The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Talk on Twitter

Last week, I had the chance to speak at the IH AMT Conference in London. I was talking about the difference between receptive and productive vocabulary and its implications for teaching. It was a fun event with a buzzy atmosphere and an engaged audience, and my session seemed to go down well. I was also lucky enough to have the wonderful Sandy Millin live-tweeting from my session so when I checked Twitter afterwards, I found a huge flurry of mentions and retweets. This got me thinking about the implications of Twitter when you're giving talks and workshops ... what are the benefits - and downsides - of having your session tweeted out to the wider world?

On the plus side ...
- You can reach a wider audience and engage more people in the discussion.
- You get to see what the main points the tweeters picked up on were. It's an interesting exercise,  especially when you compare the tweets to the points you'd hoped to get across!
- You also get to see which ideas sparked most interest through likes and retweets, which is both interesting and provides useful feedback, perhaps for refocusing future talks.

On the downside ...
- Putting all your carefully prepared material out there online leaves you rather compromised if you plan to give the same talk again to another audience! This is especially true if pictures of key slides where there's a surprise element get tweeted ... I'll definitely have to think twice now about reusing some sections of this talk exactly as they were.
- It's easy for your ideas to be misrepresented. I have to say that all the tweeters from my session were actually really good at putting points across accurately, but the tweet that turned out to be the most retweeted wasn't actually quite what I said ...

What I did say was that 7 is considered to be the magic number by psychologists when it comes to the number of items we can retain in our short-term memory and that memory's one factor you need to consider when designing vocab activities - you need to think about how many items to focus on (not necessarily exactly 7!) and be careful not to overload students. Of course, in 140 characters, context and hedging tend to get lost ...

Overall, it was a really interesting experience and I think the pluses of being tweeted definitely outweigh the minor drawbacks. Big thanks to the IH team for inviting me and for organizing such a great event and to the whole audience - including the tweeters! - for being so engaged.

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Monday, December 05, 2016

10 years in the blogosphere

Last week, I spent a day in Bath at a Digital Essentials Masterclass organized by the Society of Authors. I was partly drawn to going because the speaker in the afternoon was Shoo Rayner, a children's writer and illustrator whose blog was one of the very first I followed way back when I was thinking about starting my own. I was chatting to Shoo in the lunch break and trying to pin down exactly when that would have been. A bit later I checked and I realized I'd just missed my tenth anniversary as a blogger ... my very first post on this blog was in September 2006.

In Shoo's workshop, he reflected on his own experiences as a writer in the online world - blogging, on social media, setting up his own YouTube channel and even dipping a toe into the world of crowdfunding. He spoke about experiences that had been rewarding, time-consuming, exciting and frustrating ... sometimes all at the same time. He also asked questions about how useful it had all been, especially in terms of reaching his target audience, i.e. people who might actually buy his books. Which got me thinking about why I blog and just who my target audience is.

I think the reasons I blog have probably changed over the years. Back in 2006, I'd already been working as a freelance writer for a few years and although work was ticking along okay, it was a pretty solitary existence. Before the advent of social media, my contact with other freelance colleagues was limited to a handful of freelancers who happened to be personal friends and a yearly visit to the IATEFL conference. I spent most of my time working away on my own and I missed having people to chat to about work. So I initially set up the blog as a way of chatting about things that interested me professionally either to do with my actual work in the field of ELT or concerned with the job of being a freelance writer. Back then, I had no idea who might read what I was putting out there - although I just spotted that Diane Nicholls, a long-term, freelance colleague and friend commented on my very first post, thanks Diane!

Nowadays with plenty of freelance and ELT chat going on via social media and more opportunities to meet up in person through the likes of MaWSIG, the blog has become more of a space for writing about stuff that's just too long for Twitter or a Facebook post - it's more of an extension of my social media presence than an entity in its own right

So who reads my blog ... who are you reading this now?! (Answers in comments welcome!) I know from comments - either on the blog itself or via Facebook - that lots of my readers are those freelance colleagues who I guess I was originally reaching out to. I'm always pleased to get comments from people I've met at events or on teacher training courses. I also know that I occasionally manage to reach different groups of people with specific posts. Sometimes I give a talk at a conference and put a link to my blog at the end of my slides so I can write a follow-up post aimed at the folks who attended. From time to time, I've also written posts about something connected with a particular group, such as MaWSIG or BALEAP, and they've shared the post more widely. I guess with each post I have a particular target audience vaguely in mind, but I also aim to be of interest to anyone who might happen to stop by.

So has it all been worth it? Have I ever got work directly as a result of a blog post ... probably not. Has it sold more copies of my books ... I very much doubt it. What it has done though is helped me to feel part of a community and to join in the general chat about my profession. I've lost count of the number of times that I've been talking to someone at an event and they've mentioned they've read one of my blog posts - it makes me feel more connected and so long as someone out there's interested in reading my occasional ramblings, then I think it's worth it.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Escape to the sea

For the past 14½ months I’ve been battling to work through construction noise with a new school building being built directly behind my house, which of course is also my office. Because it’s an awkward site on the side of a hill, the work has involved trucks arriving in the street in front of the house to unload materials which have then been craned up over the houses to the actual construction site above and behind the back garden. That’s meant I’ve been pretty much surrounded by noise and at times, it’s made working from home very difficult and very stressful.

