Copyediting: Challenges and complexities

Margaret Aherne (Improving Books, 2021), £25 (£5 discount for CIEP members)

Reviewed by Sara Donaldson

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If you’re a fan of Margaret’s Proofreading Practice or Copy-editing: A guide for proofreaders then you may have heard about her latest book, Copyediting: Challenges and complexities.

The contents were inspired by Margaret’s Publishing Training Centre course ‘Advanced Copy-editing’, which ran from 2009 to 2019, and, as the name suggests, the resulting book is not suited to those with no copyediting experience. If you’re new to copyediting, then first I’d point you towards Copy-editing: A guide for proofreaders and some good old-fashioned training. If you’ve already done the PTC course, then I wouldn’t recommend buying this book either as the material won’t be new to you – Margaret is very clear about this on her website.

Now that’s out of the way, who exactly is this book for?

After working through it, I’d say it’s for anyone who has been copyediting a while and wants a refresher, or wants to make sure they’re doing things right, or wants a bit more confidence in their abilities. Less experienced editors might benefit from having a copy to hand, to help them when they face challenges, and if you’re a seasoned editor it’s a great reminder of how to deal with aspects of editing you may not come across every day.

There are sections, among others, on multi-authored works, creating tables, linguistics and dealing with copyediting for writers whose first language isn’t English (ESL). Each chapter has instruction and exercises, with case studies, discussion and exercise answers. The great thing about this book is that you can dip in and out when you want to concentrate on one area, or you can work through it starting at the beginning.  I worked through it over a few weeks, but I wouldn’t recommend rushing it. Take your time, digest the information and see how it fits into your working practices.

I wouldn’t miss out the introduction and first chapter though – Margaret talks through briefs (both written and implied) and no matter where you are in your career, it’s good to cement the need for a good brief. The introduction deals with macros and checklists – nice to see these mentioned, as I love a good checklist.

There’s an excellent chapter on multi-authored works and one on structure – and the incredibly useful exercises showed me that when I do work on texts I’m not always doing so in the most time-effective way. Even small changes I noted from Margaret’s advice gave little ‘aaah yes’ moments.  After years of working as an editor sometimes you get stuck in your ways, and this has given me a different way to try working.

The case studies scattered throughout are a brilliant way to show newer copyeditors what can go wrong and how to deal with them. Someone fairly new to the field might think them exaggerated, but I know I’ve come across some similar examples over the years.

There are a few areas that to begin with, I must admit, I wondered whether they were worth me reading. For example I don’t tend to work on academic texts (other than the odd thesis in my chosen field); however, tackling the chapter on table creation was oddly satisfying even if the linguistics chapter terrified me. The chapter on working with people whose first language isn’t English was fascinating. Again, I don’t do much ESL work apart from the odd thesis but if you work, or intend to work, on ESL material the breakdowns in this chapter alone would lead me to recommend the book to you. It’s not going to break down absolutely everything you need to know, but it explains a heck of a lot about sentence construction seen from the perspective of other languages and how to tackle the common problems that arise during an edit.

I could go on (and on) about this book. Across the ten chapters there are so many nuggets of pure gold that even well-established editors are sure to find something of use.

But this has to be a balanced review. So let’s talk about what I didn’t like. I didn’t really like the coloured boxes that the chapter headings sit within (sorry, Margaret). It’s nice to add colour but here I’d prefer no colour, or the heading itself to be coloured. That’s it. Sorry. I tried hard to find fault, and all I could find was a very, very minor stylistic issue.

To sum up, I don’t think this book is just for copyeditors. Proofreaders will find it useful too. If I had a physical copy it would sit alongside my copy of Butcher’s to allow me to dip in and out. Instead it’s in a file alongside my most used digital resources. If you were to go on a course to learn what Margaret teaches in this book it would cost hundreds of pounds – instead, it’s available for the price of a lockdown dinner for two.

The book is available as a download at a mere £25 (with CIEP members bagging a £5 discount).

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