Setting Boundaries for Editing Disturbing Content: Negotiating Terms & Self-Care

Setting Boundaries for Editing Disturbing Content: Negotiating Terms & Self-Care

For months, Kara Cowan edited presentations on women’s reproductive health for continuing medical education. “I don’t know what goes on down there,” she often commented. “And I don’t want to.” That topic might not be disturbing if she didn’t have to delve into it so deeply, give it such close attention, for so long.

“It’s funny because I want to focus on medical editing, but I am so easily grossed out!” Stahl said from her in-house position in Canada. “I always joke that I would prefer it if our internal organs were fuzzy and Muppet-like.”

Potato/Potato-monster: Everything Is Disturbing to Someone, and Editors Get in deeper

In discussing with colleagues the ins and outs, ups and downs of working on disturbing content, I found it eye opening to see how each of us is touched subjects that others are not. We each have our own triggers, our own “icks”, and sometimes things one person sees as dispassionate objective facts reminds another person of some trauma or makes them imagine a possible trauma, and they just can’t handle the work. In mental health circles, this is called vicarious trauma, and editors may be more susceptible to it than the average reader simply because we delve so deeply into a manuscript and for so long.

I mean, if readers can mourn the end of a book because they know they won’t see beloved characters again, imagine how intensely editors might feel the same effects. I still haven’t resumed watching House of Cards since they killed off my favourite character. I’m still tantruming. While a reader might skim our publication among a thousand other things, we editors pore over that manuscript for weeks and months as it goes through development, reviews, more research, copy editing, design, and proofreading.

Finding Your Topical Boundaries

cover of Verification Handbook
The Verification Handbook is available as a free download in ePub, PDF, and mobi formats in four languages as well as English. It is an initiative of the European Journalism Centre, edited by Craig Silverman.

Me, I decided that I just don’t have the social and emotional resources to take on work I find truly disturbing. You might feel that way too. Sometimes there is just not enough chocolate in the world.

A diagnostic manual on mental health? No problem. Violence in the Bourne Conspiracy? I’m fine. Anecdotes in a journal article about the objects that people “get stuck inside themselves;” whatev’s. But ask me to edit A Clockwork Orange or tales of climbing disasters, animal abuse, or long-term abductions, and I’m outta there. I can handle all kinds of medical ickiness, but make it about child birth or eye surgery and I’m reaching for the stash of air sickness bags.

Topics that hit close to home seem to be the toughest. What I see as a dispassionate first aid manual, another editor personalizes—imagining every scenario happening to the people they love. “Sometimes you have to edit disturbing topics, and they can get to you” wrote Gavin Reese in the Verification Handbook. Among the tips he shares that journalists use to mitigate these effects of working on disturbing materials, Reese relays this advice:

Pay attention to your reactions. You may not even know that a subject will disturb you until you’re well into the edit. Start that self-care as soon as you can.”

Gavin Reese in the Verification Handbook by Craig Silverman, Ed.

Drawing the Line: Negotiate Your Boundaries

a weather-worn thatch hut sits in the middle of a lush hedge maze

In-house editors like Stahl may have little-to-no choice about the work they are given. Talking to the boss is always a good idea; if employees can’t get out of the offending work, the self-care section below might help, and they might ask HR to pay for it. Freelancers, however, are at liberty to set much stronger boundaries. At the lightest end of the scale, that might be requiring that your manuscripts come with “trigger” warnings. At the heaviest, it just means “no.”

“I and my friend have developed Terms and Conditions that tell people what we won’t handle,” said Liz Dexter, an editor in the UK. “Then if there is that [topic] in the thing, we can say ‘oh you didn’t tell me it included that’ and give ourselves the right to refuse. It’s taken a few horrors to get to that point, though!”

Being primarily a science resource editor myself, it’s the “few horrors to get there” part of this system that I’m missing. Even writing out a list of topics that horrify me—that thought is horrifying in itself. Plus, I hesitate to emphasize the negative by listing the things I won’t edit. That feels much like arriving at the water park to the roof-high billboard listing “don’ts”—a total downer. So if this boundary needs to be set, it will be a conversation between me and the writer/client.

Care and Feeding at the Editing Desk

Some editors cope by telling themselves that getting the story (or resource) out there will make the world a better place. You hear this kind of sentiment from journalists, often.

Others ramp up the good in their lives. They call their mothers more, they take extra breaks, they drop any entertainment (including news and scrolling) that is too dramatic, violent, or depressing (so long, Walking Dead!). They book a vacation, mini holiday, or massage/therapy for the day after deadline.

“Or at least choose fun, upbeat things to read — humorous short stories, comics collections, uplifting magazines,” Ruth E. Thaler-Carter advises. “Try to find projects, maybe short ones, of a more cheerful nature to break up the depressing nature of these and their impact on you.”

What they’re doing is called self-care. We should be doing it always, but it needs even more attention when work makes us emotional. Sleeping well (as much as possible), taking frequent breaks, get out in nature, put in extra effort to connect with people you care about, watch the reels and shows that make you laugh out loud.

Abigail Whitney recommends this resource that she proofread years ago: Essential Self-Care for Caregivers and Helpers. “It goes into significant detail about this issue and how it can be managed,” she says. Some of these ideas for improving your workweek from the Poynter Institute might help too.

And that “feeding” part of this heading isn’t just catchy: make sure you’re eating well and staying hydrated. Order a meal service, if that helps you eat better or reduces outside demands. Find a longer list of practical tips in this earlier post.

close up on the face of a kid kid blowing bubbles underwater while wearing water wings & goggles

Relaxation hack: Blow bubbles. This not only forces you to take some deep, slow breaths, but the bubbles are delightful. Being silly can release a lot of tension—for you, and for those around you. Pair this with swimming and you’ll get some exercise in, too!” — From the self-care tips in the post on surviving too much work.

Reflecting on Limits

Does that mean that a giant sign of “editing don’ts” is on my “do not edit” list? I really do see the value in knowing my limits rather than being devastated by discovering them haphazardly. Thinking about topics and scenes I might not want to edit is going on my to do list.

Do you know what subjects you’d find disturbing to edit? What flags do you look for when considering projects? Do you use terms and conditions to address subject matter in your contracts? How do you feel about turning down work? If you work in-house (employee rather than freelance), do you even have the option of turning down work?

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