Sylvan reflections by copy-editor Rachael Oakden

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

Rachael Oakden: copy-editor of 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.

First sample chapters produced

Our deadline to complete copy editing is the end of June, so Gabriel Hemery has been working hard with the copy editor to finish on time. Meanwhile, the authors have also been working with the team at Bloomsbury Publishing to produce the first sample chapters. This is the first time that text and image have been fully combined so it was exciting for all the team to work on this.

The samples have been prepared in readiness for an approach to a VIP to write the foreword for The New Sylva. We can’t tell you more than this for now but meanwhile here’s a sneak preview of one of the pages:

The New Sylva sample

A sample page from The New Sylva

Publishing team meeting at Bloomsbury

The authors met the publishing team at Bloomsbury yesterday, including editorial, design, marketing, publicity and sales.

Discussing artwork for The New Sylva in the Board Room at Bloomsbury Publishing

Discussing artwork for The New Sylva in the Board Room at Bloomsbury. Right to left: Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet (authors), Alice Shortland (Marketing), Inez Munsch (Sales), Pete Dawson (Design), Natalie Hunt (Editorial), Madeleine Feeney (Publicity), and Diana Kojik (Special Publications).

This was the first occasion that the authors had met the whole team. It was a milestone in the book’s development as it signified that from now on all of us will be working very closely to turn what has been a book project into a published book

We are working to a timetable dictated by the publication date of April 2014. Gabriel is working currently on the manuscript with the Copy Editor, with a deadline of the end of June. From July the text will be ready to be used to create the first graphically designed layout of the whole book. Meanwhile the drawings will continue to be worked on; Sarah has a deadline of October to complete the last of the drawings. The book will be sent to the printers in November. Planning for sales and marketing is now underway, and we hope to be able to say more soon about some exciting ideas for activities planned during 2014.

Sarah Simblet talking about her drawing of the hazel coppice stool to the Publishing Team

Sarah Simblet talking about her drawing of a hazel coppice stool to the Publishing Team

Sarah Simblet talking about her drawing of giant redwood trees to the Publishing Team

Sarah Simblet talking about her drawing of giant redwood trees to the Publishing Team

One year to publication

It is one year until The New Sylva is published in April 2014 and several milestones have been reached.

Gabriel Hemery has finished drafting the manuscript; before editing the word count stands at 125,000 words. Sarah Simblet has completed more than two-thirds of the drawings with just 60 (out of a total of 200) to go before the ultimate deadline of November, when the book goes to print.

The publishers Bloomsbury have now ‘launched’ the book internally, meaning that a whole team of people have joined the Senior Editor during this pre-production stage, including a copy editor, designer, publicist, and marketing manager.

The authors have been developing with partners exciting plans for the book launch, and afterwards a national touring exhibition during 2014 that will visit some of the most prestigious arboreta around Britain and Ireland. We will announce more details soon.

Ash chapter must now be rewritten

Following the devastating news that the fungal pathogen Chalara fraxinea is rampant in the British countryside, our ash chapter requires now a major rewrite.

We had completed the section on ash (Fraxinus excelsior and other ash species) just one month ago, and had included a significant section on the potential dangers from this disease which was looming in continental Europe, little-knowing that within one month hundreds of British woodlands would be discovered to have trees infected with ash dieback.

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) shoot with emerging leaves. Drawing by Sarah Simblet.

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) shoot with emerging leaves. Drawing by Sarah Simblet for The New Sylva.

We have now just a few months of writing and drawing remaining before the book is put together by publishers Bloomsbury. Let’s hope that the news does not get much worse for this beautiful and graceful tree species before we go to press in late 2013.


Read more about Chalara fraxinea