A tribute to Judith Butcher

Judith ButcherIt is with great sadness that we report the passing on 6 October of our honorary president, Judith Butcher. Judith was an important influence in our professional world as a teacher, author and colleague, and she was a good friend and kind mentor to many members of the Society. We are fortunate that she has passed on her wisdom to us through her presence and her writings. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.

Judith Butcher will be remembered for her life-long service to UK publishing. She has done more than anyone else to establish and maintain the high editorial standards that have earned the UK publishing industry worldwide respect. Her work has undoubtedly improved the quality of published works in the UK and around the world, benefiting all types of readers by enhancing their enjoyment and understanding of the printed word.

Judith is best known as the author of Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders, referred to throughout the English-speaking world as ‘the copy-editor’s bible’. But her book is only the most tangible product of the dedication to editorial excellence that characterised her long career. Her achievements can be grouped under three headings.

Manager and trainer

During her 20 years as chief subeditor (= copy-editor) for Cambridge University Press, Judith developed the emerging craft of copy-editing into a fully fledged discipline and established it as an essential stage in the publishing process. The unreliable and costly tradition of trusting the printer’s readers to pick up errors after typesetting was replaced by a methodical system of preparing manuscripts for typesetting and eliminating errors in advance. Judith set up and managed what CUP’s former chief executive Dr Jeremy Mynott has called ‘the best subediting department of any academic publishing house in the English-speaking world’. By personal example and using the growing file of notes that eventually became the Cambridge Handbook, she trained scores of copy­editors, many of whom subsequently carried her principles and standards to other publishing houses in the UK and overseas.


Judith turned her training notes into a house manual for CUP’s copy-editors and eventually into the book published by CUP as Copy-editing. It was the first copy-editing manual in English and has remained the undisputed authority in its field for over 40 years. When she retired from employment Judith kept the book up to date, making extensive revisions to keep abreast of changes in publishing technology and procedures. However, the fundamental principles that she set out remain unchanged. The book set the standard for good editing practice and disseminated it throughout the UK, the English-speaking world and even beyond: it has been translated into several languages. Copy-editing enabled standards to be maintained during the structural changes of the 1970s and 1980s, as publishing houses shed staff and turned increasingly to freelance copy-editors. Copy-editing is now predominantly a freelance occupation, and the book has provided indispensable guidance to generations of freelances without access to in-house training.


It was to support the growing number of freelances that the Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders (now the Society for Editors and Proofreaders) was founded in 1988. Judith enthusiastically agreed to become its first honorary president, and in this voluntary capacity she gave the society’s officers invaluable support for many years. She attended almost every annual conference and local meeting of the society, participating fully in workshops and discussions. In particular, Judith continued to nurture new copy-editors and proofreaders, giving unstintingly of her advice and encouragement.

Judith’s personal modesty, tact and generosity informed her work in all these spheres. As a manager, she inspired as much affection as respect; as an author, her tone was friendly as well as erudite; and as president of the professional body, she underpinned its ethos of mutual support and cooperation.


From notes compiled by Naomi Laredo in 2004, with contributions from SfEP members and former colleagues of Judith (updated by Margaret Hunter 9 October 2015)

24 thoughts on “A tribute to Judith Butcher

  1. Kathleen Lyle

    I remember Judith being very kind and encouraging, in her quiet way, during my time as chair. Her health hasn’t been good enough in recent years for her to come to conferences, so many of our newer members unfortunately won’t have had a chance to meet her, but the SfEP is poorer for her passing. She was quietly sympathetic and supportive, without ever (to the best of my knowledge) criticising or intervening in the day to day running of the society.

  2. Nancy Duin

    Judith was a lovely person, but far too self-effacing. I kept telling her how thrilled I’d been to find out that I was talking to a true eponym – and how having her as hon. president gave the Society a gravitas early in its history when it perhaps didn’t quite warrant it. She just waved away these compliments and apologised for causing the SfEP expense by having her come to conference.

  3. Andrew Woodhouse

    I am very sorry to hear of Judith’s passing. While I cannot attend the funeral, please accept my sincere condolences. I will be thinking of her, and those close to her, tomorrow.

