The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, August 13, 2018

Not working

Today is my first proper day back at my desk after roughly seven weeks of not working. That might sound like a fabulous long holiday, but it was actually an extended break to try and get my health back on track.

As some of you will know, I suffer from a chronic pain condition which makes managing work a bit of a juggling act at the best of times. My condition fluctuates enormously. I have good patches and bad patches, some long, some short, some which coincide with busy patches of work, some which don’t. At the start of this year, things were particularly bad. I put it down to a combination of several busy projects back-to-back and the cold, damp, winter weather. As winter finally morphed into spring though and my workload settled down to what should have been a very manageable level, by the beginning of May my pains were even worse than ever and I was struggling to work at all. So I decided that maybe it was time for a complete break and an extended period of rest.

I finished a project at the end of June and made the decision not to take on any more work for the rest of the summer. As a freelancer, that’s quite a scary step because no work means no income. I figured though that I probably had enough in the bank to eke out a few weeks off if I budgeted carefully.

Not working

As a freelancer, you have to be pretty self-motivated, so you get used to just getting up in the morning and getting on with work. On the whole, I enjoy my work, so motivation isn’t usually a problem, and even when I’m feeling less excited about a project, just clocking up the hours and working towards the next invoice holds a certain satisfaction too. Given that mindset, not doing anything turns out to be actually quite difficult.

My natural reaction was one of: woo-hoo, time off to do lots of other stuff and fabulous summer weather too! But of course, the whole point of the exercise was to physically rest, so energetic gardening or DIY or days out traipsing around shops or galleries were also off the cards because they’re all just as likely to aggravate my pains. So, what have I been doing?

Taking it gently 

I’ve been perfecting the art of “pottering”. Rather than rush at things full throttle, I've picked a couple of small jobs each day, spaced them out, taken time wandering to the post office, maybe stopping off for a coffee en route. The hot weather helped to slow me down - you can’t rush anywhere when it’s 30°C! 

I haven’t always managed life in the slow lane smoothly though. When you’re used to being busy, it’s surprisingly difficult to change gear. Some days, I got it spot-on with enough achieved in a day to be satisfying but without overdoing it. Other days, I faffed about and didn’t really settle to anything and got to the end of the day feeling listless and frustrated. I had to keep reminding myself that even if I’d done nothing else, I’d achieved “resting”.

Not dropping off the radar

I made a decision early on that I didn’t want to switch off from work completely. Partly, that’s because I didn’t want to give the impression of being “unavailable” for fear that the unavailable tag would stick in people’s minds far beyond the summer. And partly, I just enjoy the social part of my work. I like keeping up with what people are up to and joining in the social media chat. Plus, without the cash or the energy to rush around visiting friends, it would have been easy just to sit at home and feel isolated. That means that I’ve been spending a bit of time most mornings at my desk browsing through social media, commenting or re-tweeting, reading the odd interesting article or blog post and writing a few blog posts of my own too. 

Easing back in

So, my pains have calmed down enormously now. I’m still achy and not completely pain-free, but after 20 years of chronic pain, I know not to expect miracles! I think I feel ready though to ease back into work. Plus, I’ve started getting twitchy about not working and I really need to start earning again. I’m determined to take it gently though. The first project on my desk should be about 2 weeks’ work, so I’m starting it 3 weeks before the deadline to give myself plenty of leeway.

Looking ahead, I’m making all my usual resolutions to work smart – to spend short bursts at my desk and take plenty of breaks, to pay attention to my posture, to keep exercising regularly, to use my voice recognition software a bit more and to keep my workload at a sensible level. Yes, I know, all easier said than done - especially the last one! - but I’m definitely going to try.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2018

My working life in stats

Recently, I’ve been following a series of blog posts by ALCS, My Writing Living, and the Society of Authors, My Writing Income (both following on from the ALCS survey of authors’ earnings). It prompted me to think about my own income and after creating my first pie chart, I kind of got carried away with the stats …

Working hours

Before I start talking about income, I need to get clear how much I work. As some of you will know, I originally went freelance back in 2000 to try and manage my health. I suffer from a combination of RSI mixed up with a more general chronic pain condition which means that I need to limit the number of hours I spend at my desk. My condition fluctuates, but generally, I aim for between 15 and 20 billed-for hours a week; so actual time writing. Then on top of that, I’ll generally do something like another 5-10 hours of admin, keeping up with social media, prepping for and attending conferences and events, and various other bits and pieces that make up my working life.

