The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Give yourself a break

The final day of February every year is International RSI Awareness Day, so it’s a good time for a reminder to take care of yourself when you’re working at a desk all day. In the past, I’ve written about posture and desk set-up – which are both incredibly important – but this year, the main thing that I’ve been struggling to get right, and which I think a lot of freelancers will recognize, is keeping my working hours under control.

One of the main causes of health problems related to working at a desk is simply overworking. If there’s something a bit awry with your posture or desk set-up, then long hours pushing your body is only going to exacerbate any niggling, underlying issues. And, to be honest, even if your set-up’s spot-on, too many hours in one position and your body’s going to get tired and tense and your posture’s going to slip and that’s when problems start. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, keeping an eye on the number of hours I spend at my desk is one of the most important tools I have in managing my condition.

In an ideal world, I’d work roughly 20 billed-for hours a week (actually working on paid projects) plus around 5-10 hours of ‘admin’ (sorting out emails, book-keeping, social media, reading, writing blog posts, etc.). Those hours would be evenly spread through the week and also spread through the day with plenty of breaks and no more than an hour at my desk at a time (with mini breaks within that hour). And I’d just plod along happily.

At the start of each week, I have in mind a rough ‘shape’ for the week ahead, that generally consists of:

One ‘disrupted’ day, when I might take the whole day out at an event or I might have a half-day away from my desk. That could be meeting a friend for lunch or booking in a one-to-one pilates class.

A swim twice a week. I generally go at the end of the morning and it’s a great way to stretch out and release the morning’s tensions. I also find it’s great thinking time … lots of activities get composed as I’m gliding up and down the pool!

An hour away. On other days, I try to get completely away from my desk for at least an hour at some point during the day. I’ve taken to going for a brisk walk with a favourite route around Bristol harbour (about 3.5 miles/5.5 km) which takes me about 50 minutes. Or I might just take a roundabout route to the Post Office or to do some other chore.

Bristol harbour

In reality, over 18 years of freelancing, I’ve rarely managed to keep a steady flow of work. However, hard you try to plan, schedules shift, briefs expand so you find yourself doing double the hours in half the time and projects overrun, overlapping with the next one and eating up your planned downtime. And even when you push back, deadlines only move minimally and grudgingly.

So, what’s the answer to avoiding overwork and keeping a healthy workflow? I’m afraid I don’t have any magic bullets, but I would say:

Keep pushing back against unrealistic schedules. If a project is taking significantly more hours than you were led to believe at the outset, then ask for more time. Set out how long it’s taken you so far, for example, per page or per unit. Check that you’re doing what’s expected. Explain how much longer the remaining work will take and pace that out according to your normal working hours to suggest a new deadline. Of course, you have sympathy with your in-house contact who’s under pressure to keep to schedule, but this is business and it’s not reasonable to expect you to work silly hours and damage your health. It’s up to the person who decides the schedule to get the timings right at the start rather than being wildly optimistic and hoping you’ll just soak up the pain.

Be aware of the hours you’re working and, more importantly, the breaks you’re taking. You might not be a swimmer or a walker, but planning activities into your week that force you to take a proper physical break from your desk, ideally in the middle of the working day, gives your body a chance to relax and release some of the built-up tension. And remember, sometimes the most important time to take breaks is when you think you can least afford to; when you’re racing to meet a deadline and you’ve been hunched over your desk for days getting more and more frustrated. That’s the time when you’re most at risk and most need a break. You might feel like you ought to push on, but you’ll probably be more productive after a pause. If you can make proper breaks a part of your working routine before your body starts to creak under the strain, then you’re more likely to avoid serious health problems along the line.

