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August 8, 2019

Content Warnings: How and What to Include?

Sign with "WARNING" in red with text: How Should We Give Readers...

Last year, Bran L. Ayres shared a fantastic guest post here about trigger warnings and dug into whether we should include them in our story. Their post included great insights into why we all like making informed decisions. Yes, that holds true even if we think trigger warnings are “stupid.” *grin*

The topic came up again this past week in a conversation on Twitter (that ranged far too broadly to give proper credit or links), as authors wondered how to pass on warnings about book content to potential readers. As a result of that conversation, I learned of several resources that I wanted to share.

As Bran mentioned in their guest post, we all understand the purpose of the NSFW (not safe for work) tag or “flame” ratings for the sexual content level of romance stories. Those aren’t meant to be censoring or a judgment of value. They just help people know what they’re getting into or find the types of stories they want.

Content warnings are the same way. So let’s explore our options for how (or where) to include content warnings, how much information to include, and what elements need warnings.

Content Warnings 101

First, let’s review what content warnings are and what they’re for. We might be familiar with the label “trigger warnings,” but that wording has probably added to the derision some feel toward the idea.

What are content warnings? Are they necessary? Click To TweetThe word “triggered” can make us think of someone having a panic attack due to words on a page. While that certainly can be the case for some readers with specific trauma, I’m going to use the term content warnings because content can be difficult without being “triggering.”

Think of the difference between someone with a life-threatening allergy needing a warning of allergens in their food and someone appreciating a NSFW warning before clicking on a link and having to deal with a cranky boss. Content warnings can apply to any level of a “heads up.”

A great article at the review blog Love in Panels explains how normal story plot events, such as a miscarriage or abuse, might be healing for some readers and hurtful for others:

“A content warning simply helps identify content for a reader. It is not a judgment about the existence of said content. … Content warnings give readers choices. They fill in gaps in a blurb and allow a reader to make an informed choice.”

I want to repeat that idea: Content warnings are not a judgment about the existence of an element in our story. All they do is provide a heads up so readers can choose.

When to Use Content Warnings

Due to their readership, middle grade and YA books often benefit from content warnings, but they can be important in other categories/genres as well. As Bran said in their post, elements that are not expected in the genre should be mentioned.

For genres where readers strongly connect to the characters, such as romance, authors need to respect their readers and that connection. As the Love in Panels article points out, “If we agree that the point of a romance novel is to make a reader feel something, then a skilled romance novelist will put the reader into a space of grief or despair or hope or relief right along with the characters.”

What About Spoilers?

Many authors understand the value of warnings but worry about spoiling aspects of their story. But all we need to do is mention the existence of an element, not explain the circumstances.

Do content warnings spoil our book for readers? Click To TweetA content warning could state “bullying, miscarriage, and stalking,” which doesn’t spoil any aspect of the plot. We don’t even know if these events happen to the main character or on the page. They could be relevant backstory of the villain for all we know.

In other words, it doesn’t do any harm to include them, and we might save readers from harm if we do. But more than that, we’re not required to put warnings in a place where potential readers must read them, so we should feel safe including them whenever our story includes potentially negative topics.

Where to Put Content Warnings

Let’s dig further into that important idea: We’re not required to put warnings in a place where readers must encounter them. If we wish, we can put them where only readers who want to know and/or seek them out will be “spoiled” by our list of warnings.

In fact, there’s no “standard” place or method for sharing content warnings for our books. Some options are:

  • bottom of the blurb/book description online
  • bottom of the blurb/book description inside the front cover
  • front of the book (on its own page)
  • mention and/or link in the front of the book to a separate page in the back
  • mention and/or link in the book to a list on our website
  • book detail page on our website
  • link on the book detail page on our website to a separate list or page
  • central page on our website with details for all our books
  • mention on Goodreads using the book description, a review of our own book, and/or the Q&A option

For just a few examples of how authors have handled content warnings for their books, check out Jennifer Hallock’s central page, Akemi Dawn Bowman’s link on the book detail page, and Eve Pendle’s page at the front of the book with a link to more details on her site.

