The following responses were all compiled from real ELT freelance writers and authors, in response to the question: What single piece of advice would you give to someone who was getting into freelance ELT writing for the first time?
On understanding the business
It helps to first understand how ESL publishers work. There is not an office somewhere in a publishing house where editors sit, hoping good manuscripts will arrive in the day’s mail. In fact, publishers decide several years in advance what books they are going to print.
Most of the freelance writing work is doing ancillaries - WBs, TEs, TRBs, on-line content, test items. You can also be the supporting author, writing sections of another author’s book that they don’t have the time or expertise to write. What these things all have in common: they’re what’s called work-made-for-hire. You don’t own the copyright to these books—they’re the property of the publisher. You’re kind of the “hired gun”—but hopefully a well-paid one.
On getting noticed
To get your foot in the door, be willing to take a project that might overwork and underpay you. Then, make a point of asking for the kind of projects you want at the rate (fee) you deserve. If you’re clear about your strengths and desired type of work, most publishers will respond to that once they know you’re someone whose work ethic and skills they can rely on.
Can’t get a project without experience, can’t get experience without a project…?! BUT you do have experience as a teacher. So, the first thing to do is decide where to target your energy. Think about your particular niche and which publishers handle it. Go around to publishers’ booths, and ask who to talk to, usually acquisitions editors, development editors. Be prepared with a resume and samples, though they’ll probably ask you to send them after they get home.
Contact a staff member at a conference or send a letter or e-mail to the editorial office asking to pilot or review materials. These tasks may pay nothing at all, some complimentary books, or a fee of around US$100-$200, but it gives the publisher a chance to see your writing and how you handle assignments and deadlines.
Volunteer for focus groups and review projects. (This will help you make connections and make you more familiar with the publishing process.). If you are in a position at your institution to select materials, meet regularly with publisher reps. (This will help you make connections within the industry and make you more familiar with materials.)
A good way to get a foot in the door is to write reviews of courses that publishers are developing or thinking of developing. You’ll see sample units and write answers to a lot of incredibly detailed questions. Try to answer from the context of your own specific teaching situation.
As far as getting a foot in the door, I'd say having your writing published - articles or books - is a real selling point.
It helps to publish just about anywhere, because then you have something to show a potential publisher how well you write, e.g. articles for newsletters of local chapters of an EFL organization, or journals. Review books, submit lesson plans, or discuss your research, e.g. Essential Teacher http://www.tesol.org/pubs/magz/et.html, TESL EJ < http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/>, or Folio: http://www.matsda.org.uk/folio.html
Have a body of materials that you have developed yourself for your classes ... materials that have been tried, tested and refined in your classes, materials that others might have even used and provided feedback on.
If you don't have related work to show the publisher, send a sample unit / piece of work. Even if they turn down your proposal, they may consider you for other projects.
On agreeing a contract
Payment is usually a flat fee, not royalties. There are pluses and minuses to both. For your first contract with a particular publisher, you’ll probably get paid in installments as you deliver parts of the materials. Later you can ask for part of the money up front.
Ancillaries—teacher’s guides, workbooks, CD-ROMs, etc., for existing books- usually pay a flat fee rather than royalties (since they don’t sell in the same way that student books do), but are an excellent way to get trained. You will follow project through from start to finish and work with an editor. This lets the publisher (and you!) see how well you can handle making revisions and broadening your writing so that your work can apply to a variety of teachers and not just your own classroom situation.
The parameters of any project you are given have usually been set by the time you’re brought onboard. Work within the guidelines. Be professional, and do as good a job as you can within the time given, of course, but don’t try to ‘improve’ the product to the extent that you’re changing the guidelines.
Check out the deadlines, and be realistic. If you think the amount of time they’re proposing isn’t reasonable, say so up front! There may be wiggle room, or you maybe should pass on that project. For a freelancer, being RELIABLE is much more important than being brilliant.
On managing your time
Be flexible and open to change. The project may evolve into something slightly different depending on new trends in the market, new funding opportunities in the marketplace, or new customer requirements or feedback. The change usually results in a better book/CD/etc.
I'd say that freelance writers have to be prepared to meet deadlines that might be only days away and that it's sometimes feast or famine - too much work or not enough work. However, as a side job, it's great.
The time to look for more projects is exactly when you are the busiest, because if you wait until you “have time” to contact editors, you’ll find yourself with an enormous hole in your work schedule (since most projects have long lead times).
Have very strict daily goals so you can meet the schedule date. Ten months may seem far away, but it isn't! Get the into-production date from the publisher and work backwards by month, week, and then day. Figure out different milestones and leave a little wiggle room for an emergency, illness, or even a vacation (for you or someone else involved in the project).
Deadlines are not arbitrary, and if you must choose between ‘perfection’ and timeliness, choose the latter. The best reference any publisher can give you is: ‘This freelancer always turns in the work on time’.
Get organized about a project as soon as possible, even before you need to start the writing. Just having the information you need stewing in your brain early will improve the final product.
Keep a running file of interesting ideas that might be developed into readings, listening passages or research topics. These could be gleaned from daily news reports (especially unusual examples of things) or from websites that deal with contemporary issues (I favor Scientific American's weekly update). As English teachers develop original materials about these topics, keep a copy because perhaps you can later recycle it in a publication. However, it is very important to keep track of the sources of your material for later attribution.
What works for you might not necessarily work for others. Have enough insight to know which materials are successful because of your classroom persona and which materials are successful because they are solidly constructed. The former will require more attention if you're involved in a freelance project.
I've learned that testing textbook materials, and getting feedback from others (teachers AND students) is the only way to assure certain approaches or exercises work.
It is the learners at the bottom of the mountain that need the most care, mirth, and meaning. We need more teachers writing who are familiar with 3L learners (low ability, low confidence, low motivation).
When you've finished, put in the extra effort to give your work a "cold read." No matter how sick you are of looking at it, read it as if you were new to it, and do any exercises, checking for obvious mistakes. Sometimes this can be difficult to do, but it will make you a hero with your editors.
On dealing with editors
Keep in mind we are all on the same team, trying to get out the best product possible.
Once you are actually contacted about working on a project, it is really important to start a dialogue with the development editor about the exact specifications of the project so that everything is clear from the beginning. It's especially useful when editors provide a template so that you do the formatting as you go along. I imagine that this saves hours in editing and formatting later on.
Be sure that the publisher has a solid development plan in place (hopefully with a style guide) that the freelancer takes the time to read thoroughly and query anything that is not understood. Be sure that you have a chance to do a sample (either writing a piece or editing another’s writing and commenting in track changes) and that the publisher actually takes the time to evaluate and comment upon the sample.
When you’ve written something, and you think it’s good and that it works, and then you hear from your editor that it can’t be used – for whatever reason – it’s really tough. You’ve got to know when it’s time to fight, and when it’s time to listen and/or relent.