Why editors should know about PRINCE2

Last updated 13 June 2023

It’s rare to hear clients or editorial project managers explicitly talk about using PRINCE2 (or indeed any specific project management methodology). So why should editors should know about PRINCE2?

Well chances are, you’re probably already using PRINCE2’s ideas in much of your editorial work – even if you’ve never heard of it.

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I know this because, having spent the past couple of years getting myself qualified as a PRINCE2 Practitioner, I’ve had plenty of time to see how it works. And almost none of what I learned was truly new to me – it turns out that in my ten-plus years of editorial project management prior to getting qualified, I was essentially learning to use PRINCE2.

(This is backed up by the research I carried out before embarking on PRINCE2. I found that it was the most common project management qualification (versus PMP) among people in my UK-based LinkedIn network.)

So let’s look at why I think most editors would benefit from knowing something about PRINCE2.

(Note: I am wholly unaffiliated with any organisation with any stake in PRINCE2. I’m writing this post simply to share my experience with the methodology.)

Using the seven principles of PRINCE2 in editorial projects

If you only ever spend five minutes learning about PRINCE2, spend them understanding the seven principles. These are:

  • Continued business justification
  • Learn from experience
  • Defined roles and responsibilities
  • Manage by stages
  • Manage by exception
  • Focus on products
  • Tailor to suit the project

Let’s look at these in more detail and explore how they relate to editorial work.

Continued business justification

This principle is about the ‘why’ – why does the project exist? The ‘why’ doesn’t have to be commercial, although in many cases it will be. The key thing is that the project must have a defined set of benefits that are considered worth a certain outlay of money (the project costs).

In the editorial world, these benefits commonly fall into the following categories:

  • for the publisher: revenue, reputational gain, building joint endeavours with other bodies (e.g. museums, professional societies)
  • for the author: income, reputational gain, career advancement, a sense of contributing to the body of human knowledge/art, personal satisfaction
  • for the reader: enjoyment, information, practical support with a problem

These lists are not exhaustive, but you get the idea.

Editorial professionals must constantly keep these expected benefits (and any others relevant to the specific project) in mind to ensure they are supporting the publisher’s and author’s goals. For example, if an issue arises that might threaten the publisher’s revenue (by increasing the project’s cost) or that might affect the author’s reputation (such as language that their target readers might find inappropriate), it’s important to let the project manager know. This enables those with an overview of the project to assess the potential impact of your concerns.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that you, as an editorial professional (such as a proofreader), will have your own business justification for agreeing to take part in a project. Whatever the benefits you value (e.g. achieving a certain hourly rate, developing a relationship with the client, enhancing your professionalism in a specific area), ensure you don’t lose sight of them as the project progresses.

Learn from experience

Being free to learn from experience is something I particularly value about running a small business. I continually apply lessons from projects with one client to projects with other clients, and I learn better over time what specific clients want from me. As a result, I’m constantly updating my checklists and workflow-tracking documents to help me run projects more proactively and decisively.

This principle applies whatever your role in an editorial project. It’s about consciously and actively working to offer your clients a service that strives to meet (and even anticipate or exceed) their needs. And, at the same time, it’s about improving the efficiency of your own business.

Defined roles and responsibilities

This principle is about avoiding chaos. It entails making sure everybody clearly understands their role and how they relate to others within the team, so all necessary work areas are completed and effort isn’t wasted by two people doing the same tasks. 

As an editorial professional, you can use this principle to remind you to be very clear about a project’s lines of reporting and responsibility. Sooner or later in your career, you’ll find yourself pulled in two different directions – for example, with your client requiring one approach and the author demanding another. What do you do in such cases? Your client’s brief (assuming it’s a good one) should be your first port of call. If not, if things get complex, it’s important to query your client so you’re crystal clear where they consider your remit to start and end.

Manage by stages

This principle is simple but powerful. What it boils down to is that:

  • A project’s tasks should be divided into stages, with the dependencies (relationships) between the tasks clearly understood.
  • If at any point if becomes necessary to deviate from the agreement (say, move the indexing to a later stage), this should be explicitly agreed by everyone concerned after a comprehensive discussion of the implications.

