A casually racist Friday

This is a guest blog post by Dan Hartman, edited by me. Full disclosure: he is my son.

Last Friday, thanks to my white privilege, I witnessed two acts of casual racism on the same day. Acts that, had a person of colour been there, probably would not have occurred.

A group of white men celebrating their good fortune

I had breakfast with two friends who brought an acquaintance, L, whom I had heard them mention but had never met. When I ordered a shakshuka, one of my friends asked what it was, to which L responded, “It’s sand monkey food”. When I said, “uh… I don’t think you should say that”, and another friend asked what “sand monkey” meant, L said, “Oh, it means Arab food. I can say it, because I’m half Lebanese, but that’s actually the toned-down version. Normally you’d say sand n — food.” I voiced my disapproval again, but I had just met the guy and wasn’t prepared to make a big scene or take the conversation any further, so we left it there and changed the subject.

That evening, I had drinks at a friend’s house, with eight others who all knew each other. I’d met most of them for the first time that night. My friend was at a BLM protest that week and we’d all had a brief conversation about it earlier in the night. His friends supported the protest. Later, one of his friends was telling a story about buying drugs from a (black) bouncer in Prague. He said that the bouncer had told him to wait in the back alley and to take note of his face and make sure he buy from him and nobody else. The storyteller said that because the bouncer was a “black c — t¹ and, you know, they all look the same in the dark”, it was hard to be sure he was buying from the same guy. I was pretty uncomfortable, but didn’t say anything in this room full of people I’d just met, and nor did anyone else.

From what I know of these two people, I’d be surprised if either of them didn’t agree they wanted to see an end to racism and racial disparity — as most people seem to. Some readers may be horrified by the events that I’ve described, others might see what was said as harmless jokes.

I’m 28 years old, and I can’t remember any time in my life when public conversation has been more polarised and conflict-laden. As we come out of lockdown in Australia and our Fridays are filled with cafe breakfasts and evening drinks, it’s easy to forget that in the US the pandemic has created a much more macabre background for the current discussion of race sparked by George Floyd’s murder. The video and the subsequent protests, riots and self-perpetuating violence, and the continuing protests and public conversation on the topic, are taking place around the world — and especially on social media.

And it’s clear that private conversation, at least as I’m experiencing it as a middle-class white person with mostly left-wing, university-educated friends, has issues of a different kind, where people make comments that, to many, seem fairly benign.

So how do private and public conversation link up? In the public conversation right now, some people are presenting evidence — statistics, or anecdotes like police brutality videos — for the degree to which this brutality is racialised.

I started writing a different post yesterday which looked at some of the evidence on both sides of the argument, but it rapidly changed from a quick post into the makings of a book (which I’m deeply unqualified to write), as well as something that I think was (perhaps rightly²) likely to spark outrage on both sides, to no gain. So I will avoid talking about those statistics at all.

One thing I will look at, though, is a conversation about the video of Floyd’s murder. I’d managed to avoid watching it until yesterday. Having now done so, I am now even more disturbed by it than I had imagined, despite being mentally prepared, being fully aware of the content, and knowing how others have reacted to seeing it. The video clearly shows a police officer with no regard for the life of the man whose neck he is crushing, and a complete lack of regard for the prolonged suffering of another human being.

Almost everyone in the world has condemned this murder — even Donald Trump — but their reasons differ.

The reaction from the BLM movement and black community makes complete sense to me. Let’s imagine that you’re an average black person in an average part of America in late May of this year. If you’re right in the middle of the bell curve of personal economics, your household net worth is $17,150: just over one tenth of the 50th percentile white household, at $171,000. You may have just lost your job, which may well have been only paying $7.25 per hour to begin with. If you’re one of those who didn’t lodge a tax return last year, or if you are in debt to your bank, you may struggle to get your full $1,200 stimulus cheque, if you get one at all. Then, in late May, a video surfaces of yet another black person having their life unconscionably wasted at the hands of the very people who are supposedly there to “serve and protect” them.

Why would you not break social distancing laws to join the protests in the face of these circumstances? Why would you not join in rioting and destruction against a system that has totally and utterly failed you, your family, many of your friends, and your ancestors, who were likely enslaved? What incentive is there not to attempt to destroy society, when playing by the rules of the society has left you in such a dire position?

