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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Blogger shalu said...

A well-written blog post. I am a beginner at ELT writing and quite a few points that you mentioned here resonate with the little experience that I have had in the past few months. I love what I do and have a strong passion for writing. I am relived to know that some of the issues I faced are genuine and not just something I struggled with due to lack of past experience.
Thank you for sharing your views and ideas!

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