The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A winter reading retreat

It’s been a very busy few months with my head down working on one project after the next with barely a pause for breath. So when I saw a gap coming up in my schedule, not only was I looking forward to a much-needed rest, but also the chance to catch up on myself professionally. I had a couple of books I wanted to read and a long list of bookmarked articles and academic papers. I also had a collection of post-it notes with ideas for blog posts jotted down. So I decided to book myself a ‘reading retreat’, a week away in a country cottage to hunker down and catch up.

So for the past 5 days, I’ve been installed in a really cool rented cottage in the Somerset village of Bruton, about an hour by train from home. Slightly to my surprise at this time of year, I’ve had a few fabulously bright, sunny, frosty days which have tempted me out to explore the countryside. 

I did a wonderful 6-mile walk up a big hill that gave me amazing views across the area, I walked up to the Dovecote, a local folly ...

... and I had a fun morning exploring Hauser & Wirth, a trendy art gallery and gardens.

Slightly less successful, though, has been my attempt to settle down and read. I’ve struggled a bit to keep warm in the cottage. It’s a big, open-plan stone building which the heating has struggled to warm up and although there’s a lovely log-burner, that only really heats the immediate area. That’s left the kitchen-diner where I’d hoped to work at the table and the conservatory with lots of natural light too cold to sit in. 

And then there’s the vexed question of chairs ... with all my regular aches and pains, I really need a good chair that supports my back properly, whether that’s sitting at a desk/table or reading in an armchair. And although the cottage is full of lots of funky furniture, which would be perfect for a holiday, I haven't really found a spot comfy enough to sit for very long. This morning, I found myself sitting at the top of the stairs next to a radiator to keep warm and on the edge of the conservatory to catch the light, but absolutely crippled by the awkward sitting position after less than an hour!

So I’ve decided to cut my losses and head home tomorrow morning, a day earlier than planned. I’m longing for a night in my own bed and a good long swim to stretch out all the painful knots! 

Although my week hasn’t been a resounding success in terms of all the stuff I’d hoped to do, I have done a bit of reading and I’ve got a conference proposal and a couple of blog posts drafted. And perhaps more importantly, I’ve had a break from my usual routine. I’d been tied to my desk, starring at the same four walls for so long, just having a change of scene has done me the world of good. And Bruton is a fab little place, I’ll definitely be back, maybe for a long weekend in the spring or summer ...

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Friday, December 01, 2017

Moscow: a return visit and a new venture

At the weekend, I had my first trip to Moscow in 30 years and my first independently-organized teacher training workshop.

I've been doing teacher training in some form for more than 15 years, but it's always been organized by someone else. I've given talks and workshops at conferences and at events organized by publishers and I've taught on the Oxford University ELT summer seminar (ELTSS). I’ve occasionally been contacted directly by teachers or institutions asking if I'd do some training for them, but until now, the requests have always been either too wide in their scope or they just haven't fitted into my schedule. But when I was contacted by a Russian teacher asking if I'd do something for teachers in Moscow, it sounded more feasible; a day of workshops on Teaching Advanced Writing Skills, a topic I'd previously covered at ELTSS. So I said yes. 

I've been looking for new avenues of work and thinking about opportunities to 'go solo' and it seemed like a good chance to dip a toe into a slightly new pond. So how did it go? Was it worth it? And would I do it again?

Arranging the trip:
The first dilemma was deciding on a fee. The workshop was for an independent group of teachers, rather than a large organization, so I didn't want to charge too high a fee, but neither did I want to sell myself short or leave myself out of pocket. After a few mental calculations (the time I'd be working, time travelling, time for preparation), I came up with a fee + expenses that my Russian contact was happy to agree to. It was only in retrospect that I realized I should have thrown a few more factors into my calculation ... I hadn't reckoned on the time and effort that getting a Russian visa would involve. In total, it probably took me 3 or 4 full working days of to-ing and fro-ing, getting together everything I needed for the application, then a day travelling to the Russian embassy in London because you have to apply in person. 

Overall, the extra time to get everything sorted means that I probably didn't make that much financially out of the trip, but neither did I make a loss. So as a learning experience, it was definitely worth it. For any future trips, I'll know to factor in a bit more admin time, plus more for anywhere with complicated visas.

What with all the effort of getting there, it would have been foolish not to add on a bit of time for sightseeing, so I arrived a day early and gave myself a full day after the workshop too to get out and about in the Russian capital. I'd last visited on a school trip way back in 1986 in a wholly different era. Back then we were shepherded around under the watchful eye, and painfully slow English, of an official guide and spent a lot of our time shuffling slowly round museums. So it was lovely to have the freedom to wander around, jumping on and off the fabulous Metro and making frequent coffee stops partly to warm up and partly to people-watch. Of course, the big architectural sights (the Kremlin, St Basil's etc.) were unchanged, but the Soviet era grey has been replaced with light and colour and shops ... lots of shops! And it even snowed too just before I left, giving everywhere that picture-postcard feel.

