Copy-editor Rachael Oakden writes about her experience working on The New Sylva.

Rachael Oakden: copy-editor of The New Sylva

As the freelance editor commissioned by Bloomsbury to copy-edit The New Sylva, I have been immersed in the world of forestry and wood culture for the past six months. It is a world that I was unfamiliar with before Gabriel Hemery’s unedited manuscript arrived in my inbox. Back in March 2013, I have to confess, I had a preconception of The New Sylva as being a beautifully illustrated book about British trees. It was only when I read the opening chapters that I understood the book’s more complex and ambitious purpose: to be a celebration of the art and science of forestry, with an urgent environmental message.

You might wonder why a non-expert was chosen to work on such a book. Well, the aim of the book is to communicate the vital importance of forest trees and the people who manage them to our landscapes, society, economy and future. It is designed to have a wide appeal, both to non-specialist general readers and to those with professional or personal interest: foresters, woodland owners, woodworkers, for example.  As copy-editor, my role is to be the ‘typical’ reader, to filter the manuscript through non-expert eyes. If I don’t understand a technical term or concept, the chances are that other non-specialist readers won’t. If I cannot follow the thread of an argument, or visualise the leaf shape or branching pattern that the author is trying to describe, for example, it’s a sign that a particular sentence or paragraph isn’t working. However, it’s important not to go far and oversimplify things. As an expert author, Gabriel’s aim is to enlighten and inspire readers, to share his knowledge and passion about forest trees and their uses. The copy-editing process is all about getting the balance right.

Using the Track Changes facility in Microsoft Word, I worked through the manuscript chapter by chapter, making amendments, suggesting deletions and drawing attention to areas where I felt more explanation was needed. I also double-checked facts – dates, places, spellings (all those multisyllabic Latin names) – and made editorial tweaks to help the text skip along with good rhythm and pace. This ‘first edit’ was sent to Gabriel, who would accept or reject my changes, supply extra words and make clarifications where necessary. Then I worked on a ‘second edit’, which, once approved, became a ‘final’, to be sent to the commissioning editor and designers. The author has the last word on any edits, of course, and when Gabriel disagreed with one of my deletions or oversimplifications he would always explain clearly – and courteously – why he was rejecting it!

Working on The New Sylva has really sharpened my perception of the trees around me – a pleasure enhanced a few months into the edit when Sarah Simblet sent me copies of some of her beautiful drawings. Before working on the book, I was a non-expert admirer of trees in the landscape. Six months later, however, during family dog walks in our local woods, I am frequently to be found staring at leaves and sniffing needles in an attempt to identify conifers and broadleaves. On one recent outing, my young son asked me why I was hugging an oak tree. Well, obviously, I was attempting to estimate its dbh (diameter at breast height) and wondering who planted it, when they planted it, and for what purpose. Copy-editing The New Sylva has given me an insight into the world of forestry and a cheering glimpse towards a future that may be brighter because of wood-based technologies. I cannot wait to see the final illustrated book.

Rachael Oakden, September 2013

Rachael Oakden began her career in magazines, working as a sub-editor, writer and commissioning editor on titles including Country Life, Country Living and Coast. Now a freelance editor and writer, she has copy-edited non-fiction titles including England in Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006), Villages of Britain by Clive Aslet (Bloomsbury, 2010) and Wild Flowers by Sarah Raven (Bloomsbury, 2011). Rachael also writes for magazines and newspapers about people and places in the British countryside. She lives in the Eden Valley, Cumbria with her husband and two sons.


  1. This was a wonderful post ! I enjoyed reading about the editing process and I look forward to hearing more, thank you.

  2. Reblogged this on Gabriel Hemery and commented:
    A guest blog by our copy-editor provides an interesting perspective on The New Sylva which is published by Bloomsbury early next year.

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