Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part III


Printed Books

The most important sources of information for editors are still printed books. Although the Web offers enormous quantities of information, that information is so mixed with useless and even harmful stuff (more about this later) that every search on the Web is a journey into No Man's Land. There is as yet no systematic reviewing mechanism for websites as there is for books, so for reliable information we still have to turn to printed works that have themselves gone through editing, been reviewed by the authors' peers, and often evolved into second and later editions. Here are a dozen books that I have found useful, even essential:

1. Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook. University of California Press, 2000. 560 pages.

This is a general reference on its subject, and a useful and thorough one. It covers virtually all the mechanics of editing, offers good advice on many issues that editors have to face, and steers readers to many specialized information sources.

2. Edward D. Johnson, The Handbook of Good English. New York: Facts on File, 1982. 309 pages.

This is the book that I find myself turning to regularly for lucid explanations of points of grammar and syntax, and recommending to writers who are confused by the brief comments that editors scribble in the margins of their documents. It is a model of clear writing and organization, covers all the grammatical questions likely to concern the working editor, and, without being aggressive about it, is forthrightly in favor of standards of good English. There may be later editions, from other publishers.

3. Mary-Claire van Leunen, A Handbook for Scholars. New York: Knopf, 1978. 354 pages.

This book is well described on its front cover: "A complete guide to the mechanics of scholarly writing: citation, references, footnotes, bibliographies, format, styling, text preparation, and all related matters." It offers reasoned answers to hundreds of niggling little questions that can come up when a complex document is being written and prepared for printing. In doing so, it covers details that no other book known to me covers, and does so with great common sense and occasional wit. A second edition has appeared, supposedly updating the book to take the computer into account, but I can discover very little difference between the second and the first edition, except that the author has changed her mind about "sexist language."

4. The Chicago Manual of Style. The University of Chicago Press, 15th edition, 2003. 956 pages.

This is a standard authority on the mechanics of writing, editing, and book production. It is probably the most widely adopted and referenced authority in the field, so well known that it's generally called just CMS or "Chicago" by its users. A professional editor should own it. I'm not sure, though, whether an owner of the 14th edition needs to replace it with the latest edition; the differences between successive editions have been diminishing in recent years, and discarding a solid reference book because its successor contains a few pages of new material may not be the best use of your money.

5. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd edition. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965. 725 pages.

Modern English Usage is the first and in many ways the best book of its kind ever written: a guide to good usage that springs from one man's mature and cultivated judgment. Its organization is something of a compromise; its entries are ordered alphabetically, but many appear under headings that would hardly occur immediately to most users, so it is as much a collection of miniature essays on using the English language well as a reference book for answering specific questions. The great benefit that American editors and writers will derive from Fowler is not so much from his advice on specific points of usage although that advice is often sharply relevant still but from his principles and his prose. Those principles, sometimes made explicit, more often implicit in his treatment of concrete issues, are clear, coherent, and cogent. And the prose is exemplary; your own writing will probably improve as you read Fowler's.

The book was first published in 1926; in 1965, a second edition (the one recommended) was issued, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, and supplied by him with a "classified guide" that makes it easier to use as a reference book. (Gowers was guilty, however, of deleting the fine opening passage of Fowler's article "Superiority," apparently because it introduces a household with servants and class distinctions; a deletion that may reflect well on Gowers' egalitarianism and modernity, but that deprives the reader of an illuminating and amusing illustration of what Fowler meant.) A third edition was put out in 1996, further revised by Robert Burchfield; this edition, in my opinion and that of many others, significantly changes the book, and changes it for the worse.

If your interest in using the English language well is as deep as an editor's should be, steep yourself in this book; it's so much a classic that it's known widely simply as "Fowler" (and abbreviated MEU). Those who enjoy this, Fowler's masterpiece, will also enjoy and profit from the earlier The King's English, which he wrote with his brother F. G. Fowler; it is not as highly polished a gem as MEU, but is still very much worth reading and having on one's shelf for consultation. The King's English, too, has gone into a third edition in this case, a genuine updating by the authors and both it and MEU are available in paperback.

6. Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 723 pages.

The resemblance of this title to that of Fowler is no accident; Garner is the founder of the Fowler Society, and has set out to do for modern American English what Fowler did for the English of England in the early twentieth century. Whether he has created a classic of the same stature as his model only time will tell, but it is very well done: up to date, very wide ranging, sensible in its principles, clearly written, and with copious examples (perhaps a little too copious) of every fault it covers. A new edition of the book, retitled Garner's Modern American Usage, was published in 2003. It is even longer 879 pages than the first edition, and has taken into account some of the criticisms readers and reviewers made of the first version.