Looking across Red Square to St Basil's Cathedral

The training:
I was made slightly nervous at the start of the day when the organizer explained that some of the teachers had travelled from other parts of Russia just for my workshop ... no pressure then?! As soon as I got into my flow and the participants were smiling and nodding though, I relaxed and time flew. It was quite a full-on day with five and a half hours of workshops (split into three sessions), but the teachers' enthusiasm and willingness to engage didn't seem to flag, despite a slightly warm room. I used a mix of tried and tested material plus a few new ideas (thanks to Kath Bilsborough for passing on the 'exit cards' idea, they worked a treat!). I was also pleased that I'd asked the participants to email me a short summary of their teaching context in advance, it helped to know a little about them and it also gave me a sample of their writing to give some feedback on ... they took it well and, fingers crossed, no one was offended by my feedback. All round, it was a genuinely enjoyable day, a pleasure to meet such a lovely group of teachers and the feedback so far has been very positive.

With some of the workshop participants

Would I do it again?
Definitely! It had all the plus points that training always has - meeting new people, finding out about different teaching contexts and just the buzz of the interaction - plus the added benefit of being able to do my own thing. It would be great to do similar things elsewhere either on the same topic or in one of my other favourite areas. And to be honest, apart from factoring in a bit more admin time, I don't think I'd change too much. Thanks to everyone for making the day such a success!

If you're interested in arranging teacher training workshops in the areas of teaching writing skills, vocabulary or EAP, then drop me a line - contact details on my website www.juleswords.co.uk

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Creative Control and the ELT Writer

So as an ELT writer, I come up with an idea for a coursebook, submit a proposal to a publisher, then I have full creative control over everything from the approach and the syllabus, to the page format and design. Right?

Well, in 18 years as a full-time writer, I’ve never submitted a proposal for a book (publishers have always come to me) and I’ve only co-authored one coursebook. Most of my writing involves supplementary and often self-study materials or it’s a contribution to a larger project. Given that context, the degree of creative control I have over the material I write varies enormously and I certainly never get a completely free hand.

A number of recent blog posts have got me thinking about exactly how much creative control I have and how I feel about it.

Publisher-led projects
Verity Cole wrote a couple of really interesting posts about the rise of publisher-led projects, which one editor quoted in her post defined as those “conceived and created primarily by a publisher in response to a specific market opportunity”. This is particularly true, I think, of the large, multi-level General English coursebook series where a publisher is investing a lot of money and, increasingly, is demanding more control over the writing to ensure the product ticks all the market-driven boxes and, hopefully, sells. When writers are brought on board, they are generally given an incredibly detailed brief explaining exactly what they have to write and how. Sometimes to the point where it can become very much a case of ‘writing by numbers’. 

It can be a creative challenge in its own right trying to come up with material you feel happy with but still sticking within a rigid brief. But it can also be very frustrating and de-motivating, especially when you end up feeling that you’re being asked to go against the principles you believe in. Which brings me onto …

Sticking to your principles:
Katherine Bilsborough has written a number of blog posts about the principles that we, as ELT writers, hold to when we’re writing (see here and here). It’s something I’ve mulled over quite a bit and, sorry Kath, I haven’t quite managed to formulate my own principles into a post of their own yet (but watch this space …). There’s no doubt though that there are principles I consciously try to stick to when I’m writing, some of which I’m prepared to compromise slightly if pushed and others which are clear red lines that I won’t cross. Some of these principles come from experience as a teacher, teacher trainer and writer, some, especially in my specialist area of vocabulary, come from my understanding of the research (see Penny Ur’s MaWSIG blog post for my comment on the limitations of that research foundation). This makes working on many publisher-led projects something of a professional tug-of-war. If you agree to a job, you inevitably have to accept a degree of compromise and you have to pick your battles carefully. 

Recent experience:
I have worked on some of those big coursebook series, but largely, on workbooks. And as the kind of material in workbooks is, by its nature, already very limited, it generally raises fewer issues of principle than  producing the main students book material might involve. Working on smaller, more niche titles, I find, may be less high profile (and possibly less lucrative), but can bring a bit more freedom. Take two projects I worked on that were published at the start of this year.

The first consisted of two academic vocabulary practice books designed primarily for self study (Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice, OUP). I was lucky enough to have a lot of input into the initial development, producing sample units that were reviewed and discussed and fiddled with until we were happy with them. And by we, I mean primarily myself and my in-house editor and later on, a co-author, not a huge, unwieldy team. That’s not to say I had complete control. I was asked to cover as much as possible of the Academic Word List, largely for marketing purposes. I have a number of reservations about the AWL, but I didn’t have to stick to it slavishly and there was still plenty of scope for including the vocabulary I felt was most useful and important. Then, there were some technical constraints on the types of activities I could use because they had to work in a potential ebook version as well as in print, but nothing that I couldn’t get around with a bit of creative thinking.

The second project was a book of photocopiable vocabulary-focused lessons for IELTS prep (Timesaver IELTS Vocabulary, Scholastic). As this was part of an existing series, it naturally came with some things already decided in terms of general format; one or two-page standalone photocopiable lessons which had to be ‘teach-off-the-page’ as they don’t come with any teacher’s notes. And as IELTS prep, it had a narrow focus dictated by the format of the exam too. Beyond that though, I was given a lot of creative control in terms of what vocabulary I chose, how I wanted to organize it and the types of activities I went for. It turned out to be fun to write and again, I had a great working relationship with a (freelance) editor who really helped shape the material in a friendly, collaborative sort of way.

This year’s writing projects have been, let’s say, more of a challenge and as I come to the end of several months of busily writing to meet tough deadlines and at the same time, being in the middle of that professional tug-of-war, I’m feeling just a bit battered and bruised. But perhaps I’ll save those battles for another post …

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