Category Archives: Editing

Coming up: masterclass series at Centre for Stories

If you’re an emerging or established writer in the Perth metropolitan area, you might be interested in a series of six masterclasses being presented over April and May at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. The series consists of the following three-hour masterclasses presented by six award-winning writers:

17 April  The Narrative Landscape with Portland Jones

24 April  The Hybrid (Decolonised) Narrative with Rashida Murphy

1 May Science in Story and Imagination with Vivienne Glance

8 May Politics and Creative Writing with Susan Midalia

22 May The Researched Imagination with Annamaria Weldon

29 May Editing Your Own Work with Amanda Curtin

You can book individual sessions, but there is a great offer available for those interested in attending all six.

I’m delighted to be taking part in this series alongside writers whose work I love and respect, and I might even book a few sessions myself.

The editing masterclass I’m presenting is designed to assist writers look at their manuscript objectively, examine the prose, architecture and effects of the work, and polish it to the highest level within their capability prior to submission. If that sounds like something for you, there are more details on the link above.

I’d love to see you there!

The Centre for Stories is located at 100 Aberdeen Street, Northbridge,
and each masterclass is run on a Saturday afternoon, 1–4pm.

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Filed under Editing, Events, Writing

Quick tutorial: the semicolon

iStock_000018482964XSmallIt’s been a while since I posted a quick tutorial, but I was asked recently to explain when and how to use a semicolon. Some writers hate this innocuous little slip of a thing, mostly because they’re not sure what to do with it. Others seem to like the idea of it but use it indiscriminately, hoping they’ll get it right.

Here’s a quick and easy guide.

Holding things together

The semicolon can be used to join two parts of a sentence that are closely linked in meaning and are independent clauses.

For example:

Charlene ate all the chocolates; she should have felt guilty.

Charlene ate all the chocolates and she should have felt guilty are linked in meaning and are independent clauses—that is, each could stand as a separate sentence:

Charlene ate all the chocolates. She should have felt guilty.

Whether you join them with a semicolon or cast them as two separate sentences is a matter of choice and nuance. Joining them perhaps confers a greater sense of judgment on the greedy Charlene!

Note that independent clauses can also be linked with a coordinating conjunction—for example:

Charlene ate all the chocolates and she should have felt guilty.

Charlene at all the chocolates so she should have felt guilty.

Each of these also gives a different nuance to the sentence.

But a comma should not be used to join two independent clauses. The following example, known as a ‘comma splice’, is incorrect:*

Charlene ate all the chocolates, she should have felt guilty.

Pushing things apart

The semicolon can also be used to separate items in a narrative list that contain internal commas.

Take, for example, this list of items:

  • three bags of coconut rough, one weighing 600 grams and the others, 400 grams
  • six bars of dark chocolate, two of them 85% cocoa
  • a silver-embossed, ribbon-tied foil carton of truffles

If this list were to be used in narrative in the usual way—that is, by separating each item with a comma—the sentence would look clumsy and be confusing to read, so semicolons are used instead of commas between the items:

That greedy Charlene ate three bags of coconut rough, one weighing 600 grams and the others, 400 grams; six bars of dark chocolate, two of them 85% cocoa; and a silver-embossed, ribbon-tied foil carton of truffles.

(OK, I confess: Charlene is me.)

I hope that helps!

*This ‘rule’ is often intentionally broken for creative purposes—for example, for rhythm, or to achieve a particular effect.


Filed under Editing, Tips for writers, Writing

Quick tutorials: what is an en-rule?

iStock_000018482964XSmallIn this new occasional feature, Tips for writers, I’m going to be covering a range of topics drawn from my experience as a book editor and teacher.

First up is a quick tutorial on the use of a punctuation mark, the en-rule—rather a dry subject, I’m sure you’ll agree, but it’s one of those things writers often ask me to explain. So here we go…


There are four types of dash available to writers: hyphens, en-rules, em-rules and 2-em rules. Most people are familiar with hyphens; fewer with the others. Here I’m focusing on the en-rule, but first let’s see what the four look like:

–  hyphen (as in light-hearted, co-worker, south-west)

–  en-rule (as in June–July, pages 6–10, mother–child relationship, Perth–Sydney flight)

—  em-rule (as in There are two main ingredients—lemon and garlic—in that sauce.)

——  2-em rule (as in He started to shout, ‘You’re a crazy——,’ but the gunshot felled him.)

Conventional uses of the en-rule

The en-rule dash often expresses a from/to or between/and relationship, joining:

  • spans of time, distance, figures (i.e. June–July indicates from June to July; pages 6–10 indicates from page 6 to page 10)
  • two entities that retain their separateness (i.e. mother–child relationship indicates a relationship between mother and child; Perth–Sydney flight indicates a flight between Perth and Sydney)

Don’t make the common error of mixing an en-rule with one part of a from/to or between/and pair:

  • not  from June–July (should be from June to July or just July–July)
  • not between Perth–Sydney (should be between Perth and Sydney or just Perth–Sydney)

Other uses of the en-rule

The en-rule is used instead of a hyphen with prefixes when the prefix is attached to more than one word. Compare non-speaking part and non–English speaking part:

  • the hyphen is correct in non-speaking part (the prefix non is attached to one word, speaking)
  • the en-rule is correct in non–English speaking part (the prefix non is attached to two words, English and speaking)

The same reasoning applies to compound adjectives preceding a noun. Compare war-related wound and World War II–related wound:

  • the hyphen is correct in war-related wound (it’s joining war and related)
  • the en-rule is correct in World War II–related wound (it’s joining World War II and related)

New use of the en-rule

In recent years, some publishers have adopted as their house style (particularly for fiction) the used of unspaced en-rules where em-rules have traditionally been used. To use the example given earlier, instead of the conventional use of em-rules in:

  • There are two main ingredients—lemon and garlic—in that sauce.

we have:

  • There are two main ingredients – lemon and garlic – in that sauce.

