11 Standards for Ethical Editors
by Erin Brenner
It’s a good thought. If we American editors are to organize ourselves to create a certification program that identifies expertise and skill (and that’s a big if), demonstrating an understanding of ethical considerations would be a worthwhile addition. While some ethical practices are universal (“be honest and fair in your business dealings”), experienced editors should be aware of pitfalls that new editors may not be, such as whether one should bill for breaks when billing a client hourly.
Rich’s article listed several ethical situations editors could find themselves in, and Teresa Barensfeld and Harriet Power list several more in the comments section.
It’s helpful, though, to think of all of these questions more broadly. when considering creating a own code of ethics to follow. Mark Allen framed the questions at Copyediting this way:
- What is my responsibility to the truth?
- What is my responsibility to the reader?
- What is my responsibility to the author?
- What are my business-related responsibilities, such as following contract expectations, billing honestly, and maintaining confidentiality?
- What is my responsibility to my own convictions?
I’d add “What is my responsibility to the publisher?” as the author’s and publisher’s goals do not always align.
But we don’t have to start from scratch on deciding what ethical editing looks like. Several organizations have already put thought into the matter, and we can crib from them.
The American Medical Writer’s Association’s Code of Ethics is probably the best, most concise outline I’ve seen so far. While the code is written particularly for medical communicators, we can easily apply most rules more generally. For example, fiction editors might not need to worry about scientific rigor in the text, but they should certainly maintain an objective outlook of the text to help make the manuscript the best it can be.
Two other organizations, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and the Editorial Freelancers Association, offer codes of practice for their members. Longer and more complex, these codes nevertheless guide members with ethical standards.
All of these rules, ethical questions, and suggestions boil down to some broad practices (some of which I noted on Copyediting) every editor can observe, whether they’re codified or not:
- Be honest and fair in business dealings. Treat others with respect and fairness. Act like a professional at all times. Respect confidentiality. Only take on jobs that you can actually do. Resolve conflicts fairly.
- Follow any applicable legal guidelines. This will matter more for some editors than others, such as those working on copy closely regulated by a government agency (think medical copy).
- Set expectations at the beginning of each project. Be clear about the kind of results you can or are willing to provide for the pay and time available. If you’re hired to do copyediting, clients can’t expect you to do context (substantive) or developmental editing instead or in addition to copyediting.
- Outline the details of the project. Spell out each party’s responsibilities, payment terms, project schedule, dispute settlement, and other details important to the project, preferably in a contract.
- Follow directions. Keep your end of the bargain.
- Be prepared to defend your edits. The author has a right to understand the reasoning behind any edit.
- Explain opaque edits upfront. Be sure the author can follow your reasoning. Also explain any edit that might push the boundaries of what you’ve been asked to do.
- Respect the author’s opinions. This is the author’s work. You don’t have to agree with the author’s opinions, but you do have to respect them.
- Bill clients based on the agreement and the work you actually do. If your contract allows for 75 hours on a project and you complete the work in 50 hours, only bill for 50 hours.
- If you can’t meet a deadline, let the project manager know as soon as you know. Adjust expectations and help resolve any conflicts. How much personal detail you share is up to you.
We might lack a national code of ethics for editors, but there is plenty of material out there from which editors can form a personal code and stick to it. Savvy editors will put the code in writing and share it with clients as a way to instill confidence and offer a guarantee of quality and professionalism.
Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.