A reader recently asked me that, and I’m afraid I might have disappointed her by not naming a specific book.
An editor’s two most important resources are the dictionary and style manual required by the job or client. Bless the dictionary makers, the major American dictionaries are available in some format for free online.
That leaves the style manual. If you’re lucky to own a style manual already or can access one for free online, what reference work should come next?
This is where my advice gets potentially disappointing.
Consider what kind of questions you need to answer most often: what things do you struggle with or look up frequently? Purchase the reference that answered those questions—or the largest percentage of them.
Why don’t I recommend one great book? Because each editor’s knowledge is unique, as is the context and content of their work. If you can purchase only one book, you want it to be the one that gives you the most value—and what’s most valuable to me might not be the most valuable to you.
Maybe you struggle to write good queries. Then I’d recommend Carol Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor. Perhaps you ask a lot of usage-related questions. Choose one of the hefty usage guides, such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage or Garner’s Modern English Usage. (The slimmer usage guides, such as For Who the Bell Tolls, aren’t as comprehensive and some, like Eats Shoots and Leaves, are downright harmful rather than helpful. If we’re talking one book, go with a sure bet.)
Then there are books on doing our tasks, such as copyediting and fact-checking. If you need support here, try The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn, The Fact Checker’s Bible by Susan Harrison Smith, and The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking by Brooke Borel.
Then there are books on the finer details of editing, such as verbs (Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch by Constance Hale) and style (A World without “Whom” by Emmy Favilla). Books on editing niches, such as Editing Research by Valerie Matarese. And books about technology used by editors, like Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals by Jack Lyon.
There’s no universal reference work every editor needs, but there are hundreds that many or all of us would find useful. Check out the book reviews on our blog and our lists on Goodreads for more of our favorites. Subscribers can also check out the Resources columns in Copyediting newsletter.
Hopefully, you’re not restricted to purchasing only one reference book for your editing work but maybe just one book at a time. Create your wish list and prioritize it based on your most pressing needs. Then start building your perfect editing library!