Akemi’s example is especially subtle, but all of those do the job for readers who would be concerned enough to check. We get to decide what makes the most sense for us, our stories, and our readership.

What to Put in Content Warnings

We all have our biases, and we’re likely to miss things that we simply don’t think of. However, any warnings are better than none, so we should do the best we can.

I find it easier to look at a list of potential warnings to help me think of what to include. If that would help you as well, a few links shared in the Twitter conversation I mentioned might be useful.

All of these are crowd-sourced to some extent:

(Edited to add: At the same time I was writing this post, Eve Pendle wrote a similar post with more links to examples and lists. Be sure to check out her fantastic post for more information.)

Between those lists, we’re likely to have a fairly good “brainstorming session” for trying to think of what might apply to our stories. But if you know of additional lists, please share them in the comments!

What should we put in content warnings—and where should we put them? Click To TweetFor books we’ve already published, we can also check for things readers have mentioned in their reviews. Goodreads reviews, Amazon reviews, and review blogs and articles often have more detailed commentary on our stories.

If we’re afraid readers might judge our stories for something that’s minor or not “on the page,” we’re allowed to add more information to clarify, even if it’s just something as non-spoilery as “depression, mentioned.” It’s better to include something than to not and risk harming readers or getting slammed in reviews.

Content Warnings Are About Readers

For me, learning of all of our choices of where we could put these warnings erased any defensiveness I felt about being judged for the elements in my books. Before, we might have felt that listing them was too close to warning readers away from our stories.

After Bran’s guest post last year, I updated my online book descriptions slightly to hint at potential issues, but I didn’t specify the way true content warnings should because—for my stories—the book description didn’t feel like the right place for them. Now I know I have options, and I’ll probably end up with a mention on my online book description and on Goodreads that more details exist on a central page or each book detail page on my website. (Updated: Here’s my Content Guidance page.)

Knowing we can place them where readers need to seek them out might help us approach our warning list with the right audience in mind: readers who want to read our story but are concerned. Without those warnings, concerned readers might err on the side of caution and avoid our books. With them, we might set their minds at ease. *smile*

Have you used content warnings to decide on what books to read (or not read)? What made them helpful to you? Where have you seen content warnings shared by authors (any additions to the list above)? Do you have a preference as a writer or a reader for where you think they should go? Does the idea that placement can ensure that readers aren’t forced to read them help you agree they should be included somewhere?

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Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I guess my general feeling is that if we want to go with generalized warnings (such are as used for movies), I have no problem with that. But if we’re writing adult stories (meaning not aimed at kids), then I don’t care for them, as either reader or writer. I mean, I looked at a couple of those lists and it’s like, “seriously?”. People can read reviews to get an idea of what’s in there, or get the book from the library and if they decide they don’t like what’s in it, take it back. I’ve read a lot of books where I reached an “eww” point – so I quit reading. Book went to a used book store.

Let’s face it – we could scour through these lists and see what boxes to check for our book – and we’ll still offend or turn off someone. Know the genre, read the reviews, flip through it in the book store or library, look at the cover for heaven’s sake – and make up your own mind if you want to read it or not.

I know this sounds insensitive or even cranky, but geez. My responsibility as a writer is to tell a good tale, not worry if I’ve warned somebody that they might not like some parts of it.

Deborah Makarios

Well, according to this study, trigger warnings are not actually helpful for trauma survivors and may even have an adverse effect, as they “countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity.”

As a reader, I expect books to give me a clear sense of what kind of book it is by the cover design, title, blurb etc. If it suggests the kind of book which may involve the sort of thing I don’t want to read, I don’t read it.

If it’s a case of a book giving a false impression (seems like sweet romance, contains grisly surgery scenes with macerated limbs or what have you) then in my opinion, a content warning isn’t going to fix it. Better to find a book by a different author who has a better grasp of their genre and how to convey accurate expectations to the reader.

Vivienne Sang

I hadn’t considered adding warnings. My published books, I don’t think need them, but my current novel wip includes miscarriage, birth and child death. Although set in Viking Britain, perhaps I should do so, and a novella includes unmarried pregnancy, while another also unpublished, includes coercive control.
I think I need to seriously consider this. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

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