The love that dare not speak its name: we need to talk about editing

I used to work for an order more clandestine than the Knights Templar, more invisible than the Invisible Woman, more prone to secrecy than Jason Bourne. We did our work in secret, erasing our identities before and after every job, writing confidential reports and often never meeting the human they concerned. I’m sure there are other professions that still operate with the secrecy and guardedness of a medieval guild. But I’m beginning to think the secrecy that surrounds my old profession is doing the sort of damage that’s done to anyone forced into secrecy. I’m thinking paranoia, depression. That profession is book editing.

Book editors regularly open themselves to an other, go deeply into that other’s innermost being (their text), and work to transform that text (and be themselves transformed) without touching it. And then they must let go of it all and be forever silent. I think all this secret intimacy is doing editors’ heads in. Writers are renowned for their paranoia, their swings between omnipotence and impotence, their depression and insecurity. But in my experience, editors suffer just as much if not more from these debilitating states – mostly without the upswing of omnipotence. Why? Possibly because they’re treated mostly like shit. Poorly paid and never acknowledged, always blamed when things go wrong.

I started thinking about this last month when James Bradley blogged at City of Tongues in response to James Ley’s piece on editing in the Australian Literary Review.

When James asked me to comment I told him I’d said everything I had to say about editing. Turns out I hadn’t.

Last week I got an email from an editing student taking a masters in publishing. The student wanted me to comment on the writer-editor relationship. Could s/he quote me on a particular example of my editorial contribution to a novel? I went into a spin. My nature is open and I believe sharing our experiences of anything – editing, writing, music, depression, oppression, laughter – is a good thing. But because I worked in an industry in which the prevailing mode is secrecy – called ‘confidentiality’ – I didn’t feel I could talk about this editorial experience except in fairly useless abstract terms.

I want to be open, but I’m forbidden openness. I want to share, be generous, but I’m forbidden sharing and generosity. And so I speak hypothetically, ducking and weaving so I never give a hint of any real author or manuscript. Why? What am I protecting? Who am I protecting? Theoretically, we all know that books are edited. So why can’t we talk about it?

In his blog James Bradley said something particularly pertinent about editing which I think goes some way to answering my questions. He said:

I think what’s really interesting though is what our anxiety about editorial standards tells us about our attitudes to writing, and more particularly how difficult we find it break free of Romantic notions of the artist as solitary genius when we’re talking about authors and authorship. Because in the end that’s what this whole conversation is really about: our unease with accepting that literary fiction and non-fiction are not, in many ways, all that different to more collaborative forms such as television or film … while we have no problem with the idea that script editors and directors work in a relatively utilitarian manner with scriptwriters we’re made very uneasy by overly intrusive editing of books. But in the end, what’s the difference between David Chase rewriting an episode of The Sopranos from the ground up and Gordon Lish rewriting Carver?

When novelists stopped acknowledging my editorial contribution, I began to wonder why the hell I was doing it. Because it certainly wasn’t just for the money. I could edit and have edited 100 page annual reports for EIGHT times the amount I’ve been paid to edit most 400 page novels. I edited novels for love and passion first, money second.

I was once allowed to speak (relatively) publicly and truthfully about editing a novel. It was at the APA’s Residential Editorial Program at Varuna in 2006, a five-day editing workshop where three experienced editors mentor a group of twelve mid-career editors.

During the week I was invited to speak with Christos Tsiolkas about the editing of Dead Europe. At last I could talk about real editing, about the excitement, the danger, the thrill of entering another world and having to challenge an author to their limits. Apparently we conveyed our passion for the editorial process too well.

One listener felt the golden picture we painted of the author-editor relationship should have been balanced with a session on the constraints of editing in trade publishing. Why? Because many editors lack the confidence to realise that it is as much ‘the system’ that prevents them from doing their best work as it is any personal, individual shortcoming.

At that moment I knew why I was going mad as an editor.

In my experience, this atmosphere of reserve, fear and constraint prevails in Australian book editing. Yes, the system sucks. But I think the best way to change it is to create confident editors. To show editors what’s possible – to show editors what they can do, not what they can’t.

Ironically(?), certainly unexpectedly, I have been invited to be one of the mentor editors at REP 2010. I accepted because I care enormously about editing and editors. I accepted because writers need good, confident, strong, valued editors. I accepted because I think editors are the unsung heroines of the Australian publishing industry.

