An American Editor

December 14, 2016

On Ethics: Do Ethics Matter Anymore?

I have discussed ethics on An American Editor in a number of essays (see, e.g., “On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients” [Part I and Part II]; “A Question of Ethics: The Delayed Project Further Delayed”; “A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…”; “The Ethics of Distaste”; “The Ethics of Editing: Padding the Bill”; “The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job”; “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”; and “Ethics in a World of Cheap”), but I am now wondering whether ethics matter.

Editors do not live in isolation, cut off from the world around us — or we shouldn’t. We need to be engaged with our surrounding world because it is our worldly experiences, along with our education and interests, that shape our editing. It would be difficult to provide a quality edit for a book on genocide if we did not know what genocide was and how it has appeared in history. We do not need to be experts in the subject matter, but we need to have some, at least rudimentary, knowledge about the subject matter. Thus we are engaged with our world.

In addition, we are engaged because we are citizens of our world and country. We cannot shut our eyes and pretend that what is happening next door, across the street, around the corner doesn’t have an impact on our own lives. And that is what makes me wonder if I have been wrong all along when I thought that ethics matter, that following an ethical path is important, that ethics is part and parcel of being a professional editor.

What I see around me is a vast change. A pebble was dropped in the ocean and the ripples it created are becoming a tsunami as the wave approaches the other side of the ocean. We have always had unethical members of the editing profession; every profession, every trade, every job type has workers who are ethical and workers who are unethical — except, we hope, for one very specific exception: president of the United States.

It is not that our presidents haven’t been ethically challenged on occasion; they are human and have human failings. It is the striving to be ethical that matters most and I cannot recall or think of a president who I would declare as wholly unethical — until now. Which is why I am concerned.

My reward for being an ethical business person, an ethical editor, is that I have work, I earn a decent wage, I have a place among my colleagues (i.e., they do not shun me for being unethical). And just as I sought to be ethical in my business, I expected others to be ethical in theirs. If they were not ethical, I expected them to not be rewarded for being unethical. Consequently, when we discuss questions of ethics, we discuss them in terms of balancing the scales of right and wrong and how, when we strike that balance, the answer affects not only ourselves but others. That is and has always been the foundation of ethics.

Until the Donald Trump run for and election to the presidency.

Now my world of ethics is being turned upside down. I get work and earn a decent living, but I am not a millionaire, let alone a billionaire, and I have not been rewarded with the power to set editing’s future direction. I am just an everyday schmoe of little influence and relevance.

In contrast, a man who appears to have no ethical boundaries, who doesn’t separate fact from fantasy, who is divisive, who steals from others and calls it business, is rewarded with election to the presidency of the United States and monetary wealth.

Sure I go to sleep at night with a clear conscience, but, I am willing to bet, so does Donald Trump.

So I ask the question: Based on the example of Donald Trump, do ethics matter? Would editors be better served to ignore questions of ethics and do whatever it takes or they can get away with? For example, instead of checking references, should the editor just style them and not care whether the cite information is correct, even though the agreement with the client is for the editor to check references for accuracy? Think of how much time and effort could be saved — time that could be spent on other, perhaps more profitable, pursuits.

When we discuss our fee and what it includes with an author, should we justify our fee by mentioning services that we will not really perform? Had you asked me on November 1, I would have said doing so was highly unethical and no, we should not only not do so but we shouldn’t even think about doing so. But today I waver.

I do not waver for myself; I know what path I will follow — the same path I always have. I waver on the question of whether or not ethics matter today. Does anyone expect ethicality? If we are willing to elect someone who wholly lacks an ethical and moral compass to lead us, why should we expect more of those who work beside us or for us?

I recognize that matters of ethics are personal. Each of us will choose our own path, just as we did on November 1. None of that is likely to change. What is changing — or, perhaps, has already changed — is the community compulsion to be ethical, however ethicality is individually defined. We are ethical because of personal traits and because of peer pressure. It is like stopping for a red light. We stop because of peer pressure and our desire to conform to community standards. (Yes, I recognize that there are laws, but laws are simply written expressions of community standards. They are written so that all community members can know them. But no law is enforceable in the absence of our personal beliefs, peer pressure, and community acceptance of the law.)

We are entering what is being called the “posttruth age,” a time when truth is whatever someone declares it to be. I think it might be better labeled the Trumpian Fantasy Age. It is an age when ethics are mutable, when ethics flow in all directions simultaneously, when ethics and honesty take a back seat to enrichment and fantasy. While the effect may be minimal on the current generation of editors, what will the effect be on future generations? Will anyone ask, will anyone care, whether a particular action is ethical? Does the future of editing lie in an ungoverned, undisciplined editing profession?

Has the political world of 2016 so upended the community’s moral compass that anarchy looks as if it is disciplined? Do ethics matter anymore?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 18, 2016

The Zen of Editing: Tales of the Pen Master

by Jack Lyon

If you’ve ever read much about Zen Buddhism, you’re probably aware of its strange but wonderful stories of masters, monks, and enlightenment. Here is an example:

The Emperor asked Zen Master Gudo, “What happens to a man of enlightenment after death?”

“How should I know?” replied Gudo.

“Because you are a master,” answered the Emperor.

“Yes,” Gudo said, “but not a dead one.”

In that spirit, here are some tales not of the Zen master but rather of the Pen master, whose job is to open the minds of editors everywhere. As is usual in Zen tradition, each story is followed by enlightened commentary.

Following the Precepts

An assistant editor went before the Pen master, saying, “Lo, these many years I have faithfully followed the precepts in Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style. Why am I not yet enlightened?”

“Because,” said the master, “you have faithfully followed the precepts in Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style.”

In true Zen spirit, this story illustrates the importance of following the rules and not following the rules. Editors have “rules” for an important reason — to make sure that the author’s intended meaning is clearly communicated to readers in a consistent, coherent way. But blindly following the “rules” can also result in miscommunication. That is why, since its initial publication in 1906, The Chicago Manual of Style has included the following disclaimer: “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

Editing Is More Than Mechanics

One day the Pen master was passing an assistant’s cubicle.

“Oh, master,” said the assistant, “I’m so glad you came by. Look at this wonderful new editing software. It flags incomplete sentences, finds dangling modifiers, and much more. With this software, the manuscript practically edits itself!”

