A Guide to Content Warnings for Romance Authors

It’s come to my attention that some romance authors would like to provide content warnings but aren’t sure how to do it. Understandably, authors might be worried about being shouted at by readers regards spoilers. This is intended to be a step-by-step for writing content warnings for your books. The aim is to answer all the questions you were too scared to ask and help overcome any concerns or confusion.

I’m going to cover the four big questions about Content Warnings – what, why, how, and where.

What

Content Warnings, (aka CWs, Trigger Warnings (TWs), Content Notes, or Content Guidance) are a way of helping readers establish whether they (currently) want to read a book, and/or enable the reader to prepare themselves for the content. Typically CWs highlight content such as rape or violence which might be trigger an adverse reaction (physical or emotional) in the reader.

Think of CWs like the short Content Notes you sometimes find on the back of movie dvd boxes, or the little “suitable for vegetarians” text on food packets. These are examples of mainstream corporations providing information for a small number of people, in a way that doesn’t diminish the enjoyment for other customers. The customers who need that information really appreciate it. It helps them out a lot, at virtually no cost to the company or other customers. That’s what we’re aiming for with CWs.

Why

You might not be someone who feels they need CWs. But romance especially is perceived as a safe place for readers, and this is a precious trust. When readers come across content that reminds them of something traumatic in their own lives, they’ll have an emotional or physical reaction (that can range from being a bit sad to serious breakdowns). That enough should be a reason for authors to provide CWs. But looking at the issue selfishly, if a reader is upset, maybe they’ll review the book poorly. Maybe they won’t buy any more of that author’s books. Maybe they’ll put out a review that includes spoilers that will hurt the enjoyment of other readers.

So providing CWs is not just morally appropriate, it’s sensible management of your author brand. And you should do it so you are in control of it. If you don’t, readers might put up reviews and CWs in a way that don’t reflect the book accurately. It’s not the job of reviewers to provide CWs because they themselves might need CWs. By passing on the job to reviewers you’re not just passing on responsibility, but also control, and unpaid work.

But really, why…

Resistance to putting up CWs is sometimes based in the idea that they are spoilers. And it is true that some readers will consider detailed CWs as spoilers. However, this just means some thought needs to be employed in how CWs are written and where they are placed. It is easy to avoid spoiling a book and also provide CWs.

Another reason for concern about including CWs is that there is a stigma that they might be a sign of amateurishness. This seems to be a hang-over from fanfic, which has led the way on CWs. Putting aside the (il)legitimacy of this issue, there are a variety of ways to provide CWs that retain a professional feel.

Let’s also talk about the elephant, shall we? Sales. You might be worried that a list of content warnings will put off readers from reading your book. But thinking back to the analogy of the ‘suitable for vegetarians’ labels, would a sweet (candy) manufacturer be worried about labelling their products as ‘not suitable for vegans’? No. Loads of companies do that. It shows respect for their customers and their choices. The information is out there, they’re just making it easy to find. That is to say, if your book has themes that some will find difficult, those who will be put off by the CWs already aren’t your readers. You’re not losing sales, you’re gaining trust and respect. If a reader knows they can trust you to highlight content they might find difficult, they are more likely to take a chance on your book, or read one of your books that is less problematic for them.

CWs also help readers choose when they feel able to read a book, not just whether to buy/read it. For instance, readers might want to avoid certain topics when they’ve been in the news recently, but be happy to read at other times. Genuinely, I think you’ll gain more readers than you’ll lose.

How

CWs can take a range of forms, from a simple categorised list similar to film Content Notes, to full expositions that specify chapter numbers, to a combination of both. They can be just one word, or full explanations.

If you’re wondering what sort of things you need to include, there are several guides:

The TL;DR version is: anything in your story that is traumatic, or could be perceived to be traumatic.

You might worry about missing something. After all, it’s your own work, you might not realise. There’s two ways to approach this, but both include being open to the fact that this might be something you update. First, you can ask a trusted reader to give you a view on a list you’ve compiled, and if there’s anything you’ve missed. The second approach is don’t worry about missing something. If a reader tells you something should be included then apologise, thank them for letting you know, and add it. Simple.

