A word from mentoring ed, Helen Moffett. And a gift from SSDA!

It’s the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere, and that makes us think of Short Story Day Africa’s roots, and how it’s bloomed and transmuted since its beginnings. It was prompted by a UK magazine editor’s request that writer and SSDA founder Rachel Zadok set up a national short story event in South Africa. At first, the efforts of a small handful of volunteers were restricted to South, then Southern Africa – but within two years, SSDA was getting requests – and offers – from a variety of voices across the continent. Our needs for a short story platform – one that offered publishing, editing, news, debate, training – were very different to those of writers in the northern hemisphere.

Yet there are traces of our beginnings not only in the name of the organisation, a registered non-profit, but in the number of stories chosen each year for our annual SSDA anthology – in case you ever wondered why we publish a longlist of twenty-one stories.

There are several things that make us different in the often tenuous but always exciting and febrile world of African indie publishing, but to celebrate this shortest day, our winter solstice, I’m going to write about something warming. One of the rare things we’ve always been able to offer our authors and contributors is in-depth editing. And this has gone from being something implicit to something we’re focusing on more overtly and formally, with our Editing Mentorship programme now in its third year.

Here we use the anthology editing process to train and mentor young up-and-coming editors working in and for anglophone African publishing outfits. I’ve been the Editing Mentor for the last three years, this year with the stalwart support of experienced and award-winning author Karen Jennings, and it’s been enormously satisfying to see Editing Fellows Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe/South Africa), Efemia Chela (Zambia/South Africa), Otieno Owino (Kenya), Nebila Abdulmelik (Ethiopia), Anne Moraa (Kenya), Ope Adedeji (Nigeria) and Agazit Abate (Ethiopia) develop their editing skills and go on, in many cases, to take these to indie publishing houses and platforms across the continent, as well as other creative and academic projects (some of which are deliciously subversive). We’re so proud of them. But working with gifted young editors is only part of what makes this such a rewarding process. The long-lasting joy, for me anyway, comes from working with the writers.

Editing, it must be said, is not for the faint-hearted. It involves erasing one’s own voice to honour the voice of the story (which itself is not always quite the same thing as the author’s voice). Yet it also involves the courage to stand one’s ground, the diplomacy to negotiate that ground, an ability to see the broader picture, to envisage all the potential ripples spreading out – and in many African countries, this means considering not just literary merits but the political and moral implications of a piece of writing.

In an interaction that by default is hierarchical and “critical”, the editor (especially if she’s a white South African, like me) constantly has to reach for the touchstone of decolonial thinking and practice. Working across the continent means holding my own (often embarrassing) ignorance of the context and history shaping an author’s story in balance with the specific and specialist editing experience and information I can offer. How do we both honour this process? This can only be done by building a relationship, no matter how fleeting. I have to earn the author’s trust, and if I had to boil it down to one principle, it’s taking the author’s words absolutely seriously. No indifferent editor is a good editor. You have to care about the story almost as much as its creator does.

This sounds all very serious. I’m writing this today, as icy winds tug at my doors and the sky darkens, to tell you that editing – and especially editing the SSDA anthologies – is also fun. Huge fun. So much fun, you can’t imagine. That fleeting relationship with your author might be brief, but it’s often deep and intense. It becomes playful and serious. There is pushback and feelings get hurt. It involves coaxing and laughter and amazing trust and mutual respect. The magic is that these interactions are with people you have never met, and may never meet. When that mutual energy crackles across the vastness and multiplicity of the African continent, it’s truly special.

The first time Bongani Kona and I ever worked on a story by the dazzlingly talented Tochukwu Okafor (for the Migrations SSDA anthology), he wrote of the “pleasant horror” with which he opened the file to see a sea of red cyber-ink. (The following year, he was the winner for his story in the ID anthology, and now he’s shortlisted for the Caine Prize, and we are so thrilled for him, we’re floating like balloons.) So sometimes these short and intense relationships stretch ahead into the future, and our paths recross in interesting and constructive ways. We write references for fellowships and Creative Writing MA programmes, for writer’s residencies, jobs in publishing – and celebrate when writers get these. We’re asked for advice, and we’re given advice. We see authors we’ve published, sometimes for the first time, go on to light up the sky.

And sometimes, our authors reflect on the editing process, and sometimes the relationships are honest and durable enough – even after only a few weeks – for them to tease us. As we’ve wound up the editing for our current anthology, Hotel Africa, Cameroon author Nkiacha Atemnkeng grew a little restive when we asked him to rework to tight deadlines – and I was then a day late in returning final edits I’d promised him. He made my day when he penned me this ode as a result:

Helen the charmer

A chiseller. A butcher!

Vulture picking at meat

Killing my darlings

Story’s a torrid red mess

Beautiful horror. Pain.

Pleasure. Lessons. Finesse.

Morphs into solace mood

Such a lovely charmer!

Where’s the story?

I don’t have it yet

Hectic, but the story...

My Helen the charmer

I'm the African king cobra

Swaying, left, right, left,

To the tune of the flute

Of my snake charmer.

This is an emblem of the many wonderful interactions I’ve had with a range of fascinating and talented writers from dozens of different African countries in the last few years. So this mid-winter day, I have a warm glow: thank you to every author who’s ever entrusted me with their work, and especially those of you whose only connection with me is through a modem, most especially the SSDA authors. You keep me humble and you give me joy. And in Nkiacha’s case, a great big belly-laugh.

