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EDITING editing aboriginal voices

Editing Aboriginal voices

Editing Aboriginal writing: is it different?

Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or Indigenous?

Australian Aboriginal English

Representing people's voices in print: English words

Representing people's voices in print: language words

Glossing Aboriginal languages

CATE workshop, August 2009

Useful resources for those editing Aboriginal writing

Editing Aboriginal Writing

Exactly what is it that makes editing Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers different to editing non-Indigenous writers? Is there a difference at all, or is good editing simply a case of being a good editor?

Perhaps it's useful to begin by pointing out why this question is even raised. My experience is that writers can be uncertain about or distrustful of an editor assigned to work on their project. They may feel that all the burning hoops have been leapt through: the monumental task of writing the manuscript has been achieved, it's been assessed by a committee and it's accepted by a publisher. Yet now, when their text is so close to finally being published, the publisher insists on an editor being brought in. These writers are often wary of any changes that an editor suggests, at worst viewing the editor as a gatekeeper blocking the exposure of their voice to the world.

In cases such as this, the editor should use all the skill and care that she would use with any client; tact and diplomacy are vital in any author–editor relationship but some authors may need extra time and care. For some authors the very act of writing in English is a political statement. I don't want to sound precious or overstate the case here – there are plenty of authors who simply want to get the best book out they can by whatever means necessary – but as the editor discussing the project for the first time you don't know their stance. It's worth taking the extra time to find this out.

Of course time isn't always at hand but in my experience (at least among the Aboriginal-controlled publishers) there's a general understanding that you may need a little extra time for this relationship building. Discuss the author and the schedule with the commissioning publisher beforehand. Ask them: How experienced is the author? How open to negotiation? What is the author's understanding of what is about to happen to her manuscript? (Sometimes authors imagine editing as a glorified spell check and are horrified to find that the editor, acting on the publisher's brief, has copy-edited the document.)

Tact, diplomacy and an ability to build relationships are qualities that apply to all authors, particularly first-time authors. So as well as everything I've said I'll add another quality you should have: an understanding of "where they're coming from". Yes, that's a bit of a cop out. It's a deliberately nebulous term. But the editor working in the medical sciences often has a background in the medical sciences and therefore an understanding of the politics, constraints and discipline-specific restrictions affecting the author. As does the editor working with primary children's books, high school maths texts, recipe books and so on. The point is this: the onus is on the editor to engage with the subject area. Like any editor you will not know as much about the specific subject your author has chosen to write about (that's why the author has written the text in the first place) but you should have a generalised knowledge that allows you to place the author's work into the context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing. This applies whether the text is an autobiography, a learner's guide or grammar to an Aboriginal language, or a political critique.

Remember: you are often the first person outside the loop to read the manuscript. By "the loop" I mean the small group of people involved in the text's creation (author, co-author, collaborator, assessment committee, publisher, author's best friend, author's mum etc.). Your fresh eyes should not only be carrying out the quotidian duties of the editor but should also be able to position the text in its broader cultural context. Yes, of course it's the publisher's job to do this in the first instance. But that's why I put the publisher in with "the loop" group; the publisher who commissioned you to carry out the edit may have an outstanding knowledge of her subject area but this may be a knowledge that is vertical. It's up to you to provide the breadth.

I once read that a good editor doesn't know everything but does know where to find everything out. The largest proportion oof Australia's Aboriginal literary production takes place at the regional level, typically the literacy centre or language centre operating out of the local school. You can't know everything that's happening everywhere but, equally, Google and Wikipedia aren't going to but much use either. You need to engage with the industry and find out what's happening where and who's doing what.

There's no industry standard or accreditation system for this but it's the only thing I've found that works.


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