The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, March 18, 2019

Getting going: the economics of short jobs

Getting started on any new project, it takes time to get up and running. Recently, I've worked on a number of short jobs where the start-up time ate into the hours I could allocate to the whole job (based on the fee) to the point where the whole thing turned out to be hardly worth it financially. It's made me reconsider whether short writing jobs are always viable from a financial perspective.

At the start of a new writing project, there are lots of things to get your head around and no matter how experienced you are, that takes time. I've been writing ELT materials for 20 years now, so I generally know what to expect and can more-or-less 'hit the ground running', but even so, I still have to read through the brief and accompanying documents (of which there might be anything up to a dozen) to check:

- which market the materials are aimed at 
- the level (not just A2, B1 etc. but how it's actually pitched)
- the overall format of the book/components (even if I'm only writing a small part)
- the general style and approach
- any restrictions on topics, artwork or permissions for authentic texts
- any relevant exam guidelines or exercise types
- the format I need to use - templates, file naming conventions, combined/separate answer keys, etc.
- any requirements for artwork briefs or audio scripts
- the extent
- the styleguide (if there is one)
- all the other random bits I can't think of right now!

Then there's all the admin - emailing to and fro about dates and schedules and contracts and who to send stuff to, and downloading all the briefing docs.

On short jobs, you're typically writing a small part to fit in with other material (review units or tests or worksheets), so then when you start actually writing, not only are you flicking back and forth to check all the stuff above, you're also referring to the already-written material to check which language points you're covering, what's already been done, the approach the other writers have taken and topics they've covered. So the first unit (or spread or page) can take much longer than you'd normally expect for the actual amount of text you end up with on the page.

On longer projects, you can generally absorb that start-up time within the overall fee and hope to speed up and make up the time later. You might even find that time's been allowed in the schedule (and budget) to send in a first unit for feedback, and to go back and forth a bit to get the style and format established. On short jobs though, it seems there's little or no allowance for any of this. The commissioning editor looks at the number of pages/spreads/units and calculates a fee by simply multiplying how long they think each one will take to write. When those fees are already pretty low, absorbing that start-up time and still making more than a minimal hourly rate can prove tricky. Especially if you miss something in the brief in your rush to get started - or something wasn't actually mentioned or made clear - and so you send in your whole batch of work only to get it back with loads of requests for revisions. Now your hourly rate's ticking down even further.

Don't get me wrong, it's convenient to do short jobs now and again. Sometimes, they just fill a gap in your schedule and it can also be nice to do something simple where you don't get sucked into a big long complicated project. And sometimes they work out fine - occasionally, they can even take less time than you expect - hooray! In my experience though, that's getting increasingly rare. With publishers producing multiple levels and components of courses simultaneously and dividing up the writing between a whole slew of different writers, they also seem to just divide up the time and budget without taking into account that each of those writers has to factor in some start-up time.

That's not to say I'm going to stop taking on shorter jobs - like I said, they can make a nice change - but I'll certainly be considering that start-up time as a more prominent factor when I'm assessing fees and considering whether to take work on in future.

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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Four things I’ve learnt from working with chronic pain

The last day of February every year is International RSI Awareness day. And this year, for me, marks 20 years since I was first diagnosed with RSI. So, it seemed like a good point at which to look back on how chronic pain has affected the way I live and work over the past two decades.

To quickly recap, I started suffering the classic symptoms of RSI, shooting pains in my right hand and wrist, not long after I’d switched from a career as a classroom EFL teacher to one working all day every day at a computer in ELT publishing. Over the period that followed, I learnt a lot about repetitive strain injury and how it’s caused by sitting in a tense awkward position, often with a poor desk setup, doing small repeated movements, especially with a mouse. 

I also discovered that my pain issues stretched far beyond my right hand and that initial crisis was a trigger for a whole load of underlying musculoskeletal problems. As well as the sensitisation of the nerves running through my right hand, arm, shoulder and neck, I discovered that an old shoulder injury turned out to be a permanently dislocated collarbone which was making my whole right side wonky and unstable. Then, added into the mix was a degree of hypermobility, a condition that means that my skeleton and the tendons attached to it are particularly loose and stretchy, meaning that my frame can’t take the strain of holding my body in one position for very long. All of which has led to a messy chronic pain condition that’s had a huge impact on my life and work. It’s a topic I could write about endlessly, but here are the top four things I’ve learnt.