Keeping to that 15-20-hour limit is almost impossible though within publishing schedules where work often comes in concentrated bursts. Below is a chart of my billed-for hours from mid-2017 up until mid-2018 – the red line showing that 20-hour max mark.

The ‘zero-hours’ weeks are for a variety of reasons: there’s one proper week’s holiday, there’s some time off over Christmas, there’s a week’s ‘reading retreat’, there are 2 weeks at a Forensic Linguistics summer school, a week at IATEFL, a week at a corpus linguistics conference and some time teacher training. Then there are a couple of patches of ‘downtime’ at the end of projects, where I was at my desk just catching up on myself.


In the 2017-18 tax year, I had a total income of £29,715. Minus expenses that comes down to £23,596 … and then, of course, you have to take off tax and National Insurance. The sources of that income break down as below.

All of my writing was for a fee rather than a royalty. That isn’t a big shift for me, over 18 years of writing, I’ve only worked on 3 royalty projects – most of my work has always been fee-based. In 2017-18, that comprised of:
  •  A small patch of lexicography work
  • A substantial writing project writing vocabulary practice activities for a book for the Italian market (as part of a team)
  • Learner corpus research and writing of common error pages for two books for the Spanish market
  • A set of online grammar practice activities to go with a coursebook series
Then I did a few odd bits of consulting (reports and reviews for publishers mainly) and some teacher training.

The trend:
For some time, I’ve felt as if my income hasn’t really increased since I started out freelancing some 18 years ago. So, I climbed up into the loft to dig out all my old accounts and came up with the following graph. I’ve shown my income after expenses but before tax because that seems to best equate to an employee’s salary. For simplicity, I’ve just shown the year-ending (so 2002 is the figure for the 2001-2002 tax year). The figures for the average UK income come from the ONS website (Office for National Statistics).

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of fluctuation. Some of that is down to personal circumstances – so around 2004-05, I had a lot of changes in my personal circumstances and I took quite a bit of time out travelling and training, then in 2016-17, I did a part-time MA which more-or-less cut my working hours in half. Around 2012-2013, I worked on a year-long royalties project with only a small advance – although I’m not quite sure why the slump carried on into 2014 … perhaps I was just recovering!

Most interestingly, the blue dotted line shows the trend averaged over time … which as you can see, shows that I was right, my income has stayed more-or-less that same for the past 17 years at around £19K. Pretty depressing, huh?

Okay, so the big dip in 2017 is probably skewing the recent figures a bit, but there’s something else going on too. If I look at my total income before expenses, the picture looks slightly different … and slightly more positive in terms of the trend.

So what’s going on? If I compare 2002 and 2018:

Total income
After expenses

Why have my expenses gone up so dramatically? Well, obviously that’s in part just down to inflation (esp. in terms of the IT kit you’re expected to have). But there are other things at play too.

Finding work: 
Back in 2002, I was largely working on lexicography projects. A big dictionary project would keep me busy with regular hours for months and months. And once you were known, you’d just move from one big project to the next in a fairly steady, reasonably well-paid stream of work. As dictionary work dried up and I moved into more general ELT writing, I had to work harder to find work and going to conferences and events to network and raise my profile became more important.  That’s become especially true in recent years as I’ve tried to move my career on. I probably could have ticked along getting the same kind of work, but to get into new and more interesting areas has required a more proactive approach to putting myself out there … and that costs money.

Conference costs: 
In the old days, most of the conferences I went to were ones I was speaking at on behalf of a publisher, so most of my costs were covered. In recent years, publisher sponsorship for speaking, for me at least, has been dwindling. As publishers tighten their belts, it seems they’re only paying for authors of their new, high-profile courses to speak. And as someone who tends to work in more niche areas – vocab, EAP – despite pushing, I keep being told there’s no budget available. That means I’m increasingly self-funding. Last year, I spent around £2000 on going to conferences and other events.

Which raises the question, should I cut down on my conference habit?! Is all that investment paying off? Well, probably not in financially, but it’s what keeps me interested and engaged, so maybe it’s worth it?

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