After a very noisy patch right at the beginning, I tried renting an office space. For various reasons though, that didn’t work out and after a few months of using it on and off, I was back working at home and just trying to make the best of things. Perhaps the trickiest part has been that the noise has been very variable. On some days, it’s pretty much just background buzz and easily ignored. On other days though, when there’s a pneumatic drill or some other kind of power tool going for hours on end, the noise and vibration is completely unbearable and makes it impossible to focus on work. Of course, the trouble is, day by day, I haven’t known which it’s going to be. And inevitably, that pneumatic drill has often started up just on the day when I’m particularly busy and have a deadline to meet!

It’s taken its toll on my work. I’ve found myself frequently having to work evenings and weekends to keep up because I haven’t been able to get as much done during the day as normal. And that’s taken its toll on my health too. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, extra hours spent at my desk generally equate to extra pain.

The good news is though, it is almost at an end. We’ve been promised that work will finish at the end of this week - hooray! It’s going to be a noisy final week though, with all the scaffolding coming down and the road surface in the street being repaired – more of those pneumatic drills! So I’ve made my escape and come away for a week by the seaside.

One of the joys of being freelance is that, in theory, you can work from anywhere. It’s not something I do very often, because actually, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds; from the point of view of cost and of having an appropriately comfortable space to work in. But for once, I’ve got myself organized and booked a week staying in a cabin, just yards from the coastal path on the Hartland Peninsula in North Devon. I’ve got a proper table to work at and of course, I’ve brought my separate keyboard and pointer to use with my laptop to be as ergonomic as possible. I’ve got Wi-Fi, if rather intermittently, and in short, everything I need to get on with work. Oh yes, and a view to die for!

Without the distractions of everyday life, the days seem to stretch out endlessly, which means I’ve been able to get down to plenty of work, yet still get out and enjoy the wonderful countryside. With a mini-heatwave at the start of the week, I found that my little cabin turned into a sauna by about midday, so I worked mornings, then went out in the afternoon for a walk along the cliffs or a dip in the sea, before I headed back for a couple more hours at my desk in the early evening.  For the past couple of days, it’s been a bit cooler, but still sunny enough to enjoy an afternoon walk through the fields for a coffee break looking out to Lundy Island.

A good spot for a dip on the hottest day of the year
The view from my afternoon coffee spot
Today’s my last full day here before I head home tomorrow. I have to say, I haven’t started to get bored of the view yet, but I am quite looking forward to getting back to civilization.

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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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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Evernote convert

I didn’t really ‘get’ note-taking apps until I tried one out. What’s wrong with good old pen and paper?

Several people had mentioned Evernote and I already had it preloaded on my tablet and laptop, so it didn’t take more than a quick sign-up to get going. I first gave it a go to see how it would work as a way for students to record vocabulary. As I started exploring what it could do though, I soon realized how useful it would be for all kinds of things. 

I’d envisaged that it would be just about taking notes on screen instead of on paper, but I soon realized that the real purpose of it is as a place to collect information from different sources (and in different formats) in one place; curating as I think we’re meant to be calling it now. Let me give you an example.
I go to quite a few conferences and other events. Especially if I’m speaking, they involve quite a bit of information which previously I stored in different places:
As bookmarks in my web browser:
  •  the event website
  •  hotel website
In a folder in my email:
  • information sent to me in emails from the organizers and sometimes from the publishers I’m representing; some of it in the body of messages, some in attachments
  • email confirmations for hotels and travel arrangements
In a folder on my desktop PC:
  • a proposal form or document that I’ve filled out with my presentation title, summary, etc.
  • my PowerPoints
  • any handouts
Using Evernote, I can put it altogether in one place, add notes to myself AND because it synchs across devices, I can access all of it via my desktop, laptop, tablet or even my phone. This is an example from a recent event in Brussels where I’ve got the link to the event website, my talk title and summary, a map of the venue, the address of my hotel, the programme schedule, information for presenters and my PowerPoint slides all in one place (click to see image full-size). 

Now when I sign up for a new event, I just start a new note and as stuff comes in, I add it to the note. It doesn’t take much imagination to see lots of other uses:

  • Preparing a talk, an article or a blog post: to collect notes, links/references, quotes, images
  • Writing materials: to collect links to authentic texts and other sources and annotate them
  • Any project: to collect documents, links and notes from emails all in one place

For information collected online, you can either just cut and paste the link into your note or you can download the Web Clipper tool to copy the actual content direct into a note. If it’s an event website, you’ll want to copy the link (because the info may change), but if it’s a blog post or an article you want to refer back to, you might want to ‘clip’ it. Once clipped, you can then annotate the content.

I’m definitely a convert. I haven’t tried other note-taking apps, but I guess they can do similar things and people will have personal preferences. What’s your favourite and how do you use it?

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