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The ELT Freelancers' Awayday 2020

There is a good reason why I like to leave Canada in January – and it isn’t just the weather.

Six years ago, just one year into my freelance career, I went for lunch in Oxford with 30 other ELT freelancers. I knew no one, I didn’t have much experience, and I wasn’t really sure that I should even be there. The following year, Karen White and Helen Holwill, the organisers of that lunch, responded to requests to turn the event into a full day of professional development, and the ELT Freelancers’ Awayday was born.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Awayday, now run by Helen Holwill and Jemma Hillyer, is one of the key events in my professional year. I think many of us who work in ELT materials development would agree that this is a fabulous event for freelancers, and the event now attracts delegates from all over. This year I talked to people who had come from the UK, Germany, Spain and Hungary; other countries represented included the US, Greece and Canada (me).

Awayday organisers Helen Holwill and Jemma Hillyer

So what happens at an Awayday, and why is it such a key event for ELT freelancers?

Awayday dinner

The day actually started the evening before, with the optional Awayday dinner. This was a good opportunity to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for a year and to enjoy a three-course meal and a glass of wine. I wasn’t late to bed, as we had a full day coming up the next day.

The day itself

The day got underway at 9 a.m. the next morning. The first session was a presentation by Sian Mavor and Sarah Ratcliff from National Geographic Learning, together with freelancer Clare Shaw. I have always loved the NGL books, and I even worked on one series early in my freelance career – so it was interesting to hear more about the philosophy behind these books. There are no celebrities in these pages, no made-up content; the focus is very much on real people doing real things. It was a fascinating glimpse into how these beautiful books come together, and while I’m doing less textbook work now, this is one publisher that I would be thrilled to write for.

Next, we listened to a talk called ‘Invisible but essential – the editor’s role in ELT materials development’ with Fiona MacKenzie and David Baker. Fiona and David, both veterans of the ELT publishing industry, spoke about changes over the years (digitalisation, new markets, restructuring of publishing houses), the subsequent stress these have caused and the evolving role of editors. The theme of the day was ‘raising your game’, and Fiona and David shared their thoughts on how we can do this through training, negotiation skills, self-marketing and networking. Fiona and David will be giving a version of this talk at IATEFL in Manchester – highly recommended!

Before breaking for lunch, Jemma reported on the findings of the 2019 survey. Essentially, rates have not gone up much since the first survey was done in 2013; what has changed is that freelancers are becoming more assertive, asking for a higher rate of pay or questioning the number of hours a project is anticipated to take. I wonder if the Awayday has helped to create a sense of empowerment among freelancers, where people feel more able to question the terms offered by publishers.

After lunch – which was excellent, as always – came three ‘springboard’ talks. James Styring, my former colleague on the MaWSIG Committee, spoke about the value of not deserting the classroom entirely; teaching provides a way of staying up to date and of trialling materials. This rang true for me, as I am considering teaching pre-sessional EAP again this summer. James talked about his own volunteer work with a group called Fellow in Oxford that provides free English lessons for overseas workers.

Claire Hart then gave a talk that I think many of us related to: why, Claire asked, do we overload ourselves with work, sometimes at the expense of our health and family time? What narratives do we tell ourselves that make us do this? We were shown how to use the Wheel of Life to assess the balance in our lives.

Finally, Lyn Strutt’s talk was all about efficiency in PDF markup; as someone who recently sent an email to a designer apologising for the vast number of corrections in a set of proofs, I was interested in learning how to reduce the amount of markup on a page. After these short talks, we broke into groups and further explored each topic with the speaker.

Workshop with James Styring

The final session of the day was a panel discussion. Sian Mavor and David Baker took the stage again, along with Kirsten Holt (Pavilion Publishing) and Ian Purdon (British Council). The panellists had the opportunity to respond to questions sent in beforehand, all related to the theme of ‘raising our game’. Questions included increasing diversity in images in coursebooks, refreshing one’s skills after a break from editing, getting repeat work with publishers, bidding for British Council work, and determining whether to broaden one’s skill set or become known as a specialist. Members of the audience shared their experiences along with the panel.

We finished off with a glass of wine, kindly sponsored by National Geographic Learning, and a promise to see each other again a year from now.


So what did I get out of it? Why do I prioritise this event?

In the past, I have been offered work from talking to people at the Awayday. Right now, I’m not looking for work and this isn’t why I came – but for anyone wanting to connect with ELT publishers, there is no better place to do it. Represented at the Awayday were National Geographic Learning, Oxford University Press, Richmond, the British Council, Integra, The Content Station, Tom, Dick & Debbie, Wild Apple Design, EMC Design and Pavilion Publishing. A casual chat can lead to a firm offer of work, as it has for me in the past.

I got up to speed on what is happening in ELT materials development. I haven’t done much work for UK publishers in the last couple of years (I’ve been doing a lot more for Canadian clients), but it’s still good to stay knowledgeable about trends in publishing. Fiona and David’s talk in particular gave me information that I simply couldn’t get at Canadian conferences, where materials development is not given much attention.

Mostly though, it’s all about connecting with like-minded people. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that the networking opportunities between the sessions are just as important as the sessions themselves. Freelancing is a lonely profession; whether we live in Oxford or in small-town Ontario, we’re working by ourselves in our home offices with just our dogs and Facebook for company. This is one of the few times in the year when I can see colleagues in person rather than online. I caught up with some old friends, got to know some casual acquaintances better, and met some new people with whom I’d be happy to work on a future project.

Final thoughts

At that lunch in 2014, I knew no one, and I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. Now, it’s hugs all around. Freelancers cannot survive happily in a vacuum. We need the support of a community – we can see this in the popularity of MaWSIG, ELT Publishing Professionals and the various Facebook groups that have sprung up over the last decade. So if I can summarise the Awayday in one word, that’s it – ‘community’ – and building that community is what Karen, Helen and Jemma have done so well over the last few years.

See you next year?


Tania Pattison is an editor and proofreader specialising in English language teaching, education and related subjects. When not editing, she is an EAP textbook writer, curriculum designer and occasional university/college teacher.

Images by Helen Holwill and Jemma Hillyer, ELT Freelancers' Community


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