#1 Pacing myself
I soon discovered that I couldn’t manage a regular full-time job. I have good patches and bad patches, I’m better at working in short bursts with breaks in between and I have to fit my work around what I can physically manage. So, being freelance gives me more freedom to manage how and when I work. For any freelancer though, trying to achieve a schedule that gives you a steady flow of work is an incredible challenge. Work comes in fits and starts, projects get delayed, they run over, and sometimes get cancelled altogether. Most freelancers end up agreeing to more than they’d like just so that if one thing’s delayed or cancelled, they have something else to cover the time. And then when it all comes at once, they put in extra hours, work evenings and weekends, and just juggle their time to fit it all in. For me, however, that’s not an option. I simply can’t afford to get into a position where I’m working extra hours because my body will break down and everything will grind to a halt. That means I have to be conservative about the amount of work I take on, only agreeing to as much as I can reasonably cope with; 15-20 billed-for hours a week is ideal, 25 for the odd week at a push. That leaves me really vulnerable to those delays and cancellations though. If I’ve only got one project in my diary and that suddenly disappears at short notice, then I simply have no money coming in. I’ve got used to having a significantly lower income than my peers, but at times, with bills to pay and nothing in the bank, it’s definitely a source of stress and frustration.

#2 Avoiding the fiddly bits
Contrary to many people’s impression of RSI, for me at least, straightforward typing isn’t particularly problematic. That’s especially true with ELT materials where you’re very rarely typing long stretches of text, it’s mostly short sentences with thinking time in-between and doesn’t put that much strain on my hands. What gets me is all the fiddly stuff navigating around documents and formatting text either using a mouse or repeated keystrokes (such as lots of paging up and down). Although I use a graphics tablet instead of a mouse because I find it more comfortable, there are still certain things that are really problematic. My biggest bugbear is anything that involves highlighting specific sections of text, in order to cut and paste, or change the format. Trying to highlight exactly the right words and characters involves a degree of tension and control in your hand and wrist no matter what device you’re using and it’s that focused tension that really causes me the most pain, especially if it’s repeated over and over again.

I’m perfectly happy just typing text into a straightforward Word document and even using a template with Word styles isn’t a problem once you get into the swing of it. The projects I hate are the ones, often for digital materials, that require you to fill in lots of different fields with codes for exercise types, that involve copying and pasting the same instructions numerous times, repeating the same text for answer keys and audio scripts and artwork directions. I’ve worked on a couple of projects where getting the initial content down “on paper” took up a fraction of the time compared with filling in field after field of text in what amounted to no more than data input. Those are the jobs that I now avoid.

#3 Not standing around
Perhaps the number one most frustrating aspect of my health though is something that affects me both socially and professionally. For me, standing around for any length of time gets really uncomfortable. It can be a tricky one for people who know me to get their head around because in many ways I’m quite fit. I walk a lot – I’m currently walking around 20 miles a week as part of a walking challenge – and I don’t look like a hobbly old lady. But for me, there’s a huge difference between walking along at pace and standing around or even mooching about slowly – it puts my body under a whole load of different strains. On a bad pain day, just standing about for a few minutes can leave me unable to think about anything other than sitting down in a comfortable chair. Add to that standing around holding a drink (really painful for my arm and shoulder) or standing around with a bag on my shoulder (so uncomfortable I now avoid it at all costs) and the prospect of any kind of social or networking event that isn’t going to involve comfortable chairs fills me with dread.

It’s a real killer, because I really enjoy being sociable and chatting to people, whether they’re friends or colleagues. But unless I’m going into a situation that I’ll be able to control, such as meeting in a café where I know we’ll sit down, I find myself avoiding situations where I might end up  uncomfortable, distracted and wishing I could leave. That gets amplified at events which I’ve had to travel to (another potential source of discomfort) and at which I’m going to have to spend extended lengths of time without any respite.  It makes me feel like an unsociable grouch which I’m really not … honest!

