The Ethics of Editing

creative-108545_1280When I tell people that I want to be an editor, they usually act as though I’ve just told them that I want to be a drill sergeant or a prison warden; that my rigid, innate sense of grammatical justice will lead me to impose my will on any and all that I come into contact with. What the general public doesn’t know, however, is how detailed and complex and problematic editing is: editors try not only to navigate the imagery and rhetoric of a given text but also to improve the material in a way that satisfies both the author and the publisher. In my limited experience as an editor, I have learned the utmost importance of having an ethical backbone—a decided code of ethics—and referring to it frequently. While ethics may differ from person to person or corporation to corporation, here are my ethical guidelines that I hope will guide me through my career and my life.


As a student editor, I try to show respect to each and every piece that I work on. In my work I honestly try to give each and every paragraph the benefit of the doubt and derive as much meaning from it as I can. If I feel changes need to be made, I try to alter the piece with as little violence as possible, meaning that I try to keep the author’s original ideas, wording, and style intact. Richard Curtis, in his essay described the “irreplaceable” qualities that good editors have:

Among them are taste, discrimination, personal emotional response, a sense of order and organization, determination, devotion, and tender loving care. In these respects no one has discovered anyone or anything that can remotely take the place of an editor. Agents can’t do it because they’re outsiders. Computers can’t do it because they’re heartless. [1]

In contrast to “heartless” computers, an editor provides a flesh and blood empathetic partner who makes the process of publishing less painful through “tender loving care” for both the work and the author. To me, these qualities will help me act ethically because I will avoid stepping on the author’s toes or inserting unnecessary changes into their work.

In addition to respecting the author’s work, I will strive to demonstrate respect and often admiration for the author in my queries and communications. My goal is to be as clear and kind as possible so that any problems get fixed and our relationship survives. I hope that this attitude will help me to avoid giving the impression that I am trying to take over the author’s work and hold it hostage until it conforms to my personal standards. Instead, I hope that mutual respect will prevail in all of my professional dealings.


Though I somewhat resent the fact that editors are sometimes the second-class citizens of the publishing world, the fact remains: an editor is not an author; neither is an editor a substitute for the publisher. Knowing my place as an editor means that I defer to the preferences and the in-house style of the publisher, even if it contradicts the way I would prefer to use em dashes or the way my author would like express their political opinions.


Lincoln Shuster, in his counsel to future editors, advised that “[far] more important than being the first, be willing to settle for the best.” [2] In accordance with his counsel, I believe it is important to take proper time and care to ensure that a work is edited in the best way possible—not just the quickest or easiest. Part of the reason editing is attractive to me as a profession is that the industry is based on the idea of improvement, taking a good text and making it better, more cohesive, more comprehensible, more readable, more easily understood. In this way, if my skills and expertise in grammar and usage and style can offer something to the work, I feel I have a moral obligation to at least attempt to offer my advice. If the author doesn’t want it, that’s fine, but I should continue to suggest improvements.

I had one such experience working with a graduate student who had submitted a piece of literary criticism to a BYU student journal. Though technically this author outranked me in terms of education and years of experience, the writing of her article was so poorly organized that it took me several reads to identify the main points of her argument. When we corresponded, she resisted all of the organizational suggestions our team of editors gave her, claiming that topic sentences would be “demeaning” to her reader. As a result, she didn’t take our well-intentioned advice, and her article remained in its original convoluted organization. Although the author didn’t adopt my suggestions in any substantive way, I tried to stay true to my standards of what constitutes good writing, and as a result I don’t regret the experience.


My biggest fear going into the publishing industry is that the business aspect of publishing will overcome the technical and artistic aspect I want out of my career. Though I don’t have much experience dealing with the financial side of editing, I know from my research that advances and printing costs have more influence on the production of a literary work than its inherent quality, and this fact disheartens me. Within my scope of influence, I want to be able to work because I love what I’m doing, not because I’m trying to get as much capital as possible.

James O’Shea Wade described the editor’s responsibility and motivation in this way: “The only workable way to reconcile what may seem to be conflicting obligations and interests is to stay with one essential truth: the editor’s primary obligation is to the book. If you fail in that you are no friend to the author and you are not doing what a publisher pays you to do.” [3] If, as he describes, my primary motivation comes from the work and from my desire to improve the quality and content of the work, I won’t be tempted to take on projects that contradict my moral values or to work on a “soufflé of a novel—tasty but pretty empty.”[4] I also won’t be intimidated by authors who resist changes that could make their work more effective. Instead, I will produce good work because I care about producing good work and I’m personally—not just professionally—invested in the work’s success.


[1] Curtis, Richard. “Are Editors Necessary?” in Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do, 3rd ed. New York: Grove, 1991. Print.

[2] Schuster, M. Lincoln. “An Open Letter to a Would-be Editor,” in Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do, 3rd ed. New York: Grove, 1991. Print.

[3] Wade, James O’Shea. “Doing it Good—and Doing it Right,” in Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do, 3rd ed. New York: Grove, 1991. Print.

[4] Gherkin, Maxwell. “Breaking Faith,” in Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do, 3rd ed. New York: Grove, 1991. Print.


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