7. Follett, Wilson, Modern American Usage: A Guide. Hill and Wang, 1966. 436 pages.

This book, like Garner's, deserves and survives the comparison with Fowler's that its title invites. It was two-thirds finished when Follett died, and was completed by Jacques Barzun, with the help of several other distinguished writers and scholars. It is written very much in Fowler's spirit, but is much easier to use as a quick reference than Fowler, even Fowler as revised by Gowers, and it has for Americans the advantage of being written more for our side of the Atlantic. It opens with an introductory essay on why grammar matters, and what grammatical rules are good for, that is a model of good sense. If you have ever asked these questions, or had them asked of you, Barzun and Follett will answer them for you. A new edition has recently (1999) been published, revised by Erik Wensberg; I have not seen it, but reviews of it by reviewers one respects are favorable.

8. Robert Graves & Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder. Macmillan, 1944. 446 pages.

Most later editions of this book, hardbound and paperback, are to be avoided; they are not revisions by the authors but are simply abridgments that lack much of the value of the original; you want either the original edition or one of the unabridged reprints, with the full, 446-page text.

The book is in three parts (logically, that is; the authors present it in two): the first is a capsule history of the English language, with discussion and illustration of how it differs from other languages, and what this difference means to the writer. The second part is a condensation of the authors' experience into twenty-five "Principles of Clear Statement" and sixteen "Principles of the Grace of Prose." The third part is the great novelty of the book: the authors apply the principles they have just laid down to the work of a number of well-known writers and public figures, showing in close detail what is wrong with the passage quoted, and how the application of their principles improves them. The book is particularly useful to editors you can save yourself a lot of time by providing your writer with a copy of the Principles, and then just citing, on a text you're editing, the relevant Principle for each fault you've noted but should be read by everyone who cares about writing clearly. It practices the virtues it preaches.

9. Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 2nd edition. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

Origins is, so far as I know, the only English etymological dictionary that can be not only consulted but read. Partridge had the good idea of giving etymologies in related clusters or families, rather than in the usual dictionary-style arrangement in which one word at a time is dealt with, in its alphabetic place, and connected to its kinsmen and cognates by elaborate and tiresome cross-references. So the typical entry in Origins is a miniature essay that recognizes that if you want to know the etymology of pluvial, you probably also want to be told about Jupiter Pluvius, and will be best served if both along with plover, which you may not have realized was related to them are presented to you in one place, rather than as successive steps in a paper chase, or hidden altogether by blind obedience to alphabetic order.

The readability and usability of the book have not been purchased at the cost of scholarly dependability; the book is respected by the most severe academic etymologists, who are probably kicking themselves for not having thought of its format themselves. (The "Short" in the book's subtitle means merely "not utterly exhaustive"; the book is 970 pages long.) And Partridge, who also wrote a well-received guide to usage (Usage and Abusage), is as a writer free of the typical academic's waffling.

10. Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style. Hartley & Marks, 1992, 1996.

A fine introduction to typography, typographers, and the appearance of the printed page. Bringhurst describes (and exhibits, of course) a great number of type faces, pointing out the character of each, and suggesting what they bring to the text they bear. He gives thumbnail biographies of many important typographers, and an overview of typographical history. He lists and discusses virtually every character, symbol, glyph, and diacritical mark that can be found in print. He is a published poet, and writes good prose, too.

11. Jacques Barzun, On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, 2nd edition. University of Chicago Press, 1986. 148 pages.

(The right edition is important here; the essay most needed by editors, "Behind the Blue Pencil: Censorship or Creeping Creativity?" is not in the first edition of 1971.) Jacques Barzun has been writing about writing, editing, teaching, scholarship, and the literate life generally for about three-quarters of a century. Besides the books listed here, he has published a number of essays on these subjects, most of them in The American Scholar, on whose editorial board he sat for many years. And a substantial part of Follett's Modern American Usage, noticed earlier, is actually his, Follett having died before completing the book. All of his writings on these subjects are recommended, especially to editors who are not themselves writers, and who need to learn all they can about the species they are going to be working with and they hope helping. Here are other books by Barzun that editors will find both helpful and enjoyable:

A Word or Two Before You Go .... Wesleyan University Press, 1986 (see particularly "A Copy Editor's Anthology" and "Dialogue in C-Sharp").

Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1975.

The Modern Researcher, revised edition. (Co-author with Henry F. Graff). Harcourt Brace & World, 1970. Part III, "Writing."