But, on the other hand, what or whom does this rioting really serve?³ Destroying the property, workplaces and businesses of complete strangers who have been equally damaged by the pandemic seems totally counterintuitive. And for the not-insignificant number of genuine racists in America and around the world, what better propaganda can you imagine than mountains of footage and imagery of black people stealing and destroying property? If you wanted to increase police violence against black people, what better way than to create violent confrontations between them and police?

And without wanting to go off on a tangent about coronavirus, what do these massive protests do to the credibility of demands for strict social distancing? We are going to be facing the coronavirus for many months or even years to come, and when we consider that the death toll from coronavirus in the US is 118,000 in four months versus 1,000 police killings of people of any ethnicity in all of 2019, we have to wonder which movement is going to save more innocent lives, as unpalatable as it is to think of the trade-off in these terms. But the protestors who burnt down Mineappolis’s 3rd precinct police station are not likely thinking about their actions in those terms. They have seen the social contract ripped up in front of their eyes. This is a last-ditch attempt to have their message heard.

I have seen arguments that the video of Floyd’s murder is not necessarily evidence that the police officer, Derek Chauvin, is racist. He has had 18 complaints made against him, and the only one I can identify comes from a white woman named Melissa Borton. He has been involved in shooting multiple suspects, one of whom was Native American, although investigations apparently showed that Chauvin “responded appropriately”. It’s been suggested that, especially given that Floyd’s murder took place in front of a crowd and was obviously being filmed, this was a murder of extreme negligence, but that Chauvin didn’t intend to kill Floyd.

In following this part of the conversation, I also watched footage of the murders of Daniel Shaver and Tony Timpa, both of whom are white. The videos, like the one of Floyd’s murder, are chilling, but for different reasons. Shaver is bewildered by confusing and seemingly unnecessary commands from his killer, then is shot after begging the police not to kill him and clearly trying to comply with their confusing commands. Timpa is slowly crushed to death by police kneeling on his back for 13 minutes, after he said, “you’re going to kill me”. The officers make jokes as they do so. These videos certainly show a disregard for human life similar in many ways to that shown for Floyd’s, and I’m not sure if we can tell how race motivates them.

But what I wonder is, if educated, middle-class, presumably anti-racist people are casually referring to “sand n — — ”s and “black c — t”s over brunches and drinks in conversation with their left-wing friends, what is happening in the minds of the police officers who, with adrenaline pumping, are restraining the likes of George Floyd or Eric Garner, and hear their cries that they can’t breathe? To what degree do our small conversations enable big inequalities?

While the percentage of people who are overtly racist is not insignificant, I think there may be a lot of damage done in the little moments of negligence in conversations like the ones I have witnessed. Most Black and Indigenous people the world over are massively disadvantaged, and have the odds absolutely stacked against them from birth. If there are any indisputable facts about race, this is one. As anti-BLM proponents will point out, there are plenty of people who manage to ascend from disadvantaged circumstances, regardless of their race. But it’s very hard. It takes a concerted effort on the part of both the society and the individual. If either side doesn’t make that effort, it’s unlikely to happen.

People are marching because they believe society is failing in its side of that bargain. Let’s do what we can to stamp out racism, casual or overt. Be more courageous than I was on Friday; call people out when they do things that perpetuate this cycle. Small conversations can be powerful.

¹Cultural note for international readers: Australians regularly use the word c**t, often affectionately, to refer to acquaintances, and surely to drug dealers. In context, this term may not be as bad as it looks to a foreign reader.

²On one hand, statistics can be dangerous if they unfairly paint the wrong picture: for example, almost all of the data on race and crime come from the very law enforcement agencies we’re talking about. On the other hand, the fact that I can’t even in good faith share evidence on both sides of the debate without expecting backlash from bothsides worries me. How can we begin to have an honest conversation on this topic if nobody is even considering the evidence or arguments of the other side?

³There is talk that the protests were hijacked by far left groups, far right groups, and even the police. This is another important discussion, but leaves the scope of this post (and I don’t know much about it).

