Review: Working Words: ‘A compendium of wise words’


Isabelle Delvare

While John Linnegar and I were attending the annual conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders(SfEP) in Oxford in September, we had the pleasure of meeting a delightful Australian, Elizabeth Manning Murphy, and the opportunity to purchase copies of her book Working Words, which had just been published by the Canberra Society of Editors in Australia.

Working Words is a collection of ‘chats’ (chapters written in a chatty style) about aspects of editing and writing, and is based on articles written by Elizabeth Manning Murphy for the society’s newsletter, The Canberra editor, over a period of ten years. Besides the chats, there are also a few fun pieces scattered throughout the book, called ‘itchypencils’, which describe instances of itchypencilitis (the disease that afflicts all true editors when they find themselves without a writing implement and are confronted with public signs and notices they think cry out to be corrected, clarified or recorded).

Its blurb describes Working Words as follows: The book is for dipping into – it’s not a textbook, but is a companion to books on grammar, style, punctuation, plain English, editing, and the business of being a freelance writer or editor.

All this is true, and points to the fact that Working Words is not meant to be a language-usage manual or a reference text. However, John and I were completely taken with it, somewhat unexpectedly finding ourselves reading it for hours on end instead of ‘dipping into’ it. That’s how good and relevant it is.

Working Words has been divided into eight parts, with their headings providing an idea of the scope of the topics covered in the book: ‘The craft of editing’; ‘Editors beware: Ethical and legal considerations’; ‘The business of editing’; ‘Grammar – some basics’; ‘Grammar—beyond the basics’; ‘Punctuation—marks that matter’; ‘What is style?’; and ‘The future of working words’. The author is a trained linguist, an editor of long standing, a consultant in communication skills and a trainer in effective writing; and in the course of her varied career has reflected on many of the numerous issues that give editors pause for thought on a daily basis. The book thus goes to the nub of the issues, problems and challenges that editors inevitably experience with most of the manuscripts they take on.

According to Elizabeth Manning Murphy, many of the topics for the chats ‘happened as a direct result of requests from working editors, would-be editors and people who didn’t learn the whys and wherefores of English grammar at school’. Her approach to language usage is both authoritative and open to different ideas. As the author tells us, ‘I am a descriptive linguist, not a prescriptive grammarian.’ At the same time, this is not a case of ‘anything goes’. Despite her flexible touch and egalitarian ways, the author consistently explains and clearly substantiates her views on the issues she raises.

This attitude applies equally well to all the other topics in the book. Again and again, one marvels at solid content accessibly expressed, at the work of someone who clearly loves to share and impart knowledge accumulated through long reflection and experience.

The tone is engaging, personal, practical and immediate, and the book acts as a friendly mentor that is always within one’s reach. Elizabeth Manning Murphy has a crisp, fresh way with words. Each chapter sizzles with energy, and offers clear thinking, wisdom and good humour in large quantities.

Described slightly differently, this is a title that provides good cheer and encouragement on the path of an editor’s life. Working Words is the kind of book that makes more experienced practitioners feel both affirmed and challenged. At the same time, I cannot think of a better buy for someone starting out on a career as an editor (especially as a freelance); it will make new editors feel grounded.

In summary, this is a book to be savoured, a steadfast companion not only to other books but also to its readers. You will find it useful to dip into, especially since it has a decent index. However, don’t be surprised if you find yourself including it in your holiday or your fireside reading.

Isabelle Delvare works as a writer, editor and a lecturer in publishing studies. She currently heads the Professional Editors’ Group (PEG) in South Africa. This review was first published in the group’s newsletter, PEGboard, in December 2011.

Used with permission.

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