So for the record, the best experience I’ve ever had as a writer being (professionally) edited? Sophie Cunningham editing an essay I wrote for Meanjin called ‘The Secret Life of Stories’. If that essay had any life at all it was due to Sophie. And Clara Finlay at Allen & Unwin proofreading my second book.

Whenever I’m asked to speak about editing, I always show this. It cuts the tension.

Jane Gleeson-White

Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. OMG – where did you find that video? I keep looking for it on You Tube but I though it had been removed. It’s more true than I’d care to admit.

  2. Yeah, makes me laugh every time. It’s too true – one of the many kinds of editorial madness. It was on youtube last time i looked.
    My captcha – ‘ed dartmoor’. Throw more darts at editors? hmmm.

  3. It’s great to hear about the hidden side, if I can put it that way, Jane. I’ve often wondered, given my response as a writer to an editor, what are some of the things that an editor feeds on to keep them going. It wasn’t that I’ve had bad responses, but I think both writer and editor have quite an apprenticeship to serve before they get the best out of the process and each other. Building confidence in an editor must be crucial.

    I loved ‘Dead Europe’ so much (in fact it’s one of my favourite books ever) and I’m fascinated to think it was actually edited at all, even though I know it would have been. So my congratulations to you. ‘Carpentaria’ is another book which I have been told was edited heavily and I think, where would an editor have started and finished?

    Anyway, as you might be able to see, I’m still learning about the editorial process, the trust, the time it takes to become good at such a craft as editing is. So thanks and break out, hopefully the world of writing will get better at acknowledging and remunerating editors as film, television and even theatre seems to do.

  4. Ah editors! The servants of Art and the Goddess Grammatica (

    As an ‘emerging’ (I am growing more and more disturbed by this epithet) editor and writer, I find these questions fascinating. I’ve enjoyed working with a previously unpublished writers on non-fiction projects and sweated through two manuscript assessments, worked with folk on short stories: all the time couching my deeply considered suggestions/queries in the most respectful, neutral manner I could find. It has been an enjoyable process and I’ve received good feedback and feel confident I have contributed positively to the work. I didn’t set out to be an editor and am surprised to discover a capacity for ‘getting passionate’ about other people’s stuff – a love of language is the thing, more-so than the content. From my training, I’ve really internalised the ‘look for no great acknowledgement’ ethos of editing: the serving aspect. It’s interesting to ponder, Jane: why is it so? And thanks for daring.

    I recently wrote a magazine article that has been edited with no conference whatsoever and it felt like a butchering. I think it’s the milieu I don’t quite fit, rather than any ‘evil intent’ from the editor.

    Workshopping, editorial advice, even proof-reader input … a novel is quite a collective piece of work, yet the lion’s share of the blood, sweat and tears remains with the author; the drive to make the changes, do the work, and s/he is the originator of the ‘spark’, the message-bearer, the one who ‘owns’ the work, for good or bad, in the public sphere.

  5. Thanks for all these great comments. You’ve made my day.

    Finn, I loved your comments. Yes, I do think it’s a long process, for both author and editor. I had to learn that some of my passionate engagement as an editor was too strong for some writers to take (not Christos though and I learnt to edit by editing Luke Davies’s ‘Candy’ so he was up for anything, which not every writer is). As a writer I’ve learnt that an editor’s strong response mostly means they’ve engaged. The spookiest edit I ever experienced as a writer was one with barely a mark on 70,000 words.

    And you’ve mentioned possibly my two favourite Oz novels -‘Dead Europe’ and ‘Carpentaria’. Yes, both edited. Editing ‘Dead Europe’ (also one of my favourite books ever) was the most exciting editing I’ve ever done, especially as Christos responded to what I said but I could never tell exactly where or how, just that the ms had been transformed. There’s alchemy in the best editorial relationships.

    And yes, it’s all about trust. And an author’s trust can be gained in so many random ways I think editors just have to give everything they’ve got. eg I think I got Christos’s attention by mentioning in a throwaway line Pasolini and Henry James in one breath.

    And having made all these shocking revelations – yes, Clare, I know just what you mean about internalising the ‘look for no great acknowledgement’ ethos of editing. Writing my blog piece felt like the most outrageous piece of sacrilege against the altar of writing. But when I feel so many editors suffering this self-destructive fear and uncertainty because they don’t think they’re doing anything (because their work is invisible), which I’m sure undermines their ability to be the best editors, then fuck it. I’m talking about editing.

