The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

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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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A New Society of Authors Bristol Group

Yesterday evening, I went along to the first meeting of the new Society of Authors Bristol Group. I’ve been a member of the Society for more than 10 years and I try to go along to their events when I can, but they’re often in London, which is a bit of a trek unless I can combine it with something else. So I’m quite excited at the prospect of something more local.

As ever, it was a fascinating mix of writers from different fields, with several novelists, a writer for young adults, a ghost-writer, one other ELT writer like myself, plus people who’ve written plays, short stories and poetry. The mix, inevitably, makes these events slightly less focused than the ELT groups I’m part of, but over the years, there have been all kinds of useful snippets that I’ve taken away from SoA events and I’ve got to meet lots of interesting people.

As this was the first meeting, it was all about discussing how we want the group to work. Three local SoA members, Jonathan Pinnock, Margot Arendse and Jean Burnett, helped to set things up and Anna Ganley from the SoA came along to talk about the work she does helping set up and support other local SoA groups. Rather rashly, I offered to write this post as a summary of the first meeting. I didn’t take any notes, so don’t expect perfect minutes, but hopefully, I can just summarise some of the main points. Here goes …

Where and when?

We met at The Square, in Berkley Square, Bristol, a private members club which the group has membership of, for the next year at least, to allow us to use a room there for our meetings. They have comfy chairs, a bar and disabled access via a lift.

The initial plan is to have meetings every two months, with the next in January, probably at a similar early-evening time – we met at 7 and went on until nearly 9.

The group is open to any SoA members in the area. Although it’s been set up as SoA Bristol, there was general agreement that we would like to include members from Bath and from the surrounding area as well. Although the bi-monthly meetings will probably be in Bristol for now, we talked about the possibility of arranging some meetings or events in Bath too.

The big question then remained as to what we want the group to do. I won’t try to cover all the specific suggestions here, but as we have a diverse membership, we discussed covering a mix of topics to appeal to everyone. We talked about having different speakers both from local contacts and organized via SoA HQ. We also spoke about how the group can be a hub for people to meet and then maybe arrange their own smaller groups (formally or informally) with a particular special interest. I’m certainly keen to get together a local Educational Writers group in some form. We discussed how the group might become involved in wider events, such as the current Bristol Festival of Literature, or arrange events to involve an audience of non-members, readers, etc. And we all agreed that as well as speakers and organized events, the social aspect of the group should be key too. Cheers to that!

Next steps
Based on the ideas already put forward, the group organizers are planning to put together some form of questionnaire to send out to all SoA members in the area to ask for their input. So if you’re an SoA member in  the general Bristol and Bath area, do look out for that and please take the time to fill it out.

In the meantime, there’s already a Bristol Society of Authors Facebook page. It’s a closed group, which means that you click on the button to ask to join. Hopefully, this will become a place to share not just news of the group’s activities, but also links to other things going on locally of interest to members. And if you’re on Twitter, I’ve started a #SoABristol hashtag to use and follow.

I came away excited about the possibilities for the group and I’m already planning to meet up for a coffee with a writer I met who lives nearby #lovenetworking

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Succeed in doing the opposite

A while back I wrote about a corpus search throwing up slightly unexpected findings for the chunk 'crowded market'. Yesterday, I was researching some vocabulary around the theme of success and again, came across some more slightly unexpected uses.

The first thing I noticed was how many of the words I'd picked out to talk about success were commonly used in the negative to talk about lack of success.

He hasn't had any luck finding a job.
She tried ... without much success
Your application has not been successful.

I wonder if it's a way of being slightly less blunt about failure. Are we softening the blow a little by saying someone didn't succeed rather than admitting they failed?

What struck me even more though was the common use of the chunk succeed in -ing where the following verb describes a negative; often the exact opposite of the intended result:

He tries to turn the lamp off, but only succeeds in knocking it over.
He only succeeds in digging himself into a deeper hole.
... succeeded in alienating hispanic voters.*

It turns out that the usage, especially preceeded by only or just, is frequent enough to merit a subentry in the Macmillan dictionary:

Needless to say, it succeeded in sidetracking me from what I was meant to be doing and proved no use at all for what I was writing, but I'll store it away somewhere for future reference ...

* Examples from the enTenTen corpus via SketchEngine

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

It’s not all about the apostrophes…

I saw a tweet recently that really made me smile:

When I meet new people, it’s always a bit of a challenge to explain what I do, mostly because I don’t do a single job. Once people get the general idea though, I find it leads to all kinds of assumptions about what a languagey sort of person must be interested in.

“Correct” grammar
As someone who spends a lot of time researching and writing about grammar norms, yes, non-standard grammar does, inevitably, jump out at me. I do automatically spot misplaced apostrophes, there/their/they’re mix-ups and sentences missing a main verb, but they don’t necessarily have me up in arms. For me, it’s all down to context. If it’s in a Facebook post or a quickie email, I really don’t care. If someone has gone to the trouble (and expense) of having something professionally printed without getting it proofread (a menu, a leaflet, a business website), then yes, it makes me sigh and roll my eyes.

I admit that I love words. I find English vocabulary in all its wonderful variety fascinating. Am I bothered about the origins of a particular word or expression though? Not especially. Yes, understanding a bit about the roots of English can be useful, but for me, it’s functional rather than fascinating. I’m much more interested in how language is used now than where it came from. I have several unopened books on my shelves about the “stories behind words” bought as well-intentioned presents, but now collecting dust.

Trendy coinages
When I tell people I work in dictionaries, one of the common reactions is: “it must be all about finding new words”. Unsurprising perhaps, seeing as the only time dictionaries seem to be in the news is when they announce their “word of the year”: staycation or post-truth or sharenting. And yes, they’re fun, I enjoy a new coinage much as the next person, but they’re very much the fluffy, soundbite end of lexicography. As someone working in ELT, I’m much more involved in trying to explain the frequent, and yes even boring, everyday language that the average learner needs to master. Which, by the way, can be far more interesting and challenging.

The decline of English
At the same time as being excited by new coinages, people also expect me to be outraged by the apparent decline of the English language. I should be vehemently against verbing and appalled by the Americanization of English. I’m not. Language change happens, it always has (see etymology above). Of course, there are some changes that I personally embrace more than others, but asking whether I’m for or against language change seems a fairly nonsensical question to me. There isn’t some malign force out there forcing changes on us, it’s how we collectively choose to use our language that influences the direction of change.

I could go on (my spelling is rubbish, I’m not a literary type, I’ve never watched Countdown …), but I guess my real message is: I love language in my own ways.

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