“Interesting,” said the master. “How does it know when a paragraph should be deleted?”

Editing is not simply a matter of mechanics; if it were, a computer could do it. Fortunately for editors, a human mind is required. At the Editorium, I create and sell Microsoft Word add-ins to help editors do their work. These add-ins, to some degree, automate parts of the editing process. But in the end, cognitive judgment is needed to decide which parts should be automated and which should not, and if any of the automated parts should in some cases be overridden. In addition, there are many parts of the process that simply cannot be automated. Language is complex and subtle, and something as small as a misplaced comma can literally make the difference between life and death (as in a medical journal).

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

An assistant editor was reading a manuscript that had already been gone over by the Pen master. To her surprise, the manuscript contained not a single correction.

Questioning the master about this, the assistant remarked, “You said you had edited this manuscript, but it contains no corrections at all.”

“Nevertheless,” said the master, “now that I’m finished with it, the manuscript is perfect.”

What if you went completely through a manuscript without making a single correction, because, as far as you could tell, no corrections were needed? Would you have done your job? I believe that you would have. An editor’s job is not to make corrections; an editor’s job is to make sure the writing is clear, and if it is, no corrections are needed. Of course, in real life, that is probably never the case. But it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Something Is Always Broke

An assistant brought a new book, hot off the press, to the Pen master. “Master, look!” she said. “The book is beautiful! The cover is bright and attractive, the marketing copy is appealing, the typography is excellent. Surely this is the finest book we have ever published.”

The master opened the book to a random page. “Read the first line,” he said.

“‘When this matter came to the attention of the pubic …’”

These are the things that haunt our lives. I started my publishing career as a proofreader at a university press. On prominent display in our office was a book on whose cover the title had been misspelled — a reminder of the need for constant vigilance on every part of the book during every part of the publishing process. At a later job, thousands of copies of a publication ended up being shredded because of a photograph that should not have been included. So pay attention! As a famous Zen story (a real one) teaches:

A student said to Master Ichu, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.”

Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.”

The student said, “Is that all?”

The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.”

The student became irritable. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.”

In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word attention mean?”

Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.”

(Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen. [New York: HarperCollins, 1993], 168.)

Editing Reveals Meaning

After receiving his edited manuscript for review, the author was furious. “How dare you!” he said to the Pen master. “This manuscript is covered with corrections.”

“You must not look at the corrections,” said the master. “You must look at the meaning behind the corrections.”

Here we have the opposite case from the one above, where nearly everything needs fixing. Again, however, the process is not about correcting “errors”; the process is about making sure that the author is clear — and not just to the reader. An editor is not out of place to say to an author, “You seem to be saying this, but what I think you really mean is this. Is that right?” It’s all about meaning.

It is not the editor’s place, however, to add meaning, to “improve” the author’s ideas. Editors who feel the need to do so should write their own books.

Context Matters

An editor and a designer were arguing about which was more important, layout or words.

“The layout is finished,” said the designer. “You’ll need to edit the wording to fit.”

“The editing is finished,” said the editor. “You’ll need to change the design to accommodate.”

Finally, they took their argument before the Pen master, who looked at them severely. “What matters is neither the design nor the words,” he said. “What matters is the meaning.”

“And how does one know the meaning?” asked the editor.

“By looking at the design and the words.”

And this is what makes publishing so interesting — and so difficult. The meaning of a word or a sentence or a paragraph always depends on what’s going on around it. Ideas are not fixed; as we change the words or design of a publication, meanings change too, so we must be constantly on our guard.

A student once asked Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, “Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?” His reply was spontaneous and profound: “Everything changes.” (David Chadwick, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki [New York: Broadway Books, 1999], xii.)

Here’s another of my Pen Master stories that illustrates the same principle:

One day an assistant came to the Pen master for help with an awkward sentence.

“No matter what I do, I can’t seem to fix this sentence,” he said. “If I delete a word, the sentence no longer makes sense. If I add a word, the sentence seems bloated.”

“If fixing the sentence doesn’t fix it,” the master replied, “perhaps it doesn’t need fixing.”

The next day, the assistant came to the Pen master for help with another awkward sentence.

“Again,” he said, “I can’t seem to fix this sentence. If I delete a word, the sentence no longer makes sense. If I add a word, the sentence seems bloated.”

The master picked up his pen and deleted the sentence entirely. “There,” he said. “Now the fixing is fixed.”

The following day, after a sleepless night, the assistant came again to the Pen master.

“The first day, you said the sentence didn’t need fixing. The next day, you simply deleted the sentence. How does one know when to fix, when to stet, and when to delete?”

The master looked at him shrewdly. “It doesn’t depend on the sentence; it depends on the sentences around it.”

Thinking to outwit the master, the assistant replied, “And what if there are no sentences around it? Then how does one know what to do?”

The master gave a great sigh. “One doesn’t,” he said.

Sometimes It Doesn’t Matter

An assistant came to the Pen master for advice about reconciling proofs.

“One proofreader fixes an error one way; another fixes the error another way,” said the assistant. “Which way is right?”

“Neither is right; neither is wrong,” said the master. “What matters is that the error was fixed.”

Editors sometimes argue about the “right” way to fix something. But in the end, it may not matter as long as the meaning is clear. There are other considerations, of course, such as elegance, euphony, and even beauty. But these are in the realm of enlightenment beyond enlightenment.

What Is Perfection?

An author brought her manuscript to the Pen master. “This new book is my masterpiece,” she said. “It needs no editing at all; it is perfect just as it is.”

“Truly the book in your mind is perfect,” said the master. “But this is not the book in your mind.”

The real job of an editor is to capture what an author means to say and convey that meaning intact into the mind of the reader. This, of course, is impossible in reality, but that doesn’t keep us from trying, and sometimes we may come close. As the Zen masters say, “Practice itself is enlightenment.”

Subhuti was Buddha’s disciple. He was able to understand the potency of emptiness, the viewpoint that nothing exists except in its relationship of subjectivity and objectivity.

One day Subhuti, in a mood of sublime emptiness, was sitting under a tree. Flowers began to fall about him.

“We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness,” the gods whispered to him.

“But I have not spoken of emptiness,” said Subhuti.

