ButcherThis title immediately raises issues. If the first part of a two-word hyphenated phrase requires a capital, should the second part also be capitalised? I think it should, because ‘Copy-editing’ looks unbalanced to me, but on the other hand, if you are using a min-caps style in your bibliography and citations, the capital ‘E’ will stick out like a sore thumb. Let’s look it up in Butcher …

I was very sorry to hear this week of the death of Judith Butcher. It would be great to think that her name will ring a bell with anyone who has ever worked in publishing (or in SERIOUS publishing at any rate). Her Copy-Editing: The Cambridge Handbook should be on every writer’s or editor’s desk (along with Hart’s Rules (from Another Publisher…)). It is now in its fourth edition (in the publication of which I am proud to say I had a very small hand), and is simply indispensable for anyone involved in book production, and, I would argue, for anyone who writes.

Back in the days of manual typewriters (do you remember them, my dears?), the author would send his or her typescript (or still, occasionally, manuscript) to the publisher’s editor, who (after the usual process of peer review, revision, re-reading, acceptance etc.) would hand it to a typesetter (often, but not always, also the printer), whose copy-preparer would give it ‘technical markup’, indicating levels of headings, new pages, space for illustrations, and other significant features. Galley proofs would be prepared, which were then read by the ‘printer’s reader’ for ‘typo’ errors (whether in the original typescript or introduced by the typesetter), but also for sense and consistency: is Giles Uppingham on p. 235 by any chance the man with the same dates who is called George Uppingham on p. 2? This journal article citation refers to p. 16, but the page span given in the bibliography is pp. 29–37? We assume that, though there is inconsistency, you intended British rather than U.S. spelling and punctuation? When you wrote ‘MDILII’, did you mean ‘MDLIII’?

Useful notes on classical date conventions. Note the assumption that Roman numerals up to 100 are familiar...

Useful notes from the first edition on classical date conventions. Note the assumption that Roman numerals up to 100 are familiar…

The author would then read the galleys, and answer the questions (quite probably taking the opportunity of rewriting chunks of his/her prose at the same time). An external proofreader might also be used, and any of these corrections collated. The hapless typesetter would then be faced with a colourful nightmare of deletions, additions and corrections to decipher and put into page proofs, for another round of revision (and possibly again, and again…).

This was a slow and expensive process (typesetting and correction costs in the days of hot metal casting being considerable), and in the late 1950s Cambridge University Press had begun to put the stylistic/factual/consistency queries to the author before typesetting started, moving some ‘readers’ from the printing to the publishing side, and setting up a copy-editorial department which was headed by Judith from the mid-1960s until her retirement, through a period of massive technological change in the publishing industry.

Some authorities suggest that the beasts accompanying the Four Evangelists are in fact their copy-editors.

Some authorities suggest that the beasts accompanying the Four Evangelists are in fact their copy-editors.

Judith would send out regular (cyclostyled) notes under the heading of ‘Some points that have cropped up recently’ to her in-house colleagues and to the increasing numbers of freelance copy-editors whom she recruited and trained to her own exacting standards. These memos dealt with knotty points of copy-editorial practice arising from the vagaries of authorial presentation, and I imagine that other recipients treasure them as I treasure my own set. The original master folder had reached a point well beyond beyond bulging when someone at the Press, with incredible common sense, asked Judith to turn her knowledge and experience into a book, and the first edition, Copy-Editing: The Cambridge Handbook (or indeed Copy-editing: the Cambridge handbook) was published in 1975.

My heavily used copy of the first edition.

My heavily used copy of the first edition. (The jacket typography, by the way, does not follow copy-editorial convention.)

The cyclostyled (and later xeroxed) memos continued, however, and three more editions followed. The fourth edition, now (most appropriately) known as Butcher’s Copy-Editing, was updated by two of Judith’s colleagues, Maureen Leach and Caro Drake, and published in 2006. I would love to know how many copies have been sold over the last forty years: it must be in the very high tens of thousands at the least.

Why, in these days of immediate communication, of online publishing, of information fast, at finger-tips and above all free, does copy-editing matter? Well, take, as a simple example, the inconsistent journal reference I cited above. All the text hyperlinks in the world will not take you to the article you want if the hyperlinked content is wrong, and you will have to spend some time establishing what precisely is wrong: the page reference, the volume reference, the year reference, the journal title?

