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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Blogger Johanna said...

Hi Julie,

Feeling flattered and proud to have been of service :-)

The funny thing is I can remember times when I've thought the opposite: I need less input and more output. And then I think we need periods of 'no-put' too, don't we? Time to let ideas from input swirl around the brain finding useful places to file themselves, ready to pop out just when we need them.

Good luck with the writing project.


4:08 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks, Johanna,

Yes, I guess it's a lot about the right kind of input at the right time really, isn't it?

For this project, I'd been mulling over 'what' to include (the syllabus) for quite a while and actively looking out for ideas. But then the actual writing got started rather suddenly (when the project got the go-ahead, contracts were sorted, etc.) and I realized I hadn't thought much about the 'how'. That's where I need to stir up my grey cells a bit to avoid the 'tried-and-tested model' syndrome!

I still haven't gone back to my first unit (yikes!!), but I have gathered and processed quite a few ideas this week, which will hopefully, spill magically onto the page next week ...


5:12 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Funny, I too feel like I get more input than I produce in output. I'm inspired by and make connections from so many videos I watch, conference sessions I attend and blog posts I read that I just get lost with ideas.

1:02 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Tyson, but don't you find you get lots of input and ideas that aren't directly relevant? There's lots of interesting chatter out there, but my point was that I didn't have the time (at the right moment) to seek out relevant inspiration for a specific project (with pressing commercial deadlines) that I was working on.

8:45 am  
Blogger Johanna said...

Tyson and Julie,
What I try to do, when life isn't too hectic, is write a short note in an Evernote folder (different ones for different subjects eg Listening) when I read, hear, see something interesting. Then if I'm doing a presentation, workshop, article myself about that subject, then I go and rummage around that folder.

But I also think that all this stuff that goes in does have a cumulative effect too. Especially if you come across similar ideas several times or find yourself making really interesting links.


10:42 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Wow, Johanna, that IS organized!!

12:15 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Yeah, there's a lot that seem irrelevant (or at least not directly relevant), but I've pretty much "grown up" online with that constantly regarding EAP. Maybe that's why I find so many of this chatter related in one way or another to what I do (but I'm always ecstatic when I find new EAP bits).

3:49 am  

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