Do you have to believe what you write or edit?
May 25, 2017
I'm known among my acquaintances as someone who is blunt, outspoken, and honest—sometimes brutally so. I'm a firm believer in good communication, and communication generally needs to be clear, straightforward, and honest to be good, useful, and effective. Plus, I simply have a natural, raw blunt streak that I inherited from my mother, and this has sometimes worked for me and other times against me.
Although I pride myself on these aspects of my temperament and personality, I know that I need to modulate my bluntness and outspoken opinions when I do my freelance writing and editing for clients. In such cases, it is my professional responsibility to suppress my own views and feelings and to focus on achieving the goals of the client.
In today's world of educational publishing—in which I do most of my writing and editing—there is an undeniable leftist, liberal, progressive leaning that influences content. It has been that way at least since the time I entered the field in the early 1990s. On most issues, I personally do not lean in the leftward direction. Rather, I tend to tilt toward the right, though with a strong libertarian bent. Nevertheless, I have successfully worked in educational publishing for a quarter of a century, collaborating with numerous individual, institutional, and corporate clients. And I have happily written and edited a wide variety of material expressing views or "facts" that I do not necessary believe. Not all of this material has been political in nature; some of it has been controversial in non-political ways. Examples include the following subject matter:
Global warming/climate change
Apocalyptic environmental warnings
Genetically modified foods
Alternative medical treatments
Various technological or medical "breakthroughs"
Government curriculum standards
Conflicts in Middle East
Biographies of political leaders
Historical perspectives on various issues
The happy "hooker"
How can I "happily" work on material expressing views or perspectives that I personally reject? Well, I enjoy working with words, and all writing and editing is ultimately about the manipulation of words, sentences, and paragraphs. So I simply focus on that aspect of the work. I have fun doing it, I satisfy the client, and I get paid. It's how I make my living, after all. Thus, although I may not believe in the views expressed in a particular article I'm working on, my personal views are irrelevant, because my job is to help the client express his or her views. If I want to tell the world what I think about the subject, there are other venues available for doing so on my own time and in my own way.
Does this make me a "prostitute"? Ha! Several years ago, when I worked on the staff of a large educational publishing company, the managing editor advised me, "Al, editors are basically like prostitutes. It's our job to let the client have their way with us, make the best of it, and get the money." I thought that was hilariously funny—and probably rather accurate. But it's all good… at least I don't have to worry about getting a communicable disease while I work.
Skepticism sharpens communication
I know that I can do an enthusiastic and excellent job for the client even if I don't agree with the ideas the client is pushing—and I have 25 years of satisfied authors and publishers under my belt to prove it. Furthermore, I maintain that my hidden personal views and private skepticism on any given subject actually work to the benefit of the client. Educational publishing—like journalism—tends to be a cloistered field in which most people think alike. They take many ideas for granted, rarely stepping out of the box to put themselves in the shoes of the general public, which may not share or understand their preconceptions, received wisdom, and group-think way of looking at the world. The end result can be a sloppily prepared manuscript full of holes that many readers can see right through.
By contrast, because my skeptical and/or opposing mind is able to see other sides of the issue that a fellow advocate would not see, I will raise questions and prompt deeper thought on certain points made by the author or client. The responses of the author or client to my inquiries and edits tend to force him or her to reflect further about the issue, thereby sharpening and perfecting the intended argument. The questions I raise are similar to questions that many readers would think of. Thus, my edits and queries allow the author or client to adequately address those points before publication—resulting in a clearer, tighter, and more effective product.
Being a freelance writer/editor is all about showing respect for the author/client and maintaining the integrity of the editing/publishing process. Nobody has all the answers. I'm open to the probability that my views are not always 100% correct, and that there is likely some truth to what any author has to say. So why not help the author express himself or herself as best as possible? Perhaps I'll even learn something to tweak my own views. But even if I don't, I still take pride in helping the author communicate clearly and effectively. The more clearly and honestly any views can be expressed, the more useful and meaningful will be the intellectual exchange of ideas—for the reader and for society as a whole.
The clearly articulated and effective communication of all ideas is the best way for human society to make progress.
Mutual respect and professionalism
Of course, the communication street must run in both directions. Individuals with "minority" or "politically incorrect" opinions, such as myself, also must be respected when we have opportunities to express our views in our writings—views that may run counter to those of an editor. When I have had such experiences, I have usually been supported by the editor in my right to express my views. For example, I wrote a piece for an LGBT publisher expressing the view that private companies should not be required to institute government policies on transgender bathrooms. The publisher received numerous nasty letters in response to my article—and some cancelled subscriptions—but she nevertheless had the courage to publish my article and stand by my right to express my opinion. I gave her a lot of credit for that.
Unfortunately, conservative-leaning authors and speakers are increasingly encountering intolerance from establishment publishers and educational institutions, as is evident by the censorship and even violent reactions experienced by such conservative personalities as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulus. The most intolerant people in America these days are often those "progressives" who pride themselves on waving the tolerance banner…. they have tolerance only for those who share their beliefs. That is definitely not how social progress is made!
I have found that there is a time and place to generate controversy, and another time and place to go with the flow and keep your views to yourself. The spectrum of the publishing industry is so vast that there are opportunities for various approaches to writing and editing, especially via the Internet. But you have to understand what is appropriate for any given time and place.
In the end, the freelance writer and editor has to be familiar with the goals of his or her authors or clients and do the best job possible in helping them achieve their goals. You don't have to necessarily believe in the author's viewpoint. But you do have to believe in your own professionalism.