An American Editor

October 22, 2012

The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf

One of the things that editors don’t often discuss is what’s on their editorial bookshelves. If someone asks for a recommendation, say for a grammar book, editors chime in with their favorites, but the overall bookshelf, the tomes they rely on in their daily work, are rarely discussed.

Knowing what’s on an editor’s bookshelf is like having a window into the editor’s “soul.” Okay, perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but only a bit.

I remember hiring a freelance editor years ago and when I received back some edited chapters for a medical project, I was concerned by the spelling errors that remained. I inquired whether the editor used medical spellcheck software as an initial screening tool, and was surprised to learn the editor did not. The editor was an experienced medical editor and had a related medical background before becoming a freelance editor. The editor told me that he/she did not use medical spellcheck software because he/she didn’t trust it and believed his/her background was sufficient and he/she could do much better without it. Alas, the fruits of the editor’s efforts didn’t support that belief.

I know I am limited in what I can require freelance editors I hire to use and own. It is a fine line between freelancer and employee, and it is a line that cannot be crossed without financial penalty. I can recommend but not require. However, I do inquire before hiring.

(Just as having the right resource materials handy is important, so is it important to have the right tools handy. Although I cannot require the freelance editor I hire to own and use EditTools or Editor’s Toolkit Plus, or PerfectIt, or any other piece of software — Microsoft Word being the sole exception — owning and using these tools, and others, would improve the editor’s accuracy, consistency, and efficiency, and increase their effective hourly rate. It seems to me that it is to the freelancer’s own benefit to buy and use these tools.)

Knowing what resources an editor uses other than the Internet gives an insight into the quality of the editing I am likely to receive. It is no guarantee, just an insight. Too many editors, I believe, rely too much on Internet sources, and do so to the exclusion of local resources. I know of editors who do not own a dictionary, for example, because they can use the Internet. I suspect that in another decade or so, online-only resources will be the accepted norm. My problem with it (well, I really have several problems with online-only resources, not least of which is reliability) is that when an editor tells me that they rely on online-only resources, I cannot get a feel for how competent an editor they may be. The Internet is so vast and the quality of the resources so variable, that it doesn’t give me confidence. Consequently, I want to know about local (as opposed to Internet) resources that the editor owns and uses.

It is not that the local resources need to be exhaustive; rather, they should reflect the editor’s sense of professionalism and be geared toward the focus of the editor’s work. For example, if a medical editor tells me that they use only Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, I wonder why they do not also have and use Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, which is the other leading medical dictionary in the United States. And I also wonder about them when they tell me that they are using Stedman’s 26th edition instead of the current 28th edition, or Dorland’s 31st edition when the current edition is 32. (In my library I have the current editions of both dictionaries as well as the past three — or more — editions. Sometimes it is important to check past usage as well as current usage. And sometimes words get dropped from dictionaries.)

Specialty dictionaries are important but are insufficient by themselves. We deal with languages that are ever-changing and no single dictionary or usage guide is always and forever sufficient. So, I also like to know what primary language resource books the editor uses. I find that I often have to go to more than one dictionary to determine whether a word is used correctly (see, e.g., the discussion on ultramontane in which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition did not have the sense that fit the author’s usage but The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition did).

And as the fact of specialty dictionaries implies, the more general dictionaries, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, often lack field-specific terms, or, more importantly, do not accurately reflect what is the standard in a particular field. So additional supplemental dictionaries are important, such as the APA Dictionary of Psychology. And authors love to use popular phrases, which makes resources like the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, & Quotation, the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, the Dictionary of Modern Slang, and The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase & Fable, and thesauruses valuable.

What do you do when faced with a word that you cannot locate? Authors love to “create” a word by combining forms. Do you immediately reject the combination? This is not an unusual occurrence in medical writing (which is why I prefer character count to word count for determing the manuscript page count). Resolution of the problem is not always easy, but I have found Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words, The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations, and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary to be invaluable. Also useful, albeit for a different purpose, is Bothamley’s Dictionary of Theories. It provides a capsule way to determine if the author’s use of, for example, “paradoxical cold” or “paralanguage” is appropriate.

