An American Editor

June 10, 2015

The Ethics of Distaste

It must be the season for distaste. On a couple of forums someone has asked about backing out of an editing job because they discovered that they dislike (choose one or more) the author’s religious views, the subject matter of the project (e.g., erotica, anti-something the editor likes, abortion, devil worship), the political views expressed in the manuscript, and so on. Surprisingly, for the first time in my lengthy career someone applied for an editing position and outlined a list of projects they would not work on as part of their application.

I do not think editors must take on anything that crosses their threshold. If a project offends your sense of morality, saying no is a kindness to both you and the client. Yet there is a but to that blanket statement. I do not think the rules are the same when you have agreed to undertake the project, have started editing, and only as you get into the project discover that the project makes you squeamish.

Let’s begin with endorsements. That you have edited a project does not mean you endorse the author or the author’s point of view. Editing a medical text that includes a chapter on euthanasia does not mean you believe or endorse the view that those who are dying should be helped to speed the process. Similarly, just because you edit a book on investing in Zimbabwe does not mean you support Robert Mugabe or because you edit a book on Catholicism that you endorse the Catholic Church over all other religious institutions.

I am an editor. I am hired because of my skill with language. My clients do not ask — and if they did ask, I would not answer — what my religious or political beliefs are. On the other hand, there is nothing illegitimate in a client saying upfront that he would like an active member of the Catholic Church to edit his book about Catholic ritual because such an editor is likely to better understand the content. In such a case, my answer would simply be that I am not the right editor for that book.

Because I am hired for language skills, I should be able to edit anything. Content is not the king, coherence is the king and that does not mean I need to endorse the views of the author; it does mean that I must have the skill to determine whether since and because can by used synonymously in the particular book.

It seems as if I am ignoring the repugnant and saying that an editor must accept repugnant projects. To the contrary, I am saying that before you agree to edit a project, you should freely turn away any project that impinges your sense of right and wrong, insists that you help someone who you would classify as a societal cockroach, demands that you set aside any sense of civilization and embrace barbarity, requires that you deal with language that you used to get your mouth washed with soap for repeating. The key is before you begin editing, you can reject a project for any reason, including because you are a hater of ______ (fill-in the blank with your own discrimination beliefs).

The difficulty arises after you have accepted the project and started editing, especially if you have spent a significant amount of time editing the project. At this juncture, I think your obligations and options have changed. You can no longer make that unilateral decision to not edit; now you need to discuss the project with the client.

At minimum you owe your client an explanation as to why you want to give up on the project. I do not think it is enough to say that “I find the material morally reprehensible.” I think you owe the client a more detailed and nuanced explanation. You need to detail how your distaste affects your editing and how this does the client a disservice. Whether you are entitled to compensation for the work you have already done is also on the table. (Suppose the project is a $5,000 project and the client has already paid you $3,000. Is the client entitled to a refund? Should you offer one?)

Because you want to terminate a client’s business expectation, you probably should have another, equally capable editor already lined up and willing to takeover. I think it is wrong for editor at this stage to simply bow out and not have found or offered to help find a replacement editor. (Let me add a caveat to this: I am speaking of instances where the subject matter is the problem, not the client. If the problem is the client himself and not the subject matter, I do not think you are obligated to find another editor; if the problem is both the client and the subject matter, you need to try to determine whether your distaste for the client is because of a distaste for the subject matter of whether the distaste for the client stands on its own merits. If it is because of the subject matter, then you should find another editor; if it is the client on the client’s own merits, then you should not help find another editor. By the way, all of this presupposes that the client is amenable to releasing your from your agreement to edit his project.

Assuming the client is willing to free you, then it is my belief that you should refund any monies paid you by the client. As we all know, each editor is like her own island; switching editors midstream often means that the new editor starts from the beginning. Consequently, it strikes me that the ethical thing to do is refund payments you have received.

What if the client is unwilling to release you? Now the pot boils over because we are back to the question of whether the problem is the client or the subject matter or both. If the client is otherwise fine and the problem really lies with the subject matter, then I think the editor is obligated to continue editing as agreed. However, in this instance, I would ask the client to acknowledge that he has been asked to release you because you are repulsed by the subject matter, that as a result of his insistence that you continue you will do so as best you can but that you have advised the client that an editor who is not repulsed by the subject matter is likely to do a better editing job. Editing subject matter that is distasteful is difficult but not impossible. I have done it and I am sure many of you have too.

