The Trigger Warning Database defines triggers as “specific kinds of content or stimuli that cause a trauma response.” To help mitigate these responses, many forms of media (such as movies and television shows) include “content warnings,” notices that inform audiences of potentially graphic or disturbing scenes or topics in a piece of media. Content warnings are commonplace in the media industry in the form of ratings and on-screen notes (think the catch-all phrase “viewer discretion is advised”), and are beginning to pick up in the publishing industry as well.
Though some authors may put in their own content warnings and send them along to the editor with the manuscript, editors can also help their authors determine whether their book needs content warnings, and if so, which ones they should use.
Because some triggers are so specific, there is no way for an author to possibly include a content warning for everything. However, a good rule of thumb is to include warnings for broader topics, such as:
- Descriptions of mental illness
- Scenes of graphic violence or sex not expected in the genre
- Sensitive topics like abuse, racism, homophobia, substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual violence, or suicide
One thing an editor does is help the author narrow down their audience and genre. Young Adult and children’s books can especially benefit from content warnings, as there is a larger portion of adults buying those books for their kids. It is useful to think of these content warnings as similar to parents’ guides for television shows; parents want to scope out the product first to make sure it is what they think is appropriate for their children. Some genres also include “built-in” content. For example, “Splatterpunk,” a subgenre of Horror, is categorized by gory scenes and graphic violence, so readers who know the genre are well aware of its content, and the back cover blurbs of these books most likely cover the bases of their plots well enough for new readers to know what they’re getting into.
As an editor, let your author know that using content warnings may allow their book to find a more specific readership. Content warnings serve as a notice to readers of themes they will encounter in the book, and while some may choose not to read books with those themes because they are hurtful to them, other readers may find the same content beneficial or even healing, as they can relate to the character’s struggles that are so much like their own.
Remind your author that content warnings do not spoil the plot of their books, nor should they. A content warning may simply say something like: “This book contains scenes of graphic violence and descriptions of severe depression.” Remember when informing your author of content warnings they can include that said warnings can be vague.
There are a number of ways an author can include content warnings in their book. For example, Tobly McSmith’s young adult books Stay Gold and Act Cool include content warnings on the copyright page, while TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door contains an author’s note after the dedication warning of certain themes his book discusses. Published by Ooligan Press, Erin Moynihan’s book Laurel Everywhere does not include a traditional content warning, but it does contain a list of helplines and organizations pertaining to the story’s themes, such as grief and suicide prevention. Some authors also include content warnings at large on pages on their websites or in the descriptions of their books on Goodreads and bookseller sites. And of course, sometimes the back cover blurb can function as a content warning of sorts, a short description of the book’s plot that helps inform readers of what they are about to read, which may include difficult topics.
There is no standard place to put content warnings in a book. Because of this, potential readers who are not seeking out those warnings may never see them, but others who are actively looking will still be able to find them.
Lastly, remind your author that content warnings are always more helpful than harmful. While some authors may think that including warnings in their books will deter potential readers, it can actually have quite the opposite effect. Someone may want to read a book but also want to err on the side of caution and thus avoid a book with a description that does not tell them enough about what content they may encounter. Meanwhile, a book with content warnings may encourage those cautious readers to pick it up since they know that they won’t stumble into anything they didn’t already expect. Content warnings show that authors care about their readers.
As an editor, your job is to help your author make their manuscript the best it can be. You want your author’s book to reach audiences far and wide, and you want readers to keep coming back. A reader who knows an author cares about them will always come back.