Which brings us to the base issues of editing — usage and grammar. I like to know what usage sources an editor owns and uses. It is not enough to make a decision about grammar, an editor must be able to defend it and to be able to defend it, an editor must have some sources to consult. Many editors have a single source; some rely solely on the grammar sections found in various style manuals. But usage changes over time and I think a professional editor has to follow those trends and have the local sources to do so. I, for example, use H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed revised with supplements), Garner’s Modern American Usage (as well as its two predecessor editions), Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Good’s Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway?, The Gregg Reference Manual, and Burchfield’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as well as several other usage and grammar guides, in addition to the sections on usage and grammar that appear in various editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format, and the APA’s Publication Manual.

It is not unusual for me to have several of my resources open on my desk as I compare and contrast the views of each before making a decision. The books I named above are only a small portion of my local resources. As an editor, I believe it is important to also be able to trace the etymology of a word or phrase, so I have numerous etymological books handy.

The point is that a professional editor relies on much more than just a single dictionary and a single style manual. A professional editor has and uses a library of resources because language is constantly changing and because no single source covers it all. I grant that the Internet has made more resources available and accessible, but it is not always easy to determine the reliability and accuracy of online information. Print publications rely on reputations earned over decades. When I hire a freelance editor, I want to know that the editor has and uses resources in which I have faith.

Do you agree? What’s in your professional library?


  1. Unfortunately, you are asking for someone to actually apply their skills. I’ve hired both freelance and on-staff editors and have been been less than enamored with both. Some have been great, others… The best that I can say is to take a chapter and have them edit it. Make your comparison between each and whichever satisfy the needs go from there with specific requirements. If they cannot,or will not, take the “test” that tells you what you need to know.


    Comment by Russ — October 23, 2012 @ 12:08 am | Reply

  2. I agree that you have to keep up with changes in the language. I prefer digital references not only because they fit my working style but also because they tend to be updated more often than print (not that I don’t have more than my share of print books!).

    It’s also handy to be able to look online at the e-book versions of familiar print books. I’ve collected some using Google Books: Creating a Google Library Shelf of references you want your freelancers to use can help ensure everyone is working with the same resources.

    Digital resource reliability is of paramount importance for copyeditors. It’s not a big leap from trusting Merriam-Webster’s print books to trusting MW’s digital content. But what about resources new to us?

    I have a large collection of links I’ve verified over the years over at, and I list several of these links in a presentation up on Slideshare: More importantly, though, slide 10 has some tips for how to verify the resources you find online. Critical readers who trust their instincts should be able to verify any online resource fairly accurately.


    Comment by Erin C Brenner — October 23, 2012 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

  3. I’m in the UK, so these books might not be the ones you expect to see, but they’re the ones to have here!

    Dictionaries: Chambers for UK English, Merriam-Webster for American English, and the OED, which is a different animal altogether. I’ve got an old 2-volume compact OED (the one that came with a magnifying glass, but I got it secondhand and the magnifier was long gone), but you really can’t beat the on-line OED for etymologies and such, and very, very few people can afford to buy an actual, complete OED. Also on my shelves: the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, which is in a way a dictionary, and in a way a style guide, in that it takes a position on such things as how to style foreign words (italic because it’s not English? Roman because by now it by gum *is* English?) and such. Then there’s Michael Quinion’s Ologies and Isms, a dictionary of word beginnings and endings, and a little Penguin paperback dictionary, which doesn’t get out much because it’s outgunned by the bigger dictionaries. And there’s a dictionary of English idioms, and a wonderful thing that calls itself the Dictionary of the United Kingdom, and is full of words and usages that are peculiar to British English–invaluable to me as a dual national now working in the UK, but brought up in the US.

    Style Guides: The above-mentioned Oxford Dict for Writers and Editors plus its companion volume, New Hart’s rules, are the ones I couldn’t live without for editing in the UK. I’ve also got an older Oxford Manual of Style, which preceded New Hart’s Rules. I’ve got fairly old versions (well, I’m not made out of money, and freelance editors are hardly deep pockets) of the MLA style guide (used by many American academic journals in the humanities), and my favorite, the Chicago Manual of Style. Then there’s Fowler’s, old *and* new, and Penguin guides to punctuation, abbreviations and idioms. Don’t know whether Strunk and White even counts any more (US: anymore), but I’ve got it twice (the old one and, believe it or don’t, and *illustrated* version somebody gave me as a gift–very odd). Eats, Shoots and Leaves probably never really counted in the first place; in that same not-quite-a-style-guide, not-quite-a-coffee-table-book category I’ve also got a volume called Forgotten English, about archaic words. I’ve got Plain English, a guide to producing writing that’s easy to understand; Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage; and Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions, another US-English vs. UK-English reference work.

