The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why I hate editing!

Recently, I've been thinking about the process of editing written work in preparation for a talk I'm giving next month at an EAP event at Oxford Brookes University about Feedback in EAP (I'll be talking about what skills EAP teachers might learn from professional editors when they're giving feedback on student writing). And I remembered a blog post I put together way back at the start of the year. I decided not to post it at the time, because of the confidentiality issues that always surround publishing projects. Now the book in question, Oxford EAP Advanced/C1, is published and out there in the public domain though, I thought I'd share my thoughts on how the process was going back on a dark day in February ...

I’ve just been trying to put together some advice for EAP students about drafting, redrafting and editing a longer piece of written work, such as a research project or dissertation. As I sat back and read through what I’d written, I had to smile because the whole process is one that I’m rubbish at myself and absolutely hate! 

When I was at school, my essays would always come back covered in red pen, not because I was stupid or hadn’t answered the question, far from it, I would often get positive comments about my interesting and original ideas. It was in the edit that I fell down. However hard I tried, when I read back through what I’d thrown down on paper in a rush of inspiration and enthusiasm (I really enjoyed school on the whole), I just didn’t spot all the spelling errors and other silly mistakes. My teachers would despair of my “laziness”, but honestly, I don’t think it was for lack of effort or willingness to please, I was just a macro kinda girl who didn’t get on so well with the micro stuff.

Oddly, as an adult I developed something of an eye for detail, ending up in perhaps the most nit-picky of jobs as a lexicographer, where the tiniest micro-level details are all important.  How come? Well, I think I’ve come to realize that it’s about attention span. As a lexicographer, each entry is a little mini-project of its own – you can do the ‘big picture’, creative bit (pinning down the meaning of a word and dividing up the senses) AND the nitty gritty detailed bit all in one go, before you get bored and lose interest. Then you’re off onto a new word to play with.

Most of my early writing projects within ELT were also broken up into similarly small chunks. Moving from dictionaries, a lot of my initial writing jobs were around vocabulary and grammar practice activities, for workbooks, CDs, etc. I could take a run at each new activity and get it planned, researched, written and checked all before I got too bored with it. And coming from the meticulous world of lexicography, I was quite good at following a brief to the letter, putting it all in the right format, sticking to a strict wordlist for the level, etc. It was very satisfying to tick off a list of activities to be written and send them off as nice, neat little parcels.

Over the past year though, I’ve been trying to tackle an altogether more unruly beast, in co-authoring a whole coursebook. To an extent, the process has still been broken down into micro-tasks; units, modules and individual activities. As usual, I've thoroughly enjoyed the initial rush of enthusiasm researching a new topic and sketching out how to tackle it, then the challenge of deciding exactly how to make it work on the page. Leaving aside time pressures and the need to co-ordinate with co-author, editor, publisher etc., first drafts were fun. When it came to revisions and second drafts, I found myself dreading the prospect of going back to the manuscripts I’d already spent hours poring over and was already quite bored of. Thankfully, my tentative suggestion that I swap materials with my co-author and we revise each other’s drafts was accepted and I was able to attack the whole process with a fresh eye at least, if not quite the same energy levels.

But now we’re down to the dregs, going back over everything for the umpteenth time, pinning down details, making little tweaks and doing all the little fiddly bits to tie up the loose ends. I’m tired, I’ve run out of steam and part of me just wants to “hand it in” and be done with it! 

Everyone keeps telling me it’ll all be worth it in the end, when it’s finally published, all shiny and snazzy-looking, with my name on the cover … but late on a Friday afternoon after a long week of edits (and with many more to come), I’m feeling distinctly unconvinced!

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Get ahead, get a thesaurus

I don’t usually use my blog to ‘plug’ products I’ve worked on, but a couple of things lately have prompted me to think again about a book I was involved with a few years back.  During my recent trip to Munich, a teacher came up to me in the break and asked if I ever recommend a thesaurus to my students. I started to tell her about the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus … only to find that she was already a convert and couldn’t understand why it doesn’t have a higher profile.

The OLT has the usual sets of synonyms you’d expect in a thesaurus, but it also has lots of information for learners to help them understand what each of the words means and, more importantly, where their meanings overlap and how they’re different. It was one of my favourite ever projects to work on – I spent months and months poring over sets of synonyms and trying to tease out all the subtle differences … language nerd paradise!

Anyway, I think it’s a great book, especially for more advanced learners, like the EAP students I teach. They really need to vary their vocabulary, especially when they’re writing longer pieces, to avoid just repeating the same old words and expressions time and again. Letting them loose on an ordinary NS thesaurus though can be a bit of a recipe for disaster as they come up with all kinds of inappropriate substitutions!

