A starter guide to content warnings

by gigigriffis

What is a content warning?

A content warning (or trigger warning) is a notice about potentially sensitive content. It gives people with mental health triggers or past trauma a way to either prepare themselves or opt out if the content is too much for them.

It’s like in the movie industry when something comes up as “rated R for violence and language”—the warning gives you a sense of what is coming and whether it’s for you.

Common content warnings

This is not an all-inclusive list, but typically, you’ll want to include a content warning if your book includes things like:

  • Graphic or explicit violence/death on page
  • Self-harm, suicide, or suicidal thoughts
  • Sexual violence
  • Racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc.
  • Hate speech or slurs
  • Stalking or harassment
  • Violence toward animals
  • Abuse
  • Incest
  • Eating disorders, fatphobia, or dysphoria
  • Graphic medical descriptions or bodily fluids (esp. blood, vomit, or birth described on page)
  • Death of/harm to a child
  • Miscarriage or abortion
  • Drug/alcohol abuse/addiction

This includes both when you depict those things on page and when they are backstory or character fears (or otherwise internalized). For example, if you have a character who is anxious about dying and thinks about it often, even if there is no death on page, you may want to include something like “death anxiety.”

How to write content warnings

Do get specific

Including a content warning for violence may be helpful. But including a more specific warning like “domestic physical abuse” or “police violence” is often more helpful. Some people can watch Die Hard, no problem, but want to avoid depictions of domestic abuse, child abuse, or police violence because of their individual backgrounds or traumas.

Similarly, a content warning for OCD doesn’t give the reader as much information as a content warning for “intrusive thoughts about self-harm.”

Don’t use identities as triggers

OCD is not a trigger—it’s a diagnosis. But the intrusive thoughts that come with OCD can be triggering and are worth noting. Same thing for other identities. PTSD shouldn’t be listed as a content warning, but “flashbacks to sexual violence” might. Disability shouldn’t be listed as a trigger, but a violent on-page accident that leads to said disability might.

Don’t stress out about it

There is simply no way to know every trigger for every person. Do your best to think about what in your manuscript might feel traumatic to someone, but don’t stress yourself out about it.

As someone who has had to put books down over enthusiastic descriptions of nosebleeds because of my bodily fluid-related intrusive thoughts, I’d love to see bodily fluids listed in a content warning, but I also understand that most people simply wouldn’t think of them as a possible problem. I’m never mad that an author didn’t think of it. But I’m always thrilled when they do.

Examples

A long-form content warning used in a book might look something like this example (which has been anonymized by request of the author)

Content warning example: [Redacted] is a contemporary queer romance between a charismatic American actor and a grumpy bookseller who likes things just so. While fun, the story includes elements that might not be suitable for some readers. Mentioned death/illness of a parent, reference to homophobic parents, forced outing, internalized homophobia, a possessive ex, and alcohol use are present in the novel. Readers who may be sensitive to these elements, please take note.

A shorter content warning format, often appearing online or in pitch templates like that used by Pitch Wars, for the same book might look something like this:

Content warning: Mentioned death/illness of a parent, reference to homophobic parents, forced outing, internalized homophobia, a possessive ex, and alcohol use.

Why do we need content warnings?

While content warnings can be nice to have for everyone (sometimes you’re just not in the right headspace to read about abuse), for trauma survivors and mentally ill folks, they can quite literally save us from flashbacks, anxiety/panic attacks, nausea, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and other physical and mental symptoms that can last hours, days, or longer.

Those of us who need these warnings thank you!

Will content warnings keep people from reading?

Not necessarily! Some people will opt out. Others will recognize that they need to be in the right headspace when they read (and will plan accordingly). And still others will go ahead and read—after having mentally prepared themselves for the content (and appreciative of the warning).

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