This is a matter of style rather than correctness, provided it’s used consistently, athough I confess to disliking the flimsy little en-rule being roped in to do this kind of double duty. Give me a typographically muscular unspaced em-rule any day! (Honestly, it takes a nerdish soul to write that sentence.)

0701636475There are other issues involved in the use of en-rules, but this quick tutorial covers the most common and I hope some of you find it helpful. If you need more information, I always recommend the Style manual for authors, editors and printers (6th edition, John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2002), to which this quick tutorial, as well as my knowledge generally on the nuts and bolts of writing, is indebted. This edition of the Style manual might be an old source now but it’s still considered to be a standard text in the Australian publishing context, as were all the editions that came before it.

Happy writing!


Filed under Editing, Tips for writers

Editing fiction: accuracy

iStock_000018482964XSmallI’ve been an editor longer than I’ve been a writer, and editing is still part of my professional life. In June I posted a piece about the author–editor relationship that featured the views of fifteen wonderful writers from all over the world. Here I’m posting an older essay that gives voice to eight of my editor colleagues. It’s a version of a paper I gave at the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) national conference in Hobart, Tasmania, in 2007, which was subsequently published in Island (no. 110, Spring 2007).

‘But it’s fiction!’: Getting it right when you’re editing fiction

When fiction editors point out inaccuracies, implausibilities or inconsistencies, they are sometimes met with the incredulous response ‘But it’s fiction!’ It suggests that editors are nitpickers fussing over minutiae that couldn’t possibly bother anyone else. Depending on the tone in which it is conveyed, such a response could be seen as either staking a claim to the superiority of fiction or seriously devaluing it. The first position implies that because fiction is read for qualities other than factuality or accuracy, fiction authors need not address them; the second carries the protest ‘But it’s only fiction,’ and getting it right doesn’t matter in a genre that is about imagination, invention, and playing fast and loose with notions of truth.

I reject both of these positions.

I’ll start with the second. Fiction authors themselves seldom protest that ‘it’s only fiction,’ but it’s an opinion one does hear from time to time. I heard a version of it, for example, when I was writing a novel [later published as The Sinkings] as the creative component of a PhD in Writing. Why was it necessary, I was sometimes asked, to undertake so much research when it’s only a novel. It’s insulting to writers of fiction to assume that their work will be read without discernment; it’s just as insulting to readers of fiction. Works considered ‘literature’, along with those thought to fall squarely in the category of ‘entertainment’, are successful when they are convincing and credible on their own terms.

As for the proposition that ‘getting it right’ is of no great importance to the fiction author because this is not the focus of the reading experience, I would argue that ‘getting it wrong’ can undermine the very qualities of fiction that readers value: compelling characters, intriguing plot, linguistic inventiveness, structural patterning, thought-provoking ideas, the sense of being carried into a world outside one’s own experience. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction[1], puts a good deal of faith in reader goodwill, suggesting that where ‘superficial slips’ are concerned, the reader will ‘silently correct’ and move on. But it’s perhaps a risk to rely on such indulgence when readers have so many books to choose from, so many other ways they could spend their time. While continuity errors in films are considered funny, even endearing, errors in books are usually held up as examples of bad writing—or, more often, bad editing. And one person’s ‘superficial slip’ can be another’s egregious error. A colleague tells the story of an irate reader who phoned a publisher to complain that pavlova was not invented until two years after it had been served to a character in a particular book!

Whenever a reader’s attention is distracted, even minutely, by a name that doesn’t seem quite right, a date that doesn’t fit with another, an expression that seems wrong for a character, an error of fact—that’s a fracture in the bond between the reader and the text, a moment when they’re disengaging from the fictional world. I remember hearing a lovely expression for this: ‘garden-pathing the reader’, allowing their attention to wander up the garden path and away from the words on the page. The aims of ‘getting it right’ must therefore be cast in the negative—not getting it wrong, not distracting, not fracturing the bond, not garden-pathing the reader—and there’s nothing trivial or nitpicking about that. Rather, it cuts to the heart of the reading experience.

Denim slacks and donkey’s years

Editing fiction is often thought to be instinctive, perhaps even a little mysterious or alchemical, and the practical issues are rarely discussed. I had been mulling over this practical issue of ‘getting it right’ and decided to canvass other editors of fiction about their experiences.[2]

I asked whether there were examples of implausibilities, inaccuracies or inconsistencies that remained vivid in my colleagues’ minds. Inappropriate language was commonly cited:

‘Do kids still use this expression?’ is a common query back to authors…One recent manuscript used the word ‘rotter’—I am familiar with this from my childhood reading of prewar British authors but I doubt if many, or any, Australian children know or use it.

Errors of tone…are embarrassing. (I’m copyediting something at the moment that is filled with modern children saying things like ‘it’s been donkey’s years’.) It’s complicated by the fact that they’re sometimes subjective calls, and often the hardest thing to convince an author to change.

In my experience, this conversation between writer and editor over the intricacies and fidelities of what is, after all, a created world—things that are subjective—is exciting and challenging, but not always successful. I remember tactfully suggesting that it seemed unlikely that a certain character would utter a certain phrase, only to have the author write waspishly at the end of my long note: ‘Well, he did!’ Fair enough.

It’s not only in children’s literature that language can be a problem. One editor said:

I find myself wondering whether many 25-year-old women wear ‘denim slacks’ these days (especially teamed with a ‘denim blouse’ in the particular example I am thinking of).

Another remarked:

I recently read a thriller set in late 17th century London in which the characters kept asking each other ‘How was your day?’ This jarred on me because I don’t think this concept of a ‘day’—meaning out and about in public life—was known then. I think the 17th century division between public and private was different to ours.

