Janet Mackenzie: The Long View

This is Janet’s address to Editors Victoria on the 45th anniversary of the society.

I think I am the only founding member of the society who is still working and still engaged in the affairs of the profession. I guess that gives me a long perspective, and I am wheeled out occasionally to share it with you. I was asked to speak at the society’s 25th anniversary, and here we are again, 20 years on.

At the 25th, I sketched how much the world had changed since the society began. I can see that many of you couldn’t possibly remember what I said then, let alone life in 1970, so I will repeat some of my remarks about that world and the nature of editorial work.Janet Mackenzie

Janet Mackenzie speaks about 45 years of editing. Photo: Kate Cuthbert

Life in 1970

Australia was a very different country in 1970. It was simpler and smaller and narrower. To give you an idea of the differences, I’ll just list some of the things we didn’t have: inflation or unemployment, no-fault divorce or supporting parent’s benefit, gay pride or Aboriginal land rights, the Arts Centre or the Sydney Opera House. We didn’t have AIDS, of course, or anorexia or RSI. We didn’t have credit cards or automatic tellers. We didn’t have colour television or videos or Sunday papers or FM radio. We didn’t have cling wrap, and we didn’t have wine casks. The only place in all Melbourne where you could buy a pizza was Toto’s in Lygon Street.

That’s what I said 20 years ago. Since then, of course, there have been unimaginable developments in every area.

What was the position of editors in 1970? It’s important to realise that there was no training for editors then, no pay scale, no career structure, no security. In fact, there was no general recognition, even in the book trade, of editing as a worthwhile or necessary task, let alone as a profession. Editing wasn’t a career that one chose; for a ‘girl’ who was ‘brainy’ it was a congenial way to occupy her time until she got married.

I want to stress also how isolated editors were. All of us had fallen into the job by chance. Some editors were expected to edit manuscripts while perching on a windowsill, or to type while balancing a typewriter on their knees. If we were lucky, we had two or three colleagues in the same firm – beyond that, there was no contact between editors, no knowledge that other editors were even working in Melbourne. Not only were we isolated, but our jobs were ill-defined. It was a dogsbody job – editors were useful at stocktaking time.

In 1970, there were no finance people breathing down our necks about making 40 per cent on overheads. We were isolated not only from other editors but also from commercial reality. Publishing was leisurely in a way that’s unthinkable now. At Melbourne University Press, editing a bibliography meant walking over to the Baillieu Library – a pleasant 15-minute stroll, a chance to get out of the office – and searching through the pages of Books in Print and the British Museum Catalogue to check every entry. Publishing firms were run by bookmen, not by accountants. Nobody even dreamed that ‘bookmen’ might become ‘bookpersons’. Publishing was called, without irony, the gentlemen’s profession.

Looking back, it seems a simple and innocent world – as well as sexist, colonial and xenophobic. But then, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Editing in 1970

To continue with my remarks from the 25th anniversary, I’ll describe the nitty-gritty of editing in 1970. I want you to pretend you’re sitting at your desk. In your imagination, obliterate the computer. Remove it, along with the printer, the scanner and the modem. Replace all that with a manual typewriter. The receptionist in the front office has an up-to-date electric typewriter – with a golf-ball! – but that’s not for the likes of editors.

Now, correspondence has to be typed in three copies, and there’s no photocopier down the hall. You’d better add some carbon paper. You’re not a very good typist, so you’ll need a typewriter rubber – a disc of hard rubber with a hole through the middle, which is attached to your typewriter with string. When you make a typing error, you have to correct it on all three copies, without removing the sheets from the typewriter – otherwise the carbons get out of alignment. When you rub out on the top copy, it smudges the carbons underneath. If you make too many mistakes, of course, you’ll have to retype the whole thing. Before you turn to the manuscript on your desk, you’d better go and wash your hands. They’re dirty from handling the carbon paper.

Now, the desk. Beside your typewriter, lay out these items:
a fountain pen
a bottle of Washable Blue ink
blotting paper
a lead pencil
a chinagraph pencil with a soft red lead
a pencil sharpener
a wooden ruler, marked in inches
a hard rubber for ink and a soft rubber for pencil
a bottle of Milton’s bleach and a glass rod (I’ll tell you what those are for in a moment).

You’ll need scissors and a bottle of glue, because cut and paste means just that, and there’s no glue stick. You can add an ashtray, if you like, because this is not a smoke-free work environment.

Now turn to the manuscript on your desk. The first thing you notice is that it’s not on A4 paper. It’s typed on either quarto or foolscap, or possibly both. It might have been typed on several different typewriters, and some of it might be single-spaced, but it’s too expensive to get it retyped. Thus, the page size, the font size and the spacing all vary. Add to this the fact that there is no way to do a word count except by actually counting the words, and you can see that cast-offs are mostly guesswork.

The second thing you notice about the manuscript is that it’s not a clean copy. An author reading through the ‘final’ typed version invariably makes a few little handwritten alterations – just adds a paragraph or two here and there. Pick up your fountain pen and begin work on the manuscript. Oh no! I should have warned you – the ink takes a few moments to dry. Now you’ve smudged it. You should have used the blotting paper. You’d better go and wash your hands again, they’re covered with ink. That’s one reason why it’s so important to use Washable Blue.

As you work on the manuscript, sooner or later, you will find that you want to move or alter some of the handwritten corrections, either your own or the author’s. That’s the other reason for using Washable Blue. If you need to remove handwriting, you can bleach out the ink with Milton’s. Take the glass rod, dip it in the bottle, and dab it on the ink marks. The writing slowly fades, leaving a faint brown stain. Later, if you’re absolutely desperate, sometimes you can still read the brown stain.

