The Monthly Q&A: Craig Munro

Craig Munro is an award-winning biographer and editor. He was the inaugural fiction editor, and later publishing manager, at the University of Queensland Press. He tells of his editing adventures, with many of Australia’s best writers, in his new memoir Under Cover (Scribe), reviewed here by Susan Pierotti.

What has been your biggest editing challenge to date, and why?

A decade ago I co-edited Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946–2005 with Robyn Sheahan-Bright, and also wrote a couple of chapters. After assembling our draft manuscript, we realised it was 50,000 words over-length. As there were more than 60 contributors, one solution was to simply delete whole sections. Instead, I wielded my blue pencil through everything, reducing some contributions by up to 50 per cent. This took many weeks of patient editing to condense and tighten the text. The University of Queensland Press then conspired, along with their experienced editor Felicity McKenzie and freelance indexer Kerry Biram, to publish Paper Empires as both a beautiful, well-bound hardback and as a sewn-section paperback.

How has the way you approach editing changed over the years? Do you think the editing profession is easier now or tougher – why?

Fact checking is much easier and quicker now online, while navigating or searching a digital file speeds up editing, as does the wonderful Word Count button and so many other features of Microsoft Word. Because most of my active copyediting was in the pre-computer era, I still prefer a hard copy pencil edit and have never been comfortable with Track Changes. As a compromise, my indulgent Under Cover editor at Scribe, Julia Carlomagno, allowed me to use strike-through, square brackets and coloured text: blue for Julia’s suggestions; green for my revisions.

I find it difficult to generalise about our profession because in earlier decades we were largely invisible. Today’s editors are better trained, more sophisticated and savvy than editors were when I was an apprentice wordsmith.

Is there a genre of books that you particularly enjoy editing or authors with whom you have found a special affinity?

Memoir is one genre I’ve always enjoyed reading as well as editing, and I worked closely with Hugh Lunn on his autobiographical trilogy, beginning with his childhood memoir Over the Top with Jim and ending with Spies Like Us. Hugh’s wife, Helen Dash, is also an editor and they’re both good friends of mine, so working on Hugh’s books has always been both personally and professionally rewarding. Memoir should, above all, be entertaining, and we three former journos have laughed a lot together over the years. Hugh also made a funny speech at the launch of my own memoir, Under Cover, which has a chapter on our decades-long editing relationship.

Do digital and print books each serve a different purpose or audience? And do you think these formats influence the way authors write and editors edit?

All books are now produced digitally. Some are then read on paper, some on electronic ‘paper’ (Kindle) and others on an endless array of backlit screens. Paper books may well be encoded somewhere deep in our cultural DNA because they’ve been around for at least two millennia. For travel, the Kindle is light and frugal in battery use. Although I still have some audio books on vinyl, I no longer have a record player, so rely on a variety of online sources, including Audible, for the childish pleasure of being read to. The primary platform for launching and promoting literary fiction and non-fiction, however, remains the paper book, and most other formats and adaptations (including film) hang off that.

Does the growth in self-publishing offer any particular opportunities or challenges for editors?

In New York recently I visited a bookstore with a Book Expresso machine that would print a book while you waited – either your own or one downloaded from an internet library or warehouse. Like a literary TARDIS, this ingenious machine sat beside the store’s café so customers could enjoy a coffee while it spat out their customised paperback. Such instant gratification is illusory. Experienced authors and their editors know that professionally crafted books take years – not hours – to research, write, edit, redraft and finally publish. Unfortunately, faced with ever-faster technology, the temptation has never been stronger to shortcut this labour-intensive and collaborative process. Close reading of drafts, for example, takes weeks and cannot be compressed because a really good editor is the most valuable reader an author will ever have.

Can you identify the one important quality an editor MUST have, and why?

Enjoyment of reading is paramount. The other skills can be acquired with experience and with exposure to a range of authors and manuscript drafts at various stages of development. When an editor is temperamentally in tune with an author, both will learn from each other in a highly satisfying exchange. Early on, I learned that it was as important to get to know an author as it was to identify the potential strengths and weaknesses of their manuscript.

What advice would you give a young editor?

Pay attention first of all to an author’s personality and ambitions for their work in the light of any previous publications. Then, assess – for consistency and impact – the overall chapter structure and narrative strategy deployed in the manuscript. Finally, strive for the clarity, originality and elegance of every paragraph, sentence and even phrase, because they are all necessary for a book’s heart to beat true and strong.

Finally, what is the most joyful part of being an editor?

Holding an advance copy for the first time, turning it over, scanning the cover and blurb the way a bookshop customer might, before feeling its newborn weight and freshly minted identity – this living thing ready and eager to make its own way in the world of words.

 

Many thanks, Craig, for taking the time to share your thoughts, and to Sally Holdsworth for the insightful questions. You can find out more about Craig’s latest book at www.craigmunroedits.com or follow him on Twitter @CraigMunroEdits.