that as a number?

My list: not in order of importance

1. Drink a glass of water before doing anything else in the morning. You could pour it the night before to and leave it on your bedside table, covered, so it’s the first thing you see when you wake up. Drinking water is good for lots of reasons. I’ve also recently found out that it’s better to sip and not gulp it down, so that’s worth noting, I think.

2. Set an alarm when you start working at your computer, that can act as a stretch notifier.  When the alarm goes off, stretch as many muscles as possible, including facial muscles.

3. Focus your eyesight on something that isn’t a screen every now and then. It doesn’t need to be for long, but it’s definitely good for your eyes. An outdoor scene is ideal, especial if you’ve got something nice view to contemplate.

4. Have a plant in a place where you can see it while you work. It doesn’t need to be big or fancy and you don’t need to be green-fingered. If the plant doesn’t survive, chuck it out and replace it with a new one. Nobody’s judging you.  A cactus is an easy plant to care for though.

5. Keep a notebook handy where you can make a note of any minor achievements each day, as they occur. This can be anything from managing not to get angry at the news or meeting a deadline. Acknowledging these things is what it’s all about. We’re usually much better at acknowledging the cock-ups.

6. Find a podcast that suits you – there really is something for everyone. Take some time out to relax listen to it. You could do this with your eyes closed, just to rest them or you could do it while you potter. I find a podcast helps distract me from work so that when I return to it, I see things with fresh eyes. And I usually flip between crime, science and literature – whatever floats your boat.

7. Make yourself a happy place in your home. Do whatever needs to be done for it to be a place you feel good in. Things that might help are a scented candle, a comfy blanket, a nice view, a favourite picture, a photo album, a lamp – anything that gives you comfort. Then make an effort to hang out in your happy place at least a couple of times a day.

8. Read! Books can be used as all kinds of therapy. They can take you to new worlds that make you forget the one you’re in for a while, if that’s what you need. They can inspire you with new ideas, teach you new things, help you understand couldn’t get your head around. And of course lots more.

9. Declutter your real desktop and your virtual desktop. You’ll benefit from the practical effects and the mental effects.

10. Unsubscribe from annoying emails that you keep getting. Set aside a block of time specifically for this. It will be time well-invested.

11. Go outside whatever the weather. Really. Invest in some waterproofs, a woolly hat or whatever else is appropriate. Even if you don’t feel like going out, you’ll be glad you went when you get back. Even a walk around the block will have its benefits.

12. Doodle! Get a sketchpad and some coloured pens. Don’t put them away in a drawer. Keep them somewhere handy, maybe in your happy place. Everyone can be an artist. And nobody needs to see your creations. Unless you want to share them of course.

13. Learn how to do something new now and then. I don’t mean big things like learning how to speak a brand new foreign language. Find something that’s useful or interesting for you. I’m thinking of learning a bit of sign language, for example.

14. Watch some daytime telly! Seriously. That whole idea that says watching Netflix at night is fine but watching it during the day isn’t, is just plain wrong. As long as you meet your commitments, you should be able to do relaxing stuff whenever you like.

15. Get hold of some children’s drawings and frame them. There’s always something uplifting about children’s art. If you don’t have children of your own, ask the child of a friend or neighbour to do you a picture. It’s my bet they’d be more than happy to comply.

16. Try a new tea or influsion blend, even if you’ve already got your favourites. I mean, you could find a new favourite and we can’t have too much of a good thing. Especially if it’s a healthy thing.

17. Take some time to think about where you’d like to be in a few years’ time. Not just geographically of course. How can we follow our dreams if we don’t first consider what they might be? And while we’re on the subject, dream big. Be bold.

18. If there’s a club or group you’d like to join but it doesn’t exist, start one up! This can be F2F or online and could be anything work-related, health-related, educational or just fun. It’s a good way to meet like-minded people.

19. Most of us get a buzz when we do some home improvements or even move home. But we can replicate that in small ways by giving a single space in a room a makeover. I recently discovered you can get some really amazing wallpaper these days and you don’t even have to use paste because it’s self-adhesive. I’m in love with some verdigris oxidized copper paper. Google it!

20. Make (and then share) a cake! If you don’t think you can, you’re wrong. Anybody can. Just add ‘easy’ to a recipe search. If you’re afraid you’ll eat the whole cake, avoid that by sharing it with a neighbour. I’ve done that several times and the reaction has been nice. I mean, how would you react if someone came around with cake?

