Copy-editing: A guide for proofreaders

M. Aherne (Improving Books, 2017), £30 (ebook)

Reviewed by Gillian Clarke and Mike Christou

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Two reviews for the price of one! Margaret Aherne, who is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, has written a follow-up book – in ebook format only – to her excellent Proofreading Practice: Exercises with model answers and commentary. Here we have reviews from Gillian Clarke (the professional), a founder member of the SfEP who teaches copyediting and proofreading, and Mike Christou (the student), who has just started out in our profession.

Reviewed by Gillian Clarke

Margaret said that I inspired her to get into teaching and writing do-it-yourself-type works. This is gratifying news but is merely because I recognised her excellent abilities, which are apparent in her Proofreading Practice (published in 2011) and in this latest book. I have no hesitation in saying that Copy-editing: A guide for proofreaders is an ideal way for proofreaders to expand their portfolio into copyediting. Additional training will be required, but this is an excellent introduction to the joys and pitfalls of copyediting.

The content is as follows: ‘The Copy-editor’s role’, ‘Working with the publisher: being a team player’, ‘Working for the reader’, ‘Working with the author: tact, tact and more tact’, ‘Working with the typesetter: making life easy’, ‘What the copy-editor works with’, ‘How has the copy-editor messed up?’, ‘Grammar’, ‘Style guides and style sheets’, ‘References’, ‘Quick look-up – resources’, ‘Appendix 1: helpful documents’, ‘Appendix 2: Publishers Association permissions guidelines 2016’ and ‘Appendix 3: further training’. There is then a section of exercises, with model answers and commentary. Throughout the text there are little reminders about the basics that must become second nature to all good copyeditors.

I particularly like the emphasis on the need for tact when dealing with authors directly; and the grammar section is marvellously helpful, covering pitfalls where the unwary editorial person can easily come unstuck.

Anyone who has been tutored or mentored by Margaret, or seen her helpful comments on the SfEP forums, will recognise her easy, helpful and informative style. If you are thinking about learning more about editorial work, this is the ideal book for you. It will give you insight into what copyeditors do (or don’t do, or perhaps have done wrongly) to help you understand your proofreading role, and will prepare you brilliantly for delving into the joys (or otherwise) of copyediting.

In depth
Reviewed by Mike Christou

This is the latest offering from Margaret Aherne, who has over 30 years’ experience in publishing as a proofreader, editor, project manager, trainer and author. It is aimed at three main types of people:

  • trained proofreaders who are interested in pursuing a career in copyediting
  • untrained copyeditors who have learned on the job and would like some formal training
  • trained copyeditors who have taken a long break and want to refresh themselves.

The book comprises three sections: the main text, standalone exercises (PDF and DOCX versions) and the answers to the standalone exercises.

Main text

The main text has 12 chapters and three appendices. The introduction, which gives you a rough overview of copyediting and the layout of the book, includes an exercise along with its answer and comments. This occurs in every chapter apart from the last one. The second chapter contains an overview of the copyeditor’s role and a brief discussion of the various people the copyeditor will work with: publisher, reader, author, typesetter. The following four chapters (Chapters 3–6) go into more detail about working with these types of people, each chapter dealing with one category. Chapter 7 discusses different types of copy (e.g. typescripts, electronic files, photocopies/ scans) and the types of copyediting (e.g. editing on hard copy or on screen) that a copyeditor may have to provide. Chapter 8 looks at the various ways that a copyeditor can mess up.

The remaining chapters (Chapters 9–12) cover grammar, style guides and style sheets, references and quick look-up resources. Three appendices contain helpful lists (e.g. a ‘special sorts’ sheet and a copyediting checklist), Publishers Association permissions guidelines, and further training suggestions and links.

Books about copyediting can be quite dry and taxing to read, but Margaret avoids this. The chapters are clear, easy to follow, professionally laid out and humorous in places. Furthermore, the exercises in each chapter help to consolidate the information given and are enjoyable to do. The answers and comments accompanying the exercises are useful for gaining an insight into the mind of a copyeditor at work.

Standalone exercises

There are 21 standalone exercises in total. They test all aspects of copyediting and gradually build up in complexity and difficulty. They begin with simple tasks on topics such as abbreviations, editing for brevity, briefs, a danger list of easily confused words, and quotations. These early exercises lay the foundations for the later more complex copyediting exercises involving varying material, from a children’s arithmetic workbook to a book of family games to a train company’s information leaflet, for example. Interleaved throughout all these non-fiction exercises is a humorous five-part fiction piece on speed dating that requires you to spot continuity errors. As before, these exercises also have answers and useful comments.


By the end of this book, trained proofreaders ought to be in no doubt as to whether they should proceed onto copyediting. As the book is only £30, investing in it should be a no-brainer for proofreaders in this position. Furthermore, there is quite a leap from proofreading to copyediting, and working through this book will be good preparation should you decide to proceed with a professional copyediting course. Both untrained and trained-but-rusty copyeditors should feel more confident of their skills in future, having had a fair amount of practice by the end and seen how an experienced professional would tackle varying types of material. While Butcher’s Copyediting has more in-depth chapters, several factors are in favour of Margaret’s Copy-editing as the initial purchase for people in this situation: Judith Butcher’s Kindle version is nearly £20 more expensive, the current (fourth) edition is over ten years old and there are no exercises.

Also, Chapter 12 of Margaret’s Copy-editing contains an up-to-date and extremely useful quick look-up table for items that copyeditors most often search for in the following reference books: Butcher’s Copy-editing, New Hart’s Rules, New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors and The Chicago Manual of Style. The numerous items listed include footnotes and endnotes, numbering sequences, prose quotations, when to abbreviate and when not, and uses of italics. The time, and consequently money, saved over a few months of using this handy table will hopefully go towards paying back some, if not all, of the cost of Margaret’s book.

Note: the author is giving CIEP members a special discount. More information on discounts available to CIEP members.

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