Psychological safety in editorial work: better results through empowerment

Last updated 15 November 2022

HBR defines psychological safety as allowing for ‘moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off’.

In the professional sphere, it’s about trust, openness and confidence that we will receive a reasonable and proportionate response when we raise questions or concerns with our colleagues.

As a project manager, it’s something I try to establish in all my projects. And it’s a concept that I think we need more of in the editorial world, particularly in client–freelancer relationships, where the success of a project often hinges on speedily establishing a collaborative working relationship from scratch.

People shaking hands while standing on others' shoulders

Why is psychological safety important in editorial work?

Let’s consider an example of how problems can arise on an editorial project when somebody feels they can’t ask a question.

A proofreader has been engaged to proofread an academic book and liaise with the author to collate the author’s corrections with their own. The project manager (PM) has provided the proofreader with a brief, which includes the instruction to ‘follow APA style’. However, as the proofreader works their way through the job, they realise that an aspect of APA style has not been followed.

The proofreader is nervous about contacting the PM because their project handover was quite brusque and they give the impression of being very busy. Therefore, as the proofreader is already in touch with the author on a regular basis, and the author is friendly and approachable, they ask the author whether the particular aspect of APA style should be followed. The author emphatically says ‘yes’. As the author’s answer correlates with the PM’s instruction to follow APA style, the proofreader decides to go ahead and mark the necessary changes throughout the proofs. This results in around 30% more corrections than there would otherwise have been.

When the PM receives the proofs, they are aghast at how many corrections they contain. They weren’t aware of this particular detail of APA style and they know the publisher won’t want the corrections to be made. However, when the PM broaches the topic with the author, the author insists on the corrections being kept, on the basis that they were agreed with the proofreader, whom the author sees as the publisher’s representative.

The publisher feels they have no option but to make the changes for the good of their relationship with the author. However, because of the extra work involved, it has to pay higher fees to the typesetter (to implement the corrections) and the revised-proofs checker (to ensure they have been made accurately). Additionally, the corrections cause text to move between pages, meaning that the indexer has to be paid to update the index.

These extra costs reduce the commercial viability of the book. Furthermore, extra corrections mean a higher chance of errors being introduced through commission or omission, so the quality of the book is at risk.

This example – which is fabricated but drawn from real experience in the editorial world – shows the kinds of problems that can arise when editorial professionals don’t feel they can ask pertinent questions.

What can be done to increase psychological safety in editorial work?

To answer this question, let’s consider some of the things the project manager and proofreader could have done differently in the above example.

The project manager

Undoubtedly, the project manager was genuinely busy and probably didn’t mean to seem unapproachable. They may even have included a phrase such as ‘let me know of any queries’ in their handover email. But such phrases can come across as perfunctory, leaving a freelancer unsure of how welcome queries would actually be.

Especially when I first start working with a supplier, I always emphasise that questions are not just allowed but encouraged. I explain that I would much rather answer questions now than risk problematic misunderstandings arising later.

This is partly because I’m aware that I’m not infallible – I might have omitted something important from my brief or written something ambiguous. Or the freelancer’s prior industry experience may mean that they are used to different (but valid) norms of working, with the result that they interpret my instructions differently from how I intend.

PM tip

Especially when I’m working with multiple copy-editors, I tend to specify a day of the week for freelancers to send me style sheet updates and queries. That way, freelancers know that I’m expecting queries, which may help to overcome any doubts about whether I have time to answer them.

The proofreader

In many ways, the proofreader followed a logical and conscientious decision-making process. Nevertheless, their nervousness about contacting the project manager played a significant role in their decision.

If they had set aside their nervousness, they might have decided that raising a query would be the safest option. This might have taken some courage, if the project manager really did give off a hostile air when handing over the project. But sometimes asking questions is not only about the good of the project but also about looking out for ourselves. The fallout for the proofreader from this scenario could be severe – anything up to losing the client entirely.

So sometimes it’s necessary to grit our teeth, make our enquiry as concise and quick-to-answer as possible, and just ask. In a sense, it’s about creating our own space of psychological safety, even if others aren’t creating one for us.

PM tip

Even when others aren’t granting us psychological safety, to an extent we can create it for ourselves. We can ask the questions we feel we should, understanding that others may not react optimally but that it’s not our job to mitigate their reaction as long as we’re asking professionally relevant questions in a well-thought-out way.

But where does ‘asking questions’ end and ‘bothering the project manager’ start?

