Editing The Tea Chest: A fine blend of expertise

As every good writer knows, getting words down on a page is only half the battle when writing a book – writing anything, really. We might know what we want to say, but whether we have accomplished it by the time we’ve dropped the last full stop is another question. This is where reviewing and editing – preferably by someone else who knows what they are doing – comes in.

Joanne Schoenwald, who now writes fiction under the nom de plume Josephine Moon, has spent most of her working life editing other people’s work. She started off as a teacher of English and film and television, then took up technical writing and corporate editing. You name it, she’s done it: structural editing, copy editing, proofreading. Her last big editing role, before she became a professional writer, was with publisher John Wiley & Sons. Not that Jo’s past experience made a huge difference when it came to her first published work of fiction, The Tea Chest, which Allen & Unwin have released just this month.

The Tea Chest, which interweaves the narratives of five characters, including flashbacks, tells the story of tea blender Kate Fullerton who finds herself the co-owner of a string of high-end tea shops which the book takes its title from. She takes the risky step of opening a new store in London, and winds up enlisting the help of newly unemployed Leila and newly separated Elizabeth.

‘We did lots of work on it,’ Jo says. ‘But I think The Tea Chest was a bit odd, because it actually went to my agent on second draft.’

Jo recalled that The Tea Chest was sold off to Allen & Unwin as ‘a second or maybe the third draft’, and was thrilled to receive her structural editor and publisher Annette Barlow’s feedback.

‘I felt like I’ve finally gotten to where I want to be, where I’ve got these amazing people around me who can give me exactly the kind of guidance I need to see my book become the best I can make it.’

Apart from Annette there was copy editor Ali Lavau, who has not only written more than a dozen children and YA books of her own under the pen name Frances Watts, but edited the likes of Tom Keneally, Gillian Mears and Alex Miller.

The Tea Chest was proofread by a third person, and the entire editing process was overseen by a fourth. The whole process, from the time Jo received Annette’s comments to having the final proof for the printers, took five to six months. In asking Jo what changed with the manuscript over that time, she said that it was mainly character Leila’s journey.

‘Leila’s very confused about what she wants,’ Jo explains. ‘And the problem was that confusion was coming through from me and from her. But I needed to be clear about why she was confused.’

Jo sat down, thought about it, and spoke to Leila – ‘As you do,’ Jo says, laughing. After Jo had heard what Leila had to say, she made her changes.

‘I was much, much happier with it after that,’ Jo affirms.

The book I received from Allen & Unwin was the uncorrected proof – copies that are sent to reviewers and booksellers to drum up press and to give booksellers time to consider whether they want to stock the book when it becomes available. According to Jo, this version of the manuscript came just after it had been through structural editing.

‘It was quite unnerving – people were actually posting reviews of the book at the same time I was still going through copyediting and proofreading changes. I really wanted to say, “No, stop reading it till I’ve got it right!”’

She adds, ‘But most of that is then words, sentences – things like that. For the majority of people, it wouldn’t matter to them.’

It’s in the structural phase, then, where the big changes occur.

‘In the structural phase you add in things here or there,’ Jo says. ‘Sometimes that knocks the smoothness out of the narrative in the sense that you said something is happening, but actually it’s not because you’ve put that other scene in and it kind of alters the timeline a bit.’

The structural phase is also when it’s most crucial to be working with people who understand the story you’re trying to tell.

‘That’s huge, that is all about what your story is and they need to be able to see what it is trying to do and perhaps this hasn’t quite gotten to what your vision of it was. So I think your structural editor just has to be so insightful and so in tune with your book.’


For some people, receiving feedback from others about how the manuscript they’ve worked so long and so hard on should be changed can be a difficult process. Jo, however, had a much happier experience, and she asserts that no one can make changes without your approval.

‘An editor will go through and say what they think needs to be changed, and then it’s your job to go through and revise every aspect of that and agree or disagree,’ she says. ‘I know my publisher is brilliant, but I’m sure there are other publishers that perhaps do that differently.’

Jo described the different responses she has had to editing suggestions: ‘I think that in the best case scenario, you see their suggestions and go, “Yes! Exactly!” But if I had a “Mmm, I don’t think so,” I might consider it and go, “Yep, it does need a bit of re-working, but not the way you’ve done it,” then I might come up with my own solution for it.’

Ultimately though, as a former editor herself, Jo sometimes just lets go. ‘If I was completely neutral [about a suggested change], I just left it. Because you’re the editor, this is what editors do. You’ve been doing it in a fiction sense longer than I have, so I’m going to trust you there.’

While The Tea Chest was “marinating” with Allen & Unwin, Jo worked on another novel for them, The Chocolate Apothecary. Given The Tea Chest had been Jo’s first experience of a publisher editing one of her manuscripts, I was curious about whether that process had influenced the writing of her second upcoming novel.

She responded in the negative: ‘I try not to edit anything while I’m writing it. I try not to even really read a first draft until after I’ve finished it, because I don’t want that inner-censor to start killing it before it’s even born.’

Jo did add later however that, ‘Having been through that structural editing process, it would definitely influence how I go about asking myself strategic questions when I come to do my editing of The Chocolate Apothecary.’

A tasty proposition indeed.

The three levels of manuscript editing
by Josephine Moon

Structural editing: Looking at those really big issues of what’s working here, what’s not working, what flows, what’s missing, what isn’t.

Copyediting: Looking at sentence structure and grammar and just how your ideas are being communicated.

Proofreading: The very final layer you would do before going to print, which is looking for all those last-minute errors.

The Tea Chest is written by Josephine Moon and published by Allen and Unwin.

Article published in the April 2014 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre.

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