“You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness,” responded the gods. “This is true emptiness.” And blossoms showered upon Subhuti as rain.

(Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, comps., Zen Flesh, Zen Bones [Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1985], 53.)

Jack Lyon ( owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals, Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

January 6, 2016

Should Editors Give Trigger Warnings?

I was catching up with some reading of magazines I haven’t had time to get to (for months), when I came across an article on trigger warnings at the university level (“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, September 2015, pp. 42-52). I am surprised at how different the expectations are today on a college campus than when I attended college 50 years ago.

One example given in the article was a demand by some law school students that “professors at Harvard not […] teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in ‘that violates the law’) lest it cause students distress” (p. 44). Having gone to law school myself, I wondered how that would work. How could a professor ignore the subject of rape or abuse (spousal or child) in a class on, for example, criminal law, criminal procedure, or constitutional law? How will these future attorneys make it in the real-world practice of law where “violates” is a commonly used word? And what about their clients? How well would a rape victim (or a rapist) be served by a lawyer who doesn’t acknowledge the word rape?

But that got me thinking about editing. Not once in my 32 years of editing have I given a warning at the beginning of a manuscript. Have I been remiss? Have I neglected to take into account the sensibilities or sensitivities of my client or my client’s author?

Of course, I also have never received a warning that the manuscript contains explicit descriptions of things that would not make for everyday conversation in “polite” society. Have my clients or my clients’ authors been remiss by not warning me of the horrors to come should I proceed with editing their manuscript?

I am currently editing a book that requires a heavy editing hand, just the opposite of what I was told when I was hired (“It only needs a very light edit.”). Should I put a warning at the beginning of each chapter, one that says:

WARNING! Read the edited version of this chapter with caution. You may be offended by the number and type of queries added and corrections made to your manuscript. They might cause you undue stress, especially if you perceive it as an attack on your language skills rather than an attempt to help you improve your manuscript.

Okay, perhaps the warning needs a little work but the idea is conveyed. What if a person needs to be warned about literature?

WARNING: William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains blatant anti-Semitic text that may offend you. As this text is foundational to this course on works by Shakespeare, perhaps you should consider taking a different, potentially less-offending course.

Or a about a book that focuses on a genre of literature?

WARNING: In this book on 19th-century American literature of the South, words that are politically incorrect today and that might remind you of slavery and/or second-class status are common. If such words deeply offend you, perhaps you should consider reading a different, potentially less-offending book.

Or about the contents of a book discussing history?

WARNING: Since the beginning of recorded history, slavery has been a prominent part of history. Consequently, slavery is discussed in this book. If a discussion of slavery deeply offends you, perhaps you should consider reading a different, potentially less-offending book.

Perhaps, then, editors need to warn clients that the perfect manuscript the client submitted was found to be imperfect, so the client should be prepared to deal with the stress that the discovered imperfections may cause.

Then, again, perhaps clients owe editors a warning that editing a manuscript may be stressful.

I understand that the traumas some people have experienced are such that reliving those traumas can be exceedingly painful and that some subjects trigger that reexperiencing. The goal of trigger warnings is commendable; I just wonder how well those who require trigger warnings to deal with life on the college campus will be able to deal with work life after college, when the shelter college affords is no longer available.

I also wonder where the line is drawn. Are we not to talk about the Holocaust because it may trigger anxiety in someone who lost much of their family in the concentration camps? Do we not mention the Vietnam War because it may trigger posttraumatic stress disorder in a Vietnam veteran? Do we not discuss the march on Selma because it may trigger severe stress in someone by reminding them of the Ferguson events? Are we not to mention President Obama because it may cause severe stress in an ultraconservative Republican?

I know there are defenders of trigger warnings (see the comments to Trigger Warning: This Essay May Cause Mental Disturbance), but no one has yet defined the boundary beyond which trigger warnings need not be given. In addition, the argument always seems to be one-sided and focused on offering protection to the person that might be offended and ignoring everyone else. Yet the movement grows.

An article by Rani Neutill, “My trigger-warning disaster: ‘9 1/2 Weeks,’ ‘The Wire’ and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong,” (Salon, October 28, 2015), and the video of a HuffPost Live discussion at the end of the article are worth reading and watching.

In the end, however, the question remains: Should I offer the trigger warning about the editing or not? For now my answer is no, but if the trigger-warning movement keeps its momentum, the trigger warning will become a necessary tool in the editor’s toolkit because the future generation of authors will have grown up in an academic environment where such warnings were routinely given and so they will expect them everywhere, including on edited versions of their manuscript.

The question will be this: Will these new authors give warnings to editors that their manuscript might be poorly written and stressful to edit, or that it contains such potentially distasteful and stress-causing things as putting milk and sugar in tea or an allusion to sex between bees?

Richard Adin, An American Editor


October 14, 2015

A Question of Ethics: The Delayed Project Further Delayed

Over the years, one of the things that has concerned editors is the “problem” of overbooking that results in project schedules overlapping. In comments to my essay, A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…, the following question scenario was posed:

Where it becomes more complex ethically is if the responsibility for the overrun is shared. For example, a client doesn’t send critical papers on time, so the editor takes another job to avoid being idle but misjudges their schedule. Part of the overrun is due to the editor taking too much work, but wouldn’t have happened at all if the client hadn’t delayed. As with you, I think ethically the editor owes some discount but working out how much is another issue. (Dave Higgins, October 5, 2015)

Missing from the scenario are several important pieces of information:

  • Did the editor advise the client that because of the anticipated delay in the client’s producing the required material, the editor was going to accept other work that might cause a schedule conflict?
  • Did the editor inquire as to how much of a delay the client anticipated?
  • When the editor contracted for the project, was the editor aware of the potential for delay? If yes, did the editor advise the client at that time that if there was a delay, the editor would take on other editing work rather than sit idle?
  • How well did the editor evaluate the new waiting-period project in terms of schedule and difficulty?
  • How much of a delay will result to the original client’s project?

There may be additional bits of information that would be useful in analyzing the scenario, but the outlined ones are sufficient for our purposes.

A good habit to have

I know I have said and written this so many times that you are probably tired of hearing/reading it, but here it comes again: I am a business. I run a professional business. I am not an editorial hobbyist. Remembering this is important. Using it as a guide to my conduct is also important.

