Sally Collings is an extreme editor. Being a professional ghost writer and co-writer is one thing but, for Collings, extreme editing is what it really comes down to. She coined the term ‘extreme editing’ because the alternatives— ‘developmental editing’ and ‘structural editing’— didn’t bring across the true nature of her work.
‘I wanted a term that conveyed the edgy, exciting nature of what I do. On some projects, editing knocks right up against the border with writing.’
Which is what happened a few years ago when she was working on a memoir by a media personality.
‘She had covered all the ground and described all the key events in her story,’ Collings recalls, ‘but there was no sense of flow and rhythm to the language. I pretty much rewrote the whole manuscript, re-keying it and smoothing and honing every sentence along the way.’
Given that she basically rewrote that memoir, you’d expect Collings to feel some sense of the book being ‘hers’ along with the person whose name appears on the cover. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘One of the lessons that was drilled into me as a junior editor was that it is always the author’s book,’ she explains. ‘The “mid-wife” comparison is a pretty good one: I take huge pride and satisfaction in delivering a healthy manuscript that will in turn become a much-loved book, but it is never my book. At the end of the editing process I always hand responsibility to the author to take that book out into the world.’
That’s just as well, because ‘the sell’ involved in taking a book out into the world is what Collings finds most challenging. She’s happy to do interviews or speak in front of an audience, but she’s uncomfortable promoting herself as an ‘expert’.
‘One of the reasons I’m at ease with not being the “front cover” name on books is that self-promotion doesn’t come easily to me. Working with Antonia Kidman on The Simple Things was the perfect partnership in that way: I love the writing and she is fantastic at promotion.’
Industry insiders know the magic Collings works on manuscripts, and receiving a nod in the author’s acknowledgements is enough for her.
Collings started out with a degree in journalism and radio production in the 1980s, after which she gained a position as an assistant editor at Angus & Robertson (before it was subsumed into HarperCollins).
‘I worked for two editors, one on the fiction side and the other on the non-fiction side. It was the most remarkable way to compare the two fields and work out which was best for me. I decided to focus on non-fiction because I felt that non-fiction was on the rise and I saw more opportunities there to build a career.’
By the early 2000s, she was non-fiction publisher for HarperCollins Australia. She was on maternity leave with a newborn daughter when both her parents died, prompting her to step back from her career. ‘I just couldn’t contemplate doing that on top of everything else,’ she remembers.
‘Gradually I started to take on freelance editing, then one day I was asked to write Sophie’s Journey, and writing gradually became a bigger part of my working life. Now, I couldn’t imagine being an employee again.’
Sophie’s Journey, Collings’ first book as author, tells the heartbreaking story of Sophie Delezio, the victim of two terrible traffic accidents three years apart. ‘It was a very intense, emotionally challenging experience. I loved working out how to tell that story— a book about a five-year-old— but it did rather consume my waking thoughts for many months.’
Outside of work, fiction is what Collings reads for pleasure. She is a slow reader who wishes she could read faster so that she could read more books. ‘That’s why I don’t do manuscript appraisals: it just takes me too long to read a book-length manuscript. I would have to charge way more for it than most people are willing to pay!’
Perhaps editors are generally slower readers, because they read word by word, analysing the construction of sentences, I suggest.
‘I do think that might be correct: when I read anything, my brain is going ten to the dozen analysing sentence structure, word choice, pacing, so I’m sure that makes it a more laborious process than it needs to be. However, I have known some editors who seem to be more adept at switching that part of their brain off and skimming, so that they catch the bigger picture of a manuscript.’
Collings specialises in memoir, life story and ‘big idea’ books— by ‘big idea’ she means a book that deals with a large-scale issue, like terminal illness, masculine identity, or surrogate pregnancy.
‘One of my favourite “big idea” projects recently,’ she says, ‘was editing Pamela Williams’ book Killing Fairfax, about the power plays between Fairfax, the Packers and the Murdochs over traditional versus digital media, which won the Walkley Book Award in 2013. I’m still riding high on the thrill of having edited that. Having a hand in making a Walkley winner has been a lifelong dream for me.’
But when asked to single out her favourite project to date, Collings is horrified.
‘Don’t make me choose! It’s like being asked to pick your favourite child … I will say that I had a huge amount of fun working with Shane Jacobson on his memoir The Long Road to Overnight Success. Shane is straight out one of the funniest people I’ve met, and he has an outstanding gift for storytelling, so it was a delight to work with him on turning his spoken stories into written form.’
Collings gets a kick out of working with gifted speakers. ‘Some people are on fire when they’re telling a story to an audience or to friends, but as soon as they sit at their keyboard the fire goes out. It’s hugely satisfying to act as their “translator”, taking their anecdotes and transforming them into a great book.’
Collings feels that she helps to bring about publishing dreams that otherwise would not come to fruition. These days, her work increasingly involves working with authors who are self-publishing as a first choice, not a fall-back position, and she loves being able to offer them everything she has learnt over 25 years of creating books.
In her experience, there are two big traps for writers of memoirs and first-person narratives.
‘It’s easy for people writing their memoirs to forget that they are telling a story, and that they must step back from their lives a little to consider plot, character development and scene-setting, just as if they were writing a novel. There’s also a temptation to put everything into a life story— every incident, every anecdote— when serving a slice is more desirable than offering up the whole pie. Often it takes quite a lot of ingenuity to work out what story needs to be told!’
As someone who has helped to create so many books, does she believe writers are more ‘born’ or ‘made’?
‘I think there is something innate that great writers have, which is an ear for the rhythm of language. Some people simply don’t have that affinity with the written word, often because their skill is in speaking rather than writing. But I think every writer can become better through practice and learning from the writers they admire.’
With most of 2014 ahead of us, Collings has chosen a different approach to New Year’s resolutions.
‘I have what you might call a “New Year’s direction” that I want to follow in several aspects of my life, which is to just enjoy the ride. The past couple of years I’ve been very goal-focused: I’ve done my first half-marathon, moved to the US, taken part in a 200km charity bike ride. In 2014 I want to pause, look around, and take joy in where I am. I’d like to apply that to my writing, too.’
You can learn more about Sally Collings at http://www.sallycollings.com. Her latest project as author is The Simple Things with Antonia Kidman (ABC Books), RRP $35.00.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Sally Collings’ in The Australian Writer issue 383 (March–May 2014).