Dialogue was cited as another problem area, with one editor complaining of ‘dialogue that seems like it’s been composed on a keyboard but never been spoken aloud.’ Another gave the example of a character recounting word-for-word a long conversation between two other characters that happened many years before, and at which she was not actually present and had only read about in a letter.

Names were also mentioned:

I’ve worked on several manuscripts in which characters had names that were inappropriate to their age and background: for example, young women in novels with contemporary Australian settings with names like Beryl or Edna. I think it’s fine to give a character an old-fashioned name, but the anachronism needs to be acknowledged—perhaps commented upon briefly or explained in some way. (For example, ‘She had never met another Edna her own age. It had been her grandmother’s name, and as a child she’d hated it,’ or something similar.)

Inaccuracies involving chronology, geography and spatial relationships are common. For example, an author I worked with had a character travelling from one Australian state to another and cheerfully cited a distance that would have landed the character in another continent. But there’s also the issue of chronological inaccuracy of plot elements set against verifiable external events: historical landmarks, natural disasters, years when particular songs were popular. Internal chronology can be just as difficult: when I constructed a timeline for one novel, it became clear that one would have to have been married at the age of ten.

Sometimes when I mention to an author that I’ve drawn up a timeline for their novel, or a family tree, or a map, they look at me with something akin to benevolent pity—but this simple tool can be so helpful that many authors say they’ll use these tools themselves in future.

Of course, they don’t always work! In one novel I observed that the weather was fine and hot one day and on the next the characters were lighting a fire in the living room. I was unaware that the weather in the town where the book is set is precisely this changeable. However, the author, to her credit, understood the point, and made some reference to the capricious nature of the weather in that place to explain what, to an outsider, could seem like a chronological slip.

The reactions from authors when problems are identified vary:

…most authors I work with are perfectionists and think of details that haven’t occurred to me. For example, one author agonised about which version of the Catholic missal to use for a quote in a novel for 10-to-14-year-olds; [and] she researched guns so that she was clear about the range of a pistol as opposed to a larger gun.

Most authors (say 90%) have been grateful to be saved from embarrassment, but I can think of three who pigheadedly insisted that it didn’t matter, draft after draft. One had accuracy problems in terms of timeline and geography but felt that only the history mattered.

This last editor kindly gave me a set of notes from a third review of the manuscript concerned, and I really sympathised with her plaintive comment to the author: ‘Please, oh please, let us have a mud map.’

The following represents the negative end of the spectrum of responses:

Questioning inaccuracy and inconsistency in fiction can create problems—sometimes even the smallest requests can put an author offside, even in cases where a heavy structural edit went smoothly. This sort of fact-checking can give us a bad reputation—making us seem like detail-obsessed control-freaks who’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.

But at the positive end was this:

Something I have frequently found: when a seemingly difficult glitch is found, it presents an opportunity for the author to come up with something really original in order to fix it, something the author would never have thought of in the absence of such a glitch. Thus, from a more positive perspective, the identification of infelicities, and the insistence that they be addressed, may be the source of true innovation in writing—invention that arises from necessity rather than merely trying to be clever.

Keeping faith with the reader

When I asked my colleagues why they thought ‘getting it right’ matters, their focus was, as expected, very much on the reader.

Anna Crago commented:

If a reader is beginning to question anything, I think it does matter, because once you’ve questioned something maybe you’re more likely to question something else. It’s all about suspension of disbelief, and that’s quite a fragile thing.

Annabel Blay echoed this:

We all know that as a reader, it only takes the teensiest inconsistency or factual inaccuracy to completely undermine the reading experience. As editors, we feel responsible for protecting our beloved authors from this.

Janet Blagg, speaking about glitches in a children’s book, said:

I tried to tell the author that if smart kids saw the flaws in some aspects of the work, they would not perhaps trust accuracy in other aspects…I feel that leaving loose and wrong ends is an insult to the intelligence of the reader.

For Sarah Brenan:

Imaginative integrity (wholeness and consistency) is important…If a book announces itself as having an actual setting, then the events portrayed should fit that setting. If it is set in a specific period, the characters’ ideas and actions should be consonant with that. Alternatively, the author should make it clear that he/she is playing with or extemporising from history and geography…For me it’s a matter of keeping faith with the reader.

Michelle Madden said:

I think it’s important to remember that most readers of novels expect not to be misled by what they read, and some readers actively look to fiction for non-fiction information. In novels for children, there is almost always an assumption that there will be some sort of educational benefit derived from the reading.

Saskia Adams highlights the more public responses of readers:

In terms of how the book is received, it matters greatly in reducing the likelihood of bad reviews that may highlight errors in the novel to potential readers. This reflects badly on everyone…and can affect sales.

Reviewers do notice inaccuracies, and can even feature them. In a review of a gothic horror novel, Dave Luckett lists one after the other:

How could a slight girl—no matter how feisty—‘push’ two fit men simultaneously face-down on the ground by grabbing them by their throats?…Do vicarages usually have battlements?…Would anyone in the 18th century say, ‘What’s with the pistol?’[3]

Another reviewer, Dianna Simmonds, describes how ‘a tangible lack of verity’ can make the reader feel ‘uneasy’:

Part of the enduring magic of fiction is the reader’s willingness to trust the author. To carry the weight of that trust, the author must construct a reality that is unshakeable. It can be utter nonsense but it must be authentic nonsense.[4]

Where to draw the line

I asked my colleagues if they thought there were times when getting it right didn’t matter. There was some difference in opinion about how this applies to fantasy. One said:

I work a lot on fantasy titles, and I do have a certain affection for my authors’ ability to say, ‘Ah well, magic did it’.

Another suggested that getting it right might not matter ‘in speculative fiction where implausibilities are irrelevant anyway!’

Others disagreed, focusing again on the need for internal logic in any genre:

A novel might be comic science fiction and make up all sorts of things to get itself out of tight corners…but these devices have to work in their own framework. Every planet has to conform to the laws of physics unless you create a plausible new set of laws, and then they have to conform to them.