When I speak with clients or potential clients, I make it clear that providing editorial services is my full-time occupation; that I am a professional, not amateur or hobbyist, editor; and that I am running a business. I repeat this often because it is the foundation for my responses to myriad situations that arise in my editorial business.

It is an important foundation for resolving the scenario presented. When I agree to take on a project and a schedule is mutually agreed upon, I emphasize to my client that should there be a delay in the client’s delivery of needed and requested information or material, the schedule will be extended appropriately. Furthermore, and this is the critical part for the scenario under discussion, if the anticipated delay is longer than a few days, I will move on to my next scheduled project whose deadline I need to meet and will return to the delaying client’s project as I can. I make it very clear that I have work scheduled to start immediately after I complete the current client’s project as originally scheduled — there is no “free” time available to accommodate client-side delays.

Advising clients that your editing schedule has little flexibility is a good habit to get into. First, it signals your expectation that just as the client will expect you to meet the agreed-upon deadline, so, too, will you expect the client to timely fulfill its agreed-to obligations. Second, it signals that your services are in demand, that you are a professional whose time is valuable both to you and to clients. Third, it provides you with the means to justify taking on additional work while waiting for the client to fulfill its obligations. Fourth, the client has had fair warning of the effects of client delay and thus you are not obligated — neither ethically nor from a customer relations point of view — to provide a discount on my services.

But what if I don’t have the habit?

If I were an editor who didn’t habitually advise clients that I cannot sit idly by waiting for material that may never appear, then I need to consider additional pieces of information.

What (and when) did the editor advise the client?

When an editor learns from a client that there will be a delay, the editor should try to ascertain the expected length of the delay. It matters whether we are talking a day or two or weeks. In the case of a short delay (and what constitutes a “short” delay we each need to define for ourselves), I am of the opinion that the editor should not take on another project; instead, the editor should give a reasonable deadline (another length of time that we each need to define for our own business) by which the editor must receive the material or the editor will start another project. In this case, the editor needs to also explicitly state to the client that schedules are likely to overlap and that the new project will take precedence over the delayed project. The editor needs to do this immediately upon learning of the delay; the editor should not wait in the hope that the delay will be minimal. If the editor does this, then I do not think any discount is owed the client for not meeting the client’s schedule.

Could delays have been anticipated when the editor agreed to the project?

Experienced editors know that some projects are ripe for schedule delays, especially multiauthor projects. If the potential for delay existed at the time of contracting, then it was the editor’s responsibility to advise the client at that point in time of what the editor will do when the delay is encountered. It is also the time to come to an agreement as to what will constitute a “lengthy” delay that would free the editor to move to another project and make that project the primary project.

Where the editor has tackled the problem at the time of contracting, I think no discount is owed to the client as a result of the editor having taken on another project. Unfortunately, many editors do not have sufficient experience or insight to see the potential for delay and address it upfront; they tackle the problem when it arises. In this case, the editor may owe the client a discount; whether the editor does or does not depends on additional information, such as what was discussed above under “What (and when) did the editor advise the client?”

The new project & the overlapping schedules

When the editor decides to take on the second project while waiting for the delayed materials to appear, how well the editor evaluated the new project is important, I think, in determining whether the editor owes the delay client a discount.

When I tell a delay client I have to move on to another project, I also tell the client when I will be able to return to their project. I also indicate whether I think I will be able to do any work at all on their project while I am working on the new project. The date I give is a semifirm date; that is, I tell the client I can return to their project on X date, give or take a day or two.

I also reexplain to the client what constitutes an editing workweek. I do this because I have found that delay clients — like all clients — assume that because I am a freelance editor I work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year when I have work. (That’s really two assumptions, the second being that there are days or weeks when I do not have work. Unless educated otherwise, clients tend not to think of freelance editing as a “full-time real job” like their jobs.) I reinforce the editing workweek idea to nip in the bud the expectation that I will work extralong days and weekends so as not to disrupt the client’s schedule. I also want to reinforce the notion that those hours and days can be worked but for a premium price, not at the regular price.

I am able to give the semifirm date because after 31 years of evaluating manuscripts, I have a pretty good idea of how long a project will take. If I have made the commitment but miscalculated, I entertain giving the delay client a discount. The discount amount varies and is based on whether I think I can make up the miscalculated time.

The snowball effect

The problem with schedules is that failing to meet them usually has a snowball effect. If editing is not done on time, then authors don’t finish their review on time, which means typesetting is delayed, which means printing is delayed, and so on. The question then becomes: Who should bear responsibility?

I think a sense of professional ethics and responsibility resolves as follows:

  • When the client fails to deliver on time, the snowball effects, which affect the client and not the editor, are chargeable to the client — no editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor takes on a wait-time project and has properly prepared and notified the delay client, the snowball effects are chargeable to the client — no editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor hasn’t properly prepared and notified the client, the snowball effects are chargeable to the editor — a small editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor has miscalculated the time needed to complete the wait-time project, the snowball effects are chargeable to the editor — a larger editor’s discount is warranted.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Some related An American Editor essays that may be of interest:

October 5, 2015

A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…

The Background

A project I recently completed was originally scheduled to be done by August 31 — a 4-week schedule; it ended, instead, 3 weeks later. The price I quoted was based on the short schedule that the August 31 must-meet date represented. (For this particular project, a 4-week schedule was quite tight.)

The delay in completing the project was caused by delays in the client delivering the manuscript to me. The delays were such that it seemed as if nothing was going right with the project. For example, references were called out in the text using the author-date system, with all of the references appearing in a bibliography at the end of the manuscript, not in each chapter. Although I requested the references early in the process, I didn’t receive them until a few days before the absolute final extended due date. Consequently, the editor had no opportunity to check whether the bibliography actually contained all of the cites called out in the text or if there were references cited in the bibliography that were not called out in the text.

A fundamental part of editing is to check the references to make sure that all that are called out are cited in the bibliography/reference list and to identify any that are cited in the bibliography/reference list but not called out in the text. When the client insisted that I return the edited references on a particular date, I pointed out that to do so meant the editor could not check callouts against cites; all the editor could do was look for missing information in the cites, try to locate that missing information, and style the cites.

