“We want yours to be the last set of eyes on this before it goes to print,” says the client.
I smile, because in my years as a freelance editor, proofreader, and copywriter, I’ve learned that being the last set of eyes is a position of great responsibility and trust. It means the client trusts me to deliver them from potential disaster—like the disaster of Melania Trump’s speech Monday at the Republican National Convention.
When it emerged that Melania Trump’s speech was cribbed almost verbatim from a speech Michelle Obama had given years before, the New York Times investigated. What they found was every editor and copywriter’s worst nightmare: the client had taken the speechwriters’ draft and rewritten almost all of it. No editorial process was followed after she did so.
In other words, the last eyes on that speech were Melania Trump’s—not those of the professional speechwriters the campaign had hired.
Professionals in that industry, the Times explains, have a thorough editorial process with “layers of formal scrutiny . . . traditionally applied to almost every draft of a major convention address,” including “word-by-word fact-checking by a dedicated team of experts and computer software designed to catch plagiarism.”
Was the speech plagiarized? Following Poynter’s helpful flowchart guide, it’s clear that it was. Was that intentional? I can’t say. It’s easy for the words of others to stay in our heads as we write; many authors even avoid reading texts in the same field while they’re working on a book, just so they won’t accidentally crib someone else’s phrasing or style.
Then again, there’s a long and sordid history of White people stealing and taking credit for African-American women’s creative work; as human rights activist Yasmin Yonis pointed out to the Times, “White women have spent centuries stealing black women’s genius, labor, babies, bodies.”
Either way, we can’t stop our writers from acting unethically or unprofessionally. We can only meet them with professionalism of our own—and take precautions to catch situations like this before they become public.
What can editorial professionals do to avoid situations like this?
- Build relationships of trust with our writers. When a writer works with a copyeditor, it’s not uncommon for them to view the relationship as almost adversarial. It’s normal to feel defensive about text that’s meant to represent who you are to the world. Our first task is to help them see us as facilitating them getting their message out, not as a know-it-all force that stands between them and their truth.
- Build safeguards into the process. Allow space for writers to question your work, make changes, and feel ownership over the text. It would be great if we could present them with a polished product, make a few tweaks here and there, and walk away. Sometimes it works that way. But if the client feels invested in “personalizing” a copywriter’s or a team’s work or making edits to their own work that could introduce plagiarism or other problems, as Trump clearly did, we can include allowing such changes as a step in the process—and make it clear from the beginning that we will still subject any text the client produces to the same editorial standards, by including as many review steps as needed in our workflow. (Don’t mention plagiarism—just let them know that you’d never let any text that hasn’t been rigorously edited go out under their name. That’s why they hired you, right?)
- Learn to let go. Editors have egos, just as writers do. It can be hard to see a writer reject your painstakingly crafted edits and replace them with something that isn’t as good. But you’re there to get the writer’s message out, so you need to listen and, if there are problems with the changes they make, find another way to achieve the same goal. Remember, the text belongs to the writer, even if you have to keep repeating to yourself the old saying: Not my circus, not my monkeys. The more the writer perceives you as unwilling to adapt your work to their needs, the more likely they are to do an end run around you—and, as Trump discovered, that rarely ends well.
- Don’t work with clients who don’t trust you. If you take steps to correct the problem and it still persists, it might be time for stronger measures. You can’t help someone who doesn’t allow you to do your job. If you’re a freelancer, this is the time to consider firing your client; if you’re working within an organization, this is the moment to take the issue up the chain of command and let your boss know that the writer in question could be a liability.
Whatever you think of the Trumps’ politics, it’s clear that not working professionally with their speechwriting team was a key part of their downfall here. So there’s a lesson for clients here, too:
If you hire a professional, trust their professional judgment. Your editor is a skilled professional. They might make it look easy, but years of craft and experience and knowledge go into the edits they provide you. If you don’t trust someone’s editorial judgment, don’t hire them; if you do trust it, listen to them. They’re there to prevent you from making a fool of yourself. They’re your last line of defense. Ignore them and you’re likely to end up with a typo-riddled website, a plot hole in your novel, or a plagiarized speech in front of a national audience. Make sure the last eyes that see your text are eyes trained to spot anything that might embarrass you.