Are You An Ethical Article Writer? Not If You Do These 4 Things

Carol Tice

Unethical writer making a dealBy Linda Formichelli

You’re an ethical writer — right?

You don’t rip off other writers, you charge fair rates, and you deliver what you promise.

Surprise: If you you’re an article writer for magazines and newspapers, there’s more — way more — to journalistic ethics that you need to know.

If you unwittingly commit an ethical faux pas, you could put your freelance writing career at risk. I committed one of these sins myself, as you’ll see below, and was banned from writing for what was a great magazine market for me.

So trust me, you want to stay out of ethical trouble. How?

Here are the top four mistakes that can brand you as an unethical writer:

1. Showing the source your goods

You interview a key source, and he asks if you can send him a copy of the article when it’s finished. Being a nice writer, you’re probably inclined to say yes.

Then, the source returns your draft with so much red ink it looks like he sacrificed a goat on it. He’s “corrected” your grammar. He’s deleted quotes from an interviewee who doesn’t agree with him. He’s even changed his own quotes, so they go from sparkling to PR-speak.

This, my friends, is an ethical problem.

Generally, sources should not be given the chance to approve or edit your story. So when a source asks to see a copy of your article when it’s done, the correct thing to say is, “Let me ask my editor what the magazine’s policy is.” Then you ask your editor.

In most cases, the editor will tell you that’s a no-no. If that happens, ask your editor how they fact-check articles, or if you can check the article yourself by calling the source and running the facts by him.

That way, you can tell the source — who is probably just nervous about being misquoted — that although the editor said you can’t share the full article, a fact checker will be calling him, or you’ll be calling yourself to go over the details.

Sometimes, the editor will give you the go-ahead to send the article — and in the case of some trade and custom publications, may even require it. Then you can send away and know that you covered your butt.

2. Double dipping

Being a smart writer, you like to get the most out of your work. So when you get an assignment to write about small business marketing for a trade magazine, the first source who comes to mind is a copywriting client of yours who happens to be — ta daa! — a marketing consultant.

You save yourself some legwork, and your copywriting client loves you even more. In fact, he even offers to pay you for getting him placed in the magazine. Everyone’s happy!

Well, except your editor, when she finds out.

Being on the payroll of both the magazine and your source is called “double dipping,” and it’s unethical. It looks like you’re not choosing the best source for your article — you’re choosing the one who pays you. It’s a conflict of interest.

As a journalist, you want to avoid even the appearance of bias. So even if your motives are pure, including a client of yours as a source is a no-go.

One other way double dipping happens: Often, writers end up chatting about their freelance writing activities to business sources they’re interviewing…and the conversation leads to the idea that the business owner would like to hire the writer to write for them.

As excited as you may be by the prospect of adding this business to your client roster, it’s not OK to go to work for a company you used as a story source — at least, not until that article has been published and is done.

3. Telling a story you love

I get a lot of writers in my e-courses who want to write about an issue that’s near and dear to their hearts. But sadly, when a writer is that close to a topic, they often can’t be objective about it, and their reporting suffers.

If you’re a staunch pro-choicer and you’re writing about an abortion issue for a general interest magazine, you may be tempted to not include an opposing viewpoint in your article. And even if you did interview one or two pro-lifers, you may not want to give them as much play in the piece.

I know, I know — you would never do that. You can write a fair and accurate article on any topic. I get that. But even so, we’re talking about the appearance of bias. Even if you wrote a balanced article on an abortion topic and it came out that you, say, run a pro-choice blog — the objectivity of the publication would be called into question.

4. Stealing from yourself

Okay, here’s the story you’ve been waiting for — the one that makes me look pretty bad.

Years ago, I read that if you want to re-sell an article you wrote, in order for the article to be considered original, it has to be 10 percent different from the old one.

I took this rule of thumb to heart. So when I sold an article on the financial benefits of being healthy to two non-competing publications — a health pub and a financial magazine — I wrote the article for the health mag first and then revised it for the financial one. It was 10 percent different, and I thought I was good to go!

Well, somehow the editor of the financial magazine — which was a GREAT client for me — found out and let me tell you, he was pissed. I never wrote for that magazine again, and I learned my lesson.

The actual rule is: If you want to write on a similar topic for two different magazines, the copy has to be completely different.

You should probably interview different sources, or at least use different quotes from the same interviews. Be sure not to reuse any of your copy — not even a sentence. Even if you think you’re in the clear, an editor using Copyscape may not think so.

Ever gotten into ethical trouble with an article? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

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  1. Melinda Crow

    Nice reminders on a complicated subject. Thanks

  2. Jonathan Holowka

    I was going to suggest using Copyscape for #4 to check your own work, but it looks like you already hit that particular point. Even back in University you weren’t allowed to double dip and reuse essays for multiple courses. Of course it was a lot harder to get caught when you were handing in hard copies, but still unethical regardless.

    • Carol Tice

      Hilariously, this morning I just got a note from a writer who’d interviewed me for a magazine — she asked me to promote it, but to be sure to use the fake name she uses with them because she really writes for a competing pub that would fire her if they knew. Really, people? Just don’t do this kind of stuff.

      • Sylvie

        lol geez! It’s hard enough to start up one writing business, I don’t get why anyone would want to build separate careers under 2 names to cheat their clients.

        • Carol Tice

          I know — trust me, making shady moves and deceiving clients is not how you build the kind of reputation where you earn well.

    • Linda Formichelli

      Actually, I hadn’t thought of using Copyscape on your OWN work. Great tip! Even if you are certain you’re safe, it never hurts to check.

