There are some books that every editor relies on – and they’re helpful for writers too. I’ll add to this list and the topics covered, but do let me know if there are others you like to use, or your experience of the books I mention.
Every publisher has a ‘house style’ which they will want their writers, editors and proofreaders to adhere to, and you can find some of those for newspapers such as the Guardian and the Telegraph online; the New York Times even has a series of quizzes on style and usage. Newspapers often have a markedly different style from books, but each publisher has their own preferences, and you and the copyeditor will need to make sure your work conforms – unless it interferes with your own, very deliberate, style. Most style guides are based on two fundamental sources:
UK style: New Hart’s Rules, published by OUP
First published in 1893 for OUP’s own ‘compositors and readers’, this has since formed the basis for every publishing style guide since, and answers all your questions about where to place a full stop when you also have quotation marks, or when to use a semi-colon. It’s your copyeditor’s job to deal with these questions, but it can be very helpful information for writers too.
US style: The Chicago Manual of Style, published by the University of Chicago Press
A comprehensive and invaluable guide to US style. Among other things, punctuation with quotation marks is different from how we handle it in the UK. But this is not only useful for US writing and publishing; it contains excellent advice no matter whether you are writing for a British English or an American English audience. There is an online version, but this requires a subscription.
And one book that most house style guides reference at the very start – along with the two books above:
Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders, published by CUP
Like Hart’s Rules, this clear and easy-to-follow guide continues to inform every UK publisher, editor and proofreader. It is very approachable, and explains everything so well that the advice is hard to forget.
New Oxford Spelling Dictionary, published by OUP
It may seem odd to include a book on spelling, but for proofreading in particular, this short, fat bound list of words is very useful. It shows alternative spellings, and indicates where words should be divided at line-ends too, where a hyphen is necessary to keep the text justified. You only need to worry about that once text has been typeset, not at the manuscript/Word document stage. But once a text is in proofs, the word-division guidance is particularly helpful, especially if you are working on anything that is presented in columns. Note that definitions are not included.
New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, published by OUP
A less comprehensive list than the above, but it includes useful appendices and of course definitions, as well as ‘variant forms, confusable words, hyphenation, capitalization, foreign and specialist terms, proper names, and abbreviations’.
There are so many books on this topic that the best thing you can do is Google it and browse. One book you may not quickly come across though, but which I think is still packed with relevant information delivered in a frank, no-nonsense style is:
Write to be Published, by Nicola Morgan
This is a brisk and informative guide for any ‘beginning writer’ wanting to get their book out into the world. Morgan is herself a writer, but until relatively recently she also blogged about writing and publishing, and you can still find her refreshing and invaluable blogs online. She has written several books to help writers, and they are also available as ebooks.
A couple more titles that may not have made it onto the recommendations you'll find elsewhere, or which have dropped off more recent lists, are:
On Editing, Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price
Produced by two highly experienced editors, this guide will help you learn how to read your work critically and improve it. A great help when you’re moving from first draft to the stage when you’re ready to let others see it.
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
Written in 1934, this is a warm, companionable and slim book, despite its comprehensive coverage of every topic that might be causing you anxiety as a writer or would-be writer. Multiple references to typewriters … but despite its age, much of her advice is still relevant today.
As always, I'll be continuing to add to this post, I'd love to hear your own recommendations and comments on books that you find useful as a writer.