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.

Fact-checking timesavers

Checking facts in the realm of general knowledge is a part of a copy editor’s job, and for some genres, like history or biography, it can be one of the most time consuming. Fortunately, a couple of really simple tools can help make the fact-checking process a little less tedious.

Record a macro to create a list of terms to check

I used to fact check as I worked through a manuscript, interrupting my own reading to plug a name into Google. This practice was probably a relic of working on hard-copy manuscripts, and it took me much longer than it reasonably should have to realize how dumb I was being. Instead, I now copy the terms into a separate document and deal with them all at once in a focused fact-checking session, then I go back to the manuscript and fix any discrepancies. Handily, the list of terms you create in this process can also serve as the basis of the word list in your style sheet.

To cut down on the number of keystrokes you have to input to make your word list, record a simple macro in Microsoft Word. (If you’ve got Word 2008, you’re out of luck here, but you can still copy and paste manually and use the tool in the next section to save you time.)

  1. Open a new document, and save it, giving it a descriptive name (e.g., [Project name] word list).
  2. Open your manuscript document in Word. *Note: your word list and the manuscript must be the only two documents open in Word for this macro to work.
  3. Highlight the term you want to copy.
  4. Under Tools, point to Macro, then click Record New Macro.
  5. Give your macro a descriptive name, and assign it a shortcut key combination. Click OK.
  6. Input the following:

On a Mac

  • Command + c (copies highlighted text)
  • Command + ` (tilde key; switches to the other open document)
  • Command + v (pastes copied text)
  • Return
  • Command + ` (returns to manuscript document)

On a PC

  • Ctrl + c
  • Alt + Tab
  • Ctrl + v
  • Enter
  • Alt + Tab
  1. Under Tools, point to Macro, then click Stop Recording.

Now anytime you want to copy a term into your word list, all you have to do is highlight it in your manuscript document and press your macro’s shortcut key combination.

Note that your word list doesn’t have to be limited to names; it can include any search terms you’d plug into Google (e.g., Indian Act 1876)

Once you’ve got all of the terms copied out of the manuscript, you may want to scan the list and tweak it a bit so that a Google search will return meaningful results. For example, very common names (e.g., John Smith) may need more specific context (e.g., John Smith Jamestown), or you may have to put quotation marks around terms you want to search exactly.

Use SearchOpener to do multiple Google searches at once

Plug your word list into SearchOpener and click Submit. Then click Open All to have each search open in a separate tab. Now you can go through each of the tabs to confirm your list of terms, refining your searches as needed.

If your list of search terms is long, you may want to do this process in batches, but the approach will still save you time, and it certainly beats copying and pasting each term separately into Google.

Academic editing

At last evening’s EAC-BC meeting, David Harrison spoke about academic editing. His perspective was quite a bit different from mine—he seems to have gained most of his experience working directly with academic authors, often helping them prepare a manuscript for submission to a publisher, whereas I’ve worked on the other end, editing text that a publisher has already accepted.

Harrison has worked with authors as diverse as literary biographers, CGA systems analysts, expert witnesses, and public policy specialists. One client had initially hired Harrison to edit a grant proposal, so, Harrison emphasizes, academic editors can do more than work on just journal articles and books.

He says that, as with other editing, it’s important to understand the author’s purpose. Academic editors may wish to

  • create new knowledge
  • share ideas
  • challenge the ideas of others
  • support the research and findings of others
  • reach a wider audience
  • reach a more specialized audience
  • promote a cause, a policy, a theory, etc.

We must also not forget that they may also have some more practical motivations; “publish or perish” still very much persists:

  • get published in a journal
  • get a paper accepted for a conference
  • get a research grant
  • achieve tenure
  • get promoted
  • sell a book and life off the royalties
  • get invited to address prestigious audiences in  exotic parts of the world

An academic editor must also have a good handle on what the final product will look like. Fortunately, says Harrison, academic papers generally have a very predictable structure. The first time you work with a particular author or in a particular genre, look online or in a local university library for samples of the type of publication the author wants to create. Alternatively, have the author send you a sample.

Academic publishers may have very specific guidelines that they expect authors to follow—these dictate everything from article or abstract length to preferred spellings to formatting. It’s the author’s responsibility to make sure he or she adheres to these, but it’s helpful for the editor to know about them. If a particular publisher doesn’t have such a “Guide to Authors,” follow some exemplars of that publisher’s existing publications or follow an established style guide, such as Chicago or APA, but be sure to communicate your decision to the author. Keep a style sheet for each project. In fact, archive those style sheets; if you ever have repeat work with that author, the existing style sheet will save you a lot of time.

The contract, says Harrison, is very important; make sure you get the deal in writing. Share your expectations. Is the bibliography included in the cost? Is fact checking? Build in some milestones at which you can be paid. Professionalism is key. Stay within your area of competence.