    I don’t even know how to class Words Into Type, which is more for an editor involved also in layout and book production (much of Butcher’s Copy-Editing–yes, they hyphenate that here–deals with the same, and I’ve never had occasion to use that information.

    And that’s before you get into the books on writing.

    Can’t believe you didn’t get more comments from people on this post. I adore my reference books, and I know what you mean about having several open at once; if at the end of the day every surface near my chair holds an open book, some with other open books on top of them (I know, I know, it’s bad for the bindings), you can tell it’s been a very good day.

    (Apologies for lack of italics for book titles, but it would have taken forever.)


    Comment by mefoley — October 23, 2012 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  4. Within arm’s reach when I’m seated at my computer: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Burchfield’s New Fowler’s, Johnson’s Handbook of Good English, Words into Type, Follet’s MAU, Garner’s MAU (3rd ed. only), Rodale’s Synonym Finder, Evans and Evans’ Dictionary of American Usage, Chicago 15 and 16, APA Manual, AP Stylebook, Scientific Style and Format, Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to Grammar, Greenbaum and Quirk’s A Student’s Grammar of the English Language,a French dictionary, a Spanish dictionary, and, of course, The Copyeditor’s Handbook.

    On the bookshelf: Another fifty or sixty editing-related books, from Barzun and Bernstein through Joseph WIlliams and a few more foreign-language dictionaries.


    Comment by Amy Einsohn — October 23, 2012 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

  5. Amy, I too have the same ability to reference the Internet. However, the question in not whether you (or anyone one who else can find the material), the question is whether or not you can use it. I know nothing about you so I’ll reference those that I do know and say most cannot. Assuming you do have those references and can understand and utilize accordingly, I applaud you. But, please do not make an assumption that being connected to the magical will make one an authority. It takes skill, understanding, and craft to make the ability to make words come alive. My best to you if you can, I cannot and sincerely wish I could.


    Comment by Russ — October 24, 2012 @ 2:13 am | Reply

    • Russ, Sorry that my comment wasn’t clearer. ALL the resources I mentioned are the books I have near my desk and in my office; none of them are online resources (although I do consult those as well). I’ve been an editor since the early 1980s, I’ve taught copyediting courses since the late 1980s, and I spent months studying these books when I was researching and writing The Copyeditor’s Handbook (University of California Press, 1st ed., 2000; 2nd ed., 2006; 3rd ed., 2011).


      Comment by Amy Einsohn — October 30, 2012 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

  6. I use both online and print reference works, though my trust level is higher for the print versions (even these have their errors and lapses). Rodale’s Synonym Finder and Roget’s are always at hand, but I also use Similarly, I defer to Merriam-Webster’s print dictionary, but frequently search for words and their definitions online to get a sense of current usage and connotations. Other print references I keep handy include Chicago 15 and 16, AP Style, Garner’s, Perrin’s An Index To English, On the Tip of Your Tongue by Irene Franck, James Rogers’ Dictionary of Cliches, The Recipe Writer’s Handbook by Ostmann and Baker, Council of Biology Editors Style Manual, and two shelves of field guides to North American nature–birds, insects, mammals, minerals, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms, etc. I also rely on the USDA online Plant Database and the American Ornithologist’s Union searchable checklist for the latest taxonomic nomenclature.

    Last, but often first on my list, is our own house style guide and project-specific style sheet.


    Comment by Will Harmon — October 24, 2012 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

  7. Really enjoying this comments–and the original post as well, of course. Here’s ( ) a post from my WordPress blog from about 6 months ago, including a photo of a pile of some of my dictionaries; looking at it, I realize that I left out The Ultimate Visual Dictionary, which is great when you need to know the proper terms for little bits of detail like a knot in some rigging, or some tiny bit of a violin, or the shoemakers’ term for a part of a shoe, or anything like that.


    Comment by mefoley — October 24, 2012 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

    • Oh, yeah — words are my life (she said wryly). This comments -> these comments, of course.


      Comment by mefoley — October 24, 2012 @ 7:24 pm | Reply

  8. […] (should have) on hand (see, e.g., Working Effectively as an Editor — New Print Resources and The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf), but what I failed to discuss — perhaps even consciously recognize — is the value of prior […]


    Pingback by Here Today, Gone Tomorrow | An American Editor — September 11, 2013 @ 4:03 am | Reply

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