#4 Perspective
If all that’s sounding a bit negative, there is one major positive to having a chronic health condition and that’s the perspective it gives you on life. For me, work-life balance isn’t a luxury add-on, it’s absolutely essential. If I’m overdoing it, my body will tell me so in no uncertain terms and I have no choice but to listen. I’ve learnt not to let my working life get out of perspective. That’s not to say I don’t ever get annoyed and frustrated by stuff, but I’m pretty good at stepping away from my desk, taking a break, going out for a walk, then coming back and dealing with the problem before it gets out of hand. Over the years, I’ve got better at standing my ground, speaking up when expectations are unrealistic and if necessary, just walking away. I love my work and I want to do a professional job, but you know, sometimes there are just more important things.

... like a cup of coffee in the sunshine ...

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Monday, January 07, 2019

2018: Themes of the year

It's that time when you find yourself looking back on the past 12 months and ahead to the coming year. To be honest, 2018 wasn't the easiest year for me workwise. Through the first half of the year, I struggled with work as my chronic pain condition went through a particularly bad patch. This led to me taking two months off through the summer to rest and recover. It really helped from a health perspective, but meant a big financial hit. Then over the last few months of the year, I had the frustration of projects being delayed and cancelled, with more lost income and my cash-flow at less than a trickle!

Those things aside, it was a good year for ideas. Two of my highlights of 2018 were conference talks which reflect two of the themes of my professional year.

IATEFL: vocabulary learning and teaching

After many years of doing talks on behalf of publishers, I decided to submit my own proposal - Wordlists: snog, marry, avoid? - for IATEFL 2018 (summary here). When you put together a talk for a publisher, it's usually based on a project you've been working on, so apart from deciding on what angle to take, the content is generally fairly straightforward. Planning my own talk was a very different proposition. I had a few ideas floating around my head about vocab-related themes I’d like to tackle, but settling on a specific topic and then deciding exactly what to include was trickier. 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been getting more interested in the principles behind vocabulary learning and teaching, and planning my talk sent me into a new flurry of reading and thinking (often in cafes and also on a rather lovely reading retreat). Vocabulary has long been my ‘thing’ and I’ve dipped into theory and research over the years and, of course, built up lots of accumulated knowledge from experience of working with vocab day in, day out.  I always felt my wider knowledge was a bit patchy though and I didn’t want to stand up in front of a roomful of ELT experts with a load of gaping holes in my arguments!  Although I know there’s still masses out there to read and digest, I do feel like I’ve now filled a few gaps and joined up a few dots. More importantly, perhaps, I feel like I’ve got something to say in my own right, which has been a bit of a revelation.

All my mulling over of vocab-related stuff led onto another talk about the principles I try to apply when I’m writing vocab materials at the joint MaWSIG/Oxford Brookes event in June (summary here) – another great event and lovely to get such a positive response from my peers, thanks guys :)

And I’ve still got lots of vocab-related ideas whirring around, so I think there’s more to come if I can just find the right outlets …

IVACS: corpus research

This time last year, I was at a bit of a turning point in my ELT career and I decided I needed to refocus on the areas of ELT that interest me most (see posts here and here). One of those areas was corpus research and it’s something that I have managed to get more involved in over the past year or so, with corpus research work for a couple of different publishers and rather excitingly, my first talk at a corpus linguistics conference in Malta in June.

Unlike the ELT events I’m familiar with, corpus linguistics conferences tend to be much more academic affairs. So, although I felt confident that I had some interesting stuff to talk about (summary here), I wasn’t 100% certain about the reception I’d get from an audience of academics. Much to my relief, no one questioned my methodology or picked up on my lack of a reference list! In fact, many of the people I spoke to were quite excited to meet someone who actually does corpus research ‘in the real world’ and I had lots of great conversations with a wonderful range of fascinating people. It’s definitely a world I’d like to stay in touch with and with a couple of new and interesting pieces of research under my belt this year, it’s something I’d like to talk more about … if I can find a way to fund it …

The cold, hard economics of it all

Although IATEFL and IVACS were highlights of my professional year, both were largely self-funded and, together with another couple of events, ate up a lot of cash which I didn’t really have to spare given the aforementioned patchy workflow and lack of income.

