What, there are ethics of editing? Who says there are?

Is there an ethics of everything?

Yes, thank you very much. All things, not to mention a few nothings, have ethical parameters—guideposts—guardrails—and bunkers. For example, I posted a blog about the ethics of fiction last year and got a quick reply insisting there was no such thing. “Just tell your readers it’s fiction—that’s enough.” I presume the response came from someone who does not want to know what she doesn’t know. I’m writing for the rest of the writing world—the 99 per cent interested in a more analytical assessment of those boundaries and pitfalls all writers face when taking pen to paper. Even that act is disputed—who writes with pens? Who writes on paper? This is the digital age, bud, where you been?

Editing is consequential to writing because unedited, we write things we don’t know we’re writing—mistakes—sloppy diction—misspelling—lies instead of truth—up instead of down—and pure crap. That’s why we edit—to cleanse, rinse, and save our writing souls.

But shouldn’t we also edit for ethical blunders, blinders, and bat-shit crazy thinking?

Writing first drafts contemplates the obvious: second drafts. Writing second drafts is itself an edit. Editing is complex: copyedit, blue-pencil, check, correct, proofread, redact, rework, rewrite, develop, emend, redub, and my favorite—edit with prudeness (bowdlerize). At whatever length, cost or level of embarrassment, editing is to writing what bowling balls are to bowling pins. The first numbs; the second lays down with a sigh, and a nod to the scoreboard.

As for the ethics of editing, think about a specific writing: scientific articles in medical journals. Assessing the quality of the research and optimizing its impact is an ethical obligation—on the author, publisher, reader, and subject. The long, erudite, heavily sourced, and tested document that reflects like fluorescent lighting in a laboratory is one thing. What happens to it is peer review, which is itself an edit of sorts. Then, test it for publication, more assessment, critique, and how much insight it delivers.  Then, some readers—ones qualified to understand the nuance and the words—advance it in learned circles to knowledgeable souls. Then, it becomes a press release. Then, it becomes news. At every stage, it sheds context. In less technical terms, it is dumbed down. At that level, it gains support, and denial. All because it was edited!

So, at last, without any more ado, here’s the ethical norm of editing: do not edit your work into eye candy for the masses. Edit to clarify, so it preserves your point, rather than maundering it to death. It is a moral obligation. Say what you wanted to say, before editing changed it to something vaguely similar to what you wanted to say.

That’s the first part of ethical editing. Many more parts to come.


Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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