    I think James B is right to say that writing is a collaborative process – and I’m becoming more and more interested in the art of editing per se. With the book/novel thing I plan to start writing later this year, I’m toying with the idea of describing it as ‘edited by Jane GW’ not written. Comes from reading ‘Reality Hunger’ which is full of excellent quotes including this one from Goethe:

    ‘People are always talking about originality, but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.’

    And thanks Clare for the ref to the goddess grammatica. Fortunately the sort of editing I do – structural – means I don’t have to be too in thrall to that goddess. I’m much more taken by Morpheus and any god or mortal who metamorphoses.

  6. And having said I’m not in thrall to the goddess of grammar – yes, Clare, don’t you just hate making errors when talking about editing?! I meant metamorphosises. Should have just said morphs.

    And yes, Clare, why is it so? That we take on the serving aspect of editing? Especially as I gather the editing culture is very different in the USA, where editors are much more visible. Perhaps because as I understand it publishing is mostly structured very differently in USA and it’s rare to have an editor working on something they haven’t also commissioned and therefore have some sort of real stake in. I don’t think our invisible mending model serves anyone, including writers.

  7. Cheers Jane. And about the Goddess Grammatica; I do think a copyedit is a very different kind of worship to a structural edit … and comes from a different place – how far do we go in the sharing of credit?

    I guess the arts are in a process of ‘individuation’ – the players were once not as important as the playwright; many of the great sculptural works of antiquity were not ‘signed by the artist’ but rather considered to be the work of the gods in the first place … but is it also, with the author/editor thing, that we want to believe inspired works flow effortlessly from the fingertips of ‘the writer’ who we imagine can make some sort of sense of the world? Perhaps the messy realities (such as the help of an editor or *gasp* an editorial team!) interfere with the myth? But it does seem an oddly imbalanced working relationship.

    I then think of my manuscripts and the cry ‘No! Mine!’ rises in my imagination. Hmmm

    Recaptch says ‘psyche chevrolet’ – perhaps it is time to have a good look at that US model.

  8. I am hopeless at grammar and spelling. You editors will probably groan at this admission but I don’t see it as a problem. To my mind, I can do the writing and if it’s good enough then anything else can be fixed by the editor. I also sometimes forget to use capitals. This isn’t laziness I could (and probably already have) read every good grammar book in the world, my brain simply can’t force itself to retain the information or be interested.

    I’ve worked with some fantastic editors, who really did just carve the excess from my work (both fiction and essay) and fix up the grammatical errors etc (Louise Clarke over at Harvest, Jeff Sparrow at Overland, Alan Attwood over at the Big Issue spring to mind) and with others who tried (and failed) to butcher my work.

    I once worked with someone who I felt had absolutely no idea what I was trying to do with a piece and kept suggesting that I go away and read the work of a prominent black female writer (whose work I happen to really dislike and whose work bore absolutely no relation and was potentially the exact opposite of mine). The experience literally made me ill.

    Having a good, and appropriate, editor makes one hell of a difference.

  9. Yes, Clare, I agree that copyediting and structural are two very different beasts. I prefer structural because I’m not really into the detail of grammar much, and although I do love the minutiae of language (have learnt Latin, French and a bit of Italian which I think helps) I do mostly love the sound and rhythm of words more than their correctness. So I’m with you Maxine, and not groaning at all at your confession. I know so many brilliant writers who can’t spell much and need their grammar polished up but that doesn’t at all stop them from being genius writers. And often the less grammatical the more energetic.

    As for your comment about the arts in process of individuation Clare – what a FASCINATING thought. Reminds me of a TED talk I heard this year online by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I wasn’t expecting to find interesting (not interested in reading her books) about the idea of genius, which in ancient times was bestowed by the gods, was an outer being, something with its own wilful wantonness. Then during the Renaissance for the first time it was seen as something artists possessed. So very much along lines of what you’re talking about. Something I think is related to the rise of mercantile capitalism and related ideas of ownership and copyright. Gilbert told a brilliant story about some musician, think it might have been Tom Waits, yelling at his ‘genius’/inspiration for coming at him on a freeway when he had no pen and paper or free hand.

    And yes, Maxine – you are right. Having a good – and APPROPRIATE – editor makes a hell of a difference. Because an inappropriate editor can be hell.

    And fabulous captcha phrase Clare. I’m thinking psychopomp.

