The Copyeditor’s Handbook

Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwarz (University of California Press, 2019), 568pp, £30.00 (pbk)
ISBN 978 0520 286 72 6

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The Copyeditor’s Workbook

Erika Buky, Marilyn Schwartz and Amy Einsohn (University of California Press, 2019), 384pp, £20.00 (pbk)
ISBN 978 0520 294 35 6

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Reviewed by Alice Horne

The Copyeditor’s Handbook and The Copyeditor’s Workbook from the University of California Press are pitched as a double bill: a reference book – now in its fourth edition – accompanied by a practical book of exercises that allow you to put those all-important lessons into practice.  

I’ll start with the Handbook. From even a cursory glance over the contents list, it’s clear that this book sets out to be comprehensive: it begins with the real basics, such as what copyeditors actually do and common work processes, before going in hard on editorial style – covering everything from punctuation and spelling to tables and references – and finally looking at what the authors term ‘language editing’, which encompasses grammar, plain language, global English and publishing law.

This ambitious breadth of content, coupled with an accessible and unpresumptuous approach, makes it a very valuable introduction for those new, or newish, to copyediting. That said, even with a few years’ experience under my belt, I was grateful for an authoritative recap of best practices – and not just in terms of the technicalities of editing. One section that I will most certainly be referring back to is phrasing queries for authors. Treading the line between efficiency and tact – perhaps mixed in with occasional frustration – can be a challenge, particularly with a looming deadline. The authors’ suggestions achieve this balance compellingly. (Their takeaway tip? Always make your queries about the reader.) And because it isn’t a style manual itself, the Handbook gives a very useful overview of different approaches to style rules with references to the relevant manuals – excellent for editors (like me) who work across multiple styles and genres.

The authors approach all of this with admirable rigour and satisfying detail – perhaps unsurprising given that the book is published by a university press. But that’s not to say that it’s a dull read. Wry asides and humorous examples lift the tone, making what could be a hard going read a much more enjoyable experience. I particularly appreciated the warnings about homophone confusion in eggcorns (such as in ‘just desserts’ or ‘pass mustard’) and, just for fun, the overview of a lost punctuation mark, the interrobang, ‘a fusion of the question mark and exclamation point, to convey a mixture of doubt and surprise.’ (Can you believe it?!)

As you might expect, being published by the University of California Press, the Handbook is primarily geared towards editors of US English, but this is only really noticeable in the sections that are devoted to grammar and language – and even there, the authors do nod to other Englishes. In a discussion about terminal punctuation and quotation marks, for example, they devote a rather generous footnote to British practice, and a table outlining the differences between British and American spelling works perfectly well whichever side of the Atlantic you find yourself. Book and society recommendations are also UK-inclusive (the SfEP gets a well-deserved mention, of course).

It's important to recognise that this is a revised and updated book, and the new additions covering new technology and digital formats are, frankly, essential rather than ground-breaking. I did wonder a few times, however, whether Marilyn Schwartz could have been a little heavier handed with the cutting. There were several sections that felt pretty old hat, such as marking up hard-copy proofs and traditional working practices. And though I’m sure there are still many practising editors who swear by these methods – for now at least – there’s no issue in skipping over these sections.

It certainly isn’t a book to read cover to cover (and it is neither metaphorically nor literally a ‘light’ read), but one to dip in and out of as and when needed, whether you edit in US English or not. Safe to say, it will definitely be sitting within arm’s reach of my desk as a reference book.

So, on to the Workbook. While the Handbook works very successfully in its own right (indeed, it has done so in the three prior editions), you’d be left feeling a little cheated if you bought the Workbook on its own. The exercises – which you can very helpfully download online – refer back explicitly to specific sections of the Handbook, so although you could still learn something from working through them in isolation, you’d lack some of the more comprehensive and general explanations that make the Handbook so valuable. 

As a pair, though, they work well together, with the Workbook serving as a very concrete way to put the lessons learnt in the Handbook into practice. Perhaps this is why it felt to me that it would be more useful for those very early on in their copyediting career. Some of the earlier exercises, for example, aren’t as much about practising editorial judgment (as promised by the book’s subtitle) as they are about the practicalities of editing – experimenting with using track changes in Word or how to mark up a PDF, for instance. Both of these prove a bit difficult to show in the book and the answer key doesn’t exactly provide step-by-step guidance so, for those really starting from the beginning, these exercises give you nothing more than a sample to experiment on. Similarly, an exercise involving searching through different style manuals to become familiar with their different approaches is, in theory, a useful one, but its scope is quite limited if you don’t have access to all of them – and who does?

The Workbook follows the same structure as the Handbook though, so the later exercises become more complex and focused on grammar and language usage. I was particularly keen to practise lessons learnt about unbiased language and using ‘plain English’, and found the accompanying exercises a really useful way to critique my own judgements alongside the answer key.

For me, this is where the real value of the book sings through. Considering that editing is often wildly subjective, the answer key does a very convincing job of explaining the value of different choices. In fact, since the exercises are often pretty long and time-consuming, the commentary in the answer key felt at times more valuable than the exercises themselves.

If you’re serious about your professional development and have the time and money to invest in both books, I have no doubt that you’ll learn many valuable and practical lessons. But if it comes to choosing one over the other, I’d opt for the Handbook every time.

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