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Monday, February 05, 2018

Four Favourite Corpora

Recently, I gave a 10-minute talk at the ELT Freelancers’ Awayday in Oxford about “Simple corpus hacks for ELT editors”. I only had time to look at one corpus and a handful of searches, but I promised to share some of my other favourites in a blog post. So here goes…

1 Monco: In my talk, I looked at the Monco corpus. I chose it because it’s a monitor corpus, so it monitors current usage, updating with new data daily and as such, I find it useful for answering language questions that haven’t yet made it into conventional reference sources like dictionaries. For example, in my talk, we looked at how wellbeing (spelled as a single word) may be catching up with more traditional hyphenated form (well-being) that you’ll find in most dictionaries (simply by typing well-being|wellbeing into the search box). The split was 35% – 65% in Monco compared with 17% – 83% in the British National Corpus (with data from the 1980s and 90s). We also turned up some potentially useful verb collocates for newsfeed, including scroll through and pop up, which won’t have yet made it into a collocations dictionary. One of my favourite features of Monco, especially for the corpus novice, is its user-friendly search screen and its nice graphics for results.

On the downside, Monco’s data is drawn from entirely online news sources which means that it’s really only reflective of journalism, rather than language usage in general. And although it includes sources from the UK, US, Canada and Australia, it isn’t balanced, so there’s significantly more data from some sources than others – a factor to bear in mind that can skew the results.

2 Brigham Young University: Not strictly a single corpus, but a collection of different corpora available via the same site and the go-to source for lots of queries. Personally, I tend to use COCA (the Corpus of Contemporary American English) for checking US usage. It’s a large corpus containing a nice variety of contemporary sources (1990 – present), including radio & TV transcripts, fiction, newspapers, magazines and academic data. Through BYU, you can also find host a specialized corpora including a corpus of Wikipedia entries and even, slightly weirdly, the Hansard corpus of British parliamentary proceedings, should that happen to fit your purpose!

My main grumble with BYU is that I find the interface clunky and frustrating to use, especially with its rather distracting colour-coding.

3 BAWE and BASE: The British Academic Written English corpus (BAWE) and the British Academic Spoken English corpus (BASE) are composed of written and spoken data collected from university students at a number of British universities. The written corpus contains essays and other coursework which received a good pass mark and the spoken data includes lectures and seminars. I particular like these corpora because they’re an example of language as it might be used by the peers of the students we’re aiming at, rather than text produced by professional writers, journalists, academics, etc. which doesn’t necessarily provide an appropriate model for the average ELT student. This is obviously university-level language, so is especially relevant for EAP, but I think BAWE could be useful for any advanced students who need to write formal essays (IELTS, CAE, Proficiency). And if you’re looking for US academic equivalents, you could also check out MICUSP and MICASE.

BAWE and BASE are actually available via several sources, but I wanted the excuse to get you to experience Sketch Engine, for me, the gold standard when it comes to corpus tools and the interface used by all the major dictionary publishers for their large corpora.

4 Spoken BNC2014: I admit this is the corpus on my list that I’ve probably used least so far, but I’m including it because it’s one I’m quite excited about finding uses for. Slightly contrary to its name, it was only released in 2017 and is the result of a massive project to collect data about current spoken English used in everyday contexts. If you’re working on speaking materials, looking at evidence from written English is not going to tell you anything terribly useful, because we just don’t speak how we write. So I think this could become the go-to corpus for anyone who wants to know how people actually say things.

Unfortunately, the Spoken BNC2014 doesn’t have the most user-friendly interface and getting access involves a bit of a faffy sign-up process which could be off-putting for the casual user. If spoken language is your thing though, I think it’s worth investing the time and effort to check it out, not least because some of the content is just really funny!

A note about corpora and copyright: It’s important to remember that, in general, the data that appears in a corpus is liable to all the usual copyright restrictions. That means you can’t just pull a big chunk of language from the corpus and use it in your activity, especially not if it’s for commercial publication. Occasionally, of course, you come across very short, ‘vanilla’ examples which could have come from almost anywhere (A young woman opened the door. The traffic was particularly bad.), but to be honest, these are few and far between. Generally, when I search for a particular language item, I’ll scan through the examples and jot down a ‘frame’:
I/you scroll through my/your (Facebook) newsfeed to see/searching for/on the train …
Then I’ll use my notes as the basis for an example that keeps the feel and pattern of the ones I’ve looked at, but fits my teaching purpose … and doesn’t infringe copyright.

There are lots of different corpora out there and corpus fans will have their personal favourites. If you’re new to corpora though, I’d say pick one or two to check out, play around with a few simple searches, use the help to get you started, and see what’s most useful for you. Be warned though, it can be addictive!

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