An American Editor

July 10, 2013

The Ethics of Editing

Most professions have a code of ethics that governs what members can and cannot (or should and should not) do. Editing, unlike many professions, lacks a standard code of conduct or ethics. Whatever code governs editing, it is unwritten and unique to the individual.

Consider this issue regarding billing. The editor and the client agree that the editor will be paid on an hourly basis but that the client has a budget. In the course of the negotiations, the editor asks the client what the budget is, and the client tells her. Let us assume that the budget is 100 hours at the agreed upon hourly rate.

The project goes much more smoothly than either the editor or the client expected, taking the editor 50 hours to complete. The question is: Should the editor bill for 50 hours or 100 hours?

I would have thought the answer was obvious, but in discussions with colleagues, I find that opinion is split. Some editors believe that the agreement was for an hourly fee and thus only 50 hours should be billed; others believe that although the fee was based on an hourly rate, the client expects to pay for 100 hours and the project was completed in less than the budget number because of the skill of the editor, consequently, the editor should bill for 100 hours — the client should not be rewarded for the editor’s extraordinary skill.

My follow-up to the latter argument is to ask what would happen if under these circumstances the editing took 125 hours: Should the editor bill for and the client pay for those additional 25 hours? In this case, there is yet a further split among the editors, this time among those who would charge for the 100 hours. Some say no, the client is not responsible because the editor knew there was an outside limit; others say yes, the client is responsible because the agreement was for an hourly rate, not a project rate.

Setting aside for the moment whether I agree or disagree with any of my colleagues, the bottom-line issue is one of ethics, and editors have no ethical code, outside of their own moral code, to guide them as to which decision is the correct decision. This is a failure of the editing profession and does harm to our clients.

A client really has no recourse against an editor except to not pay the invoice, not hire the editor again, not recommend the editor, and to sue the editor. The last option, to sue, is really a weak remedy except in the case of billing disputes. A number either adds up or it doesn’t, but word choice and quality of editing are matters of opinion.

In the example at hand, I think the only ethical editor is the one who bills for the 50 hours. When the editor bid her price, she did so knowing her skill level. The editor was in the best position to determine the likelihood of finishing within budget. That the client is getting an unexpected “bargain” as a result of the editor’s skills doesn’t really play into the equation. After all, doesn’t the editor include her skill level in determining her fee rate? Isn’t that one of the arguments editors make to justify why they charge more than another editor?

I think the other editors are wrong because the client doesn’t expect to pay the budgeted amount; the client expects to pay only for the actual hours the editing took with the budget amount acting as a maximum. In the instance where the editor went over the budgeted time, the editor’s underestimating the amount of work involved is not the client’s fault or problem; the editor is supposed to be the expert when it comes to editing and have the experience to estimate the time more accurately. Neither charging the client the budget amount nor for additional hours strikes me as justifiable.

That is the problem: They do not strike me as justifiable, but I cannot point to an ethical rule that governs the situation.

The scope of the problem is readily seen when it is understood that there are no guidelines for what constitutes a proper edit; no uniform rule that governs how a page is calculated; no clear outline of what copyediting, for example, includes or excludes; no universally accepted guidelines that have to be met to call oneself a professional editor. In terms of professions, editing is a Wild West.

What it means is that each editor should make these things clear to clients, preferably in writing. Doing so serves both the editor and the client because it clarifies the duties and responsibilities of each party and the remedies in case of violation. What is really needed is a code of ethics and conduct to which editors can subscribe and to which they can point clients. With such a code, a body of guiding principles, explanations, and opinions can be created. Essentially I am talking of the creation of a “style guide” for editor ethics.

Until that happens, however, we are stuck with personal ethics. It is not that personal ethics are necessarily or inherently bad, it is just that no one has an idea what action will be taken until the problem arises and the editor has to apply her personal code of ethics to the problem at hand. By that time, it may be too late; the problem may have gotten out of hand.

I do not know how one finds an editor whose personal code of ethics matches a client’s expectations. There are so many possible ethical disagreements that it is impossible to ask about them in advance. In the end, it comes down to trust. Trust can be a very shaky foundation for a business relationship in which the end product is but a collection of opinions, especially as loss of trust can be the result of misunderstanding.

