Here be monsters: what I’ve learned from editing 20 million words of reference works

Last updated 11 April 2023

On the rim of the editorial world, out beyond the well-travelled shipping lanes of non-fiction, the jostling flotillas of novels and the bustling reefs of academia, is a fabled area of publishing rarely glimpsed by the everyday reader or writer. Here dwell academic encyclopedias, catalogues and other major reference works (often called MRWs) – leviathans that dwarf much of the rest of the publishing world in their scope, cost, timescale, demandingness and sheer ambition.

I began working on these as an editorial project manager in 2007 and have been doing so freelance since 2011. In that time, I’ve overseen over fifty print volumes and thousands of pages of online content, with a total word count of over 20 million. I’m not sure I could count the authors involved, but one such work alone had over a thousand. (You can see more about the projects I’ve managed here.)

In some senses, major reference works are total outliers that are utterly unlike other publications, and most editors will never cross paths with one. But the lessons they have taught me are invaluable. They have contributed to the bedrock of how I operate as a freelance editorial project manager and copyeditor, influencing the many and varied other areas in which I work.

Here are seven things I’ve learned from those 20 million words.

1. You’re just a steward, but your job is important

A reference work can feel intimidating to manage – and it should. For the person (usually an academic editor) with their name on the title page, it might be the culmination of a life’s work and a monument they intend to leave for posterity. And for many of the other contributors, it will be a crucial publication marking their progress within their field. That’s a lot of hope and hard work to be shepherding as project manager or copyeditor, and you have to feel comfortable with that level of responsibility.

2. Get it right from the start

If you look at your schedule and see that you have two years to get everything done, it might be tempting to think you can leave some aspects to sort out later.

This is a bad idea.

The bigger the project, the more scope there is for small gremlins to morph into ugly, destructive demons. As a result, in all my work, I put a lot of value on getting things right the first time around. When this doesn’t happen, you can see the effects months or even years later. Issues nobody ever quite pinned down will either snowball into bigger messes or just continue to drain time and resources from more important matters.

3. Understand knock-on effects and when to hold your ground…

A seemingly innocuous style-related issue can lead to a chain of changes and rapidly spiral out of control, and it takes experience to anticipate when this might happen. This often means spending time carefully explaining to authors why an apparently minor change that would be fine in a single-author text (in which an author commonly has much more latitude in terms of adopting their own style) can’t be made because it would involve X, Y and Z changes in several other articles.

4. … but also know when flexibility is appropriate

Different academic fields have different conventions, and sometimes you just have to live with inconsistency (as far as this is sanctioned by your client, of course). There’s no sense in an author being professionally embarrassed (e.g. by being forced to hyphenate a word that’s never hyphenated in their field – seriously, this stuff can be crucial!) just so you can give yourself a gold star for consistency.

5. There is no substitute for a good checklist

I like to say that I aim to see the wood and the trees, and I owe much of my ability to do this to my experience on reference works. It is essential to be able to keep track of the macro (the overall project direction) and the micro (the fact that entry 423 still doesn’t have citations for all of its references) without sacrificing either – and while understanding the complex web of dependencies and interrelationships between them.

There is no one ‘right’ way to make sure you’re keeping track of every relevant detail. It’s about finding whatever enables you to drive the project rather than being driven by it.

6. Clarity is key

There is always a new way for something to be interpreted (see also ‘authors are endlessly creative at finding ways to break Track Changes’). Hundreds of brains working on a single project means hundreds of potential points of misunderstanding. Using plain language when writing instructions is crucial, especially if the contributors vary in their English proficiency. It’s not patronising – it’s polite and respectful of people’s time, as it lets them deal with your enquiries as efficiently as possible.

7. There will be problems and you will have to solve them

One of my major goals as a project manager and copyeditor is always to make things happen and keep things moving. Sometimes this means finding creative compromises. Sometimes it means making difficult decisions where there is no right answer. Most importantly, it means listening to different viewpoints in order to find a way forward that, whenever possible, gives everybody the essence of what they want if not the detail.

Major reference works are vast deposits of humanity, often with the voices, perspectives, and perceptions of hundreds or thousands of people. And naturally, all of these people will have their own views on how a piece of academic writing should be produced. Even when there is just one author undertaking their own personal labour of Hercules, the span of writing time and breadth of content are likely to bring tensions to resolve, both editorial and personal.

There is a subtle art to weaving a path through the competing imperatives of projects like these. Reference works are hugely challenging monsters to work with, but the sense of achievement from doing so is huge. However chaotic and wilful your monster may seem, you can tame it. And it will teach you all sorts of useful tricks to use on your less fearsome charges too.

Photo 11431112 / Old Map Sea © Palych |

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.

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