What is impossible, however, is to continue working with a client who you find offensive, ogreish. In this instance it may be unethical to continue editing the project if there is a chance that your dislike of the client will encourage you to make editorial choices that harm the project. In this instance, I would stand my ground and insist on terminating the agreement (and refund any payments I had received).

The difficult situation is where the client and the subject matter may be distasteful. As noted earlier, it is necessary to decide why the client is distasteful. Is it because the client himself is distasteful or because the subject matter encourages you to view the client as distasteful. If because the client is distasteful, then stand your ground; if it is the subject matter that is influencing your opinion, then continue to edit.

If you have strong views about what you are willing to edit and not willing to edit, state what you will do and won’t do on your website or in your initial contact with a potential client. Make clear, for example, that you will not edit books that approve of _________ or disapprove of ________ (fill in the blanks). Be upfront. But remember that once you have agreed to edit a project, it is unethical to unilaterally decide to stop just because you now find the subject matter or the client’s approach to the subject matter distasteful. With ethics, there is no such thing as no fault divorce.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

6 Comments »

  1. […] If you have strong views about what you are willing to edit and not willing to edit, state what you will do and won't do on your website or in your initial contact with a potential client.  […]

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    Pingback by The Ethics of Distaste | Editorial tips and too... — June 10, 2015 @ 4:48 am | Reply

  2. This spells out the dilemma and options for resolution perfectly. Thank you!

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    Comment by Carolyn — June 10, 2015 @ 5:36 am | Reply

  3. I am curious about the comment regarding what happens if you’ve accepted a project and only discover it’s distasteful once you’ve begun editing. I would expect enough information to have been supplied by the writer, questions to have been asked by the editor and preferably the work seen beforehand to be able to tell this work is not for you before you begin. I’ve never had to turn down a project because I found it distasteful. I consider myself broadminded – even more so since becoming an editor – and I’ve worked on many projects that are… ‘out there’. That said, if someone approached me with a book in the horror genre, I would turn it down because even Dr Who gives me nightmares. I would probably turn down any book that contained graphic details of child or animal abuse because I would find it too distressing. In a past job as a contract proofreader, I proofread harrowing accounts by parents of children with terminal illness that had me struggling to read through the tears. I have turned down work that I consider unethical – such as people who ask me to write a thesis or essay for them: “NOPE!”

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    Comment by fullproofreading — June 10, 2015 @ 7:07 am | Reply

    • fullproofreading, I like to review the entire manuscript before agreeing to take on the work, and this is one reason why. I’m grateful to authors who think to say upfront when their topic is likely to be disagreeable to lots of people (e.g., erotica, horror, strong religious works), but I wouldn’t expect them to do so. I like Rich’s recommendation of saying at the beginning and posting on your website the specific topics you won’t edit.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by erinbrenner — June 10, 2015 @ 9:02 am | Reply

  4. […] The Ethics of Distaste (An American Editor) I do not think editors must take on anything that crosses their threshold. If a project offends your sense of morality, saying no is a kindness to both you and the client. Yet there is a but to that blanket statement. I do not think the rules are the same when you have agreed to undertake the project, have started editing, and only as you get into the project discover that the project makes you squeamish. […]

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    Pingback by Apple Watch Perfect Podcasts? Exaggerated Shrinking Book Market? TeleRead: News and views on e-books, libraries, publishing and related topics — June 11, 2015 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  5. “…If you have strong views about what you are willing to edit and not willing to edit, state what you will do and won’t do on your website…” Yes, that is what I have done in the past. However, because some of the material I don’t want to edit concerns a group of people who are actively pursuing such decisions as discriminatory in the courts, I have removed that specific genre from my website and replaced it with a generic, “I reserve the right to decline material at my discretion.” I felt I had to do this to protect myself legally. Thankfully the horror and erotic genre writers aren’t so keen on taking service providers to court, so I’ve left that wording alone. 🙂

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    Comment by Susan Uttendorfsky — June 12, 2015 @ 7:57 am | Reply


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