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Your KS #68 – The Joys of Editing

By Nathan Hobby

I’ve just finished working on the copy-edits for my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. There’s nothing like having a skilled editor mark-up your manuscript to reveal all the mistakes and inconsistencies and the clarifications required. This person’s name is spelt differently in different places; this play is given a different date in the bibliography; is that misspelling in the original source? When I was a young writer I was impatient – the minor details didn’t matter as long as the important things were right. But accuracy, consistency, and presentation really do matter. Even trivial mistakes distract the reader and reduce the authoritativeness of your writing. The slow, thorough processes most publishers follow to prepare a book for publication are a safeguard for both their reputation and the author’s.

Katharine herself didn’t have many happy editing experiences. Everything had to be done by post, with most of her publishers based in London. When Hodder and Stoughton wrote to her asking her to cut 50,000 words from Black Opal (1921) before publication, she told them ‘to “go to hell”—or words to that effect’. She found a new publisher – but only after she had actually followed their advice. She wrote to Vance Palmer in 1927, ‘I’m sure personal contact with publishers makes all the difference. Twixt ourselves Black Swan would never have got by but that Mollie Skinner was in London, & revised & revised on the spot.’ She’s referring to her writer-friend, Mollie Skinner, who lived nearby in Darlington.

Katharine never got a similar opportunity to revise ‘on the spot’ with her publisher. Sometimes, corrections were made to her manuscripts without her input. In the case of Haxby’s Circus (1930), she pleaded for some extra time to finish some planned chapters which hadn’t been finished by the deadline; her publisher Cape wanted the book released and went ahead without them. (Her American publisher, Norton, gave her the chance to write them for the US edition.) When it came to revisions on Katharine’s autobiography, Child of the Hurricane (1963), the Australian publisher, Angus and Robertson, thought that it needed substantial changes, but they were so worried about Katharine’s health and the prospect she would just withdraw the manuscript that they didn’t push her too hard. That is the sort of privilege only granted to an internationally-acclaimed writer about to turn eighty.

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