On Content Warnings for Writing Groups

Image by Daniel Acker/ Bloomberg via Getty Images.

When we’re choosing which movie to see, we expect an MPAA rating that will give us basic information about the level of violence, sexuality and profanity in the film. That way, we don’t spend two hours viewing more gore than we’re in the mood for, and don’t wind up accidentally bringing our kids to a profanity-laden flick. When we’re shopping for food, we expect an ingredient list on the side of the package, with any allergens clearly spelled out. And news stations generally warn us when a segment contains intense descriptions, in case we want to shoo our kids (or ourselves) out of the room.

Content information is not universally expected, though — nor is it universally respected. In 2016, the dean of the University of Chicago wrote a letter to incoming students, saying the campus does not support trigger warnings because they stifle freedom of expression and inquiry. The letter kicked off a public debate about such warnings that still hasn’t entirely settled down.

But what about writing groups and writing workshops? I’ve been in a handful where content notes/warnings were either encouraged or required, and others in which they weren’t used at all.

Some writers resist the idea, and understandably so. When we share our work and are seeking feedback, we don’t want to say anything that might put readers off. But writers often (and necessarily) dig deep into troubling events and feelings — and sometimes those words can send readers to a pretty awful place, especially if they’re not expecting it. That’s not such a great place from which to offer feedback on a piece of writing.

Empathy and compassion for others — especially others whose experiences differ from our own — is a necessary skill for good writing. It helps us create realistic characters and believable narratives. Understanding the value of content warnings comes from having compassion and empathy for those with trauma in their backgrounds, and understanding that being triggered or made anxious by a given topic is more than just being “too fragile.” Trauma goes well beyond veterans who’ve seen battle. It is especially common among women, as well as among members of any marginalized community — people of color, LGBTQ folks, disabled folks, and so on. To be respectful and inclusive, employing content warnings makes a lot of sense.

But what to warn for? There’s a sensible argument that we won’t be able to guess everyone’s triggers. Folks with trauma histories understand that. But there are a bunch of basic, broad categories of material that are most likely to bring up awful feelings for some readers, especially if they’re not expecting them. Here’s a list of things that are worth warning readers about:

  • Graphic descriptions of physical violence, from street fights to domestic violence to war
  • Descriptions of sexual violence, or any non-consensual sexual activity
  • Descriptions of child abuse, physical or sexual
  • Detailed descriptions of racist, homophobic, transphobic or body-shaming behavior; basically any kind of hate speech
  • Descriptions of violence to animals
  • Detailed descriptions of self-harm or suicide
  • Detailed descriptions of disordered eating
  • Detailed descriptions of medical procedures

Here are a couple of further guidelines, borrowed from the Geek Feminism wiki:

Wording: A trigger warning usually takes the form of some emphasized (usually bold) text starting with a warning phrase (such as “trigger warning,” “content warning,” or just “warning”) and describing in broad terms the upsetting nature of the content.

There is no consensus on the ‘best’ way to word a trigger warning so that it accurately describes the potentially-triggering content without becoming a trigger itself. The phrase “trigger warning” may itself be triggering to some trauma survivors. People can also be triggered by warnings that include too much detail. Warnings with very general language, such as “Warning for a graphic depiction of sexual violence” or “Content Warning: disordered eating” are less likely to trigger readers than warnings that include specific details about the triggering content.

All trigger warnings should respect autonomy. Present factual information about upcoming triggers, but don’t imply that people are obliged to remove themselves from triggers, suggest or prescribe particular self-care mechanisms to other people, suggest that any particular group of vulnerable people (eg, sexual assault survivors) are not allowed to view your material at all or imply that the only people who might want to use caution are people with a certain background (sexual assault survivor) or diagnosis (post-traumatic stress disorder), as a wide range of people may be affected.

Journalist, editor, author, opinionator. Bylines: Guardian, New Yorker, Vice, Mother Jones, Wired. Much more at www.bethwinegarner.com.

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