Why nobody loves having their writing edited

We’ve all seen the spelling and grammar police at work on social media. They take delight in pointing out your ‘mistakes’, genuine or not. No wonder we don’t really love having our writing edited.

In a social media post recently, a political organisation’s press release appeared with every ‘error’ circled in red (including some things that were not wrong). The aim was to show how stupid the organisation is, and so to discredit everything it does.

In the comments, people expressed their joy at these mistakes. The self-appointed ‘grammar police’ felt entitled to hold others to account, the English teachers were confident they knew right and wrong. The writer had failed an invisible test. Even though the grammar police and the teachers didn’t have it all right either, they shamed the publicity officer who’d sent out an imperfect press release.

People jump on mistakes with glee. Editing the press release would have avoided all this. But too often, people don’t have their work edited by a professional because it feels like having their errors and shortcomings pointed out – sometimes publicly.

I get it, I’m a writer as well as an editor

As a writer as well as an editor, I really do get it. You know the feeling – you’ve paired up with a workmate to edit each other’s reports for the industry event. As your revised document pings into your inbox, your stomach clenches. You open it, dreading that it’s going to come back streaked with red – a typo or two you missed despite spellcheck and a rework of that metaphor you thought was pretty spot-on.

You feel like your work is being marked by the teacher

It’s like having your school essays marked. The teacher has found you out and given you a C+ when you were quite sure you deserved an A. You can almost see the red pen scratching around every error. You feel disappointed in yourself, stupid, wrong. Your colleague’s opinion of you just dropped a notch or seven. How could you have not seen that misspelled word? How did you get the name of your own department wrong?

Making an error doesn’t make you stupid

You’re not alone. Nobody really loves being edited. But being human, we all make errors. And that doesn’t make you stupid. We all have tics in our use of language, words we can never spell and a tendency to overuse terms or expressions. You know the jargon, so you forget that your reader might not. You’ve worked on it for so long that it you can’t imagine it being any other way. A good editor helps with these things. And, depending on the level of edit you’ve asked for, we can do so much more than just pick up errors.

An editor wants you to succeed. The right editor will love what you do. You’re the expert on your subject. We learn so much from you. We want to help you to make your work the best it can be.

We bring our years of studying grammar and style, structure and form to our work. You bring your expertise in your subject. We have revised reports, blog posts, articles and white papers across multiple topics, from frothy entertainment pieces to serious academic works. Editors are the gardeners of the written word. We’re there to landscape your writing and pull out the weeds that smother your ideas and stop them from blooming.

An editor is here to help you

Editors are not there to judge your writing. We think you’re brilliant. After all, you’ve done your research and you know what you’re talking about. We respect you as the expert on your subject. We’re there to work out where your structure could be better, where to cut or change things to make your writing clearer, when to fact check and when to change a tense or the spelling of a verb form. We’re there to make your work clear and suited to your reader.

So don’t choose somebody that makes you feel like an errant schoolkid. Use a professional editor who provides a comprehensive editing service so that your structure, content, language, style and presentation are the best they can be and do the work you want them to do for your readers. Because in the end, they are the ones that matter.

Think your writing doesn’t need editing? Think again!


Authors often pour more than their heart and soul into a book or an article. They may put their own money into a project too, especially if they self-publish or enter a partnership publishing arrangement. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see glaring  and embarrassing typos, incorrect word use and clumsy sentence structures in published books. Using a good copy editor and proofreading thoroughly are sensible investments in an author’s work, and not optional extras.

Not all editing oversights are as catastrophic as Penguin’s 2010 proofing error which left a recipe calling for ‘salt and freshly ground black people’.  The entire print run had to be pulped, at a cost of about $20,000.

And you thought spellcheck or editing software would do the job…

CBCA judges’ comments on editing

I read the judges’ comments on the 2017  Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year for older readers. This is what they had to say:

‘… many of the books are flawed by the inclusion of the kinds of grammatical errors that are in common oral currency… There are also occasional misuses of words… all solecisms that could have been eliminated with more attentive editing.’

These are published works submitted for a prestigious award.

