An American Editor

September 1, 2014

On the Basics: Thou Shall Behave Ethically — A 4th Commandment for Editors

Thou Shall Behave Ethically —
A 4th Commandment for Editors

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Recent discussions of ethics for editors here and elsewhere have inspired the concept of a fourth commandment:

Thou shall behave ethically.

To have an ethical editing business, it helps to understand two definitions of ethics. As Rich Adin has noted (see The Business of Editing: An Editorial Code of Professional Responsibility), one is “the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession” and another is “the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy” (vide American Heritage Dictionary).

I see being an ethical editor as somewhat of a combination of the two. I have rules for how I conduct my business — rules that I think can or should apply to any editor who wants to be seen as both professional and ethical — and I have a philosophy grounded in a moral code. That code is based on honesty: being honest about my skills, qualifications, availability, fees, and business model, and being honest with clients about their projects. It’s based on competency — I see competency and ethicality as complementary.

To me, being an ethical editor starts with presenting oneself as an editor, freelance or in-house, only if one has a level of training and experience that can support the claim to being able to do this kind of work. Far too many people nowadays are hanging out shingles or applying for jobs as editors (among other professions) who have no such training or experience. That puts authors and other clients at a serious disadvantage — they are often trusting their work to the hands of untrustworthy editors, and don’t know enough about publishing (or editing) to know the difference.

Granted, many of us start out in editing without much formal training. We learn on the job at publications, or we become editors because we’re the only people in the company who care about good grammar, correct spelling and punctuation, proper usage, and other aspects of ensuring that written material is clear, coherent, consistent, cogent, and whatever other c-words colleagues can come up with to describe well-written documents.

We find a deep-seated love of language, of words, of making clunky material into something readable and usable, even beautiful. We move on from there, sometimes getting additional formal training; sometimes learning from more-experienced colleagues; sometimes developing self-study mechanisms. If we really care about what has become our trade, we look for ways to continually hone our skills and become ever better at what we do. That, to me, is a hallmark of an ethical editor.

It probably should be noted that a skilled editor is not the same as an ethical one, although I like to think that a truly ethical editor is also a skilled one. Someone can have topnotch editing skills and still be unethical — charging for time not spent on a client’s project is probably the most common violation of an ethical code. An honest or ethical editor is one who doesn’t inflate or outright lie about skills and competency.

One of the most important aspects of an ethical editing business is to only charge for the work the editor actually does. If a project is based on a flat fee and the client doesn’t care how long it takes to do the work, it is ethical to charge the full fee, even if it takes less time to finish than expected. However, if the fee is based on an hourly rate, it is dishonest and unethical to charge for more time than one works. If a project is budgeted for 50 hours at $50/hour but it only takes 40 hours to complete the job, the ethical thing to do is to charge the client for only those 40 hours. Such honesty — or ethicality, if you prefer — is not only the right thing to do, even if it means losing a few dollars, but usually works in the editor’s favor over the long term, because it establishes an honest relationship with the client, who is more likely to trust such an editor and thus use that editor again.

An ethical editor knows and uses the standard tools of our profession. We don’t make up rules to suit ourselves or reinforce our own assumptions. Among other things, we learn and internalize the accepted rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. We identify and use the appropriate style manuals for the sector(s) in which we work — the Chicago Manual of Style for book and much magazine publishing; the Associated Press Stylebook for journalism; the Government Printing Office manual for government-agency projects; the American Psychological Association manual for much of academic publishing; the Merck Index, Dorland’s, or, perhaps, American Medical Association manual for medical publications; etc. We have the leading dictionaries on our bookshelves and/or computers.

Of course, someone starting an editing career is unlikely to know any given style manual inside-out; that’s why it helps to work in-house in a professional environment. The ethical editor lets a prospective employer or client know his or her experience level and if  the editor is new enough to the field to still be learning the essentials of whatever manual the employer or client expects the editor to use. Some may think that such honesty will mean losing out on jobs, but we all have to start somewhere, and employers and clients understand that.

Along the same lines, an ethical editor stocks his or her bookcase with guides to grammar, because none of us can claim to be perfect. We’re all likely to have grammar gremlins or simply need the occasional refresher to make sure any changes we make are justified. If nothing else, we may need a reference at hand to support a proposed change with a client who needs to see a reason for everything done to a document beyond “I can’t explain why, but I know this was wrong and that my version is right.” Editors aren’t parents; we can’t get away with “Because I said so.”