Harrison could find only a handful of books relating to academic writing and editing, but he mentioned Writing for Scholarly Publication by Anne Sigismund Huff, who encourages authors to think of writing as conversation. She, in turn, suggested Making Sense of the Organization by Karl Weick, who elucidated the cycle of writing as it related to clarifying thought. If thinking is writing and writing is thinking, Harrison says, the editor’s role is to mediate that cycle.

Harrison’s presentation sparked some lively discussion about contracts—whether to charge a project rate or hourly rate; how to educate clients about the difference between an estimate and a bid; how to clearly delineate the scope of the work (e.g., specifying the number of revisions). Harrison himself quotes a project fee, saying that an hourly rate can be intimidating to clients. “Think about it from the author’s perspective,” he advised. “How would you react to someone saying, ‘I charge this much per hour but can’t tell you definitively how long it will take me?'” But what Harrison does is charge an up-front fee of commitment and then use an instalment plan for when certain milestones have been attained (e.g., first three chapters finished, halfway mark, initial edit, final revision, etc.).

The audience also asked about what to do in instances of plagiarism. Harrison doesn’t check for plagiarism as a matter of course but encourages editors to make use of the Editors’ Association of Canada’s “Guidelines for Editing Theses” as a tool to educate authors about an editor’s limitations, especially when it comes to dissertations. Jean Lawrence suggested a helpful strategy for diplomatically flagging instances of plagiarism: give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that he or she has simply left out a citation.

I asked how polished the final product would have to be in such an author-editor relationship given that the paper or book would then go through the publisher’s own editorial process. Harrison said he’s found that less editing is happening at the level of the publisher. In fact, some publishers’ “Guide to Authors” explicitly mentions that if English isn’t your first language, you should strongly consider having your work looked at by an editor prior to submission, and he’s gotten a lot of work that way. He added that he works under the assumption that he’ll be the last person to touch the manuscript from a language point of view.

Fact and nonfiction

At a recent editorial retreat, a very experienced editor was telling us about how clients sometimes question why the research for a single piece of information can take what seems like an unreasonable amount of time. “The author had provided a photo of a bridge he wanted to use and a caption for it. I searched the name in the caption, found a photo, and it was the wrong bridge. So I looked at maps of where this bridge was supposed to be and tried to find pictures of landmarks close to it…” She ran into one dead end after another, until finally, after hours of searching, she found another photo of the bridge from a different angle, and a name to go with it. “That’s the bridge. So I changed the caption, but finding the right name took the whole day.”

“What would you have done before the Internet?” another editor asked.

“Nothing. There would have been an error in the printed book.”

That conversation made me think quite a bit about the accuracy of sources we consider reliable and this whole business of fact checking in the editorial process. Editors—copy editors in particular—are expected to check facts within the realm of general knowledge; with Google, though, more and more can be considered to be part of that realm. Does this mean that more of the onus of fact checking falls on the editor rather than the author? Much has been said about the unreliability of online information, but are print sources really any better? Didn’t the past lack of Internet search engines just mean that copy editors of yore simply couldn’t spend the time to track down primary sources of information? I can think of two projects I worked on over the past year that were new editions of print-only books, where authors used the old edition as a basis for the new book and my Internet searches revealed errors in their earlier text. I can only imagine that this now happens all the time, meaning that books, if they are properly fact checked, are probably more reliable than they have ever been.

The flip side, of course, is that there such a deluge of new titles being produced now, especially since anyone can self-publish, that the majority of books can’t possibly be thoroughly vetted. And, of course, the Internet is not without its pitfalls. When I come across a term that’s not in my dictionary or a name that doesn’t appear in the Library of Congress Authorities, I do lean on Google to tell me that one spelling gives me 200,000 hits, whereas an alternative spelling gives me 1,200. And those 1,200 may very well be right, but often in those cases, “truthiness” prevails.

I sometimes feel that fact checking is more for the editors’ benefit than the authors’. Oh sure, we’re saving authors from potential embarrassment, discredit, and maybe, in the case of a misquote, a libel suit. But when we go to great lengths to hunt down the exact punctuation and capitalization of a sixteenth-century title that some ship’s second officer put together from his journal, and we end up finding a scanned copy of the original text in an online archive, it’s all about the satisfaction of sleuthing and getting it right. Maybe the reason fact checking can be particularly satisfying is that it’s so much less subjective than other facets of editing; in most cases, the goal is finding the one right answer, not, say, imposing a style decision. The hunt does take time, though, so I suppose we’ll have to subtly tease out of our authors what standard they expect us to uphold for each project. Does this author want me to spend the afternoon tracking down and watching a YouTube video of a lengthy speech to see if he’s accurately quoted a public figure? Or should I trust his research and simply alert him to the risk of misquoting?

Ultimately, even if we editors flag factual errors, authors are free to reject our suggested changes, and in the end our efforts may not matter. Most people still believe, for instance, that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” (she didn’t) and that Philip Sheridan said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” (a misquote, if he uttered anything like it at all), showing that even for the most persuasive of editors, the reader’s interpretation is beyond her control.