Because callout–cite checking is fundamental to editing, I required the client to explicitly direct us to not do the checking, which the client did. As the client noted, it was not our fault that there was no time left to do the job. I replied to the client, “It is not a problem from our end. We do the job you want as best we can within the limits you impose.”

The Questions

At least three questions arise out of these circumstances, each raising ethical issues:

  1. In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the client is late delivering the files, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided?
  2. In the case where the client instructs you to not perform a service that is normally included because the you misjudged the time needed to edit the manuscript and so are now late in delivering the manuscript to the client, should the fee be reduced by the value of the service not provided at the client’s instruction?
  3. Does the answer to either of the previous questions depend on whether the editor is charging by the page, by the project, or by the hour?

The client delivers late

In the first scenario (client is late deliverer), I think the editor has no ethical duty to reduce the fee. The editor is willing to perform the service if given the necessary time to do so. That the client has schedule constraints that do not permit the editor to perform the service is outside the control of the editor. The decision for the editor to not cross-check the cites was made by the same party that was late in providing the material, which is outside the editor’s control.

However, the basis for the billing does affect the amount to be charged. If the editor is billing by the page or the project, the invoiced amount should be the same regardless of whether or not the cite cross-checking was performed. But if the editor is charging by the hour, the invoice should not include a sum for time that would have been spent doing the cross-checking but for the client stopping the cross-checking. It would be unethical for the editor to bill for time that was not actually spent because the basis of the hourly charge is that the editor gets paid for hours worked.

Some commentators would argue that the billing method is irrelevant because all billing methods are based on time; that when an editor sets a per-page rate or a project-fee rate, part of the editor’s calculation is based on an estimate of the time it is expected the work will require. This is one of the elements of creating a quote (see The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote).

I agree that every price calculation method contains a time-expected-to-spend-editing component, but there is a significant difference between hourly-based and per-page– and project-fee–based projects. With per-page– and project-fee–based projects, the expectation of the amount the editor is to be paid is set based on a factor other than time; that is, it does not matter whether the editor completes the project in 20 hours but took 50 hours nor does it matter what the editor’s or client’s time expectation was — the fee is not time dependent, it changes only if there is a change in some other factor other than time (e.g., if the page count changes). In contrast, with an hourly-based fee the amount to be paid rises and falls based solely on the number of hours the editor spends editing; that is, unlike with per-page and project-based fees, the final hourly-based fee is not calculable until the project is complete.

The editor miscalculated the time needed

In the case of the second scenario (the editor is taking longer than expected to edit), I think the client is entitled to a reduction in the fee, even though it is the client who instructs the editor to not perform the service. In this instance, the editor knows the schedule that binds the client and that must be met. It is the editor who is late as a result of matters that are within the editor’s control. It is the editor who miscalculated and now jeopardizes the client’s schedule.

The reason for the fee reduction is that the agreed-upon price included the service that is now not to be performed and the reason it is not to be performed is because of the editor’s miscalculation, not because of anything the client has done. It is, in my view, unethical for an editor to be paid for work not performed at the fault of the editor. If there were no reduction in fee, the editor would be rewarded for not adhering to the bargain the editor’s made.

Here, also, the manner of calculating the fee affects the reduction. If the editor is charging by the hour, then no specific fee reduction is required because the client will not be billed for work not performed (i.e., hours spent editing). Only when the billing is per-page or project-fee based does there need to be a reduction in the set fee. How much of a reduction depends on the value of the service and whether the client will need to secure the service elsewhere. This is a matter of negotiation. But it is the to the editor’s advantage to initiate the reduction rather than wait for the client to raise the question or, perhaps more troublesome for the editor, for the client to not say anything but decide not to use the editor in the future.

A Question of Ethics

It is not unusual for an editor to ask on a forum whether a fee should be reduced or partially refunded. I do not consider the sense of ethics that governs my business to be a question of group ethics or group decision making; rather, I see it as a sense of my personal moral code, a sense of what I view as right and wrong. What does it matter whether 99 out of 100 editors would not issue a refund if I think one is warranted? That I would even ask the question is, to me, an indication that I think the client is entitled to some refund.

Ethics is a matter of taking the moral high road, of trying to seek a fairness balance, a balance of right and wrong.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 9, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Mastering Subjectivity

by Carolyn Haley

An earlier essay on this blog, “The Ethics of Distaste,” focused on the professional aspects of editing distasteful material. The following essay supplements the ethics discussion by focusing on a manuscript editor’s emotional challenge that may occur behind the scenes. Although this essay’s context is fiction, some of its ideas and techniques apply, as well, to nonfiction editing.

The Personal Dilemma of Distaste

What makes a novel distasteful to you personally could be anything: incoherent writing, a repellent subject, plots or characters so ludicrous or undeveloped that the book is painful to read — all or none of the above. Even if you handle the business side of a distasteful novel with impeccable professionalism, there remains the head–heart strife that comes from getting stuck with something you should turn down but can’t afford to, or ethically back out of once committed. That stress, unmanaged, can undermine the quality of your editing, which, in turn, could lead to client payment problems for independent editors, employment repercussions for staff editors, or reputation damage for both. The stress might possibly damage your health, too, from fighting against yourself internally.

What to Do?

When burdened with a distasteful novel, you as editor must make mental and emotional adjustments to deal with it successfully. The first step is to rationalize what the book really is, and the second is to take time for some do-it-yourself training and therapy.


Novel writing is an art form: a literary art, like poetry, scripts, or short stories; a sister art to painting, sculpture, music, dance, and theater. People compelled to create art have different mindsets than those who evaluate their work. Creative compulsion is often inarticulate, driven by emotion. A novel’s purpose is to create an emotional experience for readers through story (as compared to nonfiction, whose purpose is to inform).

A fiction editor’s role is to help authors express their vision as coherently as possible to the audience most inclined to value it. Developmental editors have the best opportunity to untangle gnarly books and make them shine, but line editors and copy editors enter the process after content decisions have been made. They can only address mechanical elements and make a lot of queries. All editing tasks are much easier to embrace when you fathom the subjectivity of art, and remember that a fiction editor’s job is to help actualize art in the form of a novel.

