The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, February 12, 2021

Writing rhythms

On most ELT writing projects, the work (and your life for the duration of the project!) gets divided up into units. For a students' book, that might be 10-15 quite large units, but for many of the sort of self-study, language practice type materials I work on, there can be anywhere between 20 and 50 short units which may only be 2-4 pages each.

At the start of a new project, you spend a bit of time getting to grips with the brief and playing around with the first unit or two to establish how they're going to work. Often, the format's already quite fixed in the brief, sometimes you have a bit of leeway to play with. Then once everyone's happy, you get your head down and start ploughing through unit-by-unit.

What interests me is how different people go about tackling each unit. Do they sketch out the whole thing then go back and fill in the details? Do they do it on paper or straight into a Word doc? Do they start from the beginning and work through each activity in turn? Or do they start with a core component, such as a reading text, then work outwards from it? A lot, of course, depends on the type and scope of the material, but even within that there's quite a bit of room for variation.

For the past couple of months, I've been working on some self-study vocab practice materials. There are 50 units altogether (across two linked projects) which is kind of daunting, but also quite nice as it means I've settled into a rhythm of roughly a unit a day. For each unit, I already have a (more-or-less) predetermined set of vocab items to practise across a number of activities. It's heavily corpus-informed, so I'm researching the vocab items to pick out features to highlight (typical usage and context, collocations, typical colligational patterns, etc.) and also using and adapting corpus examples in the activities. For the first few units, this was my approach:


The major downside of this was that I found myself running the same corpus searches numerous times. So, I'd explore vocab item A extensively in the initial research stage, then I'd find myself searching for it again several times to source examples for each exercise. I revised my approach after a few units so that I still did my research stage as before, but then sketched out a rough plan of the different exercises, e.g. exercise 1 focus on noun collocations, exercise 2 focus on following prepositions, etc. Then I ran a corpus search for each vocab item and added examples to several of the exercises at the same time. This seemed more efficient and I settled into it as a way of working for the first 15 units or so.

As is so often the case though, totting up my hours regularly as I went along, I realized I was spending much longer on the work than I'd budgeted for up-front. That meant that because the project is for a fixed fee, my hourly rate was nose-diving. It also meant I was getting behind schedule. After a bit of a review and discussion, it turned out that a lot of the extra work was just down to there being more involved in the project than I'd originally bargained for – isn't it always the case?! With no more budget available though, I had to try and rein in my hours regardless. So I came up with a new way of working.

On the plus side, it is much quicker because I'm only researching each vocab item once, then just reshuffling the results to create the exercises. On the downside, I'm not able to wait until I've researched all the items to see how the unit's going to shape up. So, if you like, the whole process is slightly less data led. In some units, it works out fine and the examples I've selected shuffle neatly into nice, coherent exercises. Other times, I find that a feature or exercise type starts to suggest itself towards the end of the vocab list and I realize I haven't noted relevant examples for some of the earlier items. Then I either have to squeeze the material I have into exercises which aren't a great fit or I have to go back and look for better examples for some items. For some units, I use up most of the examples I've collected, for others I'm left with a whole page of unused material at the end.

So often, ELT writing is a balancing act between how you'd like to work and what the time and budget allows. In this case, the hurry-up initially felt a bit uncomfortable, but as I go on, I think I'm settling into my rhythm again and making it work.

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Blogger Sandy said...

I really enjoy these insights into how you work Julie. Thanks for sharing, as always.

7:18 pm  

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