  10. Thanks so much for the link Clare. I only finished ‘Reality Hunger’ last night so have been avoiding all reviews until now. So perfect timing – and a great place to start, NYTimes.

    As for psychopomp, I was thinking more of spiritual guide for the living. You seem to have that sort of wisdom. Hope you’re planning to emerge soon.

  11. Ah, thank you – I had just finished reading the two essays of the two Jameses from your links and was wondering if, as both writer and editor, it’s better to just stay in the cocoon! But you encourage me.

      1. “And yes, I am aware that it is traditionally bad form to respond to any kind of criticism or rejection but in this, as with all else, I am an innovator; therefore…” Ah, Dylan has the genius’s phone number.

        Watching this again, with this post in mind, I think of all the folk involved in putting that few minutes of film together … and the great long list of acknowledgments at the end of any film, usually rolling as we file out of the cinema, and the great disparity between the incomes of those involved. I once had a dream of directing a wonderful film where everyone who contributed – from the cleaner to the lead – was paid the same and all handsomely. Hahaha, no wonder I’ve ended up a struggling word nerd collecting ‘rejection’ slips toward the day when they become ‘hilarious’. Ha ha, thanks Dylan and thanks Jane – a really interesting discussion. But perhaps not quite as groovy as what’s been going on over at ‘When the revolution comes’

  12. ‘But in my experience, editors suffer just as much if not more from these debilitating states – mostly without the upswing of omnipotence. Why? Possibly because they’re treated mostly like shit. Poorly paid and never acknowledged, always blamed when things go wrong.’

    Jane, how much do you think this relates to gender? I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately, partly because of an article in the Guardian tabulating the gender breakdown of book reviews, and partly after speaking to a publicist about her experiences (eg, the expectation that book publicists will be young and glamorous, and will put up with low level harassment from older male authors). The gender disparity in the industry seems particularly grotesque given that the culture is, by and large, so PC, with most people who work in publishing regarding themselves as liberal, even progressive. Yet we have a gender stratification that simply would not be accepted in other industries.
    Anyway, I wondered how you thought that played out in editing. It did strike me that the description in your second para, where the editor is supposed to be the uncomplaining helpmate, sounded a lot like the role of the traditional wife. But how do you think the process works? I mean, we all know that jobs seen as traditionally female tend to receive much less pay. But is it that editors are supposed to be seen and not heard because the job is traditionally female or is it the other way round: that women are recruited to the job because of the gendered conceptions of what it entails? Or somewhere between the two?
    Following on from that, what do you think a campaign for gender equity in publishing would entail?

  13. Thanks for this question Jeff. Yes, I think it is, fundamentally a gendered question. The Guardian article is excellent – I read it last week and inspired me to break my silence. (And funnily enough, I’ve been a publicist too, in London, where the industry is even more misogynist and I know just what your publicist colleague is talking about.)

    And as for editors = housewives, I completely agree. It is so the 50s housewifely role, making everything nice and presentable for the glory of the husband/author and keeping oneself at home, efface and drugged up.

    And I really like your question about cause and effect: whether editors are supposed to be silent (they’re not supposed to be seen, in fact, they’re invisible – the metaphor for their work in the industry is ‘invisible mending’) because the job is traditionally female or whether women are recruited because of the gendered conceptions of what it entails. ie whether women have created the silence of the job or the silence of the job has gendered it female.

    It’s interesting because there are a few noisy male editors in history. And editors were once mostly men – some great and celebrated editors among them, such as Lish whom James mentions and TS Eliot and Leonard Woolf and Truman Capote’s editor Robert Linscott. Most famous editors are men. But there are women, such as Australian Beatrice Davis and Jean Rhys’s editor Diana Athill (who was almost completely responsible for ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ seeing light of day). I think it’s probably a bit of both. But I’m sure the low pay is a function of the fact that the majority of editors are women, as with teachers and nurses.

    As for a campaign for gender equality in publishing? Just glanced at my captcha phrase – ‘big blockade’! My partner asked ‘what would happen if all editors went on strike?’ I think such a campaign would entail acknowledging that there was gender inequality in the first place, which largely shapes (the shockingly low) pay and conditions. Because as you say, the industry is so PC and liberal left. And also editors, writers and publishers acknowledging that editors are valuable (that’s the biggest trick pulled – editors mostly don’t realise how valuable they are). Perhaps a strike would be instructive.

    (Fascinating piece I’ve just been sent on US editor suggesting royalties for editors:
    I’m not sure that’s a solution although I’d love a cut of the royalties of some of the books I’ve edited!)

