The Invisible Touch of a Good Editor

Katrina Lezaic

A manuscript is a lovely thing – in the hands of a good editor. Photograph by Graham Binns, used under Creative Commons licence.

A manuscript is a lovely thing – in the hands of a good editor. Photograph by Graham Binns, used under Creative Commons licence.

The paradox of good editing is that it goes unnoticed.

But talented, hardworking editors have a very personal stake in their author’s work and invest time and effort to ensure their manuscripts are flawless.

The Australian Standards for Editing Practice defines the role of an editor as central to any publishing project and as requiring a broad understanding of the publishing process. It states that editors, regardless of their role or the type of publication, should demonstrate initiative and ensure that all material is consistent and correct, regardless of publication, and that the content, language, style and layout meets the needs of its audience.

Emma Rafferty, managing editor at Pan Macmillan/Picador and the winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ 2013 Barbara Ramsden Award, agrees that the primary function of the editor is to act as the reader’s advocate.

“It’s the editor’s job to marry the publisher’s vision with the author’s vision and to produce a product for the reader,” Ms Rafferty says. “I think to effectively represent the reader and get the best out of the author you need to embrace the manuscript and work out what is special about it so you can help the author make it shine.”

Ms Rafferty has been an editor for 15 years. She has worked on new Australian commercial fiction, non-fiction and literary titles for a range of bestselling authors including Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, who is currently working on his 36th book.

“The first thing that most people who are not in the trade don’t realise is that editing is different from writing and that a good editor is absolutely essential,” Dr Karl says. “The thing I especially love about working in the book industry is that I’m surrounded by intelligent women who love to read,” Dr Karl says. “And Emma is one of those.”

Ms Rafferty won last year’s Barbara Ramsden Award for her work on Felicity Volk’s debut novel Lightning, which judges Christina Crossely-Ratcliffe and Julia Maurus describe as an exceptional literary fiction that gleams with poetic nuance, motif and metaphor.

Felicity Volk says the editorial experience was a respectful collaboration in which she had a strong sense of Ms Rafferty’s intellectual and emotional investment in the book.

“I felt like the process I was engaged in wasn’t being intruded on or invaded in any way because Emma asked astute questions and left lots of room for me to find the answers,” Ms Volk says.

She describes the process of writing a novel as entering into a lonely room where one creates life out of dust and putting flesh on the bones of the imagination.

“It’s a fantastic space to be in,” Ms Volk says. “There is great beauty, immense struggle and a lot of wonder and miracles, but the problem with that room is that all that’s bouncing off the walls is the echo of your own voice and I think that constant echo can muffle truth and distort perception. That’s where it’s crucial for an editor to come into the room with you.”

Acclaimed writer Daan Spiljer received the Highly Commended Award in the same category for his work as editor of Roland Johnson’s non-fiction, social history volume Norwood: It changed the face of Melbourne, published by The Publishing Company with Seventh House Communications.

Largely self-taught, Mr Spijer came to the role with previous industry experience working on quarterly medical journals and The Australian Writer Magazine, before receiving his first FAW Highly Commended Award in 2012 for his editorial work on Peter Ralph’s novel Dirty Fracking Business.

Having trained in psychotherapy and mediation, Mr Spijer describes editing as listening to what the authors have to say without judgment, and guiding them from an objective standpoint.

“I realise that it’s the other person’s life and I can’t live it for them,” Mr Spijer says. “All I can do is take them by the hand and help them to fill the whole thing out from their point of view. I have an investment in it, but I can’t own it.”

Roland Johnson, the author of Norwood, believes working on a non-fiction book is different to a fictional one. An accomplished historian, Mr Johnson’s written work only required light editing and his distinct use of language remains a feature of the work.

“Daan was extremely patient and the alterations he made were not intrusive, despite the difference in our writing style, so he was more of a mentor than anything else.” Mr Johnson says. “He encouraged me to do it in the first place and his faith never waned.