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Debriefing and confidentiality, when writing or editing sensitive or explicit material

Maintaining confidentiality

If you’re working in a position where you’ve got access to your clients’ private information (such as their life stories or researched information), it’s essential to maintain confidentiality in regard to your clients and all their information. For more about this. See: How to maintain confidentiality.

Writing or editing sensitive or explicit material

Many people’s work entails writing or editing sensitive or explicit (violent or sexual) subject matter; e.g. through my editing and life stories roles, I’ve scribed/written, and/or edited, reports and publications about domestic violence, war experiences, child sexual abuse, suicide, serious accidents, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental illnesses, and other subjects that have impacted me at the time I’ve been doing the work, and afterwards.

Whether I’m producing transcripts of oral histories or interviews, then editing and producing a self-published book of their stories, I listen carefully and comprehend everything I type – not just the words but also the ‘voice behind the words’. This allows me to accurately type then edit what they have said to get their message and their voice across to their audience. Whether they have spoken their story and I’ve typed it, or whether they have written the story down themselves, when I am editing and compiling the storyteller’s stories into a book, I almost have to ‘become them’ to make sure their voice (not mine, at all) is heard strongly, all the way through.

Over the years, since beginning to document oral histories and compile books of life stories in the mid-nineties, I have felt the impact of vicarious trauma), we don’t have a boss or anyone else to whom we can debrief.

The below advice is based on my own experiences of vicarious trauma.

If you work alone (are your own ‘boss’) and think you need to debrief about the work you have been doing, please note:

  • It is not appropriate to debrief with a client to help you deal with the sensitive or explicit nature of the material the client has written or spoken, because they may be traumatised by the material themselves.
  • The person you choose to be your ‘ear’, i.e. the person to whom you can safely talk about what you are going through, will need to be somebody you can talk to without breaching confidentiality; e.g. a professional counsellor, or formal coach or mentor.
  • Check whether you are being ‘triggered’ about anything in the  material (e.g. if the subject matter brings up memories of any negative or traumatic experiences or grief that you have had in your life).
  • You can ‘debrief’ to an extent to colleagues, friends or family without disclosing confidential material. For example, I have shared with my professional editor’s network that I am going through a challenging time due to vicarious trauma. The support that came back to me from that network was amazing and really did help, both in a warm fuzzy feelings way, and in practical advice and tips for how to feel better.
  • Whether  you need to debrief with a mentor/coach, or a professional counsellor or psychologist, will depend on how uncomfortable or upset you are feeling (i.e. the extent of the vicarious trauma you are feeling), but
  • If you feel you are being affected by your work, seek help sooner than later. Don’t wait until you are seriously affected (e.g. drinking heavily, withdrawing from others or having trouble sleeping) before contacting a professional counsellor or psychologist to help you deal with your work. 

How we debrief at On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading

On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading has a team of scribes (typists) and editors, being myself and a small team of Australian-based contractors. We produce transcripts, edit and design self-published books (mainly memoirs), scribe and write reports, edit and design reports, write (type) life stories in the storyteller’s own words, and compile and produce self-published books.

Most of the work we do is not sensitive or explicit in nature but some of it is, so we need to know how to deal with it. If the subject matter of a recording of an interview, or a client’s written story, or the subject of a report that needs editing, is explicit or sensitive, I advise my contractors the following.

  • if they find subject matter at all difficult or disturbing, they should ‘give back’ the task to me to deal with myself. (This is because I don’t want to be responsible for asking someone to do something that may affect their mental health in a negative way.)
  • if they find the subject matter a little difficult but wish to complete the task themselves, they can continue with the task, but on the proviso that they communicate (verbally) with me while they are doing it so that I can make sure they are okay. That is, I make sure they debrief regularly. If we are both working on the same project (e.g. I may have done the structural edit and they are doing the copy edit) we can share our feelings about it with one another, which can be really helpful when the topic is difficult. After the project everyone who has worked on it (e.g. editors, typesetters) debriefs about it together (via Zoom). If any contractor working on the project is affected negatively, e.g. are suffering any of the symptoms listed here, I advise them to seek professional help (e.g. talk to their GP about a mental health plan).
  • a contractor must not breach their signed Confidentiality Agreement with On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading. The only people to whom they can disclose information about the material they are working on are myself, a professional counsellor or another suitable person (e.g. a formal mentor).

For most of my life, I didn’t consider going to see a counsellor because of the stigma. But over the past year or so, I have learned how helpful professional counselling can be, and nowadays, I am willing to seek professional support from a counsellor when I need to. Counselling has helped me in my ongoing learning journey about living with, and healing from, vicarious trauma.

Take my advice: even if you are only suffering a little from vicarious trauma/anxiety, go and see a counsellor.

Maintaining a healthy balance

If you work alone and are working with sensitive or explicit subject matter, you can try these tips for looking after your mental health, during and after working with the material:  Rules for managing vicarious trauma.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is especially important when you’re working with subject matter that’s sensitive or explicit. One aspect of ensuring your life is  balanced is making sure you leave work at work where it belongs. Read more articles at: Work-life balance.

Note: On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading maintains confidentiality in regard to other people’s private information. We are also legally required to maintain confidentiality because we have opted in (voluntarily) to be covered by Australia’s Privacy Laws. For more information see: Blog: Confidentiality and Australia’s Privacy Act.


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