Filed under:

Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Professionalism

My phone chimes. It’s one of President Donald Trump’s people. Desperate Donald has written a book he hopes will cinch his re-election next year. But it needs a good editing. Can I do this?

Of course I can. The question is, will I? The Donald is not my favourite politician. Far from it. The very thought of his winning another term nauseates me. Could I live with myself if I helped?

I imagine many editors would reject this contract out of hand, even if they had missed their last car payment. Yet we think of ourselves as professionals. Certainly I do, and in this hypothetical exchange I must hold my nose and accept the work.

I’m probably a maverick, but during several decades as a journalist I discovered the dignity of detachment. Picture me telling a superior, “I refuse to interview Prime Minister Brian Mulroney because I’m against free trade.” Later as an independent editor I worked with legal, medical and engineering professionals and experienced first-hand their detachment. Simply put, we are not our clients, nor do we have to identify with our work.

Some examples

Imagine an emergency room surgeon presented with a drug trafficker who’s been on the losing end of a shootout. “Sorry, but I don’t treat pushers,” he tells ambulance attendants. How about an engineer assigned to help design a pipeline? “Are you crazy?” she asks the project manager. “I’m zero carbon!” Canada Revenue Agency disputes a business’s returns. The owner consults a lawyer who says, “Sorry, but I don’t defend tax cheats.”

Lawyers, because they often work in public view, endure a misperception of their professional responsibility. Too many people think they actually endorse the wrongdoing of their clients. In reality lawyers only serve the cause of justice, and mounting a proper defence is integral to that. Yet the following come to mind:

  • Twenty years ago Stockwell Day, then an Alberta cabinet minister, criticized a lawyer for defending a convicted pedophile. Lorne Goddard sued Day for libel, and it cost Alberta taxpayers $792,000.
  • Marie Henein, the lawyer who defended Jian Ghomeshi on sexual assault charges in 2016, was widely condemned as a traitor to women.
  • This year Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard law professor, enraged student activists when he agreed to represent Harvey Weinstein. The university sided with the students and fired him as faculty dean of a student dormitory.

There’s a powerful lesson here for editors who think of themselves as professionals. Editing Trump’s book should not be viewed as validation of its author.


Previous post from Wilf Popoff: Wasted Words: The Risks of Reading.

The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of Editors Canada. Contact us.

Discover more from The Editors' Weekly

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

8 Comments on “Wasted Words: Professionalism”

  • Georgia Atkin


    I can get behind the idea that all human beings have the right to be treated by a doctor or defended by a lawyer, but I don’t think the same principle applies to editing. Nobody has “the right” to receive professional editing services (Donald Trump’s life or freedom probably wouldn’t be dependent on finding the right editor for his book).

    And although professionalism is important, the thoughtless application of professionalism — shrugging your shoulders and just getting the job done — can sometimes have serious consequences, no matter what your occupation is. I’ve read World War II stories about civil servants in Hungary who did everything their bosses told them to do, including implementing systems to more easily track and document Jewish citizens. The civil servants did their job so well that thousands of Jews were eventually deported or killed as a result. Did all the civil servants identify with their work or actively decide to “validate” anti-semitic policies? I don’t know, but I don’t think it matters. Their professional choices had a lasting impact, regardless of their personal beliefs.

    • Apologies, Georgia, for not interacting with your comment in my own—I didn’t see it until Tim mentioned it in his. Your point is deeply poignant and beautifully put.

  • To begin with, an editor turning down a job that is misaligned with his or her own values is not the same as a surgeon turning away a patient.

    Editing work, as important as we can all agree that it is, is no life-and-death situation. If you turn down the work, someone else will take it on. Further, taking on work that promotes an ideology which flies in the face of one’s own ethics, I would say, is unprofessional. No matter how nonpartisan one is capable of being, one does one’s best work when they enjoy the content and believe in the project.