21. Find an internet page with jokes and fall down the rabbit hole for ten minutes. You’ll need to find the right one, of course. I love dark or absurd humour like Steve Wright’s. His one-liners make me laugh out loud and laughter is good for the soul.  

22. When you’ve enjoyed working with someone on a project, send them a message to tell them just that. When I’ve received such an email, it’s made my day and it really is a small thing.

23. Have a picnic lunch outside even if it’s a workday.  Or it could be a breakfast or dinner. This is something I do regularly and it makes me feel like I’m on holiday, even if I have to get back to my desk afterwards. If it’s cold, just wrap up warm, and take a thermos of tea or coffee.

24. Organise a weekly, or fortnightly trip to see something cultural. If you can get to a real museum or art gallery, great! If you can’t, visit one of the online museums or galleries, either from the comfort of your home or a café or bar. Take notes!

25. Watch an obscure or not-well-known film you wouldn’t normally watch, maybe a foreign film or an old film. There are lots of ways of doing this and thousands of films to choose from.. You could do an internet search with ‘award winning films + [country]. If it turns out you don’t like the film, you can stop watching. But chances are you might getting drawn in and discover a whole new back catalogue to watch. If you don’t know where to start, reach out and ask, especially if you have friends from other countries.

26. Think of something new to learn that seems big but can be broken down into smaller bits. Then practise or learn one bit until you feel you’ve nailed it. After that you can decide whether to move on to the next bit or just abandon it for something else. This can be something cerebral like learning a foreign alphabet or something science-based like the Periodic Table. Or it could be more physical, like Yoga asanas or dance moves.

27. If you work in ELT (or if you don’t), find out more about EDI issues (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion). Find reputable sites with key information and make a note of anything you learn that you didn’t know before. Maybe share that information with somebody else.

28. Find four or five keyboard shortcuts or hacks that could make your life easier. Then make yourself a little card and place it near your computer so that you remember them … until they become second nature.

29. If you live in a place where the night sky is visible, go outside when it’s dark and see what you can see. Check out with a website what’s going to be visible in your area on a particular date. You can even sign up for notifications so you know in advance when something special might be happening. You can do this with the naked eye but you might also like to invest in binoculars or a telescope.

30. Make your own luxury chocolates using the best base chocolate you can afford and your favourite ingredients. Invent new flavours and combinations. I’ve tried this with dark chocolate doing combinations of fresh cherries and sea salt and small chunks of figs with chili pepper. I’m going to try slivers of ripe pear next.

32. Find a local radio station and check out their programme schedule. Then listen in and find out what’s going on in your area. Even the most remote corners of the world have their own radio stations and it’s a brilliant way of finding out all kinds of useful information. I started listening to Radio Valdivielso [here] a few years ago and I’ve even formed a friendship with the presenter and made spot appearances to talk about things as disparate as fracking, growing your own vegetables and Tom Jones. But more importantly I’ve had great advice on the best internet providers, where to buy local produce and all kinds of local laws and social matters.

https://radiovaldivielso.es/

33. Find out about ergonomics and how you should be sitting at your desk. Most of us get into bad, slouchy habits and while that might not matter right now, It could cause health problems in the future. My friend and fellow ELT freelancer, Julie Moore wrote an excellent blog post [here] about laptop ergonomics. It includes a really useful image, explaining how to position yourself for pain-free posture.

https://lexicoblog.blogspot.com/search?q=WFH+laptop+ergonomics

34. Write a ‘to do’ list with some things you want to do, rather than chores or work tasks. This could be a shorter daily list or a longer weekly one. See what works best and keep it realistic.

35. Offer to do something spontaneous for a friend, neighbour or family member. Many of us jump to help when asked but fewer of us actually offer without being prompted. This could be anything from babysitting, walking a dog, helping with some gardening, running an errand, driving them somewhere. Obviously everything depends on the person and what you feel comfortable with (and authorised to do). A nice way of doing this is to make and give the receiver a token stating what you are offering to do.

Over to you!

It would make me happy to think that at least one person reading this blog decides to try one of the things I’ve highlighted for myself in this list. But as I mentioned at the start, writing your own list is a really good thing to do. I’d love to hear from anyone who does this. Happy pondering!