Tips from the Editors: Dos, Don’ts and Cautionary Tales

By Jo Case, The Wheeler Centre’s senior writer/editor

Earlier this week, I took part in an Emerging Writers Festival event on editing, with three fellow editors. We talked about how we got into the business (me: spectacularly timed work experience), obstacles we face in our jobs, learning experiences, and our approach to editing.

Penny Modra: Inspired by Press Gang

Penny Modra, editor of The Thousands Melbourne, said her inspiration to be an editor came from Press Gang (she wanted to grow up to be Lynda; ‘I kind of did,’ she said). Her tips included paying your writers – otherwise, it’s difficult to have any leverage when you want to be able to significantly change their text. And pay kill fees and let the piece go if it really isn’t working out. She also said a pet hate is food metaphors in music writing (ie. ‘Band A serves up a smorgasbord of …’) and that the writing she publishes needs to sound as if it is spoken. She encourages writers to read their pieces aloud before they submit, to check that it passes that test.

Dale Campisi: Never work with crazy people

Dale Campisi, editor of Island magazine and publisher at Arcade Publications, made the audience laugh (and tweet up a storm) with his advice to ‘never work with crazy people’. He clarified by email. ‘I guess what I really mean by that is to ensure you have a good rapport with your authors (that’s a life lesson, really!) otherwise your job just becomes difficult instead of enjoyable, and you won’t get the best result for the MS, which is what you and the author are both working for.’

He added two extra gems of advice, the first for editors and the second for writers:

‘Jenny Lee taught me the three Cs of editing: Correctness, Clarity, Concision. I edit in that order.’

‘Also, thanks to Google, plagiarism is really easy to detect and prove.’

Aden Rolfe: Editing and romance

Aden Rolfe, a freelance editor and the 2010 editor of the Emerging Writers' Festival official publication (then called The Reader), spends a lot of his working life editing romance novels. He shared a story that illustrates the role of editor as in-betweener.

He told us about a time when his publisher wanted him to convince an author to change a line that seemed a bit over-the-top, ‘even for romance’:

It was how two lovers would kiss if they were the last people on earth with a time bomb at their feet.

The author changed it to something Aden thought even worse, particularly in the months after Victoria’s devastating bushfires:

It was how two lovers would kiss in the middle of a bushfire, breathless and urgent, desperate to hold on to a forever they may not have.

‘The writer became attached to this line, despite my advice to rein it in to something a bit more generic and less melodramatic,’ said Aden. ‘After a bit of back and forth, the writer asked me to get the publisher involved. I thought this was my trump card, so I sent the decision up the chain. Suddenly (things always happen suddenly in romance fiction), the publisher wrote back in favour of the bushfire formulation.’

His lesson? ‘You’re an expert, supposedly, but sometimes the writer or the publisher (or both) is going to know more than you, and you need to defer to their judgement. An editor sometimes needs to be disinterested, in the true sense of the term.’

Karen Pickering: One-word responses can hurt

Participating chair Karen Pickering, is editor of the Emerging Writers Festival’s official publication, The Emerging Writer. A working writer and editor, she said one of the things she’s taken to heart from her experience pitching to editors is to always send a timely and polite response to writers who pitch – never a one-line (or even one-word) response, which can hurt when you’re on the receiving end.

Advice from Twitter

My advice? I sum up my approach under three main categories: respect (for the author’s work and feelings, for the integrity of the work you’re publishing, and for the integrity of your publication/publishing house); communication (be clear, responsive, polite and use a good ‘bedside manner’) and put yourself in the author’s shoes, especially when you hit a roadblock in understanding.

I enjoyed the festival conversation so much – particularly hearing other people’s golden rules and pet hates – that I decided to continue the conversation on Twitter.

Here’s some of the wisdom gleaned:

Advice for editors

The best thing is to point out problems and ask questions about them. The author is often the best person to find solutions that suit the work.
- Ronnie Scott, editor, The Lifted Brow

Edit unto others as you would have them edit unto you. Editors are allies, not schoolmarms.
Mary Colleen-Jenkins, freelance editor

Compliment the author, criticise the text.
Daniel Corbett, editor, Lonely Planet

Never forget the author’s feelings. Ensure all queries are phrased in a supportive and respectful manner. Tone can make all the difference.
Vanessa Lanaway, freelance editor

Spelling: Pick one dictionary and stick to it (in Australia, usually the Macquarie). Keep a thorough style sheet for exceptions/additions.
– Laura Davies, freelance editor

Don’t forget what it’s like to pitch. Do be generous in praise to cushion the blow of straightforward criticism.
Karen Pickering, editor, The Emerging Writer

Be firm, but not overly harsh. One-word answers [to pitches from writers] can be devastating.
Amee Warden, editor

Advice for writers, from editors

As an ex-deputy editor, I highly recommend [to writers] being nice to whoever answers the phone. Don’t save your sugar for the boss!
Meg Mundell, author, former deputy editor of The Big Issue

Avoid fake genteelisms: amongst, whilst.
Kerryn Goldsworthy, editor, critic, author

Don’t use acronyms that no one else would ever guess.
– Amee Warden, editor

Avoid synonyms for ‘said’. My editor also restricts my use of adverbs and exclamation marks to one each per novel.
Angela Savage, author

Pet hates

‘Which’ used wrongly instead of ‘that’. Disinterested for uninterested, infer for imply, ad nauseum for ad nauseam.
– Kerryn Goldsworthy, editor, critic, author

‘He gave it to Sue and I’ for ‘He gave it to Sue and me …’
– Kerryn Goldsworthy, editor, critic, author

Overused words: that, then, just, just, almost, very, suddenly, but, however, possible/possibly.
Angela Savage, author

Buzz words: bestie, cheesy, augmented.
Fran Atkinson, deputy editor, the Age’s Green Guide

‘When he finds a ‘just’, my publisher … gets a funny twitch in his eye.’
Toni Jordan, author

Affect/effect and your/you’re used wrongly.
Amee Warden, editor

Unnecessary capitals at the beginning of words that aren’t Proper Nouns.
Louise Heinrich, writer

The phrase ‘impact on’ seems to be growing in misuse.
– Meredith Tucker-Evans, editor

The Comma Splice: A category of its own

‘The comma splice. Gah.’
Paddy O’Reilly, author

Some of us had to look up just what a comma splice is. Others hated it. Others looked it up, then agreed that they hate it, but just never knew quite what it was called. And others believed only Peter Temple can get away with it.

Kerryn Goldsworthy and Toni Jordan agreed wholeheartedly with this one.

Kerryn pointed out that Peter Temple uses this as a device in Truth and gets away with it, though ‘very few people can’. Toni said she tells her students that the ‘Temple comma’ is only allowed if you are, in fact, Peter Temple.

Novelist Charlotte Wood says she hates the comma splice. ‘Always looks wrong. Temple or no Temple.’

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