Confidentiality, and debriefing, when 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.

Writing or editing sensitive or explicit material

Many people’s work entails writing or editing sensitive or explicit 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, 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.

When producing transcripts of oral histories or interviews, or editing and producing a self-published book of their stories, I listen at an in depth level – to not just the words, but the voice behind the words. This allows me to accurately relay their message and voice through the words of their memoir or life story. Whether they have spoken their story and I’ve typed it, or they have written the story down themselves and I’m their editor, when editing and compiling their book, I make sure their voice is strong, throughout the book.

When I began to document oral histories and compile books of life stories in the 1990s, I was profoundly affected by vicarious trauma through my  work.

Debriefing with someone – whether that be a mentor, a manager or a colleague, or professional counsellor or psychologist – can help you avoid, mitigate and/or manage vicarious trauma.


We all need to debrief at times, especially when working with sensitive or explicit subject matter. But we still need to maintain confidentiality.

Debriefing within a team

You can only divulge confidential information to a person who is authorised to access that information. For example, if you are working in a team, you wouldn’t share confidential information with another staff member but you could share it with your team leader or supervisor.

If you’re uncomfortable or upset by the explicit or sensitive information you’ve been dealing with you should always seek help by debriefing with the most appropriate person, who is generally your direct supervisor or team leader. If they don’t give you the support you need, you can seek professional help (i.e. call a confidential helpline, or book an appointment with a counsellor).

Debriefing when you work alone (e.g. freelance editor or writer)

If you’re a sole trader or freelancer, you’re working alone and you may not  have a mentor, or anyone else with whom it’s appropriate to debrief.

The below advice is based on my own experiences of vicarious trauma and the need to debrief with someone, while maintaining confidentiality.

  • 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 best person to talk to about what you are going through without breaching confidentiality is a professional counsellor, coach or mentor.
  • 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 – without disclosing any details of the information or client. The support from that network really did help, both in a moral support way, and in terms of practical advice and tips for how to manage the problem.
  • 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. See: Symptoms of vicarious trauma.
How I debrief with my team of typists and editors

On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading has a team of scribes (typists) and editors, being myself and a small team of Australian-based contractors. 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 the task back to me to deal with myself.
  • if they find the subject matter a little difficult but wish to complete the task themselves, they can continue with the task, as long as they communicate with me while they are doing it so that I can make sure they are okay. That is, they need to 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 is helpful when the topic is difficult. If any contractor working on the project were to be affected negatively by a job, I would advise them to seek professional advice.
  • a contractor must not breach their signed Confidentiality Agreement with On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading. The only people to whom they can disclose details about the material they are working on are myself, a professional counsellor or another professional (e.g. a formal mentor).

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.

On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading maintains confidentiality in regard to clients’ personal information. For more information see:  Confidentiality and Australia’s Privacy Act.

Image: Licenced use purchased from Adobe Stock October 2023.

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