The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sharing expertise: How I wrote how to write ...

When the team at ELT Teacher 2 Writer asked me if I’d like to write their module on “How to Write EAP materials”, my first reaction was one of excitement, quickly followed by panic! Who am I to tell other people how to write EAP materials? Surely lots of other writers are far more experienced and qualified!

I think it’s a feeling that all of us have probably experienced at some point. I’m sure that when anyone’s asked to give their first presentation or their first teacher training session, they’re convinced that their audience will know more than they do.  Certainly when I gave my first IATEFL talk back in 2000, I was super-conscious of all the ‘experts’ in the audience.  Of course, it went fine. And the more you share your experiences and accumulated knowledge, whether in person or in writing, the more feedback you get from people who found it interesting or useful or just thought-provoking, and the more you gain confidence in your own developing areas of ‘expertise’.

The EAP community are a tough audience though. They tend to be rather earnest and scarily critical. That’s not a slur on any of them personally, you understand – a lot of my best friends and all that! - it’s just the nature of academia and in turn, EAP. We spend a lot of time encouraging our students to think critically, to question the basis and validity of what they read, to pick holes in the arguments or evidence. So it’s hardly surprising that we tend to hold each other up to those same rigorous standards.

As I set about writing the module, I tried to keep in mind my target audience, or rather my potential target audiences. I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing for those other experienced EAP writers, but for new writers or those just starting to write materials for a wider audience (quite a different challenge from writing the odd hand-out for your own class). I thought of the lovely international group of teachers I met in Oxford last summer, some of whom had plenty of experience teaching general English, but had now been asked to teach (and often plan and resource) a university-level EAP course, sometimes with little or no support. I thought of experienced EAP colleagues who’d tried writing materials but who, without a background in publishing or materials development, had come up against all kinds of problems and pitfalls. I also thought of all the mistakes I’d made myself over the years and tried to include ideas and advice to pre-empt them.

I still couldn’t get the ‘professional EAP community’ out of my head though. I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider because I’m not a full-time EAP tutor based at a university, fully immersed in all the latest research and part of the ‘in crowd’. At EAP events, people introduce themselves and ask “where I’m from”, meaning which university, and I have to explain that I’m a freelancer and work on all kinds of different things, I’m not a fully-fledged academic.

So anyway, I decided to tackle the problem head on and get some other EAP writers involved in the module. I got the idea working on another project – I’d been editing an e-book for Jennie Wright and Christina Rebuffet-Broadus (Experimental Practice in ELT, published via the round) and they’d used several quotes from other ‘experts’ in the field. It gave the text a nice feel, lending both authority and just a change of voice and perspective occasionally.

So I set about emailing all the EAP writers I could think of. Some of them I already knew, some I’d met briefly at events and a couple I just ‘cold called’!  I explained the background to the project and asked if they’d like to contribute a few pieces of advice or ‘top tips’ for new EAP writers.  The response was great! I heard back from everyone I’d contacted, all were interested and supportive, and all contributed some lovely quotable advice.  My Oxford EAP co-author, Edward de Chazal, even phoned me on his mobile to dictate his quotes because his landline and internet were down due to the storms!

Being so used to working on stuff for commercial publishers where confidentiality means you can’t talk to anyone about what you’re doing, it was a really fun way to work. It was great to be collaborative rather than competitive! It was also a confidence boost – it turned out that almost all the points my fellow writers sent chimed with things I’d already included in the module. Not only did that make it relatively easy to slot their quotes into the text, but it told me I was on the right track and there wasn’t anything really obvious that I’d missed.

I hope the approach has worked and the module proves useful for new EAP writers of all stripes. Many thanks to all those colleagues who contributed and I’ll look forward to getting feedback – yes, both positive and critical! – over the coming weeks and months.

"How to Write EAP Materials" is available as an e-book via Amazon and Smashwords and look out for me sporting the matching t-shirt at IATEFL in Harrogate!

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Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Congratulations, Julie - sounds like a very worthwhile module! Isn't it always nice to have validation. :)

3:56 pm  
Blogger Anne Hodgson said...

Dear Julie, Congratulations, your book sounds really great. I'm very much looking forward to your talk on May 10 on the subject at the EAP conference at Potsdam Uni.
I've just finished a business English coursebook myself without having an academic background in materials writing, so I can relate to pitfalls, there was a wealth of learning by doing, and look forward to reading your book and learning more. Will you be bringing some copies with you? Just get in touch so I know how to arrange things. Best, Anne

11:14 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Hi Anne,

Yes I'm really looking forward to the EAP conference too. Now I've done my IATEFL presentation, I'll be turning my thoughts to the workshop.
The book's an ebook, by the way, so no print copies to bring along, but I'll be giving out links where folks can download from.

7:05 pm  

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