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The Art of Writing a Trigger Warning

The Art of Writing a Trigger Warning

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

A trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of a book alerting readers to potentially disturbing content. The practice has become standard to ensure readers know what they are buying and don’t unwittingly read content they find disturbing.

A strong disclaimer orients the reader on what to expect regarding content related to vulgarity, sex and nudity, traumas such as childhood abuse or surviving war, sexual violence, and subjects that may perturb the sensibilities of the reader.

Romance authors will often be specific about the subgenre they write and indicate the heat level of their book. The heat level determines the degree to which there is explicit sex. Some books do not refer or allude to sex, other books have a fade-to-black situation in which sex is implied, and others are explicit. The higher the heat, the more explicit the sex. Romance writers will also use book covers to indicate heat levels.

The first step in writing a disclaimer is to identify which content, if any, may be considered offensive or traumatic. Having a wide range of sensitivity readers will help you identify that content.

Once the content has been identified, you spell out which content. There are two broad methods to do this. First, when you publish your book, the retailers will provide you with category information. There will be a spot to tick a box about potentially offensive content. Second, you can include a disclaimer after the copyright information. Readers will see this warning and decide if they wish to continue reading.

Another item to consider is weighing the offending content. You can decide to place the content in order of appearance or in terms of the magnitude of the offending content. For example, if your book contains a racist main character with four swear words, it’s best practice to state the book contains a lot of racism with occasional swearing. If your main character swears every other word and has one scene in which she was sexist towards a man, then the weight goes on, describing her vulgarity with some sexism.

A great trigger warning provides a realistic picture of what the reader can expect regarding reading comprehension (are you writing for four-year-olds or people with Ph.Ds in nuclear physics) and sensitive content.

Here are some examples of trigger warning:

  1. One of the main characters of this book struggles with depression and PTSD The content of his book includes frequent swear words and topics (list them) that are considered politically sensitive in (country and year)
  2. I do my best to flag content that may be considered offensive. The topics covered in this book include ageism and elder abuse, and there is a secondary character who is (insert bias)
  3. Please note this book contains a reference to rape and sexual violence
  4. The content of this book includes frequent swear words and topics (list them) that are considered politically sensitive in (country and year) 

Thank you, @EveJacobi, for the topic suggestion.

Readers are encouraged to leave comments below and reach out to me on Twitter at @reneegendron

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