Because an ethical editor believes in continually honing skills and knowing when to consult appropriate resources. We invest in the current versions of the appropriate manuals — often, we have more than one on our bookshelves — and learn as much as we can about them. For when the right choice doesn’t leap to mind, we subscribe to online versions of those manuals so we can check or verify our decisions. Beyond those tools, we learn (sometimes even establish) in-house preferences, since a publication, publisher, organization, or company can use one of the standard manuals as a starting point, but go its own way on some details.

We also wait until we know how to use the technical, as well as the academic, tools of our trade before inflicting ourselves on employers or clients. That is, we learn at least the basics of using Word and, in some environments Framemaker, Excel, Acrobat, InCopy, etc.

An ethical editor also stays current on language trends. Language evolves and changes constantly. An ethical editor knows to find ways to pick up on when new words enter the lexicon and existing ones change (just think of the country names that no longer include “the”), through reading and interacting with colleagues.

An ethical editor is connected with trustworthy colleagues and resources to ensure that she or he understands the nature of the work and sees information about new trends or changes in language, editing techniques and tools, useful resources, and other aspects of being effective and professional. (Interacting with unethical or dishonest editors could make an ethical editor turn into an unethical one, but I find that unlikely.)

Similarly to members of the medical profession, the ethical editor “first does no harm.” It is the role of the editor to enhance, clarify, and convey the author’s or client’s voice, not to rewrite the work in the editor’s voice or from the editor’s point of view. This also relates to being trained and experienced in grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, etc. — doing no harm means not trying to fix clients’ material based on inadequate skills and knowledge, because that would mean both introducing errors and missing problems a skilled editor would be expected to recognize and fix.

Another important element to being an ethical editor is to incorporate clear communication with clients into our business practices and processes. That means letting clients know how we will work on their projects, what the fee will be, that we will meet their deadlines, and if there are problems that affect how and whether the editor can do the work and still meet those deadlines. It means asking questions rather than making assumptions, and keeping the client informed along the way.

The ethical editor does not do certain kinds of projects — writing a thesis or dissertation for someone, for instance, no matter how tempting the fee. An ethical editor may develop a kind of radar for material that doesn’t “fit” and should learn how to use antiplagiarism tools on behalf of clients such as book publishers and journals. An ethical editor also doesn’t do the client’s writing.

An ethical editor learns the differences between various levels of editing and between editing and proofreading, how to educate clients on what those differences are, and how to provide the services a project needs. For many reasons, both a lot of prospective clients and some colleagues have no idea that there’s a difference between copyediting and substantive or developmental editing, or between any type of editing and proofreading. Some clients are trying to get higher-level skills at lower-level fees or wages; others are truly ignorant of the difference. Either way, the ethical editor speaks up.

Being an ethical editor boils down to being honest about all aspects of one’s work process, skills, and presence in the field. To hold up your head and be a success in our profession,

Thou shall behave ethically.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.



  1. Sorry to bring down the tone, but my first instinct on reading this was a barely repressible desire to correct ‘ethic’ to ‘ethnic’ – a reflex caused by the astonishing number of times that the author I am currently editing has made this typo in an extended text about ethnic minorities and issues of identity…


    Comment by Ewan Hughes Army — September 1, 2014 @ 4:41 am | Reply

  2. This pretty much covers it. Nicely done, Ruth! I’m sure I will be directing people to this posting in the future.


    Comment by Carolyn — September 1, 2014 @ 6:27 am | Reply

  3. […] Thou Shall Behave Ethically — A 4th Commandment for Editors by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter Recent discussions of ethics for editors here and elsewhere have inspired the concept of a fourth commandment: T…  […]


    Pingback by On the Basics: Thou Shall Behave Ethically &mda... — September 1, 2014 @ 7:41 am | Reply

  4. Thanks, Carolyn!

    And yikes, Ewan – for a moment, I thought you were saying that I had confused ethic(s) and ethnic. Whew.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 1, 2014 @ 9:59 am | Reply

  5. Somewhat of a corollary: An ethical editor doesn’t change things without having a defensible reason for doing so, especially if a language other than the editor’s own is involved.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 1, 2014 @ 10:34 am | Reply

  6. Excellent post! Looking forward to meeting you in Rochester, as I’m on the cusp of launching a freelance copyediting and proofreading business and see you as a role model.