    1. What a discussion from Ann Patty’s post. Bloody Marx. Bloody feminists. Bloody marketing people. All I want is to be a creative genius … or have the creative genius move in to my spare room; and to earn enough to pay my way. Royalties? Ah, but from which monarch?

  14. Yeah, I know what you’re saying Clare – just want to be a creative genius/have the creative genius on hand, etc. The beauty of the new electronic world is that writers can write and get their words out without the intervention of editors, marketing, publishers, feminists or Karl Marx. Just that it also entails minimal intervention of market exchange and therefore of money.

    On subject of editing – Jacinda I’ve noticed you’ve made some neat and elegant edits on my post so thanks for that! And while outing editors I should add the genius of Christos’s editor-publisher Jane Palfreyman. Our editorial relationship was definitely triangular.

  15. Thinking more about your ‘gender equality in publishing’ question Jeff – realised I answered it more along lines of editor equality in publishing. I’m thinking agitating for gender equality in publishing in 2010 could be like agitating for gender equality on a wave. The ground is moving beneath our feet, I’m not sure anyone – writers, print publishers, editors – has much bargaining power in this fluxy time.

    But I’d like to start by acknowledging editors in the writing process. I’m not saying they’re creative innovators or in fact creators at all, just provocateurs and catalysts at their best. And crucial. As someone pointed out to me last night, we acknowledge by name and laud with awards book designers. How apt, in our culture ruled by appearance and style. And as a matter of course we also acknowledge by name typesetters.

    1. That’s an interesting point. The fluxiness of the present definitely seems to be working against us. I mean, I reckon on most fronts, the technological changes are being used to make things worse for everyone in the industry. The most obvious example is wages — you only have to compare the rates for writing online to writing in print.
      Of course, if our side were stronger, then the fact that everything is now up for grabs might mean that we could start again on a better footing. The gender division between, say, printers and publicists stems to some degree at least from historical sources — and that history is being erased.
      The problem is, I guess, that we’re so weak.
      Totally agree about acknowledging editors. It’s partly because editors never get named that so many online publiations assume that editing is some kind of optional extra.

      1. yes, that also occurred to me Jeff – that fact everything’s now up for grabs, ground shifting beneath our feet, might mean we could grab some ground while it’s shifting. It seems to me it’s going to come down to who’s cleverest at demarking electronic space – and so far Apple’s winning hands down. The hippy funksters are the arch capitalists of the new age.

        And as Naomi Klein writes in ‘The Shock Doctrine’, times of turmoil in the last 50 years have always resettled in favour of a smaller and smaller concentrations of big business, ie increasing monopolisation of capital. Her analysis of the USA privatisation of war and the business of war, especially in Iraq is chilling.

        Yes, history’s being erased. And we are so weak – but I guess ‘content’ creators always have been. Even Leonardo da Vinci was at the mercy of the whims of the Medici or the count of Milan or some patron or state.

  16. Hi Jane

    It’s interesting how different cultural traditions deal with the issue of crediting help and support.

    In music recording, the sound engineer and producer (who I think often function in a similar way to a writing editor) almost always get credited (unless they don’t want to, because the outcome is poor, or they use a pseudonym for certain styles of music which fall outside their normal trade).

    In performing arts, the dramaturg often gets credited too.

    In academia, the supervisor of research students certainly gets named, and usually other people who’ve helped get into the acknowledgments page.

    I wonder why there is this different – what about the writing tradition and industry has led to this?

    And couldn’t we just solve this by naming the editor in the credits (eg, XXXXX written by YYYYYYY with editing by ZZZZZZZZ).

  17. Hi Luke – thanks for your insights into comparable roles in different industries. And I think of film editing, famous editors like Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) are considered artistes in their own right, and editors get Oscars.

    I don’t know how it happened that book editors became this secret invisible guild and wonder if book editors have become more silent and secret over the 20th century. I always acknowledge the editors of my books in the acknowledgement pages, but now I’m thinking maybe the editor could be listed on the imprint page with the cover designer and typesetter.

  18. Jane, maybe all our formative myths about writing revolve around the single creator. Try typing ‘writer’ or ‘writing’ into Google images for a quick snapshot… How many of us wrote in teams at anytime during our schooling? OR uni (we have plenty group work presentations at uni, but seldom co-authored papers as far as I am aware)?

