Friday, September 28, 2012

Scandal-Less: Should Writers Follow a Code of Ethics?

In the aftermath of the John Locke scandal—and what else can you call it when the guy faked his book reviews and then sold countless writers a book on his sales techniques that didn’t mention his little “trick”—we have to ask an important question. What code of conduct do writers owe it to their readers and to their fellow writers to adopt? How should we behave in the marketplace?

You might think the answer would be obvious. But clearly it isn’t. John Locke proves that, of course. But he’s not alone. Consider this short list of well-known writers in recent years who have failed in ethics. Some of them have lost jobs and no longer make their living off their writing. Others have survived, but their reputation is tarnished.

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Crime: A Pulitzer-prize winner and historian who plagiarized by failing to properly attribute the writing of three other authors in a book she wrote about the Kennedys
Punishment: PBS NewsHour dropped her as a participant on the show (and presumably she lost money over that)

Jayson Blair
Crime: Plagiarized and fabricated numerous articles he wrote for The New York Times.
Punishment: He’s no longer a journalist. He’s now a life coach. Would you hire him?

James Frey
Crime: Published and marketed a “memoir” in which he faked, exaggerated, and played loose with major events in his supposedly true story
Punishment: Public humiliation on Oprah. Dropped by his literary agent. Did damage to his publisher’s career. Lost a seven-figure, two-book deal with Riverhead (an imprint of Penguin). His own career is still surrounded by controversy.

Jonah Lehrer
Crime: Made up quotes from Bob Dylan to bolster his views on creativity in his book Imagine.
Punishment: Forced to resign from his prestigious position as a journalist at The New Yorker.

RJ Ellory
Crime: Used pseudonyms and fake accounts to give his books 5-star Amazon reviews, while also trashing the books of other authors in his genre with 1-star reviews.
Punishment: Lost the respect of fellow writers who were attacked by his sock puppet identities. Being investigated by the Crime Writers Association to which he belongs.

This short list is evidence enough that something needs to change. And the best people to police the writers are the writers themselves. I’m saying we have to do this for ourselves. We have to take responsibility for the choices we make, and especially how our choices affect the people we come into contact with because we are writers.

Sure, it’s tempting to focus only on taking care of yourself. You want to make a living, and you’re feeling pressure to pay your bills. Maybe you’re obsessed with fame. And who doesn’t want to do things the quick and easy way?

But you can’t live that way. I know this sounds old-fashioned, but it isn’t right to take advantage of others for your own gain. You degrade yourself as a writer when you refuse to embrace honest business ethics. You degrade yourself because you stop being, first and foremost, a writer. Instead, you start becoming a con artist whom no one can trust.

Here’s the code of ethics I’d like to see every writer embrace for the sake of their own character, for their friends and family, business acquaintances, fellow writers—basically, everyone who relies on the writer in some way. We can hold ourselves and our fellow writers to this standard, being accountable to each other for offering the following commitments to the public at large:

  1. Don’t leave it up to readers and reviewers to “catch you if they can.” Write and sell your work ethically.
  2. Put honesty and integrity above the benefits you think you’ll get by lying. Deception may work for a little while, but it never works forever. At some point, you’ll pay a price for dishonesty. It’s not worth it.
  3. Vet your source material for accuracy and fairness. Don’t assume it’s true just because one person says so. Do the work it takes to write intelligently and with authority, which comes only from the depth of knowledge you have.
  4. Be committed to putting out the best work, the best marketing, the best of everything. You wouldn’t put up with shoddy maintenance on your car. Readers shouldn’t have to put up with shoddy or faked research.
  5. Don’t make up quotes and statistics to fit your argument. That’s babyish. Period. If you can’t prove your argument, then change your argument, not the facts. Be accurate.
  6. Do your best to avoid miscommunication and vague language that could easily be misconstrued. It’s impossible to be perfect in this area, but some people make no effort to be clear, and it produces unnecessary controversy.
  7. Give full disclosure for anything that can be considered an influence on your opinions, because those influences can introduce bias. Your readers have a right to know this.
  8. Be accurate in quoting sources, and give proper attribution whenever it’s due. People work hard to write, study, research, give speeches… You have no right to steal their work, no matter how pressured you feel to reach a deadline.
I think this kind of commitment to ourselves and to others can only improve our writing. I know this much: the only person who can protect your credibility is you. No one can do this for you. If you don't take charge of it by resisting unethical behavior, eventually you'll be hurt by it. And it's very hard to recover from that sort of public humiliation.

What do you think? What do you do to protect your own credibility? Have you ever compromised or felt forced to compromise your integrity for the sake of marketing success?

Next week: I expect to write a little more about honesty and how a lack of it damages more than just the writer's career. If you have any thoughts on that topic, share them below. I may incorporate your ideas!

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. Hi, Michele. Sounds good to me. I'd sign it.
    My post this week was about where I stand, having my debut up on Amazon again after having lost my small publisher this summer. I wrote about struggling and beginning to wonder whether I might need to shut this thing down, or in the very least back way off. I've received great encouragement and feel so much better about where I am.
    I want people to read my work, and to hopefully make some money off of it, but I'm not going to lie, cheat or steal to make that happen. Eventually everything down in darkness is revealed in the light, right?
    I hope you and yours are well, my friend. Take care, ok? *waves*


  2. Oh, Jimmy, so sorry to hear that! No matter what you're going through, it's worth staying honest. I'm with you on that. Best wishes!


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