    Comment by Martha Stettinius (@InsideDementia) — September 1, 2014 @ 12:27 pm | Reply

  7. Very nice, Ruth. I’m sure I’ll be joining Carolyn in pointing people back to this post. Thank you!


    Comment by Amy Thompson — September 1, 2014 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

  8. Sorry Ruth!


    Comment by Ewan Hughes Army — September 1, 2014 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

  9. Once again, Ruth, you inspire me and teach me. This is an article I will not only share with other, but will come back to again and again when I need to be reminded about the fourth commandment of editing!


    Comment by Luz Guerra — September 1, 2014 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

  10. Question for the editor-ethicists: I very recently encountered something on a very popular social media site where a professional editor copied and pasted a large portion of a text that someone submitted to be edited. The name of the author was not given, but this seemed very questionable to me. OK, I thought it was downright unethical in a pretty obvious way. I don’t think a contract had been entered into; I believe the editor was still considering whether to take the project on. In any case, when it comes to ethics and editing, what about a reasonable assumption of privacy? I think of privacy in the editor/author relationship to be akin to what occurs between a therapist or lawyer and a client (akin, not the same). In short: the author has the right to assume that materials and correspondence and the like will not be posted, reposted, forwarded, published, copied, discussed in detail, and so on in any sort of forum outside of that professional relationship unless the author explicitly consents to it. I see this sort of breach of trust every so often, and it seems particularly important to editing in the digital age. Thoughts?


    Comment by john — September 2, 2014 @ 7:18 am | Reply

    • A capsulated answer is that in the absence of permission from the author, the editor has no right to disseminate the author’s material. I do not think it is a matter of privacy expectations as much as it is a question of ownership and owner’s rights. But I need to think on it. Perhaps this will be the topic of an near-term essay. Thanks for the question.


      Comment by americaneditor — September 2, 2014 @ 7:52 am | Reply

      • Thanks for the reply. I agree that ownership and intellectual property clearly play a role here. I guess I was thinking of it as a privacy issue rather than an ownership/intellectual property one because thinking of this as an IP issue limits it, in a way, to what is actionable or provable in a court. Sure, in this case the editor “reproduced” part of the work without the author’s permission, but unless the editor has clearly impinged in a measurable way on the writer’s market, or unless the editor has profited from the theft, this is really just naughtiness, at least if we’re talking about it from an ownership or legal perspective. Not that thinking of it as a privacy issue gives the offended party any more options here, but doing so in these sorts of cases might be useful or instructive since it contextualizes editing practice according to current debates/conversations about rights and expectations of privacy in the digital age. Since privacy is a right (or at least it’s usually thought of that way), it seems like something the writer has (and should be able to expect will be respected) regardless of the specific uses, intent, or potential for financial gain of those who would violate it. But these are just untested and amateurish opinions. Looking forward to the possible future essay on this. Thanks again.


        Comment by john — September 2, 2014 @ 10:07 am | Reply

        • Ownership is a stronger right than privacy. Isn’t there a moral dimension to property ownership? I own it therefore you can’t use it without my permission? In the case you described, the author was not identified/identifiable so how would a privacy violation be any more unethical or immoral than a property violation? Food for thought for a future essay, methinks.


          Comment by americaneditor — September 2, 2014 @ 12:39 pm | Reply

          • Good points. Indeed, ownership is stronger legally that privacy, at least recently, since privacy has been taking a legal and constitutional beating. But in this case the legal dimension lacks enforceability, so it essentially becomes every bit as weak of a claim as privacy. In the realm of competing weak claims, privacy allows us to have a discussion about what clients can expect of editors as good stewards of their work, as well as what editors owe their clients above and beyond what typically is considered editing work. In terms of the question you asked, I might suggest that identity is not necessarily a condition of privacy. For example, many people might claim that data snatching or drone surveillance is a violation of privacy, even if the NSA doesn’t attach a personal identity to the data until suspicion is raised. In the case at hand, I’d feel plenty violated if I saw a page of something I wrote floating around Facebook without my permission, whether or not my name was included. I’m pretty sure I’d think that a violation of something I had assumed to be private.


            Comment by john — September 2, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

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