Working with Words: Patrick Witton
Patrick Witton has worked as a writer and/or editor for Lonely Planet, the Age/Fairfax and the Big Issue. He is now copy editor at the Monthly. Patrick talked to us about rejection letters, typos and his past life as a brooding primary-school poet.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
In the 1980s the federal government published a collection of stories by primary school children from across the nation. I made the cut with a dystopian piece about pollution ‘making the skies grey’. Later in life I lightened up and had an article published in the Age about the possible resurgence of vinyl records. It was the mid-nineties – I was an early adopter of retro themes.
What’s the best part of your job?
Reading incredibly interesting articles and finding typos, but not my own and not after publication.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Finding typos after publication. Snippy emails. Sending rejection letters.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?
After mailing article after article after article after article after article after article after article to an editor, I finally got a call back to say they wanted to publish something. (It was the article about vinyl records, which ran in the Age’s ‘EG’ section.) There have been a few moments when I have hung up the phone and proceeded to jump up and down with glee, and that was one of them. On the strength of that piece, the editor later let me run a column about quirky things in Melbourne.
There have been a few moments when I have hung up the phone and proceeded to jump up and down with glee, and that was one of them.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Best: Under-promise and over-deliver.
Worst: It was pretty demoralising when someone said: ‘Write? What, you? No!’ Or maybe I misheard.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
On my first day in a ‘real’ job, my new boss sent out an all-staff email introducing the new employees, and he described me as ‘the natty dresser’. I never wore a kaftan to work again.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’d probably be a primary school teacher. Once a week I do reading with prep kids at my daughter’s school and it’s fricking hilarious. Admittedly, I usually just listen to them rambling on about whatever rather than making them actually read.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Sure it can. Even if the classroom only provides you with other people’s ideas and feedback, that’s all part of a necessary package.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read and write a lot. Stay active, tho. You’re not that hungry and the dishes can wait. Get off Facebook.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Mildred from The Worst Witch series. It’s the only fiction I read these days so I’m pretty limited. But her random magic spells would make for an exciting evening.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
There was a fellow in my writing class at RMIT called Simon Crosbie who wrote a magnificent autobiographical piece about art and travel and football and heaps of other stuff. I still have a copy of it in a drawer somewhere. Reading it was like taking a dodgem car through someone else’s brain.