And perhaps there are times when too much precision can be a distraction. An author I worked with chose to retain the phrase ‘flakes of lead’ in referring to pencil shavings, even though we discussed the fact that the flakes would actually be of graphite rather than lead. I agreed with her that the term ‘lead pencil’ was sufficiently embedded in language to transcend its own inaccuracy.

One of my colleagues felt it was possible to take dedication to accuracy too far:

I had an author who was…very concerned about getting it right and ended up walking along night-time streets with a lantern to ensure that the shadows cast on the wall were similar to those he’d described (and so on, until I began to worry about his mental health)!

Interestingly, both Sarah Brenan and Janet Mackenzie recalled a meeting of the Victorian Society of Editors in which by legendary proofreader John Bangsund described querying a character whistling a Mozart aria that couldn’t actually be whistled (he’d tried), and the date of a party that was supposed to have taken place under a full moon (he had consulted a perpetual calendar and found there wasn’t a full moon on the date mentioned). Sarah commented: ‘I wouldn’t go to those lengths. (I would have been more likely to ask why give the exact date in a novel?)’

It can be hard to know where to draw the line. It’s an exercise of judgment—by authors, by editors—on what is going to matter to the reader. The trouble is: ‘the reader’ doesn’t exist. There are many readers. The ones who don’t know and don’t care how many kilometres are between point A and point B when they are enmeshed in a beautifully told story of human relationships. The ones who will throw down a book in disgust if it confuses Apollo 10 and Apollo 11, because they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on the days each one was reported. The ones who will silently correct, and indulgently forgive, the unexplained change of a protagonist’s hair from long black ponytail to short brown bob. The ones who will take the time to phone a publishing company to point out when pavlova was invented.

All care and no responsibility?

When considering the responsibilities of editors when it comes to getting things right, a distinction is conventionally made between content, thought to be the sole responsibility of the author, and expression, in which the editor plays an important role. In reality, as the experiences here suggest, the lines are a little more blurred than that. Editors have cited matters of expression such as tone, idiom, dialogue, internal consistency and consonance—but have also given examples involving dates, distances, historical facts, scientific facts, reflecting the way the fictional world often cannot be separated from the real world. What editors do when they’re editing fiction, when they’re engaging with the work and projecting themselves into the reading position, inevitably involves the negotiation of these two worlds and how they intersect.

Australian Standards for Editing Practice[5] acknowledges the role a good editor plays, without diluting the responsibilities of the author: Standard E3.3 requires editors to be aware of ‘When statements seem, from general knowledge, to require checking.’[6]

Janet Mackenzie, in The Editor’s Companion, puts it more bluntly: ‘The editor is not a fact-checker: you take all care but no responsibility for accuracy of content.’[7] If only this could be tattooed onto the writing hand of every reviewer in the country so that they’d stop attributing errors in content to ‘declining editorial standards’!

Elizabeth Flann and Beryl Hill are also unequivocal in The Australian Editing Handbook: ‘Accuracy is the author’s responsibility, so if you find errors return the manuscript to the author for detailed checking.’[8] True, but if an author believes the manuscript is ‘final draft’ when they submit it, are they objective enough to interrogate their work in this way? How can they know what they don’t know?

Editors at all stages of the process—proofreaders, too—represent the last line of defence, the author’s backstop, and it’s hard not to feel some responsibility.

The Victorian Society of Editors meeting referred to earlier, at which proofreader John Bangsund and editor Bruce Sims were speakers, concluded with a discussion on whether it was the editor’s responsibility to take on detailed fact-checking. According to the account of that meeting:

Bangsund affirmed that it is, adding that one should not trust even little things to the uncertainties of memory…Sims was inclined to think this was admirable though not essential. Others were divided over the matter, largely on account of the time necessary to achieve such standards relative to the remuneration that the publisher is likely to allow.[9]

Michelle Madden astutely reframes the question of responsibility as an ethical one:

…it is, in the end, a matter for the author. We’ve done our job if we have raised it, and if an inaccuracy is glaring, might affect the internal logic or is likely to expose the author to ridicule, then we have a further responsibility to push harder, but ultimately it’s their name on the book.

Perhaps, then, the responsibility of editors lies in raising awareness, especially in new authors, that this matter of getting it right is part of the compact they make with readers when they invite them into the pages of a book, and that it’s to the advantage of all that authors care about it as much as editors—and readers—do.

© Amanda Curtin 2007, 2013

[1]           John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Vintage, New York, 1991, p. 4.

[2]           I gratefully acknowledge the generous contributions of Saskia Adams, Janet Blagg, Annabel Blay, Sarah Brenan, Elizabeth Cowell, Anna Crago, Janet Mackenzie and Michelle Madden, who responded to an email survey. For reasons of confidentiality, authors and works are not identified, and editors’ names are attached only to general comments.

[3]           Dave Luckett, ‘Gothic novel introduces new horror—sloppy writing’, The West Australian, 1 December 2003.

[4]           Diana Simmonds, ‘Lovers bogged down in writer’s research’, Weekend Australian, 31 March – 1 April 2007, ‘Review’ section, pp. 8–9.

[5]           Australian Standards for Editing Practice, Council of Australian Societies of Editors [now IPEd, Institute of Professional Editors], 2001.

[6]           Australian Standards for Editing Practice, p. 12.

[7]           Janet Mackenzie, The Editor’s Companion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, p. 60.

[8]           Elizabeth Flann & Beryl Hill, The Australian Editing Handbook, rev. 2nd edn, John Wiley &Sons, Milton, Qld, 2004, p. 52.

[9]           Diane Carlyle, ‘Editing: A case study’ (review of a talk by John Bangsund and Bruce Sims), in At the Typeface: Selections from the Newsletter of the Victorian Society of Editors, ed. Janet Mackenzie, Society of Editors (Vic.) Inc., 2005, p. 79.


