John Freeman: Editing Class with the Master

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One of the hottest tickets so far in the Melbourne Writers Festival was the Masterclass in Editing with renowned editor John Freeman. Fresh from the Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, John had his first Melbourne audience hanging on his every word.

Over three fleeting hours, John shared his early experiences as an editor and his thoughts on writing and editing. John has worked with many illustrious writers, both new and established – including Peter Carey and Helen Garner – and his insights were gold. Rather than focusing on the technicalities of editing, he shared his thoughts on the simple truth and primary role of an editor: to help the writer be most essentially themselves. This involves building a productive relationship with the writer by listening carefully; understanding the different needs and communication styles of writers; and understanding the type of person and writer they are.

He shared his own index, ‘the bestiary’, his way of categorising and understanding the writer as ‘creature’. We learnt about the big cat, the owl, the octopus, the chimp and the bear, each with distinct characteristics.

John emphasised the need for editors to listen to and respect our writers, but in doing this we also need to clarify, confront and interpret what is being written. He left us with some editing tips:

Set the writer a deadline and make it early. Give it time to fail.

Make the deadline far enough away, but not so far that it becomes a vague idea.

Schedule a conversation with the writer to talk about the story.

Read the story immediately, especially if it is a commissioned piece.

Don’t try to edit on first read.

Every editor has a style: be aware of your own style – it’s bad if all writing sounds the same.

It’s easy to over-edit a piece. Edit carefully to preserve the small details.

Make the end result beautiful. Use photos and illustrations to best effect. Design well and illustrate well.

John is an editor who understands writers; he is both encouraging and aware of the long-term commitment that a book requires. He also emphasised the benefit for writers in doing other things while writing, including turning elements of their book into essays. In this way, writers can receive feedback and reward while the long-form writing process continues.

The three hours passed in a flash; a few lucky Melbourne writers and editors walked away with a little more perspective on the craft courtesy of this NY-based uber-editor. John Freeman’s latest anthology, Freeman’s: Family, is out now.

Editors Victoria was a sponsor of the Masterclass: Editing.

Sally Holdsworth
Communication subcommittee