      • Linda Formichelli

        Forgot to click the box to be notified of comments…

      • Lindsay Wilson

        Very, very good idea, Copyscaping your own stuff. When I worked for Textbroker one of the articles I wrote got booted back because it had failed Copyscape. It turned out that I had unwittingly worded one sentence very similar to a source, just because I had that wording in my head when I was writing. Textbroker automatically runs all its submissions through Copyscape, but when you’re in business for yourself, it’s up to you to make sure you’re not guilty of plagiarism of any type. Copyscape can save your backside. 🙂

  3. Cheryl Rhodes

    #4 – stealing from yourself. I’ve written for different publications about geocaching. A senior’s magazine, a dog magazine, a horse magazine, one of the AAA magazines, and a travel blog. Although each article is slanted to that readership or different caches are profiled, I have to steal from myself. There’s just not that many ways to say: go to and sign up for a free account. Same with a few other tips that might be included with the article, though I reword them so they’re not written exactly the same.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m not clear whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing, Cheryl!

      I’ve written some topics like this too, and yes, you’re recycling the topic — but as you note, every word needs to be rewritten. Topics and even headlines aren’t copyrightable, so you’re always free to reuse those.

      • Linda Formichelli

        And…I have had this same issue but I see it as part of my job as a writer to come up with new ways to say things, even when it seems impossible! I change word order, look up synonyms, add more info, etc.

        • Carol Tice

          I have this one highly technical business topic — how to do ratio analysis of your financial statements. I’ve done it 3-4 times over the years, and it was the toughtest to not self-plagiarize, as it has mathematical formulas! But sometimes I’d write them on a line, sometimes in columns, sometimes as words and sometimes as figures. Just gotta keep making it fresh.

  4. Rebecca Klempner

    I really appreciate any article about running a writing career with your principles intact, and getting advice from Linda Formichelli is always amazing–she’s really one of the best in the biz. I immediately shared the post upon reading it.

    However, I have a question about “Telling a story you love:” Are you only talking about features? Because a reported essay about an issue that’s dear to you would show your bias transparently, wouldn’t it? It’s only in a feature that the reader would assume objectivity.

    • Linda Formichelli

      Thanks for the kind words! Yes, for essays it’s not as important to be objective. It’s all about you, baby! With a *reported* essay an editor might as you to get quotes to represent both sides of the story, but I haven’t seen that happen in my experience.

  5. Rob

    I regularly interview expat business owners for an American magazine that likes lots of quotes. When I go home and start writing, I often have to paraphrase what I’ve recorded, so I always let them read my first draft, to be sure I haven’t put words in their mouth. I can’t see how that’s unethical. It beats cherry-picking quotes and using them in a misleading context.

    • Linda Formichelli

      That’s a good thought, but as a professional writer you should know how to paraphrase quotes without changing their meaning. In MOST articles you write in your career you’ll be paraphrasing quotes. Also, do ask your editors what their policy is…the fact is, many magazines simply don’t allow their writers to show articles to the sources before publication.

  6. Sune

    I was so sure that I was in the clear, but after some thought I’ve come to realize that I am definitely guilty of number 3 – I need to learn to be less biased. lol

  7. Elke Feuer

    Not yet, but thanks for this information Carol so I don’t slip up. 🙂

  8. Linda H

    I’ve used Copyscape before and it’s a gem of a work tool. And I’m aware of the ethics associated with all this. I’ve always wondered how to deal with #1, so thanks for those tips. And #4 is also great, I’m aware of assuring any copying is paraphrased so it’s totally different yet says the same. These are similar issues to what I ran into years ago when I wrote for several different magazines. Great tips, Carol, thanks for posting.

    • Linda H

      Oops, I thought Carol wrote this one, sorry Linda. But you two work so well in tandem it seems like your a reflection of each other in many ways. Always giving us the greatest tips. Great post, thanks for sharing.

      • Linda Formichelli

        No problem! Happy to be on as a guester.

  9. Willi Morris

    Thanks for bringing J-school tenets to the masses! This is exactly what I was taught and when I worked for a newspaper, these were actually written and unwritten policies. Plagiarizing yourself is a new one. I can definitely see how that’d be an issue.

    • Linda Formichelli

      I’m glad to hear we’re in line with what reporters learn at newspapers! A lot of these rules I learned on my own through experience and also reading up on journalism ethics over the years.

  10. Alex Taylor

    Hey Carol,

    Glad to know that I am a ethical article writer as I am far away from these 4 thing 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this interesting post.

  11. Michael Smith

    I think plagiarism usually involves the use of writings belonging to others. The term can be applied to copying of part of own previous published study by a scientist without appropriate citation. Such self-plagiarism is not tolerable in academic writing because authors are supposed to mention closely related previous work in appropriate manner.

  12. Ariella Brown

    On double-dipping, I didn’t connect the term with the practice, though it struck me as unethical when someone approached me on LinkedIn to do just that.

    As for reusing content, I’ve read other articles recommending doing just that to slice and dice one article and repurpose it for multiple publications. But I’m very cautious about such things. One time I wanted to write about the same topic for two publications, but 1) told my editor that I had already written about it for another publication and let him see it and 2) made sure to take a completely different angle on the topic and draw on different examples. The two turned out quite different, but I still made sure to not go ahead without my editor’s knowledge and OK.

    • Linda Formichelli

      Oh yes, you should TOTALLY slice and dice your articles to get more mileage out of them! The secrets are (1) Don’t sell similar topics to competing magazines, and (2) don’t reuse ANY of your actual writing.


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