Filed under Editing

On the other side of the red pen

iStock_000018482964XSmalllooking up/looking down is a blog dedicated to writing, reading and watching the world. But among the several hats I wear in my professional life is the editor’s hat—and editing is closely involved in writing and reading: the editor always serves the needs of the publisher, the author and the reader. So there will be an occasional piece relating to editing, too.

Here’s a version of a paper I gave recently at the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) national editors conference in Perth, Western Australia. I would especially like to acknowledge the generosity of the fifteen authors who contributed. They are listed at the end of the paper, along with links to make it easy for you to find out more about them and their work. I hope you will; they are all exceptional writers.

Crossing the editor–author borderlands

I inhabit a space that could be called the borderlands—a place where I sometimes wear two hats at the same time, sometimes juggle two hats with a dexterity that is possible in metaphor in a way that it is not in real life, and sometimes hide one hat in a cupboard while wearing the other.

I am talking about the roles of editor and author. I have been a freelance book editor for more than 25 years and an author for considerably less time than that; my first book was published in 2008 and the third this year.

As someone who occupies these two roles, I am often asked to take part in publishing panels at writers festivals, conferences and other events, and it is usually in the context of explaining the editing process to authors—communicating how editors work, the different kinds of editing, what each process involves. In workshops, master classes and mentoring sessions over the past few years, I have taken every opportunity to talk about how authors can make the most of their experience of being edited, and to give them practical advice on things they can do to assist the process.

But here I am wearing the other hat, talking to my editing colleagues about what the editing process feels like from the author’s perspective. And to tease out whether there are things editors can do—things we are not already doing—to enhance this process, make it easier or more effective or more reassuring for authors.

I did not want this to be an all-about-me session. First, because although my expectations and experiences as an author have much in common with those of any other author, they cannot help but be coloured, in part, by the fact that I am this hat-wearing, hat-juggling, hat-hiding border-dweller. And second, because it is far more interesting to hear a range of voices, encompassing a diversity of experience and publishing contexts.

To that end, I have enlisted the assistance of writing friends in Australia and overseas—for the latter, taking advantage of international residencies undertaken in 2011 and 2012. All but one of the generous respondents to my brief, informal survey are fiction writers (although some also publish in other genres) and the other is a poet.


Let me begin by revealing an extraordinary fact about writers. Some of you might have an inkling about this already, but it is generally a mysterious, unknown phenomenon.

Writers have a sixth sense. Not like the child in the M. Knight Shyamalan film of that name, the one who has supernatural powers, who sees dead people. The sixth sense I am talking about is this:

Writers hear your voice when you are not saying anything.

I know this to be true of myself, but it was not until I overheard a group of writers talking at a festival that I realised it was not just me. One of the writers—well-established, award-winning—said: I handed in my manuscript on the due date and haven’t heard anything since. The editor obviously hates it and can’t bring herself to tell me.

I said writers hear your voice; I did not say they hear the truth.

Since then I have heard writers express many versions of the same, and it’s evident in a couple of comments from my writer friends.

Meg McKinlay says:

For many of us, I think that space in which we wait for the editorial letter to arrive is one of deep uncertainty, in which much of our previous confidence in the work is abandoned. It’s always helpful to be reminded that we are not hopeless and our manuscripts do have promise and that is in fact why they are in the happy position of being edited, as ridiculously self-evident as that may seem.

The voice Meg hears—the editor’s voice—is saying: Meg is hopeless. Meg’s manuscript has absolutely no promise. I can’t imagine why we’ve contracted it.

And this from Robyn Mundy, describing the editing of her first novel:

No one actually spelled out whether it was okay for me to reject editing suggestions. There were a couple of suggestions that I felt did not serve the novel. I feared that if I didn’t act upon the editor’s advice, the publisher might change her mind about proceeding with my novel.

There is that voice again: Robyn had better smarten up and agree to that suggestion in chapter 6 or I’ll bury her novel in the chamber of non-starters.

As a writer, I understand the anxieties underlying these comments, and as an editor I have observed them in the authors I have worked with.

There are two points to make here. The first is that authors are a great deal less confident, more vulnerable, than you can ever imagine, and wherever there is a vacuum, most authors will fill it with a negative message. Robyn Mundy described that vulnerability well when she wrote:

Here you are, with your hard-earned creative output that’s as precious as a newborn, being told, albeit in the most diplomatic and encouraging terms, that your baby is not quite perfect, that he needs reshaping, reworking, re-creating—that even the name you’ve so carefully chosen is now under scrutiny. Who wouldn’t feel a little wounded?

In spite of the ultimate rewards, the process is not, as Cate Kennedy observes, a fundamentally reassuring one for writers.

Reminder: Never underestimate the author’s vulnerability. Neutral silence will usually be interpreted negatively.

The second point is about communication. It is easy, and understandable when editors are so busy, to forget that a new author does not necessarily know what is expected of them; to assume that a successful author knows their manuscript is original and exciting and does not need to be told this; to neglect dashing off a quick email to let an author know you have begun work on their manuscript because they should already be able to see this on their copy of the schedule.

I have always felt that ‘learning’ your author is essential to the relationship and to the success of the whole editing process—finding out what they do and do not know about the process, what their comfort zone is with things like Track Changes, whether they are familiar with the publisher’s house style, whether they are likely to speak up when they should (or possibly just speak up incessantly—it is good to know that, too). And with many if not most authors, a lot of anxiety can be defused by a quick email to stay connected—something as simple as everything’s going to schedule and I’ll be in touch by Friday week.

Reminders: ‘Learn’ your author by asking questions. Err on the side of generosity when it comes to keeping authors informed of what is happening with their manuscript.

The authors I surveyed recognise good editorial skills as crucial in bringing a book to its full potential.

