The Writer as Editor, with Christina Thompson, Alice Pung & blow-in Gideon Haigh


Chris Wallace-Crabbe moderated this panel, and the first note I have written was something he said:

Editing is almost everything.

He introduced the panel, saying they’d asked Gideon along even though he wasn’t on the program.

Christina spoke for a while, giving her background. She worked for Peter Craven on Scripsi, the lit mag he founded with Michael Heyward (currently of ‘Text fame’ – my skerrick of extra info) in 1981. She typed dictated letters to people like Susan Sontag, applied for editor of Meanjin and did that for 4 years. Then went to the Harvard Review (which I think is where she is now.)

Alice Pung’s editor takes an approach to editing much like the Hippocratic Oath:

Do no harm.

Gideon Haigh – he went into journalism because it was the only other job you could get without a tertiary degree, other than garbage collector and ‘I was too weak to do that.’ Haigh said Sally Warhaft is an excellent editor, that he has lots of respect for her, and when she was sacked from The Monthly, he stood in solidarity with her. He said a good editor is the most ‘selfless individual you’ll meet – and they’ll make you look good.’

CT (I have a note here that ‘she looks like Streep in Devil Wears Prada, so ballsy.’ Thompson remembers the first piece she published, an editor had changed the ending. She ‘never forgot or forgave.’ Editors are invisible but if they’re good and doing their job, they’ll make you better. Her advice to editors – cut. You can reveal a better sentence, but don’t add. Authors will always notice when you add text.

More and more authors now are having to find external advice, not getting it in-house any more.

GH – talked about Philippa Hawker as a really good editor (and friend).

Someone made the comment (maybe from the audience) that in the United States, a lot of editing happens with literary agents.

CT – agents are having more trouble getting books sold. Making sure MSS are really ready. Won’t get the attention by publishing houses if not up to scratch, ALSO pub houses are so risk adverse.  Lots of editors lost jobs and became agents. Not necessarily a bad thing, Thompson said.

On literary journals, Peter Craven said you can’t pull one together out of the slush pile, you have to commission to get a mix. (I guess that means the slush is mostly shit. I suppose we know that?)

Pung told a funny story about putting together her book, and interviewing John So about his experience as mayor of Melbourne, and all he would say was: ‘Moomba is a very important event.’ (Seemed to indicate he had a one-track mind, even though she was trying to access his migrant experiences, he was firmly in the role of mayor.)

GH – you’re always surprised by how bad some people are as writers, even those who’ve had columns [in papers] etc. They’ve obviously been ‘protected.’ He talked about his first cricket almanac, saying ‘you wouldn’t believe the dross.’ He had to rewrite ‘every word.’

There are different writer responses to editing. Some people love it, ‘like massage’ – they love that you’re making them better. Other people, you want to tweak and they get very precious

− Christina Thomson

There was a question to Haigh, whether any ‘sporting identities’ can write? He talked about how sports journalism has been affected by the voice on the tv. Not many sporting people are attracted to writing; their thinking and analysis is excellent (especially ex-players) – to them, they’re common place things they might have knowledge about but your job (as a ghostwriter or biographer) is to tease out what they think is ordinary but to you is very interesting, as a reader/journalist.

Comment from audience (and it was Helen Garner) – lecturing at universities in creative writing classes, the students don’t read, and their grammar/syntax is no good. It’s hard to give feedback, they don’t have the language, for example, don’t know what a noun is. (I have a note here: ‘If she wasn’t HG, she’d been the annoying questioner from the audience type. That kind of dithery, taking-too-long-to-get-to-the-point person.)

You can tell when someone can write. Even if English is a second or third language, even if the paragraphs are not there, or the grammar. The voice is so strong.

− Alice Pung

CT – talked about a piece she uses in classes, has done for more than ten years, it’s a short story and she gives it to the students unedited, and the first version has no punctuation but is totally readable – perfectly rhythmical – but it does require a mental shift to read it. Then she gives an edited/punctuated version and the students can see how less sophisticated it is.

GH – there was a question re ghost writing, how to create a voice. He said for his Allan Border book, in the end he probably just sounded like himself, channelling Allan Border. He rates Malcolm Knox as having an uncanny knack of working a person’s voice out, he creates an ‘idealised version of them’ Haigh said.

Question from the audience, and it’s Garner again: Is that a novelist’s skill?

Okay, it was more a comment that question but I have to say, this WF, COMMENTS WERE OKAY even if they weren’t from Helen Garner.

Another question, I don’t think it was from Helen: Does editing make you a better writer?

CT – not sure it’s related. Editing one’s own work is different to editing other’s.

My friend asked a question – let’s call her AK: Does being an editor carry over and ruin your reading life? (An excellent question I thought.)

CT – reading the crap does. But reading the great stuff…

AK (with a follow-up question. This never happens as the big festivales) – So you can still be surprised?

CT – absolutely.

GH – developing his editing increased his appreciation for good editors.

Question – Amazon v publishers. Will that destroy opportunities for new writers to come on?


CT – someone still has to pick them, there are so many people vying to be published. Publishers are shrinking but they won’t go away. They’re publishing too much anyway.

My final note: ‘Fab audience. So rigorous.’

And the next day I wrote some more impressions of the festival:

Alice Pung – such a delightful laugh. Charming.

Lisa Gorton – so smart

Chris Wallace-Crabbe – so warm, friendly, supportive. In the last panel he stood the entire time as he moderated. Wonder if he has a standing desk to write.

Helen Garner had the audience absolutely with her. They were hanging on every word, she was funny and we laughed, but there was a sombre underpinning, because of the book she’d written.

There was another session we would have gone to, where Alex Miller was in convo with a young writer (whose name I didn’t know) and it was his name on the program, not AM’s. Not sure how that happened.

Such a great atmosphere, relaxed. No fanning*, older people. Just wonderful.


* Not that there’s anything wrong with fanning.


UP NEXT: Helen Garner at Nunawading Library Wed 23 July, talking about The Spare Room.


2 thoughts on “The Writer as Editor, with Christina Thompson, Alice Pung & blow-in Gideon Haigh

  1. I love your session round-ups, Jenny. They make me feel like I was there with you in Mildura. From this one however it seems like the conversation was at a tangent from the ostensible focus of the session (Writer as Editor). As you know, I believe the ability to be a tough editor of one’s own sentences and paragraphs is an essential skill for any serious writer. The session sounded like it focused on writers working with third-party editors, which is also part of the published writer’s life, but without much in the way of specifics. Did any of the panellists talk about how they edit their own work, how they assess their own sentences? Did they share any details about what things their own editors tend to pick up in their work, or in others’ work generally? Like Helen Garner, I believe that an intense attention to the craft of syntax and sentence is the only way that a writer can improve. When she’s not reading excellent sentences written by other people, that is.

    1. You are right, I hadn’t really noticed but it *was* Editor as Editor, not as advertised. No, they didn’t talk about their own processes, about how writers can improve their self-editing. Hah, well spotted. I guess I was just in note-taking mode, not analysis mode. (Note-taking mode much easier!)

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