What is ‘too many’ questions will vary from project to project and from individual to individual, so it’s impossible to answer this question definitively. In my experience, though, when there are too many questions, it is usually a symptom of an underlying problem.

I would argue that in many cases, fixing this problem sits within the control of the project manager, not the freelancer. For example:

  • Wrong freelancer: the freelancer and the project might not be well suited to each other, such that the freelancer is unfamiliar with the type of work and has to ask many basic questions. Project managers can do a lot to avoid this possibility by giving a full and accurate picture of the project to the freelancer when proposing the project, so that the freelancer can decide whether they have the necessary time, skills and capacity.
  • Insufficient context: if it’s an important project, if it’s had a difficult history or if there’s something else unusual about it, the freelancer needs to know. Context can add nuance to a freelancer’s decision-making process, better enabling them to judge which questions to ask and when.
  • Insufficiently established expectations: a house style document is not a brief. A proper brief establishes the freelancer’s remit and ideally gives examples of what sorts of issues the freelancer should raise with the project manager.

Psychological safety is a vital part of any editorial project

Let’s consider a second and final example.

A copy-editor is sent a manuscript written by an author who is prominent in their field. It’s well written and the referencing seems solid: the style is consistently implemented and the author’s assertions seem to have citations where appropriate. However, in checking the references, the copy-editor notices that many of them have newer editions. Crucially, nothing is incorrect. However, the copy-editor wonders whether updating the references might make the book more current, more relevant to readers and therefore a better product for the publisher.

When the project manager (PM) handed the project over to the copy-editor, they made clear that the project and the author were highly important to the publisher. The author should be sent as few queries as possible, and minimal changes should be made to the script. Additionally, because of the importance of the project, the PM let the copy-editor know that they wanted to be involved in decision-making and be told about any unexpected issues.

Had the PM only mentioned the importance of the author and the need for minimal changes, the copy-editor might have assumed the old references were acceptable and left them alone. However, because the PM took pains to establish a collegial relationship with the freelancer, and because the PM stated how important the book was to the publisher, the copy-editor feels comfortable sending the PM a quick query asking whether the old references need to be updated.

The PM consults with the publisher’s commissioning editor (CE), who has a long-established relationship with the author. When the CE tactfully asks the author about the old references, it turns out that they are an oversight by a PhD student who helped with the references at an earlier stage. The author is pleased to have had the issue spotted and offers to mark the necessary updates on the edited manuscript when they receive it from the copy-editor. The PM passes this information on to the copy-editor, thanks them for noticing the issue so it could be fixed at a stage when it will cause minimal problems, and reiterates that further queries are welcome.

The outcome is that the publisher and CE get a more relevant product, the author avoids the risk of reviewers commenting on their sources being out of date, the PM gets to avoid complications at proof stage, and the copy-editor boosts their reputation with their client as a conscientious freelancer who offers added value.

Again, this is a contrived example. But it illustrates how, when people are made to feel they can point out when things don’t seem right, problems can be dealt with at the optimal time and quality can be improved.


Psychological safety is about giving people the information they need to make sensible decisions, and then allowing them the space to communicate when those decisions lead to valid questions. Sometimes it can be about courage too – about giving ourselves psychological safety.

Ultimately, wherever possible, it should be an ongoing collaborative process, whether the client–freelancer relationship is short term or expected to last well into the future.

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About Hazel Bird

Hazel works with non-fiction clients around the world to help them deliver some of their most prestigious publications in areas such as charity and peace work, digital and technology, and business and leadership. An editor since 2007, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.


  1. Sally Asnicar on 11 March 2020 at 23:22

    Excellent article, Hazel. I admit it wasn’t what I expected when I read the title: I thought it would be an article about protecting oneself from the psychological effects of working on traumatic material (self-care). I was pleased to read it though, because what it boils down to is communication. A lack of clear and open communication can lead to assumptions and misunderstandings. What can start as a relatively minor issue needing clarification, can snowball in a serious problem.

    • Hazel Bird on 12 March 2020 at 06:14

      Thanks, Sally, and I’m glad you found the article helpful despite it not being what you expected! (Although I guess there’s an element of self-care in what I call ‘giving ourselves psychological safety’.) I absolutely agree with you that it boils down to communication – and confidence to raise issues before they become big ones.

  2. Amanda Harman, the Naked Editor on 12 March 2020 at 08:08

    Great article, Hazel. Really important points, well made.

  3. […] written here about how psychological safety (i.e. an environment of openness where questions are encouraged) […]

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