David Whish-Wilson observed:

Often this seems to involve asking questions of a narrative from the position of an ‘ideal reader’; at other times, answering questions the writer has about the work but lacks appropriate answers. This insight is the thing that I most value in the writer–editor relationship, a kind of clarity of vision and steely intelligence and determination and belief that draws out into the light what might otherwise remain hidden.

Meg McKinlay also spoke of that ability of editors to uncover the hidden, to zero in on ‘themes or ideas that may be submerged in a manuscript…waiting for a canny editor to come along and tease them out, to guide me towards them’. And she values

the way in which a good editor approaches the manuscript on its own terms. They see what the work is trying to be/do, and help guide it towards becoming the best version of that, rather than steering it towards being any kind of version of something else.

Alan Carter privileged the editor’s role in assessing the ‘bigger picture stuff’:

Knowing whether the overall plot structure is working, whether characters are interesting and believable, whether there is or isn’t logic to how they act/think/talk.

Others spoke of the smaller, but no less important, things that all authors miss when they are too close to a work to see what is there. Cate Kennedy said:

Once I wrote something like ‘It was the week before Christmas and she was at home watching the tennis on TV’, and my editor wrote: ‘The tennis is not televised until January’. Excellent! Picking up on overuse of certain words or even repeated images is another great feature of a good editor.

Liz Byrski, similarly, speaks of her copyeditor’s

forensic eye for timelines, which is a lifesaver for me. However many charts I make of the characters’ ages at certain times in relation to the other characters, to their life events or major social or political events, I always mess it up.

Now, when I am wearing my editor’s hat, I have a reputation when it comes to the matter of timelines; I have to confess that one author refers to me as ‘the chronology nazi’. In fact, the need to construct a chronology, maintain it, and hand it over to your editor is one of the things I have been trying to impress on authors for years. It is one of the little soapbox speeches I give when I am inhabiting the borderlands. (My reasoning, in brief, is this: the time an editor is given to devote to a manuscript is finite, and if they do not have to spend some of it on tasks like constructing a timeline, that’s more time they can spend more creatively with you.)

Bart Moeyaert, who has an impressive writing career spanning nearly thirty years, with only one change of publisher in that time, spoke of a relationship with his editor that will sound unusual—and utopian—to most of us. He compared his former editor (since retired) at prestigious Dutch press Querido to his doctor:

He is the man who knows a great deal about me. He knows my history, he knows my sorrows, anxieties, personality, qualities and shortcomings. He knows the best way to handle me (and I know he knows)…He was a gift. He sent me articles that could interest me, prodded me if he thought it was necessary, arranged meetings/dinners/parties to give me the chance to meet authors/actors/artists, and once in a while we would quarrel, as in every good marriage.

But Bart recognised that this relationship was ‘old school’ and ‘belonged to the past’, and that the place of marketing and sales departments in publishing houses is more important now than before.

I was interested to see differences among authors emerging when it came to how far editors should go in making specific suggestions once having identified an issue with structure, logic, emotional connection, psychological credibility, etc.

Cate Kennedy prefers it

when the editor does not try to ‘rewrite’ the passage or add anything of their own, but rather acts as a kind of ideal reader, willing to give their honest reaction as they read, leaving the rewriting/recasting/rejigging up to the writer. It’s really helpful when an editor writes something as simple as ‘Why does he say this now?’ or ‘This reaction feels over the top’, making me push for better expression or more clarification.

Similarly, Meg McKinlay appreciates

editors who are able to identify issues while resisting the urge to offer their own ‘fixes’. If an editor does offer suggestions, I prefer these to be open-ended, leaving room for me to step into the creative process. Specific suggestions or interventions tend to shut that down. For example, I’m very happy for an editor to say, ‘I feel that this scene needs more tension’, but I don’t want to hear, ‘Perhaps he grabs her and she has to struggle to escape?’

In contrast, F. G. Haghenbeck loves it, he says, when editors ‘really edit’—‘when the editor is involved in the construction of the story, making proposals, changes, even big changes, to make the story the best it can be’. He even advocates bringing in the editor while the book is being written, though he concedes that both parties need ‘100% trust’ for that.

David Whish-Wilson said:

What I most appreciate, having reached the end of my own vision for a narrative, is the application of an editor’s insight into potential avenues for further exploration. This could be in regard to extending a particular character’s influence in a story, or something as macro as structure.

Liz Byrski referred to her editor being ‘very creative in her suggestions about the way things might be done’:

If she wants me to know something isn’t working she always explains why she thinks that, and she suggests ways it might be dealt with. I don’t always make changes in the way she suggests but her suggestions always help me to work out how I do want to handle it.

Denise Deegan described how two major plot suggestions from her editor turned around a manuscript she was struggling with and had lost enthusiasm for:

I thought the ideas were interesting. I said I’d think about it. Driving home, though, my mind started to fire. As soon as I got in, I started writing. My editor’s ideas sparked off so much, triggering an avalanche of ideas, inspiration but, most importantly, enthusiasm. My writing took off.

Ted Thompson tells of having had a fantasy ‘that I’d have a creative collaborator, someone who could crawl inside my book and fix it with me’, but then found it ‘surprising and refreshing’ when she was, rather, ‘a sort of acupuncturist—pointing out tiny lapses in logic or tics in the writing that go on to have large implications for the book’.

Chigozie Obioma, whose first published story found its home in a prestigious US journal, described the experience of having his 8,000-word manuscript cut down to 5,000 words. His editor

did not tell me, at any time, that a certain thing was not working. He did not ask if he should remove a scene or not. He dove in, did what he thought was best and asked for my approval. In the end, I had very little to add. Because he’d used my words, metaphors and phrases throughout, it was difficult to disapprove of anything in the text he sent. The process was bliss.

