Dave the fisher, from a small town on the far north coast of NSW taught me more about editing than anything else could.
I have been in the writing industry most of my adult life. I have traded it for cash, used it to persuade, cajole, obfuscate, (both personally and professionally, I’m afraid to say), and am most familiar with the edges of it. Yet, it is only now, after having worked as an editor, journalist, researcher, report writer on almost every platform, that I actually feel I can call myself a writer. Because I have written my own first book – go to whoa, finished. Virtually only just finished, a few months ago and only now, have submitted it to an editor of my own choosing.
While writing I have also carried out some work in the book publishing industry editing other people’s manuscripts – which work, surprisingly, I love. Now, look, I can edit any article you could throw at me. I used to edit every article and page of a 36-page country newspaper (which I had founded in some mad moment of community-minded enthusiasm, thinking it was going to be a ‘small project’), at the same time as writing and editing for a finance industry sustainability magazine (which means I was editing the fishing column written by the Dave the local bait-and-tackle shop owner, at the same time as cross-checking facts about the ethics of plantation forests for an article by an expert on carbon sinks.)
Actually, I loved editing Dave’s fishing column. It was highly anticipated in the community (we had started off small, 500 copies a month for our local town, 12 pages of hokey ‘news sheet’, and within a couple of years had morphed into a print run of near 12,000 – 36 pages filled with local politics, social events and news relevant to people living on the north coast, with a rolling list of 180 contributors and volunteers). And people like Dave were part of that success. He knew what fish were running and where, and what bait to use and how. His knowledge was so rich and his desire to share that knowledge so impelling a force, that things like grammar, spelling or even punctuation were simply things that got in the way.
Dave wrote exactly the way he talked – like the last 50 pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses – a stream of consciousness. Before me would sit a mad scramble of 600 words of what would look like one very long sentence. I used to have to edit to a killer of a deadline – teeing up with my layout person who was based a few towns away (the distances are huge out there so you don’t get to actually meet your work colleagues except on Skype), and needing to deliver the final copy to the printers by daylight or miss my position in the printing queue.
So here I would be at 4am, with Dave’s fishing column in front of me, imagining Dave having violently tapped out his piece with two fingers, and upon finishing, Dave looking proudly at his finished product. I then imagined him frowning, and deciding that a few full-stops and commas were needed somewhere in that scree of words. ‘Yes, yes,’ I could see him saying, placing a finger to his lips like an artist scrutinizing his almost-finished canvas, ‘Yes, a comma just here, yes here, would look very nice!’ Or maybe, I would sigh to myself, it was like some pin the tail of a donkey game that he played at the end of his work, with a blindfold. In any case the placement of these grammatical features – apparently meant for visual effect rather than anything else – bore little relation to their more conventional intent – which was to divide the whole thing into meaningful phrases. In any case he always ended with his signature farewell – ‘Signing off and Happy Fishing, Dave!!!’ and a flourish of exclamation marks. By comparison the columns of Carol the Gardener (Get Gardening – Loving Lobelias) and Wayne the Surfer (Get Surfing – Waynes Wave) were dead easy to edit. Submission of competing scone recipes by different contributors was an area of great contention… Joan would call me, ‘Did you know that Margaret Stone uses cream in her recipe….yes, you heard me, cream! That’s not technically speaking a scone anymore, is it?’
I think Dave taught me more about editing than anyone else – because in those 600 words was something meaningful and all I had to do was unknot it all so the gems of information could tumble out. And many times this was far easier than editing the sometimes tormented articles written by specialist finance and science journalists who were being paid by the word. In any case it was a great deal of fun, and Dave would always tell me how much good feedback he would get about his columns – pointing out, as he balanced a beer and burger on the bar at the ‘R-ie’, that he really was a fantastic writer. ‘Comes natural,’ he said, ‘It just pours out.’
To be cont…