I generally try to introduce my classes to the OLT, usually via an example that’s cropped up in class, and encourage them to try it out as a resource.   I even managed to squeeze it into my most recent project; OxfordEAP C1/Advanced  in a module on synonyms (p. 070 if you’ve got a copy).

But I also use it quite a bit as a reference myself both when I’m teaching and when I’m writing. Which brings me onto the second prompt for this blog post … I’ve read a few interesting things on hedging in EAP lately (from Nathan Hall and Ken Paterson -  looking forward to his webinar on hedging tomorrow), which for those of you not familiar with the term, is the way we use language to show how confident (or otherwise) we are about what we’re saying, or to be more EAP about it, to moderate the strength of the claims we’re making. A lot of work on hedging tends to focus on modals (could, might, would), so-called hedging verbs (appear, seem, tend),  adverbs (possibly, perhaps, relatively, significantly) and a few other adverbial expressions (to some extent, on balance). But writers also convey a lot about their stance and evaluation of ideas through their choice of other vocabulary too.

Consider the difference between:
The effectiveness of the programme has been queried/questioned/disputed/criticized/attacked.

It’s an area that you’d probably only tackle explicitly with pretty advanced students, but it’s worth being aware of and picking up on when it crops up (as is the nature of much language work in EAP).  Anyway, when I wanted to include some work on this in Oxford EAP, it was OLT I turned to in search of ideas for the practice exercises (p. 143). Lots of sets of synonyms vary in strength, so when you’re deciding which word to use to express a particular idea, you might make your choice based on how confident or tentative you want to come across as … that’s hedging too.

I'd be interested to hear whether other people use a thesaurus (or the thesaurus facility of some of the learner's dictionaries) - either with their students or for their own reference?

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Friday, October 04, 2013

Munich: no beer, but a bit of quickie research

My trip to Munich last weekend went well. The trip itself was fairly unremarkable, just standard, rather unglamorous business travel without much time to see the place I was visiting. And sadly, without enough time to visit the Oktoberfest, which is perhaps for the best as I’m not sure that a large amount of beer is advisable when you’ve got two hour-long presentations to deliver!

The event itself though, a whole day of talks on EAP organized by MELTA (the local English teachers’ association), was really good, with a really interesting and interested audience, and lots of lively chat in-between sessions. There was a very long day of back-to-back talks lined up, of which I was doing two, so I wanted to break things up with a bit of audience participation.

Photo by Vivienne Arnold

In my first session about EAP vocabulary, I was talking about three areas of vocabulary that students need to work on to develop their personal academic lexicon:

1 core academic vocabulary (as typified by the Academic Word List)
2 more frequent words (that don’t make it onto the AWL) which have specific academic senses and uses
3 specialist or discipline-specific vocabulary

So to kick off my session, I asked the audience to write down on a blank card just one piece of vocabulary that they thought of as prototypically academic and that they might choose if they could teach their students only one word that would help them most in improving their academic English.
I did it as a way of involving the audience in the topic, but I was also genuinely interested in getting some insight into their views and intuitions about academic vocabulary. After the talk, while another speaker was presenting, I very quickly typed the words from the cards into an AWLhighlighter to produce some rather rough and ready ‘results’ to present at the start of my next session. This is what came out:

40.81% top 2000 most frequent words
44.90% AWL / core academic vocabulary
14.29% off-list / “specialist”

according according advantage claim claim consider development effect however however is opinion propose prove purpose read studied towards argue discuss

analysis analyze analyze approach conclusion conclusion consequently controversial derivative emphasize focus function nevertheless perspective research research structure subsequently summarize thesis topic whereas

enthusiasm essay essay panacea paradox reference transcript

Interestingly, it quite nicely backed up my contention that, while useful, just focusing on traditional AWL vocabulary isn’t enough and that there’s a lot of apparently ‘frequent’ vocabulary that is also worth some focus in an EAP class, especially where the everyday and academic uses of a word, such as consider or argue, are quite different.

Photo by Vivienne Arnold

It also threw up some interesting anomalies, especially the fact that essay and reference, clearly two key words for EAP students were “off-list” (i.e. neither in the top 2000 nor on the AWL). There are explanations for this, but I think I’m going to save that discussion for another day and another blog post …

It was a fun bit of quickie research though and perhaps one that would be interesting to repeat with different groups of EAP teachers to find out how they view what academic vocabulary is all about. It was also a fun day and as ever, great to meet and chat to EAP teachers working in a different country and context. Thanks to everyone for making me feel so welcome!

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