Chigozie concluded: ‘I want my work to be loved through and through. I believe that if it is loved so, the editor will push it to the best possible place’.

In outlining his preferred process for receiving editorial suggestions, Bart Moeyaert drew a distinction between language-based issues and structural issues. He explained that a Belgian writer writing in Dutch, where some words/expressions are more common in Flanders than they are in The Netherlands, and vice versa, often must choose which of these reading audiences his language will privilege. Bart will discuss such issues raised, and suggestions offered, by his editor, and notes that the beauty of the language is usually the deciding factor for him. However, with structural issues, involving the rhythm and musicality—the voice—of a novel, all of which have evolved organically, Bart prefers his editor to explain these, and offer suggestions, in writing:

The ‘writing down’ is important. I will try not to talk about it. I will think about it in silence, and if I think the editor is right, I will make a change—in silence.

Poet Adam Zdrodowski spoke of his editor identifying ‘places that may need some rewriting’, but also valued his editor’s ‘suggestions that helped me get rid of poems that could have made my book a bit repetitious, and choose some of the new poems to be included’. The framework for editing a collection of poetry is something outside my own experience, but it seems, from Adam’s observations, that there is scope both for identifying issues and for making substantive suggestions, just as there is in editing prose fiction.

A. J. Betts’s responses demonstrate that editors often walk a tightrope in handling authors’ expectations. ‘I don’t expect the editor to solve specific areas that don’t work for me’, she said, ‘just highlight them so I can solve them myself’, but also noted that when ‘really desperate’, she did wish her editor would give specific suggestions on how a problem might be fixed.

Putting on my author’s hat for a moment, I think I am happy enough for an editor to make suggestions, as this may help me to better understand the issue that has been identified—the why of it, the possible implications—which often leads me to find my own solution.

And now switching hats: as an editor, I am not sure I have always got the balance right on this matter, but a strategy I have used instinctively in the past is to keep a note of possible ‘fixes’ or approaches that might occur to me, in the event that the author does ask for specific suggestions, but first wait and see how they respond to the issues raised. In the case of rewording, I always preface any suggestion with something like this? (the question mark is important) or here’s an idea of what I mean, although I’m sure you’ll come up with something better.

So in essence, this too is another communication matter, part of learning the author: in the first instance, subtly teasing out what is the best approach to take, and then maintaining a connection throughout the process, alert to when an adjustment in approach might be needed.

Reminder: Do not assume the author wants specific suggestions about how to ‘fix’ an identified problem.

I detected little disagreement on whether editors should hold back on delivering praise as well as criticism. Here are two comments:

I do find it reassuring to have some sense of what is good in the manuscript, where the strength lies in the bones I’ve laid out. I’m of course not talking here about vague, ego-boosting praise, but specific praise for elements of the manuscript which are strong, which are working.

—Meg McKinlay

It would be great occasionally if editors didn’t solely focus on faults and structural flaws, and just jotted something like ‘this part works beautifully’ or ‘I loved this exchange’. If you feel moved by something positive, TELL the author. It’s a real boost.

—Cate Kennedy

I know I sometimes forget to do this often enough when I am editing, and I have resolved to do it more, because I know how helpful—and gratifying—it can be to see those little ticks along the way from an editor whose judgment you trust.

Cate Kennedy’s plea is for a subjective, emotional response to the manuscript as well as an incisive analysis of its elements. Ted Thompson, however, found himself appreciating his editor’s highly objective approach:

There are no qualitative assessments (nothing about likes and dislikes). It’s all practical, focused, and based in the text. This, to an obsessive self-critic, is an enormous relief.

He did add, however, that ‘every writer wants some impossible mix of enthusiasm and reassurance’.

Adam Zdrodowski echoed this when he said:

It is easy, especially when you write poetry (which generally does not have a large following), to lose faith and stop believing that what you do is important and you should devote a lot of energy and effort to it. I really need that reassurance as an author.

When Denise Deegan was unsure about a risk she was taking in one manuscript, it was her editor’s expression of confidence that gave her the confidence to make that risk pay off.

A. J. Betts observed that ‘too much negativity overpowers the positives’, while Caroline Hamilton listed as one of the essentials in an editor ‘honesty—but not brutal’. Josephine Rowe made a sensible, practical point about terminology: that ‘sending a writer corrections of their manuscript is a terrible way to begin a conversation’.

Reading this last comment immediately gave me a shiver: have I ever inadvertently made this mistake? When copyediting, we do make corrections—for consistency, for example, or in the service of house style. But even in copyediting it is a word that has the unhelpful effect of implying a hierarchy. In the structural editing of fiction, it has no place at all.

Striking the right balance between praise and criticism, positives and negatives, is another aspect of the author–editor relationship that comes from learning the author. Authors do not want shallow, empty compliments, but most will appreciate being told when you—as an engaged reader—feel that thrill of knowing you are in safe hands, when something is really working, when you are moved to tears, laughter, anger, despair.

Reminders: Do not assume your experienced, multi-awarded author is secure enough not to need a balance of praise and criticism. Take care with terminology: words like comments, observations and responses (structural editing) and amendments (copyediting) are preferable to corrections.

Preparation and engagement with the work rank highly in authors’ expectations of their editors.

Robyn Mundy hopes for

a relationship of trust that will grow from discussion rather than dictation, and play out as guidance from a mentor. I expect the editor to be intimately engaged in my manuscript, that they ‘get’ the nuance of what I am striving to convey. I expect that they can substantiate suggestions for change and genuinely consider my responses to those suggestions.

A. J. Betts appreciates the editor ‘doing multiple readings and being very prepared prior to meeting with me’, while Liz Byrski praised her editor’s immersion in the manuscript, saying: ‘she seems to know the story and the characters as well as, or even better than, I do’.

