On the Ethical Standards of Editing
A Letter to the Editor, from the Editor
I used to think all that was required of an editor was a firm, academic relationship with the English language and its structure, a good eye for taste and style, and a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style on hand. I also used to think Santa Clause was real. Having served as editor of a semi-prozine for nearly a year, and after taking on a multitude of clients for short stories and novels alike, I’ve come to understand both of those beliefs are equally accurate—which is to say, not at all.
As it happens, an editor needs more than a sharp eye and a mastery of syntax and grammar; they need a strong moral compass. Most writers and editors have been approached to edit a work or provide beta reading, without knowledge of that individual's writing skills. The conversation typically goes something like this:
“Hi, I know you’re a writer/editor, and I’m a writer too! I’m working on my short story/novella/novel/flash fiction piece and I need some feedback. Would you mind having a look?” they ask.
“No problem,” you say, happy to flex your editorial muscle.
Then they hand over the work. After reading the first page, you realize what a terrible mistake you’ve made: their writing is abhorrent. The mechanics are bad or missing, half the sentences are fragments or run-ons, and the story is poorly constructed. On one hand, you have your dear friend, eagerly awaiting your input, blissfully ignorant of just how bad their writing is—and probably expecting praise. On the other hand is the obligation you’ve agreed to. Your friend wants feedback, but providing that honestly might not go over well.
If you’re a freelance editor, you may be faced with a similar dilemma, though the complexities of that situation will vary. If you rely on freelance work for income and you get a bad sample, what do you do? The prospective client might be planning to self-publish. If the work is that terrible, do you really want your name on it? You might shape the writing to the best of your ability, but if it’s bad enough, it might not matter (assuming they take your advice to begin with). If they do self-publish, they may put your name on the work as editor. Why wouldn’t they? After all, proudly informing buyers that they had an editor comb over their story seems like a reasonable way to let them know they aren’t just buying another bottom-drawer ninety-nine cent Amazon pile of crap. Then the story is bought, and the reader is left to wonder: what the hell kind of editor gave the thumbs-up to this heaping pile?
Of course, you could just turn the story down, but how many freelance editors are in the business of saying, “Sorry, I don’t want to take your money”? If you’re well-established and have potential clients banging down your door, perhaps you have this luxury. For most, though, that won't be the case.
So: dilemmas. Do you insult your friend, or feed them a line? Do you turn down someone who wants to pay you, or suffer your name next to a terrible story—possibly harming your reputation? Dilemmas indeed.
James O’Shea Wade, executive editor and vice-president of Crown Publishers and editorial director of Orion Books, touched upon this in his essay (Wade, James. “Doing Good—And Doing It Right.” In Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do, edited by Gerald Gross, 74. New York: Grove Press, 1993) when he had this to say:
“Long ago I had to ask myself how one reconciles the obligations of friendship with those of an editor who is expected to contribute to the corporate interests of his or her publisher. Under ideal conditions, the interests of author and publisher coincide. But, alas, not always. And what about the obligation one has to readers? 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.”
The “publisher” that Wade refers to may be the friend or client, rather than the editor’s house. That aside, I believe the truth that Wade speaks to is applicable to all who edit or read for others: your obligation is to the book, to the story. As long as you’re faithful to the work that’s presented to you, you’ve done your job.
Easier said than done? Perhaps . I work as a freelance editor in my spare time, and I always offer to edit a small portion of a prospective client’s work for free, before entering into any kind of arrangement. This allows me to get a feel for where the author is with their writing, and it gives the author a chance to sample the work they’ll potentially be paying me to do. So what do I do when someone reaches out and I find—after reading their sample—that their work is poor?
First I think it’s important to note that editors are not the arbiters for artistic quality. Unless you’re an acquisitions editor, it’s not your job to pass judgement on a work that’s handed to you. An editor's role is to guide and advise. When deciding what to accept and what to pass on, you’re only selecting a piece according to the needs of the publisher (assuming you’re a slush reader, acquisitions editor, or some other kind of gatekeeper, representing your market). Because taste is so biased, any time you get into the business of trying to qualify a piece as good or bad, you open yourself up to trouble. This is part of why the idea of blind submissions and meritocracy is flawed. If you’ve ever read a story that won an award or appeared in a well-regarded market, and thought to yourself, "This is garbage, how the hell did this get published?" then you know what I’m talking about. For that reason, I don’t think it’s necessary to be concerned if someone who paid you to do a job cites you when publishing their work—even if you think the story is awful. It’s not your place.
Of course, the idea of editors as gatekeepers is an avenue that's perhaps beyond the scope of this essay. Apogee wrote an article that really begins to explore this territory, and I'd like to refer to a couple of excerpts that I think help to drive at the heart of the matter:
"The ensuing conversation was one in which the “objective standard” was at issue–the editor believed he was simply publishing the best work in their submissions pile. This assumption attempts to strip the author of identity without considering the editor’s own identity in his editorial role. A blind reading is impossible when the reader has his own charged interpretation of the words on the page. This editor, and many others, work from the assumption that they have the authority on literary goodness without first considering the origins of their own preferences . . . It’s also important to consider that literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a cultural product and a part of a greater artistic and social conversation. An audience doesn’t read “blind” or “for merit,” they take authorial identity into consideration. Trying to strip a piece of literature from the identity of the person who wrote it is pretending that it exists outside of the culture in which it was created . . . How are literary standards determined? Through literature class syllabi, which disproportionately feature white male authors, ranging from middle school to graduate writing programs. Through well-read publications whose pages consistently show disparity in publishing women and writers of color. See the research of VIDA and Roxane Gay for proof."
I'm well aware that the subject of meritocracy and race is a can of worms, but I want to at least illustrate my point that there's more to determining taste and more to deciding what is "good" or what is "bad" than many of us may initially suspect. I encourage you to read the remainder of the article.
One of the first questions I always ask a client is what their goal is with the story. Are they looking to publish traditionally? If so, it’s good for them to know that if the story is accepted anywhere, it’s nearly an assurance that the publisher will have their own editor go over the work. If I know from the sample the client submitted that the writing is especially poor, I’ll also gently advise them that while I’m happy to edit their work, they may have a difficult time finding someone to accept the story due to the industry's taste and standards. I’ll then encourage them to read examples of stories that have been previously published by the kind of markets they’re submitting to (perhaps Analog, Strange Horizons, or Lightspeed, if speculative fiction), again keeping in mind my own bias on what I consider "poor."
In both cases (friend or client), you’re going to have to tailor your message and its delivery, keeping in mind the relationship you have with them. Ultimately, your best bet is to be forward with them before you agree to look at the work, and tell them that any feedback you provide is—as Wade advises—in service to the book. This doesn’t give you a license to be abrasive. Use common sense and courtesy, and be tactful in your approach. If you remember to provide constructive criticism, citing specific examples from their story, you’ll have been a good friend and a good ambassador for the story.