Each quarter, our Educational Writers Group (EWG) interviews a different member. This month, Emily Guille-Marrett talks moving from editing to writing in educational publishing, and challenges in the industry.
How did you come to be an educational writer?
My route into educational writing is not perhaps a usual one. I began my career as an in-house editor and then web editor on primary and secondary educational materials at Pearson. I became fascinated by the critical importance of strong relationships between all members of the publishing team and every stage of the process. Commissioning at Ladybird Books taught me about how this could benefit writing and editing for the home learning market as well as schools.
At Oxford University Press I learned to have a deep respect for my writers and genuinely cared about the quality of published materials used by teachers and pupils to support the learning process. I saw the importance of academic and classroom-based research, expertise, quality content, investment (time and money) and creative talent. This certainly helped my later roles in publishing and writing educational content.
A lot of my writing work now is collaborative in nature to ensure it is reviewed by the necessary educational consultants and professionals. I'm particularly proud of the content I co-series edited and contributed to for Collins Education's Big Cat Phonics for Letters and Sounds. I've created classroom advice and activities to support picture books in schools as well as written educational articles for blogs and magazines. I also balance my writing work with my recent role as Head of Publishing for a company working on Primary Maths and English programmes.
I'm pleased that since my educational publishing and writing career started, more work is now done around efficacy and evidencing the impact of educational materials. I realise there are concerns associated with this, but I respect the professionalism of teachers to review materials and, at the end of the day, educational materials are predominantly bought with money from school budgets!
What do you think are the necessary skills for creating educational materials?
This isn't a straightforward answer because it really depends on the age group you are writing for and the subject. I believe it is important to have some level of expertise in science and/or science teaching if you are writing relevant and engaging content for the A Level syllabus. Let's not forget that educational writing these days can take on many guises too. For example, an app developer may be involved in the creation of educational content and that role simply did not exist until relatively recently. I've previously had paid work for writing manuscripts for educational support videos that teachers or parents can access online, such as for OxfordOwl.com.
In my area of specialism, which is creating materials for primary literacy schools and home learning, many of the writers are fiction and non-fiction authors for reading programmes. Here, educational writers need creative skills to be able to take the pedagogy underpinning the programme and then write exciting stories, poems or non-fiction texts to support and engage the next generation of readers and writers. One author described this to me once as a creative crossword. Some writers love this and others less so. It's great to find what makes you tick, which is why I always give my undergraduate students in Creative and Professional Writing at Canterbury Christchurch University a range of different tasks to see what they enjoy or are capable of doing.
It is essential for a writer to be able to move fast and respond to curriculum change or other external factors – just think about how much educational content was written during Covid-19 lockdown! All writers have to be able to meet deadlines or alert their publisher quickly if delays are likely. A good educational writer must stay principled and be confident to challenge but they must also be willing to listen to customer and editorial feedback too. A good commissioning editor should be able to explain thoughts and decisions within a wider context.
"A good educational writer must stay principled and be confident to challenge but they must also be willing to listen to customer and editorial feedback too"
More and more these days, educational manuscripts rarely arrive on the publisher's desk. The in-house commissioning team becomes aware of a market need, they research this need with educational professionals (academics, headteachers, classroom teachers, pupils, parents etc) and then seek educational writers and consultants to deliver the job. Clearly, you must be able to write to a brief in this instance. Having said that, you may be a teacher in a school who has a great idea and content that you've written and been working with successfully and dream of being published. Don't be afraid to seek out relevant educational publishers and see if your idea has potential.
Finally, all writers (whether educational or otherwise) need to be able to find their way around a legal contract (whether they have an agent or not) and negotiate fees.
What, in your view, are the specific challenges for educational writers, and what can be done to address them?
The first challenge is that we are in an age where people either believe they are experts (when they're not) or genuine expertise is under-valued. There is a proliferation of free or cheaply created materials churned out online and in print with little thought for whether the educational content really does support teaching and learning. There has always been a place for this type of work, and I'm not knocking it as it's a part of our industry, but I personally like to work on expertly crafted educational materials that have fidelity and make a long-term difference to teachers, pupils and parents. It is critical that educational writers understand their value and place in this world and build their reputations and promote themselves accordingly. Successful educational writers today have a kind of portfolio of content writing styles in a variety of spaces that they can turn their hand to – balancing magazine articles with long-term projects and mixing flat fees with royalties.
The second challenge is that as an industry publishing is still not diverse. The work of CLPE Reflecting Realities and the BookTrust Represents campaign are necessary steps forward but we still have a long way to go. We must encourage diverse voices in educational publishing and we have a responsibility to ensure that all children who read school books can find themselves in the books they learn with. A lot of work has been done in children's literature on this and we can do more as an educational writers’ group to challenge and impact change. Most recently, I'm proud of the publishing work I've done with Jasmine Richards of Storymix to ensure we hear diverse voices in a new reading programme for schools coming soon.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I feel very lucky indeed to work in an industry where the books and digital content I work on, when in professional hands, really can make a difference. I know if children are literate and numerate it can change their life chances. This is hugely motivational and I enjoy working with the best educational and creative talent to help make this happen.
Emily Guille-Marrett has worked in educational publishing for the schools and home learning market for over 20 years. She is joint Series Editor and co-author of over 80 books for Collins Education's reading programme Big Cat Phonics for Letters and Sounds.
She is currently Head of Publishing for the award-winning textbook publisher Maths - No Problem! and its new imprint Wise Words Literacy. Prior to this, Emily has worked on market leading educational print and digital materials at Oxford University Press, Pearson Education, Nelson Thornes and Ladybird books.
An avid supporter of talented writers, Emily lectures at Canterbury Christchurch University on its undergraduate and postgraduate Creative and Professional Writing programmes, with a particular focus on publishing skills and writing for children.