Meg McKinlay dislikes formulaic queries that demonstrate a lack of

ear for the voice of the writing itself…where an editor might, for example, annotate a line with the comment ‘Repetition. Re-word?’ when the repetition is clearly intentional in the context, for patterning or contrast with other elements. Or she might query a poetic use of language—‘Usage is not grammatical. Please revise’…As a poet who’s turned to writing for children…I would tend to privilege things like rhythm over rules and if an infinitive or two is split in the process, so be it.

Meg went on to say that whenever she comes across an indication that the editor has not thoroughly engaged with the manuscript, it can have the effect of ‘undermining my faith in the validity of her reading in general, and that has a flow-on effect into how the process/relationship unfolds’. So the success or otherwise of the author–editor relationship can hinge on this issue of preparation and engagement, which, in essence, is a measure of the editor’s professionalism, instincts and skill.

Reminders: Be well prepared. Be very familiar with the elements of the work, and come to grips with what the author is trying to achieve. Substantiate suggestions for change. Avoid perfunctory queries.

As I have been talking a lot about communication, I am going to close with a few comments from respondents on practical matters of communication.

Josephine Rowe spoke about the deficiencies of email and Track Changes:

I’ve found my favourite editors are those who will pick up the phone when there’s a particularly tricky aspect that needs ironing out. Written communication doesn’t allow for the same fluidity of ideas and narrative possibilities as a verbal conversation. A phone call can be much more effective than batting something back and forth, and is generally less time-consuming.

This comment really struck a chord with me, as I have often thought how exhausting email ‘discussion’ can be. It does, of course, have the virtue of easy, traceable documentation of decisions made. With phone and face-to-face communications, we still need to make a note of the date and the outcome of discussions, to keep on file.

A. J. Betts noted a preference for email communications, in the context of wanting her editor to be ‘easy to access’.

Liz Byrski appreciates ‘notes and mark-ups that are really neat and easy to read’, clarity about deadlines for revisions, and gentle checks on how she is progressing.

Caroline Hamilton also mentioned deadlines, and the need for flexibility:

Sometimes schedules do get thrown out of the window. I really think it’s important that the editor knows when to crack the whip and when to leave well alone.

And this from Meg McKinlay:

I’m happy to work quickly if necessary, as long as I know in advance and can adjust my schedule accordingly. Just as I don’t expect that I’m the only author an editor is currently working with, so I’d like editors to remember that I’m probably doing many other things as well.

A final comment from Caroline Hamilton reminds us what is at stake when we are talking about communication:

Above all, [my editor] listened to me. I mean really listened. And as a result, I listened to her.

Reminders: Be flexible. Be clear. Be a good listener.


Before embarking on my informal survey, my view from the borderlands was that editors generally seem to be serving their authors well, and are getting better at doing so all the time. The introduction of professional standards (Australian Standards for Editing Practice), IPEd’s accreditation scheme, increasing opportunities for professional development through national conferences and society training sessions—all have made their mark.

Studying the comments offered by my writer friends has not shaken this view, but it reminds me that all the things we are doing right can still be done better, and it highlights, for me, the centrality of communication in all we do. It is my hope that bringing authors’ voices into the conversation will contribute to the further development of the editor–author relationship, that it will help editors to get the best from the authors they work with.

picisto-20130618120234-118426Contributing authors
pictured from the top, left to right:
A. J. Betts, Liz Byrski, Alan Carter, Denise Deegan
F. G. Haghenbeck, Caroline Hamilton, Cate Kennedy, Meg McKinlay
Bart Moeyaert, Robyn Mundy, Chigozie Obioma, Josephine Rowe
Ted Thompson, David Whish-Wilson, Adam Zdrodowski, Amanda Curtin

A. J. Betts (Australia), author of YA novels Wavelength, ShutterspeedZac and Mia [forthcoming 2013]

Liz Byrski (Australia), author of novels In the company of strangers, Last chance café, Bad behaviour, Trip of a lifetime, Belly dancing for beginners, Food, sex & money, Gang of four; memoir Remember me; non-fiction Getting on: some thoughts on women and ageing

Alan Carter (Australia), author of novel Prime cut

Denise Deegan (Ireland), author of YA novels (the ‘Butterfly series’) And actually, And for your information, And by the way; novels Do you want what I want?, Love comes tumbling, Time in a bottle, Turning turtle

F. G. Haghenbeck (Mexico), author of novels Bitter drink, The secret book of Frida Kahlo

Caroline Hamilton (Australia), author of novel Consumed

Cate Kennedy (Australia), author of short fiction collections Like a house on fire, Dark roots; novel The world beneath; poetry collections The taste of river water, Signs of other fires, Joyflight, Crucible and other poems; memoir Sing and don’t cry

Meg McKinlay (Australia), author of junior fiction Surface tension, Annabel, again, The big dig, Going for broke, Wreck the halls, Duck for a day, Definitely no ducks!; picture books Ten tiny things, The truth about penguins, No bears; poetry collection Cleanskin

Bart Moeyaert (Belgium), author of many novels for adults and children, translated into 20 languages (including Bare hands, Brothers, Hornet’s Nest and It’s love we don’t understand), as well as poetry, short fiction, memoir, plays and screenplays

Robyn Mundy (Australia), author of novel The nature of ice; non-fiction (with Nigel Rigby) Epic voyages

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), author of short story ‘Fishermen’ in Virginia Quarterly Review; novel [forthcoming 2015] The Fishermen

Josephine Rowe (Australia), author of short fiction collections Tarcutta wake, How a moth becomes a boat

Ted Thompson (United States), author of novel [forthcoming 2014] The land of steady habits

David Whish-Wilson (Australia), author of novels Zero at the bone [forthcoming 2013], Line of sight, The summons

Adam Zdrodowski (Poland), author of poetry collections 47 lotów balonem [47 balloon flights], Jesien Zuzanny [Susanna’s autumn], Przygody, etc. [Adventures, etc.]


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