So this year, I’ve had to rule out going to events unless I have a sponsor to help out with costs.  Luckily, I already have two conferences– the English UK academic conference in London on 19 Jan and TESOL Spain in Oviedo in March – lined up with backing from event organizers/publishers and maybe another one in the pipeline for the summer.  I’ve had to cross another couple that I’d hoped to speak at off my list because I couldn’t get any backing, which is sad, but hey.

Perhaps more importantly for 2019, as well as the little inspirational blips that conferences provide, I need to refocus on the day-to-day work at my desk to pay the bills. January has got off to a busy start with one project finishing up and another quickie writing job in progress, but my schedule for February onwards is looking worryingly empty. I’d really like to see all my investment in reading and thinking and talking at events translate into interesting writing projects where I can put some of those ideas into practice.

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Sunday, December 02, 2018

Corpus insider #4: The problem with polysemy

It's a bit of a standing joke that every talk I give includes the word polysemy, but it's such an important concept to bear in mind when you're looking at language in any context and especially for any corpus research. Recently, I gave a talk to students at Goldsmiths, University of London, about careers in linguistics. I wanted to give them a taste of both corpus research and lexicography, so I put together a small set of corpus lines for them to look at to tease out the different senses of a word and organize them into a dictionary entry.

Whilst it's possible to do a corpus search for a specific lemma (e.g. rest as a verb; rest, rests, rested, resting or rest as a noun; rest, rests), with reasonably reliable (if not 100%) results, corpus tools can't distinguish between the different senses or uses of a polysemous word. If you think about the noun rest, which sense immediately springs to mind? It's one of those words that highlights the difference between our intuitions and the realities of usage. Quite likely, the first sense you thought of was to do with 'taking a break or time to relax'. In fact, the rest (of) meaning 'what's remaining' or 'the others' is something like three times as frequent.

When lexicographers are working with a corpus to put together a dictionary entry, determining the sense division and ordering of senses is a manual process. You can get a flavour of a word by looking at its collocates (for example, using WordSketch in SketchEngine), but that only tells part of the story - you'll find the ‘relax’ sense of rest has far more strong collocates than the duller, more functional the rest of

Section of a WordSketch for rest (noun) - English Web 2015 via Sketch Engine

You can sort concordance lines to the left and right of the node word and you start to see the patterns emerge (here, the rest of becomes very obvious). But ultimately, you just have to go through a sample of cites manually to establish the different senses and uses (including as part of phrases), and the frequency order. The actual statistical frequency of a particular sense is almost impossible to determine in most cases, not least because, for many words, there are senses which overlap and examples that are ambiguous.

So what are the practical implications of this?

Dictionary frequency information: A number of learner’s dictionaries (Collins COBUILD, Macmillan, Longman) provide information about the frequency of a word using a system of stars or dots. Whilst this is useful in giving you a ball-park guide to more and less frequent words, the ratings are based on the frequency of the whole word, not the individual senses. For some words, all the senses may be relatively high frequency, while in other cases, the first sense(s) may be high frequency and others quite obscure.

Phrases: It is possible to find the frequency of many phrases with carefully constructed corpus searches, but phrases with variable elements and those containing very common words (such as phrasal verbs) which could co-occur in different ways are much trickier to pin down. For that reason, they’re not generally allocated their own frequency information and just get lumped in with the individual headwords.

Word lists: Many frequency-based word lists also don’t take into account the different senses of a word and their relative frequency.  Unless words on the list come with definitions attached, it’s difficult to know whether they just refer to the most frequent sense or to other senses as well.

Text analysis tools: Tools that allow you to input a text and get a breakdown of the words by frequency or as ranked in EVP, for instance, such as Text Inspector or Lextutor, will generally allocate words according to their overall frequency or most frequent sense. So, an obscure sense of a common word, such as leg in the context of a cricket match (see sense 5 here), will likely be labelled as high frequency. The paid version of Text Inspector does allow the user to choose the relevant sense of a word when looking at EVP labels from a drop-down menu, but it doesn’t offer off-list options (including the cricketing sense of leg which it just labels as A1) or allow you to allocate words to phrases that haven’t been automatically detected.

So, does this means that all these tools are completely useless? Of course not. In many cases, we’re using frequency information as a rough guide, so finer sense distinctions don’t come into play. Like anything though, it’s important to know the limitations of the sources and tools you use and to be on the look-out for anything that doesn’t seem quite right.

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