Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge handbook for editors, copy-editors and proofreaders

by Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake and Maureen Leach (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 4th ed. 2006): 543pp, £51.99, ISBN 0 521 84713 3.

Reviewed by Sylvia Sullivan

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When I first started freelancing, I visited a prospective client in search of work. The interviewer picked up a green book and waved it at me: 'Are you familiar with this?' 'Ah,' I was able to reply, 'my bible.'

And so it has been ever since – Butcher has sat on my shelf of reference books, within arm's reach of my desk. She (I cannot think of this particular book separately from its author) has provided support in times of confusion, instant solution in times of crisis and is a constant reassuring presence of best practice. But after nearly 15 years, the third edition is somewhat frayed, so I seized on the fourth edition, only to be daunted at the task of reviewing it.

How does one look objectively at what has become an integral part of one's working life? It's rather like commenting on a make-over given to a close member of the family that one sees every day.

Still the bible

To reiterate my own phrase, emphasised by Gillian Clarke's back-cover endorsement, 'the fourth edition maintains its place as the copy-editor's bible'. This is despite all the technological changes the publishing industry has embraced in recent years, the growth of the internet and the smudging of the delineation between various roles.

One might even say that the need for good copy-editing and proofreading skills has never been greater, just as the burgeoning number of cars on the road demands ever more discipline to negotiate safely from A to B.

This edition is a little longer than the third one (543 pages compared with 471); it has an extra chapter, two additional appendices and an extra illustration. It follows a format and structure broadly similar to the third edition. The A heads are slightly larger, making for clearer text that is easier to navigate, and the phrasing of the headings is often slightly more elegant.

Clear and methodical introduction

For those not already familiar with Butcher, the fourth edition provides a clear and methodical introduction to the copy-editing process, a guide to dealing with all the elements that have to be fitted together to produce 'a well-organized and consistent book'.

It contains chapters devoted to: preparing the text for the typesetter, illustrations, proofs, house style, preliminary pages, indexes, and bibliographical references. Other chapters deal with more specialised areas, including: literary material, multi-author and multi-volume works, sciences and mathematics books, and other special subjects such as classical books, law and music.

Extra material

So what of the extra material? There is a very useful chapter by Anne Waddingham about on-screen editing, which includes a helpful checklist for the various processes involved.

There is an appendix listing the countries of the former USSR, Baltic States and the former Yugoslavia, and another giving instructions on how to check that an ISBN is correct (which I confess to never having exercised my brain too much about before, but no doubt will check assiduously from now on). The extra illustration is a copy-editor's checklist for illustrations.

Theoretical grounding

Although the book is geared especially to the requirements of Cambridge University Press, it acknowledges that many editors are freelances who work for a variety of clients. It continues to provide a model for best practice for other publishers, who may have slightly different styles.

For the newcomer to proofreading or copy-editing, Butcher gives the best theoretical grounding in the book publishing process as it applies to their particular roles. For the experienced proofreader and copy-editor, it remains invaluable for its many checklists and appendices and as a quick port of call for answers to all sorts of queries from matters of punctuation and spelling to points of editorial style and mark-up.

I referred to the fourth edition in the course of my work over a few weeks. For example, I had queries on copyright, on 'how to treat lists' in the face of a client's somewhat idiosyncratic house style and a designer's even more idiosyncratic interpretation, and on 'how to treat quotations'. The overall navigability of the index I found even easier than that to the third edition (itself a vast improvement on the second).

Tax deductible

To be honest, if you have been living with the third edition, have taken the trouble to adopt the new British Standard proofreading symbols, to update yourself on changes to copyright and your own specialist subjects, attended training courses and have made a successful transition to on-screen editing, I would think twice about reinvesting in the fourth edition (albeit tax deductible).

However, there is no doubt that every publishing professional should have a copy of Butcher and I am very happy to reinstate her in my reference stable. She continues to be my 'Best Mate', a thoroughbred, an archetypal workhorse and that 'once in a lifetime' winner.

Editor's note: Butcher's Copy-editing is an SfEP recommended reference book.

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