Helen Moffett


A Gift from SSDA

For the next five days (from 22 June – 26 June) ID: New Short Fiction from Africa will be available for free* from Amazon!

Click here to go Amazon and get your copy!

Or, if Amazon is giving you a hard time, click here.

*Gift is available as an ebook from Amazon in African territories only.

If you enjoy the gift, please return to Amazon and leave us a review or rating.

Short Story Day Africa is a non-profit organisation that relies on donations from readers, writers and businesses. If you’d like to help, click here.

"Correctness...is not the be-all & end-all of editing." The Art Of Editing, 3

Helen Moffett, Efemia Chela and Bongani Kona and SSDA's intern, Catherine Shepherd are all involved in the SSDA/Worldreader Editing Mentorship. In the third edition of the series, they talk about what they've learnt editing a collection with stories from 9 different countries and that draws inspiration from even more.


Editing in the African context is fairly unique. The writers of our fair continent travel in their writing, creating complex stories that rarely draw on just one place, one generation, one lived experience or language. As an editor you have a responsibility to keep an eye out for the changes in tone and slang. There are 54 countries that make up Africa - so there's nothing homogenous about the writing you will be encountering. 

During the fellowship we noted it was important to place the story's own voice as well as its characters in the proper context. Hopefully the writer will have done the proper research, but if something sounds strange. Look it up and then draw it to the author's attention. 

Related to this is the issue of over-editing:

"It's a tricky balance to strike but the best editors are tightrope walkers." - Bongani Kona

"Books that have been stripped of their local flavour and language, make for a boring read. It can be difficult to parse particular words into "standard" English. So in quite a few cases they should just be left as they are - okada, trotro, lobola, counterback.

I think you should trust the reader to be invested enough in the story to gather meaning from the surrounding words. Or Google it." - Efemia Chela

Helen Moffett adds:

My pet peeve is editors who “correct” local idiom & vibrant dialogue. The Queen’s English is not required for most characters.

The editor in Africa must be sensitive to variety of Englishes reflecting/representing multilingual societies.

It's a similar thing with correctness; it is not the be-all & end-all of editing. Consistency is sometimes more important. What does have to be correct is the Internal logic of story. Even short stories can have plot holes or contradictions.

Cathy's experience of the mentorship is slightly different and she explains what that entails:

I'm dealing with the e-book for the young writers that entered Migrations. It's well on its way as I am feverishly editing some powerful stories written by young African writers still in high school, under the guidance of the talented writer and literary critic Karina Szczurek.

Editing is definitely a big responsibility but like the actual art of writing,  the more you do it the easier it flows. There are some hard and fast rules in the editing game but I got some good advice about things that don't follow those rules.

"Follow your gut," Karina Szczurek told me before I began to chop, suggest and rearrange someone else's baby.

Worldreader is sponsoring the first SSDA Editing Mentorship Programme. Next week in the final edition, we talk about tying up loose ends. 

'It's like listening to a piece of music for the first time.' The Art of Editing, 1

Seasoned academic and fiction editor, Helen Moffett is heading up the Migrations editorial team this year. She serves as a mentor to Efemia Chela and Bongani Kona and SSDA's intern, Catherine Shepherd. More information about the SSDA/Worldreader Editing Mentorship can be found here. In this series, we go in-depth into editing through a series of tips and discussions about the craft.


The Editor Gets Their Manuscript: Now what?

I know, I know, trees etc, but you must print out and read your manuscript (MS) in hard copy form as well as online. Keep a pen handy as you read. Scribble down thoughts and queries and make corrections as you go along. You don't have to be thorough at this point: you're going to work far more intensively and intensely online, but you'll find that you miss things online that you see on paper and vice versa.

But before you even print out, you're going to have to spend some time doing editing housekeeping.

  • Open up the doccie and change the font (and font size) to one you can read with ease, and can imagine working with for the next few weeks. It's your eyes, you get to decide.
  • Double line spacing isn't necessary if you pick the right font and size. I always change all my MS to one and a half line spacing..
  • Every new chapter/story/poem must start on a new page. Use the new page command -- do not repeatedly hit the enter key.
  • Some authors format their works (in Word) to death. If your MS has been heavily formatted, send it back to the author and ask them to remove all but the bare minimum.
  • Search for any double spaces in the MS and replace with single spacing. The typesetter and proofreader will thank you much later on down the line. 

OK, now you can hit "print". 

 The next bit is one of the nicest things about editing.


Find a coffee shop or curl up on your bed. Switch off your phone. Read the paper version until you're done, making notes, but not to the point where this overtakes the experience of reading.

You don't have to commit to anything yet. You're at the courtship stage of editing, getting to know the MS, its voice(s). Listen carefully. By all means identify problems and start mulling over possible solutions, but right now, you need to absorb the cadence and flow of the voices in the MS.


It's like listening to a piece of music for the first time.


Your ultimate task as an editor is to become an editing chameleon (more about this soon), but for now, the MS never be this fresh again, so read with your internal ears pricked.

We're talking about editing short stories here, so this process -- paying attention to the internal voice of the story and the author's voice (these are not necessarily the same things) -- needs to happen with each story. Each story will need to be edited differently.

Worldreader is sponsoring the first SSDA / Worldreader Editing Mentorship Programme which is headed up by Helen Moffett. The fellows, Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona and Catherine Shepherd will also be contributing to the upcoming Art of Editing Series.