The judges also said, ‘… a few novels that were otherwise excellent lost their place on the Notables list through flaws in their internal logic and character consistency; these issues should be attended to by close editing…’

Use a comprehensive editing service

copy editing

Proofreading is vital

If you’re planning to submit your manuscript to a publisher, enter a competition or self-publish, it makes sense to use a professional editor. At the very least, use an experienced proofreader. If your budget can possibly extend to a copy editor, it’s a wise investment. Better still, use an editor who provides a comprehensive editing service so that your structure, content, language, style and presentation are the best they can be for your readers.

John Hockney’s memoir The Hockneys: Never Worry What the Neighbours Think to be published in October

John Hockney’s memoir is to be published in October 2019 by Legend Press. I was honoured to edit it before submission. It’s a very satisfying aspect of my work to help writers  get their book published.  Legend Press includes top Australian writers Mark Brandi and Alice Pung on its list.

John Hockney is a professional storyteller and brother of the artist David Hockney. He  helps others to write their life stories. I met him at a wonderful workshop he ran in the Blue Mountains. I went on to work with him on his manuscript before he submitted it for publication. That it took only a couple of months before it was snapped up is testament to what  a great story he has told.

John Hockney: storyteller

Before I did his workshop ‘Your Life – Your Story’,  I heard John talk about life with his brother, world-renowned artist David Hockney. David’s exhibition Words & Pictures opened at Blue Mountains City Art Gallery in October 2017. I remember thinking, ‘He should write a book’.

John Hockney tells his story going back two generations. His grandfather was a founding member of the Salvation Army in Bradford in England’s industrial north. His grandmother would made him a cup of cocoa with whole milk – not the watered-down variety he had at home – after he had dragged home her shopping in his billycart.

You would expect that the world-famous artist David might dominate the book, but John gives every member of his brilliant and eccentric family their due.  His father, who liked to wear brightly coloured stick-on dots on his bow tie, was always true to his moral compass. His sister Margaret produced an art work of a squid squashed on her scanner. It was accepted in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The theme that they never worried what the neighbours think runs thorough the book.

With his closely observed detail and exceptional storytelling,  John Hockney combines the two essentials of memoir or autobiography: have a great story to tell and write it well. It’s often funny and always honest and true. My understanding of what life was like in  post-war Britain was so enriched. My appreciation of what it means to be part of a family – in all its crazy complexity – was deepened immeasurably.

The book is available in hardcover from Book Depository.

How can an editor help you to create standout documents?

‘What does an editor do, exactly?’

I’m often asked what my role as an editor involves, and why anybody with a reasonable standard of language proficiency would need to use one.

Because we understand different things by the term ‘edit’ in various areas of publishing, I thought it would be useful to outline them here.  My job as a freelance editor involves working at three levels.

1. Substantive editing 

This is a big-picture edit.  I will look at the structure of your document,  its suitability for your audience, overall clarity and completeness, and assess whether your writing style is the best one for engaging your readers. A substantive edit can also involve checking copyright issues, such as whether permission is needed to use quotes and images. A substantive edit can also  identify other possible legal issues, such as  defamation.

2. Copy editing

At the copy editing stage, I focus on the mechanics of the writing. I take a more detailed look at clarity, completeness and style. I work to make sure the piece is consistent in its use of spelling, punctuation, headings, captions, tables and other features. I check sentence structure, spelling, headings, hyperlinks, continuity and all the inner workings of a piece of writing. I make sure that your document is consistent with your organisation’s house style as set out in your editorial style guide. (If  you don’t have one, I can create a style guide for you to use.)

3. Proofreading

We’ve all seen those (sometimes cringeworthy) errors in final documents. When you have read something many times over, it’s hard to see them. Proofreading is a final read-through for typos, spelling and punctuation errors, style mistakes, working links, sensible page breaks and the like. Sometimes the final version is checked against an earlier version. A thorough proofread weeds out any  errors so that they don’t make it into the final version of a print or online document.


You may need all three levels of edit, or just one or two.

Contact me about your structural editing, copy editing and proofreading needs.

    The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

    How to write it, sell it and market it…successfully!