    Whereas performing arts, film, postgraduate research and music recording instead have their formative myths rooted in depictions of group activities.

    Visual arts (ie, the painter, sculptor) is another heritage/practice that has formative imaginations/imagery around the solo producer. How many pictures have we seen of ‘The Masters’ working by themselves, even though many of the greats had a whole apprenticeship system and group production work flows (like many highly productive research professors these days)?

    1. Yes, you’re right Luke about the writer being sole creator in myth and practice, eg at schools and unis.

      I’m just back from the REP (hence late reply to your comment) where some of these questions were raised and not too many answers given. I’d just love to see editors value themselves and be valued and acknowledged more by writers. Shall be thinking about it a lot more. But have to say, after my week spent with 12 ‘mid-career’ editors I think the profession is in excellent hands.

      1. Thinking again about your comment Luke ‘How many of us wrote in teams at anytime during our schooling? OR uni?’ – I think the author-editor relationship is mimicked or foreshadowed at school and uni in the teachers’ interaction with our writing. Ideally we learnt and grew as writers/thinkers/expressers-in-written-words through our teachers’ guidance, through their corrections, encouragement, suggestions. I was very intrigued last week by how many editors saw their role in terms of teaching.

  19. Hi Jane
    I’ve just been grazing the Emerging Writers’ Festival menu and there’s a feast of writerly fare on offer (looks delicious, I’ll be pigging out with a weekend pass) and notice that the questions raised in this blog don’t overtly flavour the narrative, as it were. Yet such a festival is a great pot for this invisible but tasty ingredient. I think I’m done with the food metaphor now. Thanks Jane.

  20. Interesting to hear thanks Clare. Haven’t seen the programme yet – do you mean editing and the idea that writing might be a collaborative art don’t appear on the menu?
    I was at the emerging writers’ festival about two years ago and spoke on an editing panel there, funnily enough. It was really interesting and well attended. As was an editing panel I spoke on at the Sydney Writers’ fest – in fact so packed that people were turned away and had to listen outside where the session was relayed through speakers. We were all a little stunned by its popularity.

    1. Hi Jeff. It’s not easy to imagine the whole content from the little blurbs in my program (though everything sounds very engaging) but ‘editor’ seems to be offered in relation to pitching/publishing rather than editing/writing collaboration and how should the editor be acknowledged. That was certainly the slant last year, from the panels/sessions I attended. I’m sure the writer/editor collaboration will feature at the festival, but the ‘hidden mender’ might not be a conscious focus. I could well have the wrong end of the stick.

      Looking forward to the ‘Going to a dark place’ session, even if editing doesn’t get a mention (though I suspect it might). ☺

      1. Jeff? Jane! Crikey – where’s my editor? For some reason I read ‘Jeff’ ??? Must be the mothers’ day champagne.

        Well, all still stands …

    2. Hello again. On the EWF – editors/editing did not feature much in any of the Town Hall sessions I attended except the small press publishers info panel ‘The Pitch’ (referred to on another panel by some of those involved as ‘The Last Supper’) where editors, publishers and an agent gave a sermon on the mount about (mostly) what not to do when submitting. It was interesting lalala but I ultimately found it frustrating and … where freelance editing is concerned … infuriating! Why? Well… one: the bottom line seems to be ‘if it’s great, it will be published’ which isn’t really played out in my experience as not everything I’ve seen published is ‘great’ … but that isn’t it. It’s two. Two: when a petitioner…aka emerging writer…asked about the value of manuscript assessment, Black Inc. publishing rep Caitlin proceeded to cast the aspersion that ms assessments were ‘dodgy’ and a rip off. That sentiment seemed to spill over into the realm of ‘freelance editors’ and statements such as ‘we don’t use freelance editors’ were bandied about in the same way one might say ‘we don’t use loansharks’. I was truly affronted and dismayed – as much by my own feelings of disempowerment as by anything said. Why didn’t I stand up and say ‘HEY!’ and challenge them? Because I’m an emerging writer, that’s why. Don’t piss off publishers is etched into my soul. I did ask a private question of Caitlin from Black Inc after the session(who had also, bizarrely, suggested that showing ‘mum’ or a close friend was a better option than a ms assessment) and she said she had heard of folks paying $3000 for a 80,000 word ms … Well, not in my street. And perhaps it needed $3000 worth of editing? Anyway – I thought of you, and this post, and I had thought also of writing a blog about it, but I’ve been too busy hoodwinking unsuspecting authors. Sigh. Nobody on the panel gainsaid this outrageous postulation, either, which was also disappointing. All power to the EWF, mind you – over all I think it an admirable festival. But this did cast a bit of a pall…

      1. That’s fascinating and quite astonishing to hear, Clare. I’ve never heard of freelance editors being dismissed in that way – ‘we don’t use freelance editors’. Many of the best editors in Australia are freelance (I’m talking editors of Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, Kate Grenville, Robert Dessaix, etc) and are constantly busy so Black Inc is definitely in the minority there. I”m really intrigued by what you say.