Following this principle reduces the chance of key tasks being forgotten or half-done, meaning things are less likely to be screwed up further down the line.

It’s important to be aware of how your tasks relate to others in a project (even if you’re not exactly aware of the ‘stage’ structure) so that you can contribute helpfully to any discussions about how the project work is organised. I wrote about understanding your role in an editorial team (even if you never communicate with some of your colleagues) here and here.

Manage by exception

This principle ensures that nobody wastes time trying to micromanage anyone else or making requests that effectively add up to a request to be micromanaged. It requires two things:

  • The manager of the project must provide a good brief that lays down what is expected of the specialists.
  • The specialists (e.g. copyeditors, designers, copyright experts) must report back to the manager if they exceed (or forecast that they will exceed) what is expected.

PRINCE2 focuses on the concept of tolerances (e.g. ‘finish the stage by 21 June +/- two days’ or ‘budget of £700 for illustration with scope to increase by 10% if needed’). You might not have such explicit tolerances, but you should have a good idea from your client of what they require in terms of time, cost, quality, scope and so on.

From the specialist’s point of view, having clear expectations means being able to get on with doing what they do best without unnecessary distractions. It gives clarity on when it is necessary to escalate an issue and when to just handle it.

From the manager’s point of view, knowing the specialist understands when to involve them (if required) means they can step back and trust the specialist to do their job diligently. And, crucially, the manager can then devote their attention to those parts of the project that best suit their skillset without distraction.

Focus on products

This is possibly my favourite of the PRINCE2 principles. It’s about clearly understanding the ‘product’ you’re producing (whether that’s a report, a website, a children’s picture book, an academic monograph or whatever) and how its attributes will enable the project to realise its anticipated benefits (the continued business justification – see above). This means understanding the market and readership of the book, and what both of them require and desire.

This principle avoids the project wasting resources on features that don’t justify the attention. For a perspective on how this might apply in the editorial world, see my post on editorial midwifery, which looks at why excessive attention to the language of a text can be a detriment. An unbalanced degree of focus on one aspect of a project is likely to lead to others being neglected.

Tailor to suit the project

PRINCE2 can handle any size of project (see this post by Peter Richards on the Rebel’s Guide to Project Management blog for a couple of large-scale examples). Used to the fullest extent, it has a bewildering menu of documentation options. But, subject to some basic minimum requirements, you’re encouraged to tailor it to the size and context of your project.

On any project, ensuring that the methodologies, terminology, and tools are proportionate and appropriate helps to ensure the right tasks get done, with no redundancy and without bloat. Whether I’m working in a close-knit author–editor dyad or as part of a multinational team of hundreds of authors and editorial professionals, I always strive to make sure my workflows and communication support the project and don’t overwhelm my colleagues.

In my view, understanding the principles of PRINCE2 is an asset for anybody in the editorial world, regardless of whether they are ever actually asked to use the methodology. These are sound ideas that will keep you focused on your clients’ goals and help you to maintain a holistic understanding of any project while also being mindful of the nitty-gritty (I like to call this ‘seeing the wood and the trees’).

Even if you never read anything about PRINCE2 again, consider keeping these seven principles at the back of your mind – chances are, your clients will thank you.

Are you looking for a PRINCE2 Practitioner project manager who works with text? I have over ten years of experience working with teams of all sizes – from mini to massive. Get in touch if you’d like to discuss how I could contribute to your project.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, 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. Audrey Winterbottom on 17 June 2022 at 02:06

    So interesting. When you have managed projects previously the thought of undertaking PRINCE2 training can seem undesirable. This, however, make a good case for doing so or at the very least applying your potted summary.

    • Hazel Bird on 17 June 2022 at 06:58

      Glad you found the post interesting, Audrey. Indeed, there’s perhaps an argument to be made that the more experienced a PM, the more useful it is to have a quick summary of the essentials to hand. I find the reminder to focus on the ‘why’ particularly valuable when projects are getting tricky.

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