Various pieces of software

What do you use?

by John Pettigrew

We all use a range of tools in our working lives, editors as much as anyone. Here are few of my favourite and least-favourite tools, but what do you use?

Most of us, I suspect, still have a fondness for paper. Whether our work is actually destined for publication on paper, or whether it will appear on screen, there’s an immediacy to paper that’s hard to beat.

In my first job in publishing, I was trained to copyedit on paper, to work on galley proofs on paper, and to proofread on paper. But that didn’t last long. On-screen editing came into our company within the first year, and we were soon having to do our copyediting in Microsoft Word. Galley proofs disappeared shortly thereafter, with Word files going straight into layouts.

Which is better?

When on-screen editing came in, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how introducing computers into the process would cause disaster for publishing, the end of editorial quality and much more. But, as it turned out, we eventually learned that this wasn’t what happened.

As it turned out, using word processors actually made editors’ lives easier and better. Quality didn’t suffer and, by giving us the ability to run global search-and-replace and even macros, it meant that we could spend more time on real questions and less simply changing common spelling or formatting mistakes.

Ultimately, though, asking whether it’s “better” to work on screen or on paper isn’t really the point. The question is not whether to use a particular tool but how to use it to best effect.

So what works for you?

Here’s what I found myself using most often.

  • MS Word – an obvious one but the software I spent the most time using. For copyediting and for writing, it’s hard to beat, although it can be deeply annoying and frustrating. Finding and correctly configuring all its settings is tedious but essential for the working editor. Creating all the macros I used regularly took even longer but saved a vast amount of time overall. (I did experiment with OpenOffice and other word processors, but they all lacked important features and were ultimately impossible to use for the task.)
  • MS Excel – spreadsheets are useful for many tasks, perhaps chief among them for editors keeping track of schedules and projects. For some jobs, MS Project or a similar project-management software is extremely useful, but generally too complex for managing individual projects. For keeping track of a portfolio and managing the workload of a team, however, it’s very useful.
  • Email – an essential tool for communication these days, for asking questions and sharing files. One of my least-favourite jobs on that first editorial job was the monthly round of faxing proofs to authors. (Fax is one of the most annoying technologies that I’ve had the misfortune to use. Every month would see at least a few failed transmissions, or having to phone people around the world with poor or no English to try and get valid fax numbers.) Still, Lotus Notes (the email client used at one employer) still ranks as a rather painful experience!
  • Adobe Acrobat/Reader – the default for handling PDF files. It may not be the only choice (especially on Macs, with the built-in Preview app) but it’s the most powerful, even in its free form. For short annotations or adding and removing pages, it’s invaluable. However, as a proofreading tool, I always found it severely lacking. The markup tools are clumsy compared with traditional paper-based methods and trying to collate a team’s corrections into a single master file is tedious – an example of a tool used because it’s there rather than because it’s any good for the job. (Disclaimer: this whole area of marking up proofs is what we address with Collate it.)
  • Calibre and Sigil – when working on EPUB files, being able to open them up and dig around is hugely useful. Many of the companies who do EPUB conversion work do fairly poor work (in my experience), especially for complex books, so these two free tools can be extremely helpful. Calibre has great library-management features and basic (but improving) EPUB editing. Sigil is a fantastic EPUB editor but is no longer being developed.
  • Documentum – an asset-management system used by a previous employer. Using it isn’t an experience I’d recommend but it did the job of handling a large number of files and keeping them in the right relationships to one another.
  • Google – it’s ubiquitous for a reason. When I need to look something up, the web is a great resource. Of course, you have to be careful with your sources but it’s much better than the old days!

So, that’s my short list of tools. Have you got any favourites to add, or bones to pick?

About the author

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has over 15 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.

Join the conversation


 Averill Buchanan – June 23, 2014

I use Jutoh and oXygen for epub/xml coding. I’m no expert with either of them, but I can understand enough to do what I need to do.

     John Pettigrew – June 23, 2014

    Hi Averill – thanks for dropping by. I never found oXygen to be right for my needs, with a combination of too many XML features and too few EPUB features. It seems to have improved since I last looked at it, though, so it may be worth another try!

    Thanks for the tips.

 Sue Browning – June 23, 2014

I use PDF-XChange instead of Acrobat.

Not strictly editing, but I use Gantt Project for scheduling, Toodledo for task management and Text Expander, which does what Word’s Autocorrect does, only everywhere. It also has programmable macros to do look-up (Google, favourite dictionary) on a key press. That saves me so much time checking references.

     John Pettigrew – June 23, 2014

    Hi, Sue. I’ve used Gantt Project, too, and it did the job pretty well, although it lacks a lot of MS Project’s features.

    Thanks for reminding me about task managers. I’ve used many over the years and am currently on ToDoist. Being able to put tasks into projects and label and prioritise them is crucial, but the feature I always look for is repeating events (like complete my expenses every month!). That and being able to check my tasks on my phone as well as my computer.

    I’ve never tried TextExpander, and it sounds pretty useful. Anyone got an equivalent for our Windows-using friends?

       Sue Browning – June 23, 2014

      Oops! I meant PhraseExpress, which does work on Windows.

 Meri Pentikäinen – June 29, 2014

I’ve recently started managing my own book projects at work, and when I started I was anxious to find the best, most effective and reliable way to do it. I asked some of our older editors about their working habits, and they were indeed all pen-and-paper people. I’m trying to be more paperless at home and at work, so I eventually adapted my home Evernote process for work and really depend on it now. 🙂

It’s funny to hear you say the arrival of Word caused disruption and was treated with deep suspicion. I feel that still happens every time a new digital thing – whatever it is, a new expenses system, an HR self-service website, anything – it’s always a Crisis and the beginning of the end, and people almost seem to revel in the opportunity to be firmly against a new development. And that’s often before they’ve tried it and certainly before they’ve rationally thought about whether the thing is likely to be an improvement or not. I’ve wondered whether this is a publishing phenomenon or just what people everywhere are like. Or perhaps it’s a generation thing.

     John Pettigrew – June 30, 2014

    You’re right – there’s definitely a human tendency to be suspicious of anything new. I don’t think this is an issue peculiar to publishing, fortunately!

    Evernote’s an interesting suggestion. It does combine a few useful features in one place but, although I used it for a year or two (admittedly never as a professional organising tool), I ultimately didn’t find that it ‘stuck’.

    Thanks for commenting!

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