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Are You An Ethical Writer?

The Do’s and the Don’ts

The ethics of being a responsible writer are the same as for any activity. In this post I deal with works of nonfiction.

Basic Ethical Standards

First, treat the readers the way you would wish to be treated. Most people want what they read to be an honest representation of the facts. Ethical authors need to reflect on the meanings of their work and be sure they are an accurate portrayal of the truth. We, as authors, must be transparent in what we write to encourage readers to believe in us and build their trust.

Most people focus on defamatory statements, libel, and plagiarism when they think about ethics in writing. There’s more to it but first let’s look at these violations of ethical practice.

Defamation and Libel

According to NOLO, the legal self-help website, a statement that is defamatory tends to hold someone up to “scorn, hatred, ridicule, disgrace, or contempt in the mind of any considerable and respectable segment of the community.” Statements that are defamatory by themselves include

  • has committed a serious, notorious, or immoral crime
  • has an infectious or terrible disease, or
  • is incompetent in his/her job, trade, or profession.

These statements must have been said to third parties. They are defamatory because they are opinions not facts and can cause real damage to the target of the slur including harm to their reputation.

According to Legal Zoom, “libel is an untrue defamatory statement that is made in writing. Slander is an untrue defamatory statement that is spoken orally. The difference between defamation and slander is that a defamatory statement can be made in any medium. It could be in a blog comment or spoken in a speech or said on television. Libelous acts only occur when a statement is made in writing (digital statements count as writing) and slanderous statements are only made orally.” Ethical writing


Ethical writing also includes plagiarism, which occurs when a writer lifts a significant amount of information from another writer without proper attribution. Typically, someone who plagiarizes material adopts it for their own use and may make only occasional variations in wording. To avoid plagiarizing material from another writer, give credit where credit is due through a footnote. It’s also a good idea to mention in the text the name of the person whose writing has been taken.

A Broader View on Ethics in Writing

Ethics goes beyond libel and plagiarism. Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra in Australia, likens ethical writing to the idea that the written work of an author, whether in the form of a manuscript, research paper, or grant proposal, represents an implicit contract between the author and the reader whereby the reader assumes that the author is the sole originator of the written work, that any statements or ideas taken from other works are clearly identified as such by established scholarly conventions, and the ideas conveyed therein are accurately represented to the best of the author’s abilities.

The theft of words is an ethical crime especially for a writer. It is an affront to the writing community. Writing is an ethical activity and adhering to basic standards of good conduct can qualitatively strengthen the written word and make for a better writer but also make a writer a better person.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 7, 2019. Steve recently published a book titled Beyond Happiness and Meaning that explains the ethics of personal relationships,  workplace interactions and on social media activities. Visit Steve’s website, sign up for his newsletter, and buy his book on Amazon. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.