The other option is hire someone to write your CWs for you. This might be a good option if you have a back-list that needs CWs. There are various people making this service available, including me.

Note that CWs are not tropes lists or a cute marketing ploy. Listing tropes can be very helpful for romance readers, but is not the same as CWs.

For movie-style Content Notes, one approach is four categorisations:

  • Bad language: (e.g. mild, infrequent / strong and frequent)
  • Sex / Nudity: (e.g. several fully described sex scenes / closed-door, kisses only)
  • Violence: (e.g. sexualised violence alluded to, not on page)
  • Other: (e.g. death, rape, anxiety, miscarriage)

Then there’s the question of ‘shall I put X in?’. Generally, if you’re asking the question, the answer is probably yes. Even things that are quite ubiquitous in romance, such as sex scenes. Some readers don’t want to read sex scenes, or swearing, or etc. and informing them this content is there could well save you from a 1* review. (BTW this is why I prefer to say ‘Content Notes’ rather than Trigger Warnings. It’s much more inclusive.)

You probably want to give at least the topic. But you might also want to say how much an issue is covered in the book. How impactful a topic is depends on: where it is in the book; whether it’s from the perspective of a main or a side character; and in what level of detail it’s discussed. Readers can be fine with a topic in say a side character’s story, but not in a main character. Or might be okay if it’s the focus of the book, but not if it’s mentioned casually.

Some useful phrases:

  • “discusses themes of blah throughout the story, from the point of view of a main character”
  • “mainly on page in chapter n, but discussed throughout”
  • “isolated mention of blah to supporting character, not on page”
  • “descriptions of blah in chapter n, not main character, on page”

Where

The basic principles: 1) readers should be able to easily find CWs, ideally in the book or on the buy page, 2) readers who want to avoid CWs as spoilers should be able to avoid accidentally reading them. The balance between 1 and 2 is subjective and will help determine where to put CWs.

There are a few common locations that are currently being used for CWs. I’ve included links to examples as appropriate.

  • In the (e)book description – as tags by a publisher or as prose from an author
  • On the author’s website: Jennifer Hallock or here
  • In the front of the book, before the start (e.g. before the Contents page and/or before Chapter 1): example1 example2
  • In the front of the book before Chapter 1 in such a way that all readers will see it without ‘scrolling back’: example
  • In the ‘From the Author’ section on the book store’s page (a way to get around the issue of control of the description if you’re traditionally published but lack the clout to make the publisher do what you want) with a link to a webpage: example
  • If you’re trad published another option is to leave a review on GoodReads for your own book, with either CWs or a link to a url with CWs.
  • A link on your GoodReads and/or Amazon author page to your website’s page with CWs (again, useful if you’re traditionally published). example

Which of these you choose is down to you. People have some strong opinions, but if you’re providing CWs anywhere, that’s a good start. You can also do more than one of the above. Combinations of CWs sign-posts can be very powerful. e.g.

  • At the bottom of the book description “Content Warnings can be found at <url>”
  • At the url: “Short movie-style CWs are x y z, see <url> for full CWs, but please beware of spoilers.”
  • At the second url: “Full, detailed CWs are…”

I’ve been burnt by upsetting reviewers by providing detailed CWs that were at the beginning of the ebook. I’ve now now adopted a tiered system, with movie-style CWs available at the front of the book and a link to more detailed CWs, prefaced by the movie-style CWs and spoilers warning, on my website.

I think that’s it. Thanks for reading. Let me know in the comments (or on twitter) what you do, or are planning to do, about providing CWs. Is there something I’ve missed? What are your thoughts and tips on CWs?

Further reading

Having said that reviewers shouldn’t be responsible for providing CWs, some review blogs do include CWs and have written excellent guides (mainly from a reviewer/reader perspective). (Bear in mind that providing CWs doesn’t mean that no-one else will provide them.) There are also some excellent commentaries by other romance authors. You might like to read:

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