    By Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry

    This expert guide to getting your book published is packed with helpful information for new writers, would-be writers and those who have already published. The authors are simultaneously editors, literary agents and published writers. The first edition was published in 2005. This one, updated in 2015, takes the huge shifts that happened in the industry in those 10 years into account and includes ebooks and how to deal with social media. Although it’s written for the American market, most of it applies to publishing in Australia too.

    The guide pinpoints what I aim to do for my writer clients to help them to get their work into shape to submit to publishers or for self-publishing. Read about the levels of edit most professional editors offer here.

    “Outside editors, a.k.a. book doctors, diagnose, treat and help you fix your book.”

    One of the book’s strengths – and there are many – is that it has sound advice no matter what you want to publish, from cookbook to potboiler, business manual to poetry volume. It’s not a writing manual, but a practical (and pragmatic) how-to.

    Publishing success comes from four basic principles:

    1. Research. Not just your subject matter, but what else is out there and who might publish your book. Do this and … your odds of getting published will go from nearly nil to extremely decent
    2. Network. Use your people skills to find the right publisher, create buzz, reach your readers and sell books. I believe this has become critical for successful publishing. The days of the cloistered author are well and truly over.
    3. Write. While this seems obvious, the authors say it’s the one thing published writers told them over and over. Get your ideas down on paper and keep at it.
    4. Persevere. You will have to deal with rejection. Probably a lot of rejection. As the authors say, ‘please, don’t quit five minutes before the miracle’.

    Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

    by Mary Norris

    I bought this book because a copy editor wrote a 200+ page book and it made the New York Times bestseller list. And because through it I learned that there is an Apostrophe Protection Society with a really ugly website and a chairman. And I can’t resist an editorial style guide.

    Mary Norris is a copy editor with The New Yorker, and has worked there since 1978. She turns her vast, enviable experience into a funny and fascinating encounter with language. In her investigation of why Moby-Dick is hyphenated, she describes ‘…that immortal hyphen, stuck like a harpoon in Melville’s famous title…’. She has a whole chapter devoted to profanity, called F*ck This Sh*t. Sometimes you need to know how to handle that stuff.

    I love her approach to language: precise, but not pedantic. I learnt so much about the origins or words, the uses of various arcane punctuation marks, and what a dream job working at The New Yorker is, and had a whole lot of fun doing it.

    PS: Her new book, Greek to Me  will be published in April.

    8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer

    Mark Brandi is the author of the award-winning novel Wimmera, described by one reviewer as ‘a dark and disturbing story from a substantial new talent’. It’s both a crime thriller and a coming of age story, set in rural Victoria. Recently he discussed what it’s like to be an author at a wonderfully relaxed session at Varuna the Writer’s House in the Blue Mountains.

    Picture of cover of Wimmera by Mark Brandi

    Wimmera by Mark Brandi

    1. It’s true: write what you know.

    This maxim holds if you want your work to be the best it can be. Wimmera’s closely observed reflection of small-town life feels all the more real because the author grew up in rural Victoria. He captures both how free this life is for kids, who can go yabbying and stay out until dark; and how claustrophobic it is for adults when the world closes in on them. He also draws on his experience in the criminal justice system as an advisor to the police minister, and the experience of his three brothers, all of whom work in the police and justice system. But remember, you don’t have to have experienced every single thing you write about either.

    2. Find a way – and it might be unconventional.

    Mark gave up a full-time job as a policy advisor, enrolled in a writing course and – wait for it – WON $50,000 ON MILLIONAIRE HOTSEAT!* And by guessing the final answer! He could have ignored the entry form his brother sent him, but instead, without telling anybody, he applied for this most unlikely source of literary funding for his new life as an author. He doesn’t suggest you give up your day job, but the point is to make it happen if you’re serious about being an author. Find an hour a day or a couple of hours at the weekend. Join that writer’s group. Apply for those residencies that will give you some time out to focus on your writing.

    3. Use the support and inspiration that’s out there.

    Attend courses and writer’s festivals. Take a look at everything Varuna has to offer, from one-off events to fellowships. Two residential fellowships at Varuna helped Mark to develop the manuscript for Wimmera. Join Writing NSW. See what the Australian Writers Centre has on offer.

