TEXT review

Helpmate at hand

review by Rowena McDonald


Janet Mackenzie
The Editor’s Companion, 2nd edition
Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Vic 2011
ISBN 9781107402188
Pb 255pp AUD49.95
eBook ISBN-13: 9781139144452 USD40


How do editors develop their knowledge and skills? Beatrice Davis, book editor at Sydney publishing firm Angus & Robertson from 1937 to 1973 and head of their general editorial department, has been likened to the leader of a craft guild, who acted as a guide, mentor and teacher to her staff, whom she trained on the job (Kent 2001: 214). A strict training regime was undertaken by all new editors at Angus & Robertson, and Elizabeth Wood-Ellem remembers that everything she worked on was looked over by a senior editor (Mackenzie 2005: 154).

Matters are different in today’s editing context, and changes to the pace and craft of editing have meant more editors are self-trained and more editors work alone. As Janet Mackenzie writes in the preface to The Editor’s Companion, ‘As in-house training declines and more editors freelance, editing can be a lonely business’ (xii). Hence the need for this book, which takes its place alongside others in the genre of advice manuals for editors, rather than style or usage guides, offering explanation and instruction on the principles and methods of preparing a text for publication and the management and relationships involved.

The author is a recent recipient of the George Robertson Award, named in honour of one of the founders of Angus & Robertson and given in recognition of distinguished service to the publishing industry. She is an honorary life member of the Society of Editors (Victoria), a distinguished editor of the Institute of Professional Editors, and a freelancer and trainer with more than 40 years experience in the publishing industry. She is thus well placed to hand on her knowledge and experience in the form of this companion.

One of the truisms of editing is that an editor cannot afford to have dated knowledge or skills. An editor depends on the tools of the trade, which include the latest editions of core reference books, dictionaries and style guides. The Editor’s Companion was first published in 2004, and reprinted in 2004, 2007 and 2010. Although much of the content and many of the principles and methods described in the new edition are unchanged, there are many reasons why the first edition will no longer do. The first edition explored what evolving technology (from manuscript and print to screen-based) might mean for the role and practice of the editor, but the intervening years have made the changes more familiar, and the second edition has a surer and more settled approach to the changing work practices brought about by digital publishing. In particular, this new edition incorporates much revised and new material pertaining to the editorial role in digital production. New material includes sections on single source publishing and digital rights, information about the technological and commercial challenges that the e-book presents, and instruction on editing digital/screen publications.

In introducing Chapter 10, ‘Working with Documents and Files’, Mackenzie writes that ‘Many books about editing tell you what to do, but few of them tell you how to go about it’ (185). This statement can be applied as a general proposition for the whole book, for one of its strengths is its willingness to pass on tips and techniques which usually can only be garnered from experience, and which are not usually proffered in other books of its kind. Chapter 10 is full of such pointers, explaining how to work with paper and electronic documents, and to my mind is one of the best in the book. Another example of information not usually well covered elsewhere is the section on the reader’s report (56–57), which gives valuable instruction from the editor’s perspective. A further strength of the book is its coverage – not only does it cover the principles and methods of editing, but also it sets the editor in the context of the publishing industry.

The organising principle of The Editor’s Companion is based on the divisions of the Australian Standards for Editing Practice (devised by the Council of Australian Societies of Editors and available from the Institute of Professional Editors website). This arrangement is both a strength and a weakness. It ensures comprehensive treatment of all aspects of editing, and the reader can see the relevance to industry expectations. However, it also results in a complex structure that is at times confusing and has the reader to-ing and fro-ing throughout the book, and it necessitates many cross-references (not all of which are clear). The very useful section ‘Appraising a Document’, for example, is found in the chapter on structure, sandwiched between structure for books and structure for screen. Because it seems to describe a method or a procedure rather than a set of principles as in the rest of the chapter, perhaps this section would have been better placed in the methods chapter. Alternatively, throughout the book, both principles and methods could have been grouped together for each element of editing; in this way, the methods of language editing explained in Chapter 9, ‘Editing Methods’, could have followed on from the principles explained in Chapter 5, ‘Language’, possibly making it easier for readers to connect principles and methods and to follow more easily the immense amount of information presented in the book.

Aside from the logic of their arrangement, many individual chapters are worth singling out. Chapter 9, ‘Editing Methods’, is a really marvellous step-by-step guide to the different levels of editing and is useful enough to keep close by when embarking on an editing job. Chapter 8, ‘Proofs’, is as good as a short course on the topic, and its proofreading checklist (146-47) is a great addition to the new edition. Likewise, the new sections about proofreading on screen (154) and what to check in proofing screen publications (147-48) are invaluable. The chapter on language is crammed with discussion and instruction on every aspect relevant to an editor of written and spoken language, and it imparts many interesting facts and ideas.

Mackenzie addresses her readers very much as a mentor, encoding the level of understanding an experienced editor has about her practices. The more experienced editor coming to this book will recognise the processes described and the logic behind them, and will thus gain a more self-conscious understanding of her own practice. The audience for the book is complicated by the publisher’s blurb, which makes it clear the book is aimed at professional editors but also at writers editing their own work. There may be some truth in this, in that an understanding of the publishing process may be beneficial to an emerging writer, and to be equipped with the terminology surrounding the production of a book will make easier the journey from manuscript to publication. But the focus in The Editor’s Companion is so fully on editing process and the point of view is so fully the editor’s that it is hard to see the utility for a writer. I would say its audience is very much the professional editor, but nevertheless this is a broad category. To the novice editor, the volume of instruction might be daunting, and perhaps a degree of experience is needed to make good use of the many processes described. In many ways, the book seems to be speaking to and especially useful for experienced editors who want a deeper understanding of the publishing process, the structures of a text, and the ways to go about editing a document, in order to translate, carry over or adapt this knowledge and skill to the electronic publishing environment. There is also much valuable information in this book for the student or new graduate of a publishing and editing program, including the comprehensive glossary of publishing and editing terms and the bibliography, which presents a good selection of editing handbooks, usage guides and dictionaries.

While the one-to-one approach to the reader fulfils the book’s brief and its title, I would have liked to have seen more textual space given to information on and discussion of the role that the state societies of editors play in providing professional development and a forum for the exchange of ideas, and for fostering a sense of community amongst editors, and also more space to open up debate around such issues as accreditation for editors, discussed in the section ‘Portrait of a Profession’ in Chapter 1. As a companion, though, this is a very good book to spend time with.


Works cited

Kent, J 2001 A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life. Ringwood, Victoria: Viking, Penguin Books Australia return to text

Mackenzie, J (ed) 2005 At the Typeface: Selections from the Newsletter of the Victorian Society of Editors. Carlton South, Victoria: Society of Editors (Vic) Inc return to text



Rowena McDonald has worked as an editor for 15 years and is currently a second-year PhD candidate at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW. She is researching the role of the publisher’s editor, and her study focuses on the general editorial department at Angus & Robertson publishers in the mid-twentieth century.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo