Ethics for editors—with Mary Schendlinger

Mary Schendlinger, senior editor at Geist and faculty member in SFU’s Master of Publishing Program, led an eye-opening and thought-provoking half-day EAC-BC seminar about ethical issues in editing. When we edit and publish, she said, we are mediating culture and knowledge—a big responsibility. Most of us get into this field to make a better world, but we also work in a business, and many of the ethical questions we face arise from having to balance the needs of a publication’s many stakeholders. As we saw through the seminar, these questions often don’t have black or white answers, but an ethical editor is one who recognizes an ethical question when it comes up and who thinks constantly about who is affected by her decisions and recommendations.

Schendlinger divided ethical considerations for editors into six broad categories:

  • Responsibility to the earth
  • Responsibility to the profession
  • Responsibility to writers and artists
  • Responsibility to confidential sources
  • Responsibility to other stakeholders
  • Responsibility to society

Responsibility to the earth

How can we editors reduce the impact of our work on the environment? Schendlinger admitted she feels pangs of guilt each time she prints out a hard copy to edit or proofread but that she often works better that way. We can mitigate our effects on the environment by reducing, reusing, and recycling, of course, but it’s also important for us to voice our opinions about using printers and suppliers that actively support environmentally friendly initiatives, for example.

Schendlinger also raised the issue of the carbon footprint of online activities. Although we’re inclined to believe that working on computer is more environmentally responsible than working on hard copy, Schendlinger pointed out that two Google searches produces the same amount of carbon emissions as boiling a cup of water, so those of us working digitally aren’t as green as we might think.

(Not discussed at the seminar but pertinent to this topic is the ability of editorial quality-control systems to keep waste to a minimum. Discovering a mistake that must be corrected too late in the production process could mean that an entire printing of a publication has to be pulped. Systematically using editorial checklists and carefully checking galleys and printer’s proofs can help you see those problems before they’ve been committed to hundreds or thousands of paper copies.)

Responsibility to the profession

Schendlinger gave us several scenarios to discuss, relating to how we participate in our industry and how we treat staff, colleagues, clients, subcontractors, and suppliers. For example, what do you do when a client asks for your opinion of a fellow editor whose work you think is subpar? What do you do if you, as a copy editor, discover several problems left unresolved by the substantive editor? Is it acceptable to charge a fee to a colleague to whom you’ve referred a client? Do you tell a client if you subcontract a project to another editor?

Schendlinger advocated honesty, integrity, and transparency in all cases. Always assume competence on the part of your colleagues and give them the benefit of the doubt. Be diplomatic and tactful, but always convey your honest opinion, keep your promises, and do your best to avoid conflicts of interest.

Responsibility to writers and artists

How do we talk to an author about what we do? Schendlinger cautions against using negative language that we may be so accustomed to that they seem standard: “cleaning up a manuscript,” “correcting errors,” “resolving problems.” Instead, she recommends something along the lines of, “making the language more appropriate to the situation,” emphasizing that for every project we have to keep in mind audience, purpose, and occasion.

That triad is the reason Schendlinger does not recommend editing a manuscript pre-publication or pre-agent. She said she’s seen a number of authors get burned by having paid an editor to work on their manuscript only to have to start from scratch when a publisher or agent picks it up and has a different vision for the work. Copy editing is fine, she said, but she discouraged doing any kind of developmental or structural editing.

Schendlinger then asked, is it okay to go the wall arguing a point of grammar or syntax that you know is right? She pointed to Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook, in which Einsohn noted that if you do argue, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and not for ego. Make it clear that you’re motivated by wanting to maintain the author’s credibility in the eyes of readers.

Finally, we discussed the case of Gordon Lish’s work on Raymond Carver’s books, as documented in this New Yorker article. We all agreed that Lish was overstepping in the way he altered the author’s voice. Schendlinger pointed out that Carver was dependent on Lish to have his books published—and thus to earn his income. As editors, we are often called upon by publishers to offer our opinion, and that puts us in a position of power; it’s important that we don’t abuse it.