What suggestions do you have?


  1. With editing, faster often comes with being more skilled, so hourly is never a good way to measure an editing project. I have counseled my editing colleagues that editors need to set their own personal hourly rate to shoot for but not bill per hour. That number gives you a project fee that you quote to your author.

    How do you know that number? Do a test edit of, say, ten pages. Then you know how long it takes, and you can extrapolate length and number of hours to come up with a project fee. If that meshes with your author’s budget, you’re set. Negotiate at that point before you start any serious editing. The author can also see the sample edits and will know what to expect on the full manuscript too. It’s a happy marriage.

    Always discuss with the author the contingencies (author makes major changes after a first pass edit, for example). You advise the author that you’d charge by the hour at $X rate once the project is under way but unanticipated editing and revisions by the author extend the initial quote.

    Sometimes, though, projects blow up, and I will eat the additional time and not charge an author because (1) I know the author has a limited budget, (2) I want the book to be great not just done, and/or (3) I miscalculated (perhaps didn’t realize the bibliography would be a bear and spent much more time on formatting than I thought I would).

    There may never be a universal code of editorial ethics, but pride of workmanship is always on the forefront for an editor, even if our names are never on the cover.

    Comment by Sandra Wendel — July 10, 2013 @ 8:59 am | Reply

  2. I think we have a new commandment! Thou shalt be an ethical editor.

    If I finish an hourly-rate project faster than expected, I only bill for the time I used; when that has happened, clients are delighted – and they come back to me because they know they’ll get a good, reasonably fast and honest job. If I finish a project-rate job faster than expected, I’ll use most but not quite all of the fee – I’ve rarely done a job in half the expected time, but I have finished in less time than I thought I would. Same client response. If it looks like an editing job will take more time than expected, I notify the client as soon as possible and negotiate for a larger fee – as long as the reason has to do with the quality of the ms. If the extra time were needed because of something at my end, I wouldn’t ask for more money.

    The other major area of ethics for editors has to do with editing/proofreading student work. But that might be fodder for a whole other blog post.

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 10, 2013 @ 10:33 am | Reply

  3. The example Rich gives in his post isn’t unique to editing, nor is the ethical code that governs it. The situation he describes is a simple contract for services. The terms should be clear and in writing, agreed upon by both service provider and client *before* work starts. In this case, it’s a simple matter of clearly stating that the contract is based either on an hourly rate, with a cap, or a flat fee. If the contract is based on an hourly fee, then it’s up to the service provider to be honest about billable hours. If the service provider “pads” the billable hours, then s/he is being dishonest and won’t likely see much repeat business. In my experience, most clients have at least a ballpark sense of how many hours an edit may need, and the subsequent amount of red ink will reveal how much work actually went into the manuscript. (In contrast, it’s much easier for cheats to pad billable hours when doing research and original writing because it’s much harder to pin down how much time is needed for these tasks.) In my invoices, I always provide a breakout of hours by task so my clients can understand exactly what they’re paying for. If we want our customers to hire us again, the least we can do is demonstrate to them that they’re money is well spent.

    For these reasons, I don’t see that any special code of conduct is needed for editors. Make your contracts unambiguous and be honest. The same holds true for any business.

    Comment by Will Harmon — July 10, 2013 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

  4. I use the Editors’ Association of Canada definitions of editing skills to educate my clients (yes, even my international clients). This has worked well for me over the years.

    I also inform them that my definition of a page is 250 words. This way, I can always be sure that we are on the same page about what level of edit they think they want, which is not always to be confused with what they actually need. Funny how many clients think that they only need a ‘quick proofread,’ isn’t it?

    I also never accept a job unless I can first see it (preferably all of it, or at least a good portion). This tells me what type of edit is actually needed, regardless of what they actually ask for. It also allows me to give a fairly accurate estimate because I can calculate the word count myself (no nasty surprises) and see the overall quality, or lack thereof, of the writing.

