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One Writer’s Ethical Canon

September 10, 2012

Early in my Internet career, I participated on a message board where you didn’t need an account. You just entered your comment and a name. And this one guy who disagreed with me was being a pompous windbag and I was getting sick of it. So I posted some annoying things as him–nothing criminal, but things in borderline taste.

My efforts worked. He laid low for a couple days. And I felt like taking a shower with a steel brush and some industrial solvent to clean the stain off. Since then, I have never impersonated another person to discredit someone else. And with the exception of clearly humorous instances (for instance, posting as Archie Bunker and writing something he would have written in that instance), I haven’t pretended to be someone else.

RJ Ellory’s posts and John Locke’s purchase of reviews have gotten me thinking about ethics. I’ve decided to start to develop a set of rules, like Gibbs’ rules on NCIS. Like Gibbs’ rules, these are likely to develop over  time. Unlike Gibbs, I don’t intend to get to 50. As new situations come up, I may add to or modify these rules. But their goal is to lay a groundwork for ethical behavior and help me to withstand the temptation to act unethically.

  1. Never knowingly publish someone else’s work under my name. (It’s not wiggle language–sometimes when I post others’ work, I forget to change the author to Florida Writers Association or Guest Blogger. That’s not an ethical lapse; it’s carelessness. There’s a difference.)
  2. Never write in such a way as to be fraudulent about my identity.
  3. Never publish crap.
  4. Never screw over another writer.
  5. Except for parody, facetiousness, or writing a character, never use my words to perpetuate an unfair stereotype about a person or group of people (except Yankee fans).
  6. Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. (Thud!) (Princess Bride reference)
  7. Never knowingly publish false or misleading information.
  8. Never publish information for personal gain without full disclosure to the readers.
  9. Clean up your own mess. (Actually, one of Gibbs’ rules from NCIS.)
  10. Treat other writers as colleagues, not competition.
  11. Be generous. (God was in dispensing His talent to you.)
  12. When you say something is off the record, it is.
  13. Something off the record can be used when a second, corroborating source is found. It cannot be attributed to the person to whom you promised it was off the record.
  14. When in doubt, err to a positive outcome.
  15. When in doubt, seek wise counsel.
  16. Continue to work to develop the craft and help others to do so.
  17. Never take for free what you ought to pay for.

If I fail at any of these rules, you are certainly free to call me on it. We’re a community, and we work best when we hold each other up. And accountable.

  1. September 10, 2012 9:38 am

    I love numbers 10, 11 and 16. No matter where we are in our writing careers, we have gotten here with the help of other people.

  2. Jack Owen permalink
    September 10, 2012 12:21 pm

    Very commendable…BUT.
    In the real world, a while back I observed a semi-pro politician in England, responding to a critic leveling ethical charges against him. He opined: “As far as I’m concerned, Ethics is that county next door to Sussex!”
    Some items on your list have the added weight ofthe law behind them to reinforce their applications, while some allow wriggle-room for creative justification. For example, investigative journalism may involve role-playing (undercover) to substantiate a situation.
    Rules, regulations and commandments are red flags for writers. Some may be warned off…but some will respond to the challenge of testing the boundaries of (today’s) acceptable behaviour.
    D.H. Lawrence and Allen Ginsberg didn’t get international recognition for writing for Disney.

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      September 10, 2012 12:37 pm

      I’m not an investigative reporter. If I were, the applicable ethics would be slightly different. Also, this is a starting point. I may add or adjust ethics. The larger point of the post is that each person has to decide on their own ethics. These are, currently, mine. I suspect most of them are sacrosanct. Some will probably evolve over time. Now that I’ve thought about the whole Ellory thing and ethics, I’m not certain some of my previous stances are the best ones.

      The important thing is to have a starting point. And maybe someone to keep you accountable. If RJ Ellory had someone to say, “Hey Rog, you sure that’s a good idea?”, maybe wouldn’t have trashed his “competition,” a major ethical lapse no matter how you cut it.

  3. September 11, 2012 2:25 pm

    “2.Never pose as someone else in a way that makes people think you are not that person.”

    So, it would be okay to pose as someone else in a way that makes people think you are that person?

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      September 11, 2012 3:01 pm

      You know, I read that I thought I had it wrong and I changed it. Now I have to change it back. Basically, if I post something somewhere, facetiously as, say Archie Bunker. It should be clear that it’s me.

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