Sometimes, of course, authors ignore your instructions about ink. Some of them fill their fountain pens with Permanent Black, and some of them use the newfangled Biros. In this situation, you reach for the hard rubber. You scrub at the paper, removing the surface layer along with the ink. Now the surface is rough, so that when you write on it, the ink bleeds. If you subsequently change your mind and have to use Milton’s on that spot, the whole thing turns into a soggy mess and your nib makes holes in the paper.

 The point of going on so long about those primitive times is partly because it’s fun, of course, and partly to show how far we have come. In my time as an editor, our way of working has been transformed, and we have upgraded and extended our skills in many ways. Editing now routinely covers tasks once performed by compositors, typesetters and printers. In fact, I have no real idea what editors do now – they seem to span information architecture, knowledge management, web design, screen production, online instruction, ebooks, project management and more. Freelance editors, in addition, have purchased both hardware and software, trained themselves to use it, and kept it current. Editors today range far more widely and are vastly more productive than they were when the society was founded. But although we have expanded our role and improved our productivity out of sight, as a profession we have generally failed to convert these attainments into the status and remuneration that our expertise should command.

Achievements of the Society

However, the society does have many achievements to its credit. For most of its existence, it has thrived. In the early 1980s it faltered and looked as if it might disband, but it soon recovered. For many years now it has been steadily expanding its membership, increasing its professionalism and extending its activities, all the while maintaining an excellent financial position.

For all of its history, the society has held regular dinner meetings. Many notable speakers have addressed us on all imaginable editorial topics, from the roles of author, editor and publisher to the literary scene, writers’ methods, freelancing and the business of publishing. The speakers have ranged from an up-and-coming barrister called Gareth Evans in the early 1970s to noted authors such as Stephen Murray-Smith, Geoffrey Serle, Helen Garner, Richard Walsh, Judith Brett, Arnold Zable, Gerald Murnane, Nikki Gemmell, Peter Rose; and publishers Frank Eyre, Peter Ryan, Hilary McPhee, Bob Sessions, Anne O’Donovan, Susan Hawthorne, Henry Rosenbloom, Louise Adler. Until the Wheeler Centre was set up, the society’s dinner meetings provided one of Melbourne’s few regular forums for the discussion of books and ideas, and thus made a contribution to the city’s intellectual life.

But looking back over the society’s achievements in its 45 years, the outstanding area is editorial training.

In the 1970s it was commonly argued that ‘editors don’t have skills, they have flair’. The society has contributed in many ways to the process of identifying and codifying editorial skills. Since its inception, the committee has always included the position of training officer. Within our first five years we had held a residential seminar at La Trobe University and had helped to set up a one-semester course at Caulfield Institute of Technology called Words into Print, which ran for some years. Efforts to establish a postgraduate diploma at RMIT began in 1976, but it took more than a decade of dogged work to make it happen. In the following years, as editing courses proliferated, many members of the society moved into universities and TAFE colleges where they created methods to teach and assess that elusive editorial flair.

Meanwhile, the society provided a wide-ranging program of training workshops which flourishes to this day, and in aggregate these hundreds of sessions have made an extraordinary contribution to editors’ skills. The workshops run by Beryl Hill and Elizabeth Flann were so successful that in 1990 the society took on the role of publisher and persuaded them to write The Australian Editing Handbook. This continues to be the standard manual, now in a splendid third edition by Lan Wang. Another successful initiative has been Redact, held biannually since 2006 and still the only intensive training for mid-career editors in Australia. And at a national level, the society hosted a memorable conference in 2005, and our members have contributed to the formulation of Australian Standards for Editing Practice and helped to create and operate the national accreditation scheme.

Before I finish, I must mention the society’s publications. Foremost, of course, is the newsletter. It has been a reliable feature of the society, from the first ones produced on a Gestetner, or spirit duplicator, to the current digital incarnation. Its issues provide a rich record of Australian writing and the book trade. To preserve this, in 2005 the society published At the Typeface, selections from 35 years of the print newsletter. The society has also published a monograph on Beatrice Davis, and it established the Occasional Series on Australian Editors to record the public and personal history of our profession. This series lapsed after producing two volumes of Editors in Conversation; it would be good to see it revived. I am delighted to hear that the society plans to commission a history; its launch would be a fitting centrepiece for our 50th anniversary.


In conclusion, let me say this: if editors have a typical fault, it is myopia – excessive attention to detail and inability to see the big picture. You might call it a wood–tree perception impairment. As I see it, the profession has wallowed in this disability over the last four or five years in an elaborate project of organisational restructure. You know that the federation of Australian editors societies, IPEd, has recently held a vote which will abolish the individual societies and reconstitute them as branches of a national organisation. This quest has preoccupied many talented volunteers and absorbed much of the Australian profession’s energy at a time when it faces existential challenges. One of these is operating in a global marketplace where many native English speakers are prepared to edit for absurdly small fees. Another is navigating a path among disruptive technologies – if artificial intelligence can already write simple news stories, how long before it can do a passable copyedit?

As the society is launched into its new existence, it must try to capture the benefits of national scale and united advocacy to meet these challenges, but at the same time maintain the sense of belonging and responsibility that comes with local ownership and autonomy. I hope that the future for our society will be as productive and enjoyable as its past.

Janet Mackenzie
Honorary Life Member