Distasteful novels will keep many of us employed for years to come. Today we are seeing a growing number of authors who don’t write well and never will. Although almost everyone in the industrialized nations can read and write, they’re not all being trained in basic composition or required to study classic literature. Fewer and fewer take courses in creative writing or have workplace mentors disciplining their prose. Yet more and more have the tools and freedom to easily express themselves, adding to the distasteful-novel parade through editors’ hands.


If your tolerance for distasteful novels has worn thin, or your art appreciation has gone stale, then it’s time to reprogram your emotional response. That starts with physically altering your perspective.

For example, step outside literature and walk through an art museum, a gallery, or an arts-and-crafts fair. Look at every piece and assess how you feel about it, what you’re willing to spend money on. Surely you will pass by most of the offerings then stop when something catches your eye or heart. You’ll note that most pieces are produced with mediocre to extraordinary skill, and reveal an astonishing range of imagination.

You’ll see people cheerfully buying paintings you wouldn’t dream of hanging on your walls, while those you consider masterpieces are left behind. At the same time, you may be tempted by something to blow your budget on and enjoy in your own home for the rest of your life.

Try the same exercise in the other arts. Attend, in any combination, a play, a ballet, a Broadway show, a child’s musical recital, a rock concert, a symphony, a folk festival, an open mic session at a coffee house poetry night. Alternatively, close your eyes and select a DVD off the shelf from three or more categories and periods, then play them back to back. What’s your reaction to each?

Perhaps watch a TV show such as NBC’s The Voice, which is a singing competition that parallels a novelist’s apprenticeship from raw talent to star performer. The show displays what an artist goes through to become competent and accepted, and how helpless they are against other people’s tastes and opinions— or boosted along by them.

Then visit a bookstore. Allow yourself to be amazed by the total number of volumes on the shelves. Wander through each fiction section and peruse a few titles, observing how different each is from the next in subject and style, and how widely they range in quality. Watch what people bring to the cash register, and count how often their choices differ from yours.

Then go back to the distasteful novel on your desk.

New Eyes

The book hasn’t changed; it may still be off-putting gobbledygook. But you’ve been colorfully reminded that it wasn’t written for you, and your job is to help it along its path to reaching others. Now you can see it as a project begging for a stronger application of craft; a story struggling to get free; an object needing refinement. Now you can roll up your sleeves and tackle its language with all your skill. When the process is over, the result will be a better novel. Maybe it will even be great.

Maybe not, but what happens after you deliver the manuscript is outside your control. Although your soul may agonize over the book’s imperfections, your professional duty is to deliver what you were hired to do. As part of that, you’re obliged to establish mutual understanding of expectations with your client or employer so all parties, especially the author, are pleased with your contribution. Bottom line: Your job is to improve the book within employment parameters, not to guarantee its publication or success.

The onus for that falls on other parties. A book’s fate depends on how far an author is willing or able to go in upgrading their work, combined with where and how they choose to expose it. Success or failure depends on the following, singly or in combination:

  • an acquiring editor’s taste in novels or directive to find what the house seeks for publication;
  • an agent’s sense of what is likely to sell within the categories they serve, and who they try to place the work with;
  • a contest judge’s pile of manuscripts, time available to review them, and mood of the day;
  • the self-publishing venue a book is released through;
  • any marketing and promotion done for the book, and reviews it receives;
  • ultimately, readers’ moods, tastes, and where they shop.

These all fall beyond the scope of work for editors who handle manuscripts prior to submission. Ironically, a book’s success may come down to how well an editor managed the project: how enthusiastically she greeted the story, how seriously she took it, how supportive she was to the author, how lightly or heavily she touched the text, how conscious she was of reader viewpoint.


If you can’t unplug your subjectivity, and your desire to influence what enters the marketplace still burns, then reorient your career. Acquisitions and managing editors have the power to accept or reject, as do literary agents. Developmental editors have much more hands-on opportunity to direct a manuscript’s course than do line and copy editors. Alternatively, you can volunteer to judge writing contests in your free time, or become a book reviewer so you can publicly proclaim your opinion.

Regardless, increase your exposure to all the arts so you can better appreciate their variety and impact on other people’s lives. Then support what you think deserves success by spending your own dollars on it. Earn your next dollars by welcoming each manuscript as a challenge to your own creativity; a puzzle, perhaps, to solve within tight rules. Approaching editing distasteful novels this way eases frustration and revives the joy and marvel of being paid to read stories.

Accepting and Moving On

By accepting the editorial bottom line — improving the work within employment parameters — we can free ourselves from the downside of distasteful novels. The upside comes from regarding our job as helping literary artists achieve their dreams and touch other lives through their creative work. Even novels we consider distasteful may go on to great sales and acclaim, win awards, snag lucrative movie deals. They may build the foundation for long and prolific writing careers. We can help that happen by cultivating a pro-author, art-loving attitude.

The key is to remember that all novelists have to start somewhere, and each is at a different point on a journey. Understanding that our personal taste must sometimes be put aside releases us to edit darn near any fiction manuscript and help authors advance toward their goals.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

August 10, 2015

On the Basics: Step Away from that Project — Professionally and with Class

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The Background

Ten years ago, the three-person team responsible for editing an association newsletter quit for reasons never explained, with no notice, and without providing any material for a successor — no formatting or style information, no backlog of unused material, no contact information for vendors or past contributors; nada. The organization’s board of directors was gobsmacked, to quote our British colleagues.

That was a textbook example of how not to step away from a project, client, or job. No matter how badly you’re treated or how much you hate the project (and it was never clear that there was a reason for that team’s move), it’s always smart to take the high road on leaving. That even goes for being laid off or fired. You never know when such behavior will come up in a future workplace, freelance, or volunteer setting. You don’t want to be known as the unprofessional, even childish, person who took her toys and went home in a huff, leaving everyone at a loss in her wake. You want to be remembered as someone who behaved in a professional manner that made the transition smooth for your successor.

I stepped up to take on editing that publication and kept it rolling for more than 10 years. When I was ready to let it go and give someone new a chance at the editor’s role, I was reminded of how I came into the project. I also remembered starting a couple of new in-house jobs and feeling somewhat at sea because a predecessor didn’t provide much of a roadmap for what to do and how. I was determined to handle this transition very differently from my predecessors. I felt that I owed that to myself as a professional, but also to the organization and to whoever was next to serve as editor — perhaps most to my successor.

