Whether you’re brand new to editing or have been at it for years, these guidelines can help steer you along an ethical path that will support authors and further your own career. Ethics, man—live ’em, love ’em.
It’s not your book
You’re working in service of the writer and the reader. You can advise, but you can never make changes that suit your preferences. Preserve the writer’s voice. You want your ideas to live on the page? Go write your own book.
There is a tradition of generosity in editing, whether you’re listening to an author’s concerns, offering notes on a manuscript that you haven’t yet acquired, or developing a concept with a new client. So much of life has a price tag affixed to it, and editors need to be fairly compensated for their work—and there is a way in which we can help each other out, beyond the confines of a capitalist exchange. Consider what generosity means to you in your own work. Here are some ideas: offer pro bono editing or a sliding scale for clients who have limited resources. Speak in a publishing class. Buy copies of books you’ve edited and give them away. Barter your services. Refer an author to another editor if you’re too busy or not truly excited to work with that author.
It is never the role of the editor to tone down, mute, or censor an author’s voice. If you’re offended by the content, don’t work with the author. I follow a strict anti-censorship policy in my editing, and for years have supported the work of PEN Canada. Consider donating money or time to organizations that support freedom of expression.
You’re in service to the book, the future reader, the vision and goals of the writer. Even if you’re in house, you’re not working on behalf of the sales department or the market. Be true blue.
Follow the 3C model
Ensure the text is clear, concise, and consistent.
Cover your bases
Make sure the author isn’t inadvertently plagiarizing material. Have authors back up all their sources, using a clear reference system. If you read something that feels like it might be grounds for libel, point that out and encourage the author to seek legal advice.
Do no harm
This principle applies to editors as much as it does to doctors and outdoors enthusiasts. Leave the text in better shape than you found it. Be aware of your own bugbears, but don’t go hunting for them in a text with the goal of destroying them at all costs.
Negotiate your own autonomy
Here’s simple guidance for navigating your career, whether you’re freelance or in house. It’s your life. You need to set boundaries for how, when, and where you’re going to work. To an extent, you get to choose whom you work with, what you work on, and how much you charge. Similarly, establish clear boundaries with your authors: not responding to emails or calls outside of office hours, for instance, or not working without a contract. What this looks like for me: maintaining office hours, pausing my inbox while I focus on editing, maintaining a clear line of communication with my authors and managers.
A book, but make it art
Contrary to what some people think, editors are not failed writers. Editors work to create a book with a writer. Many editors are also writers. I am a writer. I am also an artist. Thinking of the book as a work of art helps me elevate it above the page.