The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, February 28, 2014

Are you sitting comfortably?

It’s a grey, damp morning here in Bristol and I’m sat at my desk still in my winter cardi and feeling quite glad that I don’t have to venture out the house. Apart from grim weather, the end of February also sees International RSI Awareness Day (28 Feb) - although oddly, it seems to be marked more in Canada than anywhere else - and my annual nag about all things ergonomic!

Recently, several people have asked me about office chairs, so I thought I’d repeat a few tips and suggestions here for a wider audience.

The most important things about the chair that you’re going to sit on at your desk for possibly hours every day are that a. it’s comfortable and b. it allows you to sit in and maintain a healthy posture that doesn’t put unnecessary strain on any part of your body. I have a fancy, all-singing, all-dancing chair that has every kind of support and adjustment you can imagine. Unsurprisingly, it was pretty expensive (actually bought with a grant when I first went freelance), but it has lasted me nearly 14 years so far and is still in great condition.
My 'RH' chair from Posturite

However, I also have a second chair (for occasional work at the downstairs dining table) from IKEA, that was a fraction of the price, but is actually perfectly comfortable.

My IKEA chair - complete with zebra-print fur back!

However much you have to spend on a chair, the key elements to look for are:
- height adjustment: you need to sit at the correct height for your desk, high enough so that when you’re typing (or using a mouse) you can have your arms loose by your sides and your hands still drop down slightly onto your keyboard, with your elbows at an angle of 90 degrees or slightly more. Most people sit a bit too low so that they have to bend up slightly from the elbow, or more likely they ‘wing’ their arms out to the side and/or hunch their shoulders.  If that means that your feet are off the ground, then you’ll need a footrest too so that they can be firmly planted down flat.
I also drop my chair down slightly if I’m working on papers flat on the desk (such as proofs), so that I’m not hunching over from my usual higher position.
- back support: when you sit back properly in your chair with your bum to the back of the seat and your back against the back of the chair, it should support your spine comfortably.  Ideally that means a bit of lumber support, i.e. moulding to the curve of your spine and supporting the natural hollow in your lower back.
- seat tilt: this is the final feature that I use regularly, although it’s not as essential as the first two. Some experts recommend that you sit with your seat tilted slightly forward, so that your knees are very slightly lower than your hips. This works on the same principle as the kneeling chairs you may have seen – by making you tilt your pelvis slightly forward, your spine settles into a more natural position than if you’re sitting on a dead flat surface, where the tendency is to tip the pelvis back into a slouch. I use the very slightest hint of a tilt most of the time when I’m working, but tilt back if I’m say reading a long text or watching a webinar.
For more about possible chair adjustments check out the posturite website.

There’s no point in having a great chair though if you don’t sit on it properly! Working comfortably is not just about knowing good posture, but maintaining it day in, day out. Again, the posturite website has good solid advice about how to set up your workstation correctly (whether you’re using a desktop or laptop) and how to sit at your desk. Most importantly, you need to be sitting back in your chair with your spine in a comfortable upright position – not ramrod straight or overextended like a gymnast, but not slouched or hunched over either. Realistically, when you’re typing, you’re probably not going to lean right back on the back of the chair, but I try to lean back and let the chair take the strain as often as possible, when I’m reading something or just thinking. In my office, I actually have a full-length mirror right in line with my desk, so if I glance sideways, I can see my posture – I didn’t put it there intentionally, but it makes a really good reminder! Everyone has different tendencies, so trying to keep an eye on how you’re sitting, especially when you’ve got engrossed in a piece of work is really important.  Personally, I often find myself creeping forward on my chair, so I’m sitting right on the edge, leaning forward with my back arched (I blame too many ballet lessons when I was young!). I’ve also developed a habit of leaning the elbow of my non-mouse hand (in my case, my right) on the desk, creating a horrible twist in my spine.

Postural habits are very hard to break, but if you try and make yourself more aware of what you’re doing, then at least when you catch yourself, you can reset your position back into a more healthy posture.

And as I’ve said many times before, taking frequent breaks, where you get up from your desk, even just for a couple of minutes, to change your posture, relax your muscles and just move around a bit is absolutely vital in avoiding the tense, fixed postures that can lead to all kinds of health problems. So go on, get up and make yourself a cup of tea now and give yourself a break …

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Monday, February 10, 2014

A love of letters

With the start of the Winter Olympics, not only am I loving the snowboarding commentary (a whole new language!), but I’ve been reminded of how much I like the Cyrillic alphabet … let me explain …

In my first year as an undergraduate, I did a Russian language course for a year. I was absolutely rubbish and I don’t think I really learnt to say anything useful. I’m not sure if that was down to the rather uninspired grammar-translation style course or more likely, just me being a sulky, disinterested teenager!

