Editing Tips #5: Should You Trigger Warning Your Editor?


trig·ger warn·ing
a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).

We’ve seen a lot of discussion over the use of trigger warnings for a reader or viewer, but should you also warn your editor?

The short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: It depends.

Whether you’re submitting a short story to a magazine or sending a novel off to an editor you’ve hired, you’re still working with another human being who – you hope – is going to see the best in your work. When you don’t already have a relationship with that person, you can sometimes sour their view of you when you submit writing which includes hidden “triggers” (subjects or scenes that are upsetting and disturbing to that reader). The goal of a trigger warning is to avoid accidentally inducing panic, fear, or an uncontrollable physical response.

As Kate Mann of The New York Times explained last year:

For someone who has experienced major trauma, vivid reminders can serve to induce states of body and mind that are rationally eclipsing in much the same manner. A common symptom of PTSD is panic attacks. Those undergoing these attacks may be flooded with anxiety to the point of struggling to draw breath, and feeling disoriented, dizzy and nauseated. Under conditions such as these, it’s impossible to think straight.

The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are). It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so. Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.

So, what kind of material should we warn our editors about? Mann’s suggestion was to sort out what might make a reader angry (which likely doesn’t need a warning) from what might make them physically or mentally unable to continue reading your work. You probably don’t need to prepare anyone in advance if your manuscript contains political opinions, since it’s generally accepted that people have differing views on politics. Same goes for subjects that are specifically requested by a market’s call for submissions, even if they include troubling subjects. If a horror magazine is asking for stories about sexual violence, for example, it’s safe to say the editors know to expect it, and you wouldn’t need to warn them in advance.

But if your market calls for “general fantasy” and you include visceral body horror, graphic depictions of violent sex, crimes against children or small pets… including a line or two of warning keeps the reader from being blindsided by something disturbing they normally wouldn’t run across. It gives you a better chance of having your work appreciated for what it is, instead of making your unsuspecting reader feel attacked. (Please note that I strongly suggest reading the guidelines before you submit anywhere.)

When you’re hiring an editor, the same basic rule applies. If you have worked with them before, and you’ve informed them that Book 2 in the Babies for Breakfast* series will include the same sort of material as Book 1, that’s probably enough. They know to expect graphic depictions of babies being eaten for breakfast. If you haven’t hired them before, though, it’s best to give them a head’s up. You don’t necessarily need to label it a “trigger warning” but a sentence or two to say something like, “this book contains about 30% gay erotica, and one of the characters appears to be underage at the beginning but really isn’t” or “there’s a couple of extremely bloody battle scenes in Act 2, so let me know how that comes across on the page” or “I kill off the puppy in a graphic scene on page 30” would prepare your editor for potential shock so they can focus on the job of editing, instead.

I’m not suggesting you sanitize your work, or treat your readers as if they have to handled with kid gloves. Humans are pretty resilient, but trauma is a real thing with real and sometimes lasting effects, which you can’t know from the outside. A little warning can make a huge difference in how others interact with your writing. Personally, I’ll edit just about anything, but I love it when a client respects me enough to give me an idea of what to expect.

If your editor or reader didn’t need the warning, it still doesn’t hurt you any to have put it in. Worst case scenario, they’ll think you’re being polite, which is never a bad thing.

* As far as I know, this is not a real series of books.

Enjoying these tips? You can find the first three in this series here.

2 thoughts on “Editing Tips #5: Should You Trigger Warning Your Editor?

  • Yes, this would be extremely helpful. I recently lost about a day of work due to a gang rape in a story I had no reason to suspect might include something like that. Having that sort of reference sprung on one out of the blue can be very problematic. Thankfully, I didn’t miss deadline, but if it had been later in the collection, I might have. It is definitely to the hirer’s advantage to give the editor a heads up on particularly disturbing scenes.

    • That’s awful! You never know what a client will consider worth mentioning, but the more communication we can get, the better off we all are.

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