Ethical Code for Writers According to Fifty People Who Are Not Writers

We asked fifty people who do not consider themselves writers, young and old, from across Canada and beyond, the same question: “What is one ethical rule that you think all writers should follow?” We were interested in the relationships, real or imagined, that exist between readers and writers, as well as readers’ expectations of writers. Do readers care about a writer’s process or methodology? Do writers have responsibilities to their readers, or simply to “the work”? Does “finding the right words” imply something beyond aesthetics, beyond the subjective experience of the artist—perhaps accountability to representing a broader public, and their own moral beliefs? Does writing carry with it ethical considerations at all?

Here, in their own words, are the non-writers’ suggestions:

1. Maintain confidentiality: If someone tells you not to reveal an identity, then respect your subject’s decision.

2. Don’t use the word “nigger” unless you are one of us—and that goes for all cultures.

3. Writers shalt not bang their best friends’ wives/husbands.

4. Remember your place in relation to your writing.

5. Remember where you stand in relation to your subject.

6. Remember your responsibility to the work.

7. Don’t stop seeing your friends.

8. If you don’t feel good about it in your gut, you can’t publish it.

9. Writers need not feel bound by any ethical rules in their writing.

10. There are no ethical rules, strictly speaking.

11. Ethics are for doctors, lawyers, and tweed-clad philosophers. Writers ought not to concern themselves with such banalities.

12. A great piece of art (in whatever medium) might make everyday ethical standards irrelevant.

13. There’s no such thing as a bad word.

14. Don’t name fictional ax murderers, pedophiles, or otherwise reprehensible characters after exes out of spite.

15. Use unique experience in a way that is not exploitive of others’ kindness.

16. Make sure that you live in the present.

17. Don’t copy.

18. Don’t plagiarize someone else’s work.

19. Attribute. If you’re borrowing someone’s words, say so.

20. Don’t overuse exclamation points or caps because it makes you look like a spaz.

21. Don’t lie about your influences.

22. Don’t pretend you came up with a style when you didn’t.

23. Don’t live voyeuristically, seeing every human interaction as a potential source for sport.

24. Don’t pretend you aren’t part of the machine.

25. Don’t waste a reader’s time.

26. Don’t. Write. Short. Sentences. To. Make. Something. Sound. Important.

27. Don’t put your face on the cover of your own book.

28. Innovation without compromise.

29. If you’re going to reinforce a stereotype, do it consciously and intentionally, and not because you haven’t considered your beliefs and their impact.

30. If you are going to lie to your readers, lie big.

31. Protect your sources.

32. Read widely.

33. Like anyone else, at minimum, know how to say no.

34. Like Lyotard said: Incredulity toward metanarratives.

35. “The preoccupation with what should be is estimable only when the respect for what is has been exhausted.” — José Ortega y Gasset

36. Do to others what you would have them do to you.

37. Write about your truth—what you believe to be true, not what conventional wisdom tells you or what you think your audience wants to hear. Even if it turns out that you are factually wrong in the end, you still need to write about your truth. If you don’t believe something to be true, why bother writing about it?

38. Always speak the truth. Even in fiction.

39. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

40. Never let a good story get in the way of the truth.


42. Therapeutic writing belongs in a diary, not the public sphere; therapy should not be your primary reason for writing.

43. If therapy is your primary reason for writing, hide it well.

44. Integrity of voice. Integrity preserves art from offending.

45. Don’t start drinking before noon.

46. Edit thoroughly and make prodigious use of the semicolon.

47. Writers should read more than they write.

48. Own responsibility for what you create.

49. Own your motives for writing.

50. Proofread?