The only part of the course I did enjoy was learning the Cyrillic alphabet.  Like any alphabet, the printed text is slightly different from the handwritten form, so as part of our studies, we had to do handwriting practice. I spent many a happy hour neatly copying out words and phrases into my little workbook – about the only part of the course I had a talent for!

I also loved the aspect of learning to decipher a kind of secret code. I still get excited when I manage to work out the pronunciation of something written in Cyrillic – especially if it’s a name or something else I recognise. Which brings me back to Sochi, or rather should I say СОЧИ, because in Cyrillic, the ‘ch’ sound has its own character, Ч, which has a certain neatness that appeals too. And then there’re the exotic, curly Ж (zh) and Щ (shch)… or maybe it’s just me …

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Monday, February 03, 2014

Getting the most out of IATEFL - Part 1

Recently, several fellow freelancers working in ELT publishing have asked whether it’s worth going to the IATEFL conference – this year in Harrogate at the start of April. I’m a big fan of the conference and my answer has been an unequivocal ‘yes’!  It’s great for keeping up-to-date with what’s going on in ELT generally, but from a freelancer’s point of view, I think it’s even more valuable for making contacts which can lead onto work. I’ve lost track of how many projects I’ve worked on that came about either directly or indirectly as a result of people I met at IATEFL.

So anyway, having talked several people into going, I promised I’d put together some tips for getting the most out of the experience. Here’s part one about things to think about before you go:

To register or not?
As a freelancer, the cost of registration, plus travel, plus accommodation can seem like a big (and often unaffordable) expense, especially as it comes on top of time lost at your desk. Perhaps the most effective way to get around that is to offer to speak on behalf of a publisher – if your proposal’s accepted, the publisher will usually pay for your registration and travel, plus some accommodation (although sometimes only a night or two around your talk).

If you haven’t already gone down that route for this year though, probably the cheapest option is to go along to the conference (for as long as you can afford) without registering. You can go into the conference venue and the publisher’s exhibition hall (quite legitimately!) without having to register as a delegate.  That means you can browse around all the publishers stands to see what’s new, but more importantly, you still get lots of networking opportunities. Lots of the key publishing folk you might want to talk to (i.e. in-house editors) will hang around the stands at some point, although be aware that editors will tend to be pretty busy, so it may be worth booking a slot with them in advance if you possibly can – see below. You can also meet up with other freelancers over coffee who can be really useful contacts as well as just good to chat with and share experiences. And by hanging around, you’ll also hear about any evening events going on – publisher’s do’s which are also great for networking.

Tip: If you don’t register, you won’t get a name badge. I know they feel a bit naff, but honestly, people are more likely to remember your name if they see it on a badge - how often are you introduced to someone, then forget their name and are too embarrassed to ask again? I’ve made up a simple name badge before just using an old one from a previous event.

Last year,  I went along for just a day and a half without registering (see my blog post about it here) and I definitely felt it was worth it – I’ve since got work for a new client directly as a result of going along to their evening do. I did though feel a bit left out not being able to go to sessions. That’s partly just because they can be interesting, but from a purely business point of view, I think I also missed a few people I’d liked to have talked to.  If you’ve got a particular area of interest (so for me dictionaries and EAP), then the sessions on those topics are often the best place to bump into the most useful contacts.

Tip: Don't be afraid to ask people you already know to introduce you to people you haven't met.

If you don’t want to register for the whole week, then you could also pick just one day (either in advance or you can pay ‘on the door’ too).  Take a look at the provisional programme on the IATEFL website to get an idea which sessions/day might be most useful for you.

Making dates:
As I said, a lot of editors are very busy through IATEFL, so it can be worth contacting them in advance to ‘make a date’.  If you’re currently working with someone who you haven’t met face-to-face, meeting up to say ‘hello’, even if it’s just over a coffee (be prepared to drink LOTS of coffee!) can be really useful to chat about how the project’s going, but also to cement your relationship with them and increase your chances of getting more work in future. Quite often they’ll mention something else coming up that you can express an interest in. Similarly, if you’ve worked with someone recently who you’d like to work with again, get in touch with them and suggest meeting up.

It can all feel like some weird kind of dating scenario, but honestly, once you’ve taken the plunge and sent off a few friendly emails, it’s really not that bad!

In my next post, I’ll talk about how to make the most of it once you’re there …

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