And I personally find sloppily produced reading material (whether book, journal, or newspaper) insulting. I have paid for this product, and you haven’t bothered to check that it’s correct? (And no, I don’t want to buy your newspaper on the following day to see if your ‘Corrections’ column has caught it, nor do I find your ‘Corrections’ column amusing.) One pet hate is the book which very occasionally cites a Greek word in a Greek font – or rather, usually, in at least two Greek fonts, with a roman ‘o’ for omicron and the accents and breathings all over the place. I’m also annoyed by the misplacing of ‘only’ in a sentence. What about you?

Judith’s Butcher’s definition of copy-editing is ‘to remove any obstacles between the reader and what the author wants to convey and to find and solve any problems before the book goes to the typesetter, so that production can go ahead without interruption or unnecessary expense’, but it’s the first part that should concern all writers and readers everywhere: ‘to remove any obstacles between the reader and what the author wants to convey’. There are of course some very, very brilliant, creative and learned authors out there, but they are not all (and indeed probably should not be) also masters of bibliographical style, index indentation, the distinction (in their typescript, not in their head) between levels of subheading inside a chapter, the appropriate point for a paragraph break, the content of picture captions, etc. etc.

There are other authors who don’t think any of this matters in the first place, and can’t understand why their complete mess of a book on a memory stick is taking so long to produce and why this pernickerty Brit keeps annoying them with questions. (Thankfully, there aren’t many of this type, and, contrariwise, it’s always pleasing to see the copy-editor appear in the author’s acknowledgements.) Also, increasingly, there are authors writing in English as a second language, who are very grateful for help in the areas of style and idiom.

And it does matter, sometimes critically: the use or non-use of the Oxford comma may end you up as a Twitter laughing-stock, or in Private Eye, but the absent-minded muddling of milligrams (mg) and micrograms (μg) can end up with other people dead: I know of one occasion where a book had to be pulped because the author wanted it out fast rather than correct, and it turned out to be potentially fatally incorrect. Of course, in an ideal world, it would be both quick and perfect – but let’s hope that where compromise is required it is always in the direction of getting the product right, as Judith Butcher would have insisted.


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13 Responses to Copy-Editing

  1. Ali James says:

    Ah the good old days! ☺


  2. Caroline–Thank you. Lovely memories and a great explanation of the importance of copyediting–hopefully not a lost art.


  3. bottrill says:

    Sorry to hear about Judith Butcher. What a fitting and thought-provoking piece.

    Several well-thumbed copies of the fourth edition take pride if place in our office.


  4. Pingback: Printing With Muscles | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  5. It was Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing book that got me hooked onto editing! I gave up the practice of medicine thereafter and am still a full-time editor 23 years later! Dr Bandana Malhotra, New Delhi


  6. Great post, Professor Hedgehog! An enjoyably evocative and stimulating tribute to Judith Butcher and her legacy. (Call me a beast, but I can’t help it: I found a typo. 😉

    Yes, I still cherish my typewriter and the memories of hot-metal printing in Australia in the 1960s — the Ludlow sticks and the noise and smell of typesetting machines (and occasionally of the typesetters). Not much call either for the skill of reading mirror writing to insert a typo flag between the lines of text on the ‘rubber stamp’-like metal formes.

    The editor’s soul survives. Call me a beast, but I can’t help it: I found a typo. 😉

    The Australian equivalent to Judith Butcher’s ‘Cambridge Handbook’ was originally the government ‘Style Manual’, well-thumbed by all aspiring communicators. Now privately published and ready for revision, its contributors may be challenged by, or even be products of, the digital do-it-yourself age. Who are their exemplars now?

    While concurring heartily with your observations, Caroline, I feel that acknowledg(e)ment of editors is theoretically delightful but not always helpful in today’s ‘get what you pay for’ market. A self-publishing writer or pop-up publisher may hire and highly praise a qualified copy-editor, but then naively dispense with proofreading as an unnecessary expense. The hapless copy-editor carries the can. Once.

    Wading against that self-defeating current are the Australian state societies of editors under the umbrella of the Institute of Professional Editors which, like SfEP in England, oversees professional accreditation down under. No, it is not Luddite to try to turn the tide of the digital revolution to rediscover respect for the old-time ethos of responsible and literate publishing.

    I wish I had met Judith Butcher.


  7. Oops, no post-submit edit. Irony always survives!


  8. Pingback: ‘Hee Gathered Many Notable Things’ | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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