August 2016 Q&A: Lucy Treloar

Lucy Treloar was born in Malaysia and educated in Melbourne, England and Sweden. A graduate of the University of Melbourne and RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program, Lucy is a writer, editor, mentor and creative writing teacher. She has plied her trades both in Australia and in Cambodia, where she lived for several years. Lucy has published a range of short fiction and non-fiction, and her debut novel, Salt Creek, was published by Picador in August 2015. Salt Creek is shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Lucy, you are both writer and editor. How easy is to switch modes or impose work demarcation lines?

I do everything I can to keep the two worlds separate. Even though writing involves editing at some stage, it’s important for me, especially when I’m writing a first draft, to keep my inner editing voice switched off. It can be a paralysing presence in a writer’s mind. I manage this by keeping separate workspaces: an internet-free creative writing studio several miles from home and a home office for my editing business. The type of work divides my day too: writing in the morning and editing in the afternoon.

It’s not hard to transition because of the separation I’ve been able to create. Writing fatigue sets in after a few hours, so it suits me to switch to editing, which is relatively stress-free by comparison – unless there’s a tight deadline!

What type of editing do you most enjoy? Is there a type of writing that you particularly enjoy editing or would like to edit?

The editing jobs I do are incredibly varied. In terms of fiction editing, most of the material I see is folk tales or children’s picture books translated from Khmer into English. The first translation will often have been done by someone who’s used to translating legal documents, and the tone they produce is anything but appealing. My job is to edit with the intended audience in mind, to bring it to life.

The challenge of that engages my creative side but is much slower than the other editing I do, and more wearing. The non-fiction covers a huge range of material: reports, research projects and proposals, articles of association, laws, legal cases and speeches, and so many other things. This might be translated from Khmer, French, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Dutch or Italian. I find this official material more interesting to edit than the fiction, which from a western perspective tends towards moral instruction. With the non-fiction, I feel that I’m seeing the inner workings of a country, the blood that pulses through it and keeps it moving. It can be fascinating.

You edit in both Australia and South-East Asia. What are the particular issues you consider when editing translations for an English-speaking audience?

The most important thing is what’s tonally appropriate for a document. A lifestyle magazine article, a newspaper piece, a research report, love letters for a visa application, the minutes of a court case and the statutes of a business – any and all of which I might work on during the course of an afternoon – should have quite distinct tones, but when they arrive on my computer the correct social register and language are often missing. That’s a large part of my job – giving them the appropriate voice.

Punctuation conventions in South-East Asia – for speech and questions for instance – are often different, as are grammatical rules. For example, like a number of Asian languages, Khmer (the language of Cambodia) doesn’t have verb tenses, and indicates time through the use of ‘already’, ‘in the future’ and a range of other temporal pointers. Translations use these as well as the (not always) correct English verb tense. ‘Right now we have done this already’ is a fairly typical construction, and obviously not very natural in English.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for editors today, and why?

I couldn’t speak for all editors, but, in the sort of editing that I do, the very rapid turnaround that’s often required creates problems. Sometimes I have to accept that all I can achieve is a ‘good enough’ result within the given timeframe. Once or twice I’ve been pressured to do something incredibly quickly. I try to politely decline these jobs. I’d rather not put my name to them.

Can you describe what your typical editing (and/or writing) day looks like?

My days vary a lot. If I’m writing – which is most mornings when I’m on a deadline – I start in bed at around 6am, pot of tea at my side, handwriting whatever scene interests me, and go into my studio at 9am. I don’t let myself leave until I’ve written at least a thousand words. After I come home, the afternoon is taken up with editing jobs, which I do in my internet-friendly home office. My dogs snooze in their bed to one side and let me know when it’s time for a walk.

Do you have a particular workflow routine in place when beginning a new project?

I complete most editing jobs within a single day, and the longest jobs I do wouldn’t take longer than four days or so. It can get complicated if I’ve got jobs on tight deadlines coming through from two agencies. I juggle them according to the time they’re due back, their length, or the order in which they arrive, and advise the agencies accordingly. For longer jobs I set myself a quota of pages per editing session and make sure I stick to this.

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

This is a hard one. There are so many qualities that an editor must possess – organisation, tact and expertise among them – but all these things come from one place: caring about the result.

Lucy, you are also a teacher and mentor. What advice would you give to beginner editors (or writers)?

Don’t be half-hearted in anything you do. We’re only here once, and I think it’s incredibly important for each of us personally, as well as for the work that we do, to engage with it fully, whatever it is. It’s easy for us to get stuck in our comfort zone, which for me is sitting in a quiet room looking at words. I try to challenge myself, to face the things that sometimes frighten me, so I say yes to opportunities that come my way, whether they’re public speaking engagements, festival appearances or teaching opportunities.

If you didn’t have the job you are in now, what would you like to be doing?

At the time I first enrolled in a professional writing and editing course my aim was to eventually work in publishing as an editor. I wonder now if that was my unconscious self trying to move me closer to creativity, but I still think that it would have been very satisfying work. I love the editing side of writing, and was so interested in watching the way my editors approached working with me on my book.

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

I feel incredibly fortunate to be both a writer and an editor. Together, the two roles give balance and diversity to my working life. It’s true that the pay is more precarious than in a salaried job, but the positives – flexibility related to the time and place of work, and great variety – more than make up for the negatives.

Many thanks, Lucy, for answering our questions. And good luck in the Miles Franklin award!

Lucy is on Twitter @LucyTreloar and her website is