    4. You can start with a short story.

    Mark’s book began as a short story called To Skin a Rabbit (click to listen to the RN audio version).  Two of the main characters in the novel continued to haunt him after he had written the short story. He pursued them, and Wimmera is the result. Often aspiring writers are told to focus on either novels or short stories as their demands are so different. Break the rule. If finishing a short story will inspire you to get that novel out, go for it!

    5. Enter competitions and awards.

    If nothing else, it will give you the discipline to work to deadlines and get your writing finished. You may even win! Plus, you will attract interest from publishers if you are shortlisted. When Mark won the 2016 Debut Dagger, publishers contacted him. But…

    6. Get used to rejection.

    Don’t take it personally. Use any feedback you get to learn and to improve your writing. Mark submitted his book to different publishers and programs and got plenty of what he described as ‘nice rejections’. Some of them contained useful feedback, which he took into account as he reworked Wimmera. Instead of regarding rejection letters as negative, consider what they have to say and try to act on the feedback. Publishers may say no for a range of reasons, and many of them have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Keep going.

    7. Enjoy the editing process.

    I know, it can feel a bit like the teacher got out her red pen and pointed out all your errors, but editors bring perspective and loads of experience to your work as well as fixing your grammar and punctuation. Mark described how an editor researched and corrected details in a scene in which he described a cricket match on TV in the background to a scene in Wimmera. You can be sure one reader will be an expert in almost anything you write about and errors undermine the quality and credibility of an author’s writing. I recently read a book which had the name of one of my uni mates spelled incorrectly. It’s not hard to check that. My reaction was to wonder what else in the book was inaccurate. A good editor will fact check everything as well as look at the broad scope of your work, switching between a sweeping overview and a microscopic focus on detail

    8. Revel in being an outsider and an introvert, if that’s what you are.

    Mark was from the only Italian family in town. School was tough and he was bullied and excluded. But, as he said it, the excluded tend to be sharp and thoughtful observers. Use what you see and hear around you every day to inform your characters and your stories. Mark does this so well, conveying how children cannot and do not understand adult motivations, how the adult world is inscrutable to his characters in boyhood, and using this point of view to drive the narrative in Wimmera.

    Varuna The Writers' House in Katoomba

    Varuna Writers’ House

    I learned so much from Mark Brandi’s generous sharing of his experience at Varuna’s Open House Day. There were other sessions, including one that explained Varuna’s programs and included a speaker from the Australia Council who fund writers and writers’ organisations. Above all, it inspired me to stop dreaming get back to my desk and write. I hope these 8 tips help you do the same.

    *Writer Melissa Lukashenko also won big on Millionaire Hotseat. Read about it here.

    YA novel Freefalling wins CBCA award for best unpublished manuscript

    Maura Pierlot is this year’s Charlotte Waring Barton Award winner

    Maura was announced as the winner of this award from the Children’s Book Council of Australia (NSW Branch), which is given annually for an unpublished manuscript. Maura wins a mentorship with  a well-known children’s writer. I was at the award ceremony in Sydney, and I think I might have let out a little shout when Maura’s name was read out as the winner – she had told me she definitely wasn’t going to win.

    Maura Pierlot wins award

    Maura Pierlot (centre) wins the CBCA NSW award for best unpublished manuscript.

    I was lucky enough to copy edit the manuscript and I’m confident that it will be snapped up by a publisher.  It’s the contemporary story of Harley:  year 10 student, friend, sister, daughter and granddaughter, and her struggles with self-image, friendship, love and acceptance. Maura writes with great insight and sensitivity about eating disorders, disloyalty and grieving in a compulsively readable way.

    Last year’s winner, Danika Hall, discussed her mentorship with Jen Storer as part of a great night at the offices of HarperCollins, whose children’s division sponsors the award.

    Charlotte Waring  Barton was the writer of the first published children’s book in 1841, published anonymously as A Mother’s Offering to her Children: By a Lady, Long Resident in New South Wales. But more on that later, as it’s a story in itself.

    Maura has also recently published the lovely children’s picture book The Trouble in Tune Town. It would be a great Christmas present for the music loving kids in your life.