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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Friday, March 14, 2014

Getting the most out of IATEFL - Part 2

I sent out my first emails today to set up meetings for IATEFL, so I thought it was time I followed up with some more IATEFL tips.  It’s a huge event and everyone does it in their own way, but as a freelance writer this is my take on getting the most from it:

Be comfortable: it can be a very long day, so wear comfy shoes and check your coat into the cloakroom so you don’t have to lug it around (it usually only costs a pound). Personally, I also try to carry minimal stuff to avoid achy shoulders – I always say no to the free bag/pen/notebook, etc. at registration, it’s just more stuff to carry.

Be selective: if you’re registered and going along to sessions, don’t try to do too much. If you fill up your day rushing from one talk to another, not only will you soon be knackered, but you’ll also miss out on lots of valuable networking opportunities. I usually earmark a few really key sessions that I definitely don’t want to miss, then a few others that look interesting and leave myself gaps for schmoozing and just catching my breath.

Arrive early: if there’s a session you really want to attend, chances are others will too and the room may fill up quickly. Check where it is on the floor plan so you don’t get caught out on the other side of the conference centre just as it’s starting.

Be brave: it’s easy to mostly hang out with people you already know. Of course, it’s great to catch up with old pals and to cement existing contacts, but try to talk to new people too. If you go to a talk by an author/publisher, go up at the end and introduce yourself, say how much you enjoyed the talk.  Sit next to people you don’t know – I’ve met several really useful contacts as a result of a ‘pairwork activity’ in a workshop.

Be flexible: if you get chatting to someone useful, suggest going for a coffee there and then, regardless of whether you were planning to go to another session.

Be ready to drink lots of coffee! The stuff you buy from a coffee outlet is always going to be better than the free stuff provided in the breaks.

Give out cards: take along plenty of business cards and remember to give them out. Make sure you don’t lose the ones you collect either. And if you think you’ll forget who was who, jot yourself a note on the back of important ones.

Chat to folk on stands: spend some time mooching around the publishers’ stands in the exhibition hall. It’s a good way to keep up-to-date with who’s published what and it’s a great opportunity for making useful contacts. If you’re there during a session (rather than a break), get chatting to the staff on the stand. They’ll probably be from sales or marketing, but they may able to introduce you to any editorial staff who happen to be around, or at least tell you who you need to look out for.

Go to publishers’ events: most of the publishers will have an evening ‘do’ at some point. These are where a lot of the best networking takes place!  It may be open to everyone and advertised on the stand or it may be invitation only. Ask stand staff if they’re having a ‘do’, they’ll often be happy to give out invites.

Take a break: if you’re there for more than a day or two, give yourself some down time – come in late or leave a bit early. If you’re going to an evening do, a bit of a pit-stop back at your hotel can be a welcome chance to kick your shoes off for a bit. And if you’re as rubbish as me at drinking on an empty stomach, get a bite to eat before you go – the ‘nibbles’ will never be more than just that!

Take painkillers: inevitably all that coffee and sitting around in stuffy rooms will give you a headache at some point - so I always carry some Nurofen in my bag.

Follow up: I always write up a list of stuff to follow up on the train home. If you met someone who said they might have some work coming up, drop them an email when you get back. You may not get a response right away but at least you’re in their email address book.

See you there!

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