Responsibility to confidential sources

Editor–author relationships can be very intimate, Schendlinger noted. Authors may confide in you or tell you things that they expect you to keep confidential. Keep your promises, both explicit and implicit, and protect confidential sources and information.

Responsibility to other stakeholders

We know that as editors we have to mediate between author, publisher, and reader. Who else might have a stake in a written work?

  • printers and other suppliers
  • designers
  • photographers and illustrators
  • production managers
  • advertisers or sponsors
  • sales and marketing reps
  • booksellers, retailers, and e-tailers
  • libraries
  • people in the media
  • private or public investors
  • researchers
  • people named in the work
  • future artists who might create a derivative work

The list of stakeholders is long and not necessarily predictable. We have a responsibility to all of them, to varying degrees.

Editors have to keep an eye out for plagiarism, libel or potential libel, invasion of privacy, and obscenity, among others issues. Schendlinger emphasized the need to be careful and tactful when approaching authors about these issues; for example, plagiarism isn’t necessarily malicious or even intentional. Quoting from Oliver Sacks’s “Speak, Memory” in The New York Review of Books, Schendlinger demonstrated how malleable memory can be and how easily an author can internalize another writer’s work and regurgitate it as his or her own. It’s important to approach these cases sympathetically, said Schendlinger, never accusingly.

When advertisers or sponsors are stakeholders in a publication, ad–edit boundaries become concerns for the editor. Organizations such as Magazines Canada have issued guidelines (PDF)  based on principles of editorial integrity that deal with issues such as adjacency and proximity (where ads are placed relative to content) and how pieces such as advertorials are labelled.

Responsibility to society

Writing not only reflects society; it also shapes it. We have a responsibility to the public record: we need to do our best to check facts and to ensure that biases and stereotypes don’t get perpetuated. She led us through an exercise to identify problematic language such as

  • non-parallel references that give unequal status to people who should be equal
  • unnecessary categorization of people
  • negative connotation of illness
  • stereotypes based on gender, sexual orientation, social status

and to suggest fixes.

Finally, we discussed the fuzzy boundaries of truth in creative nonfiction. After all, we never remember something exactly the way it happened, and different people remember events in different ways. Schendlinger noted that readers approach nonfiction differently, because knowing that something actually happened to someone makes that story more compelling. How far can we push creativity and still bill a work as nonfiction? Is it okay to change people’s names? Is it okay to combine several different people into a single character? Is it okay to change the order of events? No easy answers, but Schendlinger pointed us to John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book, The Lifespan of a Fact, for guidance.


Schendlinger’s seminar was incredibly illuminating, although I have to admit that I left not only with more questions than I had going in but also with a new sense of paranoia that I’ll miss an ethical problem or make the wrong call in my work. The main takeaway—and this might sound trite and simplistic—is to be professional:  keep your promises, be honest and transparent, and flag problems early.

Ethical issues are a tricky but unavoidable facet of our work. I’ve always maintained that you can excel at the mechanics of editing—even fulfilling all of EAC’s Professional Editorial Standards—but may still be unethical, which reflects poorly on the profession. As Schendlinger pointed out repeatedly, sometimes we err not because we want to but simply because we don’t know any better, which is why I would eventually like to see an organization like EAC develop a code of ethics, if only to educate and inform. I understand that the association currently doesn’t have the resources to police a code of ethics, but having an aspirational document would still provide us some guidance and move us toward becoming a genuine profession. Until then, we can learn so much from one another: if Schendlinger offers this seminar again, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it for all editors, no matter your level of experience.

3 thoughts on “Ethics for editors—with Mary Schendlinger”

  1. Excellent recap Iva — as far as I can tell, not having been there! (=transparency) But this makes me wish I had attended. Thank you.

    I can see why you left feeling paranoid — editing is more of a mine field than I’d imagined. Well, at least we get paid the big bucks for it! — I mean, um-ah…

  2. This is so helpful and continues to be relevant today! Thank you for sharing in such thorough detail. It’s something I’ve been thinking hard about lately in my business.

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