    As a business owner—and a global citizen—I put my time and energies into editing the kind of work I want to see in the world; I have no time for or interest in furthering those causes that I feel are damaging to public discourse, human rights, and the environment, for example.

    When we don’t challenge the value and validity of the projects that come to us, we contribute to spreading the ideas within it, and, if only through passivity, we legitimize the content. In the case of your imagined text, one would also be engaging with potential propaganda, and therefore likely be contributing to the spread of misinformation—not to mention furthering a most un-editorly form of communication (I don’t believe Trump writes longform any more clearly than he tweets).

    To my mind engaging with a project when it flies in the face of your own values is a compromise that is itself unprofessional.

  • Tim Green


    This article is based on the contention that we as editors think of ourselves as professionals. That may not be valid. If it is, then visions of professionalism among editors are probably misplaced.

    A doctor has no choice about saving a life. No, this is not all cut/dried especially in the areas of assisted dying and abortion. I am an engineer with a duty to protect the public. No, this is not all cut/dried either but I am required to figure this out and make ethical decisions in the engineering work I do. Both the doctor and engineer are subject to severe professional and legal sanctions if they fail in their duties to the public.

    Clearly, an editor’s judgement call, or their decision to accept or reject any work are not in the same professional league. The worst sanction editors can suffer is sanctimonious sniping on Facebook from their peers.

    Detachment is the antithesis, not the hallmark, of professionalism. Professionals such as doctors and engineers MUST identify with their work and make every decision ethically, not with robotic detachment. If their personal views conflict with the restrictions inside which their professions operate, then they have tough decisions to make about whether to remain in their professions.

    Comments by Georgia and Kate here are bang on.

  • Brendan O'Brien


    I think for me it would depend on the nature of the editing. Clarifying the message would not be too bad: people could then accept or reject it. Enhancing the message—trying to make it more attractive, more palatable—would be different, and I wouldn’t like to do it if I felt that the message were essentially harmful or antisocial.

  • Anita Jenkins


    This is an interesting topic, well worth discussing and thinking about. It came up several times in my editing career.

    It recently came up as well at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival. A play by an author who had a criminal record was cancelled despite previous acceptance at this non-juried event and a contract with full disclosure and conditions related to the playwright’s presence on the site.

    Graphic designers sometimes get in trouble for images and cover designs they produce. Most take it in stride, saying “Made you look.”

  • Editing is a creative endeavour that demands a certain amount of professionalism. But as much as editors try to position themselves as professionals—and their organization as a body that certifies editors within their “profession”—ours is not a profession in the same sense as medicine or engineering or even journalism.

    However, your point is well taken, Wilf, if we consider that some editors also have professional obligations that require us to detach ourselves from our opinions and preferences. Editors who are also government employees, for example.

    Throughout my career, I have challenged my clients’ biases, prejudices, and even on occasion their facts and the validity of their political positions or mission statements. And then I let it go. That is part of how I see my role as their editor: engaged connection with the first draft followed by thoughtful detachment from the final draft.

    Thank goodness for sticky notes and comment fields. As for the hypothetical Trump book, I think it will remain forever hypothetical. The next book is coming out as a thread on Twitter, where first drafts are also final drafts.

  • Thank you to the other commenters for expressing my feelings more eloquently than I can. Further to Brendan’s comment, even as a copy editor, I can’t think of a single project in which I’ve simply clarified meaning with detachment. I’m always invested in a project, on the author’s side almost as much as the reader’s. In order to feel I’m doing my job well, I need to feel as though I’m helping the author make the work the most attractive, persuasive, and effective it can be. To try to do so on a book by someone like Trump would feel like a fundamental betrayal not only of myself, but also of broader society. And as Kate suggested, I wouldn’t be doing the author any great favour either, working on a book I didn’t believe in.

    But I’m fortunate to have the freedom to make those choices. I would never judge an editor who needed to hold their nose and take on an unpalatable project in order to put food on the table.

Comments are closed.

To top