6 Tips

Here are a few of my tips on how to hand off a project gracefully and professionally.

  • Give decent notice. That seems obvious, but it can be tempting to throw a hissy fit and just walk off the job if it has become onerous or unpleasant. Professionals, though, don’t do that unless there’s genuine provocation, and sometimes not even then. Publications and projects don’t run themselves, and it can take time to find a replacement. The standard is usually two weeks, but it might be smart to give a month’s notice, especially if the publication or project you handle is on a monthly publishing schedule. Take the high road, be the better person, and give the employer, sponsoring organization, or client a chance to find a replacement before you leave.
  • Put it in writing. Create or update a job description that details what your replacement will be expected to do, when, how, and with whom. There might have been one when you started the job or assignment, but you may have put your own stamp on the role or taken on additional responsibilities, so add those details to the original description. In many instances, especially for freelance projects, there is no job description. Providing one will make it easier for the client or employer to find an appropriate replacement and for your successor to handle the work.
  • Help a replacement out. Some may say that this is more appropriate for a volunteer project than a paid one, but I think it’s a good idea to provide as much information as possible about the publication or project, from the preferred or house style manual to the look of the book, whether you’re an in-house employee, a freelancer, or a volunteer. I know I appreciate that kind of information when I begin a new project. Prepare a list of relevant details: publishing schedule and deadlines; programs or applications used; formatting — typefaces and sizes; columns numbers and widths; character styles (headlines and subheads, body text, captions, indents, bullets, etc.); vendor roles, names, and contact information; contributors for writing, artwork, and any other roles; budget details if that is part of your responsibility. Have at least a couple of unused articles in place to hand over so the new person doesn’t have to start with a totally empty quiver of material. A new person might want to do a wholesale redesign of that newsletter or magazine that you’ve loved editing, and may want to use all new contributors and freelancers, but probably will need to know how to put together at least one first issue based on the current version. (This might seem like a lot to do to help out a replacement, but it can also be seen as an organizing function for oneself.)
  • Offer insights. Don’t be a gossip and don’t badmouth colleagues, but — if appropriate — let your replacement know something about the hierarchy of the organization; most importantly, any chain of approvals and command to follow, along with who is likely to be the most helpful to a newcomer. If a client or supervisor has certain unpredictable quirks, consider sharing that information informally. For instance, new editor or freelancer might think that “due on Monday” means they have until 5 p.m. to finish an assignment or prepare material for collegial review, but the client or supervisor might be expecting it at 9 a.m. that day.
  • Suggest a successor. If you know someone in or outside the organization who would be your ideal replacement, recommend that person. You’ll do a favor to both the organization and the individual, and they’ll remember it. This is especially important if you’re a freelancer and decide to leave a project for some reason. Good freelancers can be harder to find than good employees.
  • Be available. Let your contact, supervisor, or colleague know how to reach you in the case there are questions that only you can answer. You won’t want to be taken advantage of once you’re out the door by spending a lot of time on helping out the organization or your replacement, but you do want — again — to leave with the image of someone who is professional, responsible, and helpful. Within reason, of course.

What else have you done, or wished someone had done for you, to make a professional exit from a project or position?

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.

June 17, 2015

I Can Say It Better

A constant question among professional editors is “What is the editor’s role?” There are lots of aspects to this question, but one that has recently made the rounds is this:

Is it the editor’s role to say it better if how it is already said is understandable, clear, accurate, not misleading — that is, imperfect but…?

I have pondered this question many times over my 31 years as a professional editor, yet it has come home to roost once again in recent weeks. Editors have been asking on different forums whether something the author has written (said) can be rewritten (resaid) in a better way. Sometimes it is clear that a restating would be greatly beneficial; other times I wonder why resay what the author has already adequately said.

What the author has written may not be the best way to say something but if we accept that clarity is the key editing job, then the second best way to say something, if it is the author’s way, should be sufficient. Too many editors believe they must make changes to justify their fee, and that is wrong. Have you never come across a chapter that is sufficiently well written as to need no editing? I have and in those cases I send the author a note saying how well written the chapter is and that I saw no sense in substituting my word choice for her word choice when her choice did the job.

This will, to some editors, fall under the rubric of “do no harm.” But it isn’t harm about which we are speaking. Rather, it is seeing an adequate choice that could be made better but still not so memorable that it will be repeated decades later by an adoring public (the “Ask not what your country…” and the “I have a dream…” type of alterations where the mundane becomes the unforgettable) and deciding to leave it as is.

The idea that “I can say it better” and should do so for the client is a flawed notion of our skills and our role as editor. First, whether I can really say it better is opinion; how can we objectively determine that our clear statement is better than the author’s clear statement? Except for ego, we cannot. This balancing is different when what the author has written is confused or difficult to understand or causes a reader to pause and wonder what he just read means. But in the instance where the reader does understand what the author has written and doesn’t pause to ponder meaning, there is no justification for the editor to rewrite.

When we believe that we can say it better and should do so, we change our relationship with the author. We proclaim ourselves the arbiter of correctness, yet we debate amongst ourselves word choice and correctness. It is similar to how we view style guides (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often? and Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance). We tend to put them on a pedestal and forget that they are collections of opinion and suggestion, not necessarily the best way to do something. And that is the key to answering the question of whether we should say it better. If it isn’t clear-cut that our way is much superior to the author’s way, then we are just substituting one opinion for another opinion. We tend to value our opinion more than the author’s because — it is our opinion.

A difference between a professional editor and an unprofessional editor is knowing when to substitute one opinion for another opinion. It is the ability to recognize levels of clarity (not all clarity is equal) and determining whether the clarity of the author’s writing is sufficient or if it needs a boost. Too often editors misread the balance and decide that “I can say it better!”

Not too long ago I was asked to reedit a book originally edited by someone else. The author was very unhappy and the publisher wanted to determine whether the original editor’s edits were necessary, if they were necessary were they an improvement over the author’s original, and whether the editor missed important edits by focusing too much on text the editor thought “I can say it better” and rewrote.

It was an interesting experience. The reasons for the author’s displeasure did not take long to become evident. In rare instances, the editor wisely made changes; in most instances, the editor misinterpreted the balance — the author’s original text may not have been memorable (but then neither was the editor’s contribution), but there was no mistaking what the author was saying. There was no stopping and pondering.

