The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, June 20, 2016


I'm on the train on my way home from a great weekend in Liverpool for the MATSDA (Materials Development Association) conference and reflecting on the similarities and differences between the MaWSIG crew who I usually hang out with and the MATSDA crowd ... or at least I'm trying to over a rather raucous hen party who I'll be sharing my journey with as far as Wolverhampton!

I was invited to speak at the conference as a step towards encouraging more cooperation between the two groups. We're both involved in working on ELT materials, after all, so there should be lots of overlap. So what did I notice?

Well, I think the first clue is perhaps in the name - materials writers vs materials developers. The difference may seem a subtle one, but it came out quite clearly in a number of ways. As I looked down the programme of presenters, only 5 out of 53 (including myself) weren't representing universities. This gave the event a much more academic feel than the average MaWSIG gathering which is typically dominated by freelancers who work on projects for commercial publishers.

This academic bent also came through in the sessions. Many had a fairly abstract focus on pedagogy and were peppered with references to academic research, others were about individual research projects, presenting or evaluating materials developed for very specific, generally small-scale, contexts (South Korean tour guides, German police officers, Malaysian university students). MaWSIG events tend to focus more on the work of materials writing; the constraints and issues around working with publishers, the practicalities of being freelance. That's not to say that they don't address pedagogical issues too sometimes, but they tend to come at them from a slightly different perspective.

One of the other things that really struck me was the international nature of MATSDA, with probably more people from outside of the UK than inside. There were people who'd come from Asia, Africa and South America just for the two-day event, which was both impressive and made for some fascinating insights. This perhaps comes back to the fact that most of the delegates were funded by their institutions, an option not open to self-employed freelancers who typically have to self-fund any trips. My experience of most MaWSIG events is a largely British crowd either based in the UK or travelling in from Europe (on budget airlines!), rarely from any further afield.

So what am I taking away from the weekend? Well, when I joined MaWSIG, it was great to meet up with a group of people who did the same thing as me, who understood the joys and frustrations of being a freelance writer, people with whom I could share ideas, problems, advice or just have a laugh. Although many of the MATSDA members didn't quite share my professional context, we still found plenty we had in common and we still had a laugh. I found it really useful to forget about commercial constraints and the woes of the publishing industry for a while and to get back to thinking about the basics of what materials writing's about at its heart; helping teachers to teach and students to learn in the most effective, engaging way possible. It felt like a bit of a luxury that I rarely get time for and it was much more fun being involved in informal, interactive sessions with academics than trying to keep up with 'the literature'!

I also found it really fascinating to meet people working in so many different contexts. Although I get to meet teachers from around the world when I'm giving talks and workshops, it was interesting to get a slightly different take from folks who are developing materials independently; a world away from the large-scale, global projects I'm generally involved in. I came away with a number of ideas that I think I can transfer to my own work in some form.

So there are lots of things that I think other MaWSIG members like myself could get from dipping a toe into MATSDA territory every now and then. But what could MATSDA members gain from exploring what MaWSIG has to offer? As well as insights into the world of commercial publishing, I think the main thing they might gain is more practical hands-on ideas that they can take away and make use of. Although the MATSDA sessions provided plenty of food for thought, I didn't come away with concrete things to try out, links to follow, tools to play with in the same way that I often do after a MaWSIG event.

Overall, I think there's definitely room for both groups to continue looking at the world of ELT materials from their slightly different perspectives, but I also think there's lots of scope for overlap and sharing too.
If you're interested in finding out more about either group:
MATSDA:  https://www.matsda.org/

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Friday, June 10, 2016


Yesterday was National Freelancers Day in the UK and it got me thinking about the pros and cons of working for myself. So here are four things I love and hate most about freelancing:

1 I first went freelance back in 2000 primarily because it allows me to manage a chronic pain condition that makes it almost impossible for me to hold down a 9-to-5 job. That 'management' involves rubbish stuff like not having to be bright and perky on days when my pains are really bad or when I'm suffering from a 'painkiller hangover'. But it also involves fun stuff like finding ways to avoid long, unbroken stretches at my desk and making sure I move about as much as possible. At a MaWSIG event back in January, Antonia Clare mentioned my 'dance breaks' - where I get up from my desk for 5 mins and dance round my office to my favourite tunes. Well, these have now been replaced by hula-hooping breaks (thanks to Karen White), which take place in my back garden and also involve being very silly to dodgy dance tracks!

2 Being able to manage my own time has other advantages too. Rather than having to do things at the same time as nine-to-fivers, I can go for a swim, do a bit of shopping or get my haircut at those quiet times in the middle of the day. And no, it's not just slacking ... I still have to put in the hours to get paid, I just have the flexibility to shuffle them around a bit without having to get anyone's permission.

3 One of the great things about being freelance is not being tied to a job title. In my time as a freelancer, I've worked as a lexicographer, a materials' writer (on a massive range of different materials), as an editor, academic proofreader, reviewer, corpus researcher, teacher, teacher trainer, conference presenter ... who knows what I'll try next if it crops up!

Although I spend a large chunk of my time alone at my desk, I still come into contact with an amazing variety of lovely people. There are the people I work with on writing projects, both in-house and fellow freelancers. When I do training or give talks, I get to meet teachers and other colleagues from all over the world. And don't even get me started on all my fabulous network of folks I communicate with through social media and meet up with in person at conferences and events.

1 My biggest bugbear about being freelance is uneven workflow. However hard I try to plan my schedule so I can tick along happily with a reasonable number of hours per week that will allow me to control my pain, it never seems to work out. Projects that I've planned to fit in perfectly get delayed starting then either they have to be done in half the time or they crash into something else I've agreed to and suddenly I'm working all hours and my pains are building up and I know I should ease off, but deadlines are looming. Then other times I find myself twiddling my thumbs, especially when planned projects are delayed or fall through, and I'm worrying about how I'm going to pay the bills.
2 Which brings me onto the irregular income. Somehow in 16 years I've always managed to make a living from freelancing, but my income's varied wildly - from a low of about £11,000 to around £30,000 in a good year. Sometimes the money comes in in little dribs and drabs, sometimes on a long project, I have months with nothing coming in then a big chunk at the end. I spent a whole year working on one royalties-based project living on just £5000 ... and as yet, I've made absolutely nothing back in royalties.
3 No sick pay, no holiday pay, no IT support ...
4 When you have a job, there's generally a fairly clear career progression; promotions to apply for, a ladder to climb. As a freelancer, it's much more difficult to see how you're going to progress. Over time, I've consciously developed new skills and specialisms, I've worked hard to build my profile and reputation (I'd like to think with some success), but that doesn't necessarily come with a pay rise. Rather depressingly, I often find myself being offered much the same rate of pay now as I was 16 years ago. I know that's probably more of a reflection on the state of the industry than on how much my skills are valued ... but it doesn't always feel that way.

So is it worth it? Well, when I was making my lists, I initially jotted down six 'loves' and could easily have kept going with more, but I struggled to come up with more than four 'hates' .... which I think says it all. #lovefreelancing

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