    If the budget available will not allow me to do a complete job, yet the client insists that the delivered document must be ‘perfect’, I usually decline. I also decline if they agree that it is a mess but insist on only a copy edit or proofread because that is all the budget they have available. It would drive me crazy to do ‘just a ——t’ when a substantive/structural edit is required and I know that I would end up volunteering many unpaid hours fixing everything else for free if I took it on.

    By the way, “editing faster” also depends on the overall quality of the document. I don’t care how good and experienced one is, if you have to make ++++ corrections/markups/changes per page, it WILL take longer.

    Having said all this, I agree with what the others have said about the ethical aspects and I am flabbergasted to learn that anyone would blithely bill for hours not actually used. Call me naive, but I used to think that everyone was born with a functioning moral compass. Guess I was delusional. :(

    Comment by Poppy Quintal — July 10, 2013 @ 2:37 pm | Reply

  5. I think the situation given as an example is a matter of communication, not ethics. Neither approach to billing is necessarily unethical as long as both parties have the same understanding–will the editor bill the project budget or bill for hours spent? The lesson to be learned from this example is to be clear and precise in initial negotiations.

    Comment by Audrey Dorsch — July 10, 2013 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

    • Audrey, if the editor is going to bill for the project amount, why set an hourly rate? Wouldn’t the editor and client just agree on a flat (project) fee regardless of the time spent?

      Comment by americaneditor — July 10, 2013 @ 3:49 pm | Reply

  6. Seasoned project managers (PM) become crucial in such a scenario. If I finish an hourly project faster than expected, it is simply a misjudgement on a PM’s part. No professional PM will ever let such a situation arise: “The editor and the client agree that the editor will be paid on an hourly basis but that the client has a budget.” He will either, in advance, fix (obviously, after negotiating) an hourly rate or a project cost depending on his experience.

    If, however, a client finds himself in the above-mentioned scenario he obviously is incompetent. All other territories that we strive to delve into could only boil down to something called ‘personal ethics’ discussing which is like opening a can of worms.

    Comment by Harsha Basu — July 10, 2013 @ 6:19 pm | Reply

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  9. An important discussion. For further reference, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) in the UK has issued a “Code of Practice” (, It does address fee negotiations and agreements, albeit not the specific issue raised in this blog post.

    Comment by Mary Anderson — July 11, 2013 @ 11:42 am | Reply

  10. As a relative newby to the freelance industry, I was initially a bit bewildered to see the lack of established guidelines on this matter. However, I quickly began to liken it to other situations I’d encountered in life, such as setting classroom rules for the students I taught or creating a lease agreement for renters in our home. In both of these scenarios, it was my responsibility to set the parameters of the relationship with the people I was “working” with–and once the boundaries were established, altering them could often prove tricky and lead to frustration on both our parts.

    Therefore, as a freelancer, I feel the ball is truly in my court for establishing boundaries that protect the interests of both myself and my clients. I try to clearly state what I will charge per hour or per project and outline exactly what will be included in that price. If I underestimate hours, I view that as my error, and correct for the next time. If, however, the client wants additional work beyond what I’ve detailed as being included, then I feel I have grounds to ask for additional compensation. Ultimately, it’s all about establishing expectations and boundaries, and then adhering firmly to them.

    Comment by scwrip — July 11, 2013 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

  11. “Editing, unlike many professions, lacks a standard code of conduct or ethics. Whatever code governs editing, it is unwritten and unique to the individual.”

    I’ve notice that this is a recurrent theme on this blog. However, two commenters have provided interesting links pointing out that there are in fact extensive codes of professionalism for editors.

    Are these codes not suitable for American (US) editors?

    Additionally, the Editorial Freelancers Association provides a “Code of Fair Practice” on its website

    I am not a member of any of these three organizations, but just from browsing through the linked materials, it seems there is hardly an absence of written standards.

    Comment by Shmuel — July 12, 2013 @ 12:39 am | Reply

    • Each of the organizations provides a code that, at best, governs the relationship between their members and their members’ clients. However, at least in the U.S. (I can’t speak for the non-U.S. associations), none of these codes are enforceable. What is lacking is a mandatory code such as lawyers, accountants, doctors, and other licensed professionals are subject to — violate the code and the ultimate punishment imposable is the loss of a license to practice that profession.