A Jacques Barzun Reader (ed. Michael Murray). New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Includes several essays on rhetoric, writing, and so on.

12. Bergen and Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. New York: Random House, 1957. 567 pages.

This is a sensible and usable guide to the subject. The Evanses (brother and sister), like the brothers Fowler, neither welcome change as such, nor resist it as such; they evaluate each incipient change on its merits, judging it for its contribution to the expressive power and grace of the language. Despite its age it has not been revised since its original appearance it is still useful as a reference on many points that are not so well covered in other guides, and even more so as an exemplar of the right attitude and principles to bring to the task.


As anyone who starts using the Web quickly learns, there is an enormous quantity of good information there, along with an enormous quantity of misinformation, and of information that is so badly presented as to be unrecognizable as good or bad. The reward for those who use the Web wisely is great, and so is the penalty for those who get taken in by the monsters of ignorance, malice, and craziness who lurk there; it is indeed a web. The magic amulet that enables you to traverse the Web safely is called Discrimination; never travel the Web without it. And the way you use it is this:

If the text at a site is badly written, ignore the site; it is unlikely that the information it offers will be good, and even if there is some good information there, bad presentation will rob it of much of its value.

If it is not clear who is running a site, or if the author or webmaster does not invite comments and corrections, it is unlikely to be trustworthy. If you catch an error and report it to the author or webmaster, and get either no reply or a surly one, forget the site.

Have a private criterion to apply to the site: whatever the subject matter on which a site offers information, you should know a few facts about it beforehand; if you don't, do a little research to provide yourself with a few. Then test each site that professes to offer expert information on that subject by looking at its treatment of the points that you already know. If it treats those correctly, you may proceed with care. If it doesn't get even those right, cross it off your list. Examples: on the subject of telecommunications, I judge reference sources by their treatment of baud, a term that many supposed authorities do not understand or explain so badly that it's impossible to tell whether they understand it or not. In looking at sites that purport to give scientific information, I judge by the coverage if any given Oswald Avery, the scientist who made the most important advance in biology since Darwin the discovery that DNA is the "gene" and whose achievement is frequently credited, at least by implication, to Watson and Crick.

If you have not used a trusted site recently, don't assume it's still trustworthy; ownership and authorship of sites change frequently and without notice.

Since sites change so frequently, I will not give a list here of those I find useful at the time of writing you may be reading this much later, when many of them will have changed character, changed their names, or ceased to exist altogether. The rules of thumb just given, plus your natural curiosity and enterprise, will enable you to form a current list very quickly. What I can do, besides passing on the rules I've found useful in discriminating among websites, is to give you a few starting points from which to conduct your own search; even these, of course, may have changed by the time you read these words, but their history gives some promise that they will continue to exist for some time, and remain reliable.

Websites for Getting Started

In an earlier installment of this series on editing, I mentioned that there are some online discussion groups for writers, editors, and reference librarians; I won't repeat that information here, but I remind you about those valuable resources, and urge you to investigate them.

Search Engines, General and Specialized

More than a dozen search engines are currently available, and none is so clearly superior to the others as to make the others useless. My own favorite at the moment is Google (www.google.com); it seems to offer a good balance among speed, completeness, and relevance of results. For acquiring out-of-print and secondhand books unfortunately, many books that an editor may want are out of print, or so expensive that a used copy is a necessity I suggest that you turn first to Abebooks (http://www.abebooks.com/), which will search the combined stocks of hundreds of bookstores throughout the world for you. For a utility that fetches a quick definition of practically any term you may find in a document (without requiring you to close the document), download Desktop Assistant from (http://sphinx-soft.com). For tips on how to cite online sources, go to (http://www.spaceless.com/WWWVL/).

A popular article on the difficulties of citing websites appeared in the Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2002, pages 1 and 6; a more technical paper on the problem is Robert P. Dellavalle et al., "Going, Going, Gone: Lost Internet References," Science 302 (31 October 2003), pages 787-788.  Those who are professionally concerned with this question, or just highly interested in it, may want to look them up. The greatest problem with citing web sources: they change without notice, even disappear entirely. Some valuable item you've found on the Web may vanish altogether, or be moved to another URL, or be modified beyond recognition. My recommendation: if you find something on the Web that you think is valuable, copy it the item, not a link to it to your own website. Refer your readers to its appearance on your site, where it will remain as long as you like; as a courtesy, mention there the place where it originally appeared. And as a final safeguard, print it out, and save the hard copy the printed word will remain when digital incarnations and virtual documents have all vanished into a black hole.