An American Editor

April 1, 2010

The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf

I have been a professional editor for more than 25 years and during those years I have purchased, read, and used numerous references. Even now I look for additional language reference books to buy (I have on order, for example, An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction by Anatoly Liberman).

There is no list of must-have reference books that every professional editor must own or have immediate access to, with the possible exception of standard dictionaries; which books should be part of an editor’s reference library depends a great deal on the types of manuscripts the editor works on and the type of editing performed (by which I mean whether one does developmental editing, copyediting, or both).

One book every editor should have (in addition to dictionaries) is the appropriate style manual. There are many style manuals available, even news organizations like the New York Times and Associated Press have style manuals. Sometimes the required style manual is nothing more than the grammar and style rules created by the client, but usually it is one of the standard manuals, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, The Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, the AMA (American Medical Association) Manual of Style, and the Council of Science Editor’s Scientific Style and Format, to name but a few. It is the style manual that is the arbiter of the rules to be applied to a manuscript, for example, how a reference is to be styled, how a quotation is to be delineated, whether or not serial commas should be used, whether or not prefixes should be hyphenated or closed up, whether or not a phrase should be hyphenated, etc.

In addition to the appropriate style manual, an editor’s bookshelf must contain at least one dictionary, although many editors will have several. Two of my favorite dictionaries are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Although one would think that all dictionaries are the same, they are not, and clients often have a preference. Along with a standard language dictionary, specialized dictionaries are needed. For example, medical editors often own several medical specialty dictionaries, such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, and the APA Dictionary of Psychology, in addition to the standard English language dictionaries.

My bookshelf also includes “word” books, that is, books that are lists of accepted words and their spelling for a particular specialty subject area. Because I do a lot of medical editing, I have numerous medical word books. Specialty areas, like medicine, also require specialty reference books. My medical library, for example, includes several drug reference manuals, drug interaction guides, and medical test guides. And because a lot of my specialty work also includes chemical compounds, my library also includes chemical reference books like The Merck Index.

But my bookshelf also includes books devoted to language usage, such as Garner’s Modern American Usage, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, and Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. These are the books that go into detailed explanation of when, for example, which is correct and the difference between farther and further in usage.

Usage books only tell part of the story. Another part is told in a word or phrase’s history (etymology). Some of this information is available in the standard dictionary, especially the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, as well as from specialty books like A Dictionary of Americanisms, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. These resources are valuable in determining whether a word or phrase are being used appropriately.

Also useful are texts that help an editor analyze the roots and origins of a word, especially when an author uses a wholly unfamiliar word, including one not found in the standard language references, or creates a new word. Composition of Scientific Words is particularly helpful with science words and the Word Parts Dictionary is useful with standard English words.

In addition to books about words, a professional editor’s bookshelf includes books about grammar. Grammar books also address the correct word issue, but the focus is more on correct sentence structure, for example the restrictive versus the nonrestrictive clause, use of commas, passive versus active voice, and the like. I suspect many editors make use of The Gregg Reference Manual when grammar questions arise.

Some editors rely on online resources in this Internet Age. I find that troublesome to the extent that there is no assurance of reliability or accuracy. I know the source of my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but have no idea of the source for or accuracy of a Wikipedia article. Having grown up in the print age, I am not comfortable relying on the Internet as the source of my information. But making use of online resources is also an important part of an editor’s job; the key is knowing which resources to accept and which to reject. A professional editor can knowledgeably make that decision.

Why is the editor’s bookshelf important? Because it helps separate the professional editor from the amateur. The professional editor has a deep interest in language and how language is used. The professional editor wants to improve communication between the author and the reader. The professional editor devotes significant time and resources to mastering language so that when a manuscript leaves the editor’s hands, it is better communicates the author’s message. Nonprofessional editors do not make the investment nor work to master the language skills that are needed.

The difference between a professional and a nonprofessional editor can be the difference between clear communication and miscommunication of an author’s message. The comprehensiveness of the editor’s bookshelf, the editor’s resources, is a clue to the editor’s professionalism, and something that every author should be interested in.


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