What the editor clearly sought was perfection (a very elusive goal); what the editor “created” did not come close to that holy grail. It was not that the editor did a “terrible” job, it was that the editor failed to improve the author’s writing, failed to bring greater clarity to the writing, and failed to understand the editor’s role and appreciate its limitations. In other words, the editor thought her opinion as to how best to make a point was in fact how best to make a point, when it wasn’t any better than the author’s opinion.

Most interesting was what the editor — in my opinion — failed to rewrite. There were several instances where she should have said “I can say it better” and done so, but didn’t. Yet we fall back to the big bugaboo: Why is my opinion any more valuable or accurate than her opinion? I do not know if my alternatives were truly better than the author’s — I certainly think they were — but I do know it was problematic to leave the author’s writing as it was because of the difficulty in determining what he meant. (For a discussion of clarity, see Editing for Clarity.)

Professional editors are able to draw that line between improving and not improving writing and not cross it often. Just because we can say it better does not mean we should. The editing a professional editor does needs to balance against the author’s voice; only when the balance tilts toward improvement should we upset it.

Richard Adin, 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

June 8, 2015

Summertime & Wondering Why

It’s just clockwork — once a year, every year, summer comes (and the summer solstice brings another wedding anniversary). As I write this, my son is on a week-long vacation, one of several paid vacations he gets each year, along with all those other benefits of working for a corporation/government agency. And as he merrily enjoys his paid vacation, I think about why I chose the freelancer path 31 years ago.

Before freelancing I held a variety of positions and jobs, some in my own organizations and some in the corporate sphere. In all of those jobs, I had paid vacations, paid sick days, paid personal days, medical insurance, annual raises, excellent compensation (my last job with a publisher paid $70,000 a year plus bonuses), retirement, relative job security — all of those wonderful things that can make life easy (relatively speaking) for the employed that as a freelancer I have to provide for myself. And when I think about what I had, the most important was a structured work week. I worked a 35-hour workweek (officially; unofficially it was closer to 50), rarely holidays or weekends.

When I made the move to freelancing, I had no set workweek; jobs came and went and I worked as I needed to meet schedules. I was luckier than many colleagues in that I had enough steady work by my second year of freelancing that I was already subcontracting and still working 40+ hours 52 weeks a year myself.

But every time summer comes around I ask myself what foolishness enticed me to the world of freelancing. The answer is both simple and complex.

Starting from the money angle, I realized that if I created a business and acted like a business, I could earn much more than I was earning from corporate America. Back then, most freelance editors viewed themselves as craftspersons, members of a guild, not businesspersons. If you called editing a business, the heavens would storm daggers down on you; editing was not a business — period. No ifs, ands, or buts on that score. Colleagues thought I was foolish to think otherwise, but I did and I do.

Accepting that editing was a business with great financial potential meant that I tackled creating that business as if it were (could be) a highly successful, organized and structured business. That meant setting a workweek, buying medical insurance, establishing (and funding) a retirement account, establishing (and funding) a vacation account, and so on. I needed to make my business resemble what other businesses did, including, at that time, multiple telephone lines (including several toll-free numbers) (this was years before email took over and before the Internet; even years before the dialup modem was ubiquitous) and a bookkeeping system that was indistinguishable (except for scale) from that of corporate America.

Bottom line was that I recreated in my starting editing business the standards of the then business world. I established business protocols for answering the telephone and for signing a letter. My invoices were in the business name, not in my name. My wife would answer the telephone as if she were the company receptionist. I created the illusion of the corporate world and so I never left the corporate world.

As it happened, this was all to my benefit. Because I created a business and the attributes of a business, I still was able to take paid vacations, have medical insurance, and have paid sick days. For many years I took three or four 1-week vacations every year. Sure, I was paying myself, but I had the revenue to do so. And that was and is the key — having the revenue to give myself all the things that I gave up receiving as benefits from someone else’s hand.

Why did I make the switch from corporate employment to self-employment? Because I knew that I had the type of personality that could make a financial go of it — eventually. It turned out that my “eventually” was sooner than I had planned or expected, but I knew I had the self-discipline to recreate my corporate experience but on my own terms.

I also made the switch because the one thing I couldn’t avoid in the corporate world, which increased in number as I rose in position and salary — the meeting — became increasingly problematic for me. I found that the maxim that in corporate life one rises to one’s level of incompetence was absolutely true. Meetings became increasingly difficult for me because the bosses running them became increasingly conservative and unknowing and, more importantly, unwilling to be educated. Frustration became such a companion that I no longer looked forward to commuting to work (which was another good reason to strike out on my own). Working for myself, I could keep meetings to a minimum (how often do you meet and debate policy with yourself?) and when I did have a meeting with a client or an employee/subcontractor, the agenda was short and to the point — no one had time or energy to waste.

As the years passed, I watched colleagues struggle. They struggle with a lot of issues, not all of them easily solvable, but the fundamental reason for many of their problems was how they approached editing. The unwillingness or the inability to apply business fundamentals to editing, the desire to keep editing as a craft or to think of themselves as artisans rather than tradesmen, hampered their success. Even the greatest of editors needs to apply business fundamentals to what they do because it is those fundamentals that determine financial success and enable payment of the mortgage, the kids’ education, the medical insurance, the retirement fund.

Do not mistake my elevation of finances for a lowering of artisanship. That not only need not occur, it should not occur. Rather it is financial success that gives an editor the opportunity to say yes or no and do the artisanal things the editor wants to do. It is so much easier to volunteer to write the monthly newsletter for the local shelter pro bono when you do not have to choose between doing that and putting food on the table.

Financial success also does one other thing: It makes the looking back and asking “why” an amusement rather than a serious endeavor. When I look back, I know that I never really left that “secure and safe” corporate world; I took it with me and made it my own. Sure I had to make some compromises that if I were truly free of the corporate environment I would not ever address, such as standard business hours so that clients always know when they can speak directly with me; if I were truly free, I would come and go from my office as each day enticed me — it’s beautiful outside today, so I’ll garden — but compromise is the state of life.

So when I look back and ask “why,” I answer because I could and I knew I could succeed. There really wasn’t and isn’t a “why” in my case. How about for you?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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