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Editorial Survival Kit

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Grammar, Proofreading, Punctuation, Spelling by Sally Evans-Darby on 27 January 2013

Trekking the editorial wilderness

Editorial Survival Kit: 6 Things I Can’t Live Without

Ask any freelance editor, proofreader, or other form of word-wielder: there are some things in the world of editorial freelancing that we just can’t live without. They make up the editor’s survival kit: often a mish-mash hodge-podge of stowaway items that make life just a little bit easier. The editor/proofreader’s desert island miscs.

As an editorial freelancer, there are a few things that I would be pretty lost without, and I’m curious to find out what would go into others’ survival kits too. Here is a top 6 list of mine; leave a comment below and let me know what you can’t live without.

1. OED, King of dictionaries

This one has to come at the top of my list because without its reassuring bulk I would feel ever so slightly bereft. It sits at the left of my computer and I’m forever thumbing through it looking for Oxford’s view on a particular stylistic issue or to find out, say, if premiss really is an alternative spelling of premise. (Turns out it is. I still prefer –mise.) It can also be a source of pleasurable procrastination, between jobs for example: open the dictionary at random and see how many new words you can learn.

Of course any editor worth her salt needs more than one dictionary to reference depending on the client and style guide, but the OED happens to be my personal favourite, even with its penchant for ‘-ize’ endings.

2. Helpful references

As well as my trusty OED I have a collection of editorial and language reference books, which I’m constantly adding to. Such texts are a must-have if you need to quickly check the received wisdom on hyphenation or gather a consensus on whether it is okay to use ‘different than’ as well as ‘different from’ (it is). Plus there’s simply something pleasurable in surrounding oneself with books on the subject you are interested in.

My favourite go-to books at the moment are: the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005), and the Penguin guides to punctuation (R.L. Trask, 1997) and grammar (R.L. Trask, 2000).

3. Googling away

Okay, so this might not be the most fashionable thing to say, but I love Google. I love that it allows me to quickly check facts with minimum fuss. For things like checking the state abbreviation for Maryland (it’s MD, but I always think it’s MA) when editing a reference list, it’s immensely helpful.

And no, I don’t mind that ‘to google’ is now a verb listed in the OED. It’s a nice word and there’s nothing wrong with it being there (such a travesty must rest heavily on the minds of those like Simon Heffer).

4. Wordly wisdom

Word has many features that seem specifically and helpfully engineered for the jobbing editor (macros, format painter, and the most obvious: Track Changes). But the one that really comes in useful for me is its customisable dictionaries. When working with more complex or scientific texts, customising the in-built dictionary so that it lets me know that ‘gluecopyranosyl’ should be ‘glucopyranosyl’ is pretty useful. It’s much easier to read and spot the errors in a verbose document without red squiggly lines under every out-of-the-ordinary word.

5. Perfecting it

I was rather sceptical about such software at first, but I can now admit that I am a PerfectIt convert. PerfectIt is a nifty little Word add-in that performs a last-minute consistency check of your document, pointing out things that are easy to miss (especially in longer texts) such as use of capitalisation, hyphenation, how bullet lists are formatted, etc.

My first reaction to such a whizzy idea was along the lines of “but it’s my job as editor to spot those things; I shouldn’t be relying on a bit of software to do it for me”. The thing is, as long as you don’t come to rely on it, it can be a very helpful quick last check of a document before sending it off to the client.

Some might feel their editorial egos will be punctured if a computer programme is doing this for them, but I prefer to look at it this way: I do all the work, spotting inconsistencies and incongruities down to crossing the last tee – then, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything (I am human after all), I perform a PerfectIt check before sending it off. Why risk missing something out of pride? Also, it’s rather gratifying to perform the check and have it return no inconsistencies.

6. Caffeine ahoy

Finally, coffee is something that I just can’t live without. I know, it’s probably bad for me (on the other hand, maybe it’s really good for me). But in those first few hours of a Monday morning fug, nothing beats it.

So what would you put in your editorial survival kit? Let me know by posting below.

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  1. Style sheet – that’s another tool I can’t edit without. That’s the cheat sheet for style choices made on each project. It begins with a list of the style guide and dictionary preferred for the project. (More here:

    Google Books – This is less popular than googling, but it has helped me check facts, check quotes, and identify “unattributed quotes”. It seems like such a positive side effect to a questionable product.

    PerfectIt – You are wise to use a tool that makes work more efficient and accurate; it is not a cop-out. I can’t use PerfectIt on my Mac, but do know several well-respected editors who use it and like it.

    Tools cannot yet replace a well-trained human, so don’t worry about working yourself out of a job. Even the PerfectIt creator advises against using its “correct all” feature. There are times when apparent inconsistencies are intentional.

    Comment by Adrienne (scieditor) on 27 January 2013 at 5:22 pm

  2. Sally Evans-Darby

    Thanks for your comment Adrienne – some great new items for the kit! I use Google Books quite a lot too. And yes, style sheets are indispensable.

    Comment by Sally Evans-Darby on 27 January 2013 at 5:27 pm

  3. Yours are all great – I’m a PerfectIt fan myself and a well-thumbed NODWE sits on my desk.

    Mine is perhaps an odd one – it’s PhraseExpress, a text expander. It’s a bit like the Autocorrect/Autotext feature in Word, except it works everywhere.

    I’m a terrible typist and this saves me minutes a day (which adds up over time). Not only have I got it set up to correct my own personal bugbears (I can’t even type my own name without transposing letters!), but you can set up phrases you type often (e.g. ‘This citation is not in your reference list’), and routine replies to queries (e.g. Thank you for your enquiry about…’ or ‘I will confirm by email when your payment reaches me.’ – I just typed each of those with three keystrokes), and even longer stretches. You can also make macros that look up things on Google, or other online reference sources, again just a keystroke away. Saves so much time when checking references!

    Oh, and I wouldn’t be without Evernote. I store lots of useful links and references in it, tagged so I can find them easily. I find it easier to manage than bookmarks, and it syncs across my devices.

    Comment by Sue Browning on 28 January 2013 at 10:29 am

  4. Sally Evans-Darby

    Thanks, Sue! I’ve never heard of PhraseExpress, but it sounds incredibly nifty.

    Really interesting to see what other editors use in their day-to-day work!

    Comment by Sally Evans-Darby on 28 January 2013 at 10:37 am

  5. Sally Evans-Darby

    That’s very kind of you! Thanks very much 🙂

    Comment by Sally Evans-Darby on 25 March 2013 at 9:34 am