  4. Katherine James

    I shall certainly aim to go to Judith’s funeral this afternoon (I live only a few miles from the Crem). I knew Judith many years ago, when she worked at Penguin and I at Macmillan; and more recently she came to some of our local (West Anglia) SfEP meetings. A charming and very clever lady…

  5. Sandi Irvine

    This is sad news about Judith. Thank you for posting it. I trained under her and knew her well for many years.

  6. Matthew Seal

    Thanks for conveying the sad news. I imagine you have had hundreds of shared condolences already, and I too feel a personal loss. Judith was my first tutor and mentor at CUP.

  7. Victoria Jones

    I have only recently become a member of the SfEP, so have yet to make contact with other members, but would like to extend my commiserations on the loss of your friend and colleague.

  8. Marian Anderson

    Thank you for letting us know. Strangely, I was thinking of her last night and remembering her when I last met her (Oxford? can’t remember now). Lovely woman, so approachable and so kind.

  9. Elizabeth Manning Murphy

    Thank you for this. I am sad to hear the news, of course. Judith Butcher has been a great influence on me in my editing career, both in the UK and in Australia, through her books, for which I remain very grateful. If there is an e-type condolence book or list, I would be glad if you would include my name in it – my sincere good wishes to her family.

  10. Anastasia Said

    I am so sorry to read such sad news about Judith and hope she rests in peace. My thoughts and prayers go to her family and everyone who has been affected by this sad loss.

  11. Miranda Bethell

    Sad news. I was introduced to this new career by a friend of mine who trained as an editor at Cambridge University Press under Judith Butcher and spoke of her with awe. She insisted I bought Butcher’s Copy-editing to start my copy-editing training.

  12. Karin Fancett

    I am very sorry to hear this news. She will be much missed by those of us who had the privilege of knowing her as well as everyone who has benefitted from her guidance.

  13. Val Rice

    How sad. Judith was a lovely lady, so quiet and gentle but interesting to talk to. I picked her up from Egham station for the 2004 conference at Royal Holloway and she spent the journey reminiscing about time she’d spent in the area many years ago. Her presence at conference was always encouraging – we shall miss her.

  14. Gillian Clarke

    I second all the comments already made. She took a great chance in agreeing to be our Hon Pres when the Society was formed. We could have been a load of rubbish rather than the excellent organisation we are but she happily risked possible damage to her reputation by letting us use her name. The end of an era.

  15. Penny Williams

    I also second (or should that be third?) all the comments already made. Among my memories of Judith are the letters she wrote while I was chair of the Society after we’d invited her to the conference. She would always say she thought it was time we looked for another president, and we would always say we wouldn’t dream of it – she was far too valuable to the Society for us to let her go. She was indeed a wonderful woman.

  16. Anne Waddingham

    Very sad news about Judith – the most amazingly self-effacing but significant presence in our society and in our careers. She will certainly be missed. RIP.

  17. Sarah Patey

    She was admirable in so many ways – in her knowledge, in her learning, and in her kindness to all who wanted to learn from her. And perhaps most of all, as so many have said, in her self-effacing modesty. Generations of editors have been and will be grateful that her wisdom has been captured in the pages of her invaluable book.

  18. Gerard M-F Hill

    Judith had such high standards, yet she was so gentle in putting them forward, proving that you don’t have to be bumptious and egotistical to make a mark in the world. She said her book should have been called ‘How to Butcher a manuscript’ but of course it’s really a beautifully crafted manual. Where would we be without it? And would SfEP have been so successful without her ‘brand’ and support? You could say she created our profession.

  19. Bernard Barbuk

    I wonder if I was the very first person Judith ever trained? Penguin Books, 1961. I wonder too whether our mutual boss, David Duguid, was the man who trained her, and how she came to be at Penguins. They both imparted the same message: that the editor stood between the Author and the Reader and had to represent both. What I do not wonder at all is the fundamental lack of respect shown to Judith and others still doing (or trying to do) the same job in the same way. Penguins back then had two editorial departments, styled Editorial 1 and 2. Ed1 commissioned the books, Ed2 did all the work. Officers and other ranks. Whenever ‘editors’ are spoken of guess which names always come up…


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