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.