      The lack of an enforceable code in the United States also works to blur the distinction between a professional editor and a nonprofessional editor. For example, to become a lawyer, one must follow a prescribed course of study and pass an exam; to become a “professional” editor, one needs simply to say “I am a professional editor,” even if one stopped attending school after the sixth grade and cannot read above a second-grade level.

      The licensed professions that are bound by an enforceable code of ethics have high pay scales that tend to rise; editing in the United States has a pay scale that tends to be on the lower end and which is constantly under pressure to go even lower because editing is not a licensed profession with an enforceable code of ethics.

      Comment by americaneditor — July 12, 2013 @ 4:10 am | Reply

      • There is a huge difference between not having any well-known professional standards _at all_, which is what this blog post started out saying, and not having licensing standards that are legally enforceable. If there are societies of thousands of professional editors that agree on a code of conduct, then it is not “unwritten and unique to the individual.”
        Personally, I think licensing of the editing profession would be a terrible idea. That doesn’t mean there can’t be recognized voluntary certification standards.

        Comment by Shmuel — July 12, 2013 @ 12:27 pm | Reply

      • Sounds to me like a void that doesn’t need filling.
        An “enforceable” code punishable by loss of license strikes me as overreaching. We’re editors, not heart surgeons (despite the anguish we cause some authors). We’re subject to business and contract law, as are most professions, and likely that’s enough.

        My wife is a CPA and grapples with GAAP and GASB standards daily. But editing isn’t as rigid because language itself isn’t rigid. An editing code that works for environmental impact statements or medical texts isn’t going to fly so well for sci-fi fantasy. Even something that works for one formal non-fiction textbook may prove unwieldy for the next. That’s why we do a style sheet for each project, and why we keep APA, AP, Chicago, CBE, and Garner’s handy. That’s why we draw up a fresh contract for each assignment.

        If such a code aimed for specificity, it would likely be too narrow to apply to all editors. I can also imagine it being so vague as to be useless. Finding a happy middle ground sounds like a never-ending committee assignment….

        I disagree with Rich’s sense that editing rates are in decline, and that this is so because we’re not a licensed profession. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can know that, beyond some purely personal, anecdotal experience. I’ve found the opposite: clients are willing to pay more today than 10 years ago, and they know to ask the right questions when hiring. Of course, that’s purely personal and anecdotal. The best-paying clients are discerning. They ask for the sorts of credentials that genuinely demonstrate whether you’re a professional: formal training and education, actual editing flight time (hours/number of projects), and references from other discerning clients. These are far more meaningful than a professional license.

        I’d rather not deal with the bureaucratic nightmare of an editorial licensing board, exams, CPE requirements, fees, etc. Already, too many of the professional development courses offered for editors are too basic or simply irrelevant. And I can’t see how a national, standardized exam could address the myriad levels, forms, and styles of editing.

        Finally, I’d hate to see clients priced out of affordable, reputable editing. Services from the two main professions Rich cites, legal and medical, are unaffordable for far too many Americans precisely because the professional fees are exorbitant. It’s a shame that people go without preventive health care, and often health care at all, because their job doesn’t provide health insurance and they can’t afford the $120 15-minute office visit. Or that hardly anyone has a living will, or an estate will, because they can’t afford the $200 20-minute legal consult. It will be a sad day when people can’t get basic editing services because they don’t have the cash for the $150/hour “professional.”

        I suspect the editing field functions less like lawyering and doctoring and more like lawn care. You can mow your own lawn, or you can pay the neighbor kid $10. But if you want a “professional” job, you’ll hire a lawn care business that has experienced workers, the right tools for the job, a menu of services, and so on. They good ones draw up a written service agreement and schedule, with itemized fees. But you don’t need a license to cut grass, whether you’re a kid looking for pocket money or a full-time professional. Thank goodness.

        Comment by Will Harmon — July 12, 2013 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

  12. […] on An American Editor in essays like “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”, “The Ethics of Editing“, “The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing“, “Ethics in a World […]

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