        As for manuscript assessment services, all I really know about them is that when I worked with unsolicited manuscripts for a literary agent then at Allen & Unwin I found the manuscripts submitted with high praise from manuscript assessment agencies rarely lived up to it. So I did begin to mistrust their opinions and wonder where they fitted into the industry, what sort of editing/publishing experience they’d had before setting up as ms assessors.

        You mention having ‘sweated through’ manuscript assessments – is that as assessor or was it your ms that was assessed? I think it’s an interesting subject to raise because there are so many writers in need of good feedback on early drafts and there’s no real place to go for it (beyond manuscript assessment agencies) if you don’t already have a publisher, an agent or the feedback of teachers etc if you’re studying creative writing. And I agree, not sure mothers and friends are the best people for that.

        What I see, having spoken on editing and writing at universities, colleges and festivals, is a lot of budding editors looking for mss to work with and a lot of budding writers looking for feedback on their manuscripts. But no systematic way of connecting these two groups which seem to be made for each other. Writers’ centres would be an obvious place for this connection to happen … I did once suggest this to various publishers and writers’ centre people, but nothing came of it. So far.

        Anyway, I’d be interested to read your possible blog about it all, Clare.

        1. Hola Jane. The ms assessment I was referring to was me being the assessor and taking it very seriously. I have been lucky with fabulous feedback from those excellent women at RMIT PWE and my mentor, plus some encouraging feedback from Scribe and Black Dog, plus treasured writers who have read my work and with whom I regularly workshop. It seems to me that the role of the ms assessment is to be really rigorous with what works and what doesn’t (drawing on as much integrity and intuition as the assessor posseses – all those esses!)and as long as the assessor offers concrete examples to illustrate what they’re on about, I can’t see that as being anything but useful for the writer. I’m merely an emerging editor with a lot to learn (as well as an emerging writer with a lot to publish), but if you haven’t got access to resources – other writers and editors – then it’s tough to know where to go next with your 100000000 word masterpiece. Then there’s the ‘fine line’ between spontaneous brilliance and over-corrected strangulation!! Hmmm … maybe there is a blog coming on. But no no! I have to write my novel!!!!

          Good feedback – it’s like medicine. Sometimes necessary, but not always easy to swallow at first.

          Ah…what privileged conundrums to have, given all the kinds available. It’s jolly to be a writer!

          All good blessings to you, Jane.

          But yes … the mixing up of ‘freelancers’ and ms assessment and charlatans was all very unfortunate.

  21. Hi Jane

    when you wrote:
    “I think the author-editor relationship is mimicked or foreshadowed at school and uni in the teachers’ interaction with our writing. Ideally we learnt and grew as writers/thinkers/expressers-in-written-words through our teachers’ guidance, through their corrections, encouragement, suggestions. I was very intrigued last week by how many editors saw their role in terms of teaching.”

    I think this make sense, but it still enters into the sole author myth.

    I mean, teachers help students, but they still mark the student as an individual writer. Teacher will edit, but then pretend themselves out of the equation in the assessment regime.

    recaptcha = “darkened statements”

  22. Good point Luke. I agree that the sole author myth remains untarnished in context of teacher as editor and editor as teacher. Think your recaptcha sums it up perfectly. And I really like your phrase ‘pretend themselves out of the equation’.

    And thanks – you’ve made me try to clarify what I’m hoping to say here. Which is essentially to question why editorial work is – and apparently has to be – carried out in secret. Editorial secrecy is seen as sacrosanct (priest-confessor style) by the editors interviewed in James Ley’s piece and was perhaps the key message conveyed at REP 2010. More has been written about the supposedly confidential psychoanalytical relationship than the author-editor relationship. Why? My answer would be found in James Bradley’s quote, that writing is collaborative. But as you and the discussion above have shown, the nature of that collaboration is very hard to define. Because we’ve kept it so secret.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *