The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why input is as important as output for ELT writers

A recent post by Johanna Stirling on the new MaWSIG blog (A fresh start?) got me thinking about the importance of taking a step back occasionally when you’re writing ELT materials.

As a freelancer writer, you only get paid for what you produce, your output; for the material you write or edit or whatever. Especially when your schedule gets busy, that can easily turn into a production line of 'churning out' material with little time to stop and think, for gathering input and reflecting on it. Most fee-based writing projects don’t allow any time for general background research (at least not on the part of the writer) or thinking time – you’re lucky if the fee covers the hours you put in actually committing stuff to the page.

Of course, you try to go to conferences and events to keep up with the latest trends and ideas – if you can speak on behalf of a publisher, you can sometimes get part of your expenses paid and after all, it’s good for networking too. I do bits of teaching and teacher training to keep in  touch with classroom practice. And nowadays it’s easier to keep up with what’s being written too – clicking through from social media links to conveniently short blog posts and the like.

That’s all great for keeping up-to-date and building up your general knowledge of your area, but how often do you get the chance to really focus in on what’s directly relevant to a particular project?

I read Johanna’s post right after a day at my desk writing the first sample unit for a new project. The project had been in the pipeline for a while and I’d been generally mulling over the syllabus and format and audience, etc., probably soaking up relevant ‘input’ from various sources along the way. But when it came down to writing that all-important first page of text, I found myself doing it on a day when I was feeling a bit tired and below par, with lots of other work commitments to juggle, emails about different things popping into my inbox, a rather fiddly template to battle with … you get the idea. And as a result, I realize that what I put down on the page was no more than a rather uninspired rehash of stuff I’d done before … really not a great start :(

Johanna's post made me realize that what I needed was to gather my thoughts, to get some input, to reflect on it and only then get down to actually writing. 

As luck would have it, on Thursday of last week I was presenting the opening session for an online EAP event. As I was on first, I could easily have ‘done my turn’, then switched off and got on with some other ‘paid work’. Instead though, I tuned into almost all the presentations that followed over the next couple of days. Not all of what the various presenters had to say was relevant to me (either to this project or to my work generally), but they were fascinating, they generated lots of food for thought and just got my brain whirring in a more creative way. 

Also serendipitously, I’d recently been asked to review a draft of a methodology book, which is directly relevant to my current project. Rather stupidly, I hadn’t linked up the two before, but it turns out that reading through the material to review was great for getting my creative/intellectual juices flowing too.

Now, a week on from that rubbish first draft, I think I’m more ready to go back and start again. 'Thinking before you write' may seem like common sense, but in the freelance world of financial and time pressures, it can be all too easy to get focused on the output and forget the importance of targeted input. Now I’ve just got to get this stuff written by next week’s deadline …

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Making EAP more accessible

I recently came across the abstract for a talk at an EAP event (a BALEAP PIM; a professional issues meeting, so a chance for UK-based EAP teachers to get together) via Twitter. It was on a topic that I’m interested in, so I clicked through to read it. It was quite long (294 words for a 30-min talk), but I persevered. On first reading, I have to say, I couldn’t really understand what it was about at all. It took me three or four readings to get to grips with it, and even then, I only really got the gist. The problem? It was written in such an impenetrable academic style that even as someone who’s been involved in EAP for a while, I found it hard going. I won’t name names and to be fair to the writer, they had aimed it appropriately at their (rather niche) audience.

I asked myself though how accessible this kind of thing would be to the newbie EAP teacher or the teacher who only does a bit of EAP teaching (perhaps on one of the many pre-sessionals that take on masses of ELT professionals every summer). And if we stretch the net further (albeit hypothetically as this event was taking place in the UK), how accessible would it be to the average EAP teacher globally who is likely to be a non-native speaker, working in a non-anglophone country, at a university that has decided to switch to English-medium instruction and has brought in English teachers who were probably training in general ELT, most likely in state secondary schools and who’ve had almost no training to introduce them to teaching English in an academic context? (Apologies for that sentence, but I hope you get the point!)

So when I was putting together the outline (not an ‘abstract’) for my session at this week’s online EAP event organized by the University of Sheffield, I thought very carefully about my wording. Here’s what I came up with:

Global EAP: what does it mean to you?

With increasing numbers of universities across the world switching to English medium instruction, the demand for EAP is set to grow. But what does EAP mean in different contexts? Are we all talking about the same thing?

In this session, I’ll share my own experiences of meeting teachers of English at university level from across the world and discuss the differences I’ve come across in terms of students, teachers and institutions. I’d also like to hear from you about what EAP means in your own context. 

We’ll finish off by considering the implications of these differences for the future of EAP resources, teacher training and professional development.

The whole thing is written using words from the Oxford 3000™ - a list of 3000 common words that a good intermediate learner of English might expect to know. The only exception is the acronym EAP itself – but I figured that as it was already in the title of the event, I could probably get away with it! 

If you’d like to tune in and join in the discussion, it’s a completely free event and open to all. My session will be on Thursday 15th January at 11.00 GMT. Go to the event website for more information and to find links to all the sessions.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Long Wait

Okay, I admit it, I’m bored. After four weeks with virtually no work, I’ve tidied my desk, cleared out my email, printed new business cards and almost every other little job on my to-do list you can imagine. Now at this point, some of you snowed under and stressing about deadlines will be sighing and wishing you had the same problem, but believe me, the time is really starting to drag now and the worries about my bank balance along the line are starting to mount.

As a freelancer, you always have peaks and troughs, but this particular lull is a bit different. I have work, at least in theory, but it’s just all been delayed. I currently have no fewer than four projects which I’d expected to be working on by now that have all been put off; some by weeks, others months. Delays, of course, are nothing new in publishing, but this year really does seem to have reached new highs, or should I say lows, in terms of shifting schedules. And I should say right up front that this isn’t a dig at anyone in particular, the four currently stalled projects are all very different types of work for completely different publishers. So is this a general trend and what’s causing it?

Delays getting started:
I was interested to read a piece over on ELTjam about the apparent slump in work for ELT writers. One of the reasons they suggested was that “a lot of projects [at ELT publishers] have been cancelled or are on hold while in-house training goes on to bring editors up to speed with new ways of working”. I think I’d add to the projects ‘on hold’, ‘projects taking longer to get off the ground/get approved’. As a writer who’s sometimes involved in the earlier stages of a project, I’m sensing a cautiousness around commissioning new products, which from my end sometimes means a very positive, enthusiastic first meeting is followed by long periods of silence or start dates that keep getting moved on by months.

Slippery schedules:
Other work I do involves coming in later on a project (to write components or teachers notes, etc.) and here I'm being affected by schedules that just keep slipping and slipping. Again, of course, schedules have always slipped, but my impression is that the unwieldiness of some ELT projects nowadays with huge numbers of components having to be produced together by ever-expanding teams of writers, editors and developers is getting to be almost unmanageable. 

From my end, that means that I get an offer from an editor, often along with a schedule full of very specific handover dates and deadlines. I book out the time in my diary, then I hear that the material I need to work on won’t be ready for another 2, no 4, no 6 weeks … All of which leaves me with big gaps in my workflow that can occasionally be filled with something else, but often, like now, can’t. 

I’m just about to order my wall planner for next year. I used to write in work on it so that I could see what was coming up when. This year though, I’ve taken to putting stuff on little post-it notes instead so they can more easily be moved. I’m hoping that 2014 will prove to have been a blip, down to bad luck or the wrong choices and not part of a general trend.  In the meantime, I think maybe I’ll start repainting the kitchen …

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