When you’re working with a freelance editor, there are usually a range of things you need to give them: your project’s genre and word count, the age category or audience, blurb, sample chapters, your publication goals. But should your give your editor any content warnings before you hand over your full manuscript?
What is a content warning?
Content warnings are sometimes called trigger warnings because they may be distressing or triggering to someone who has been through trauma. They are sometimes used at the start of a book to let the reader know about any content that could be distressing, such as rape and sexual violence, self-harm, or scenes of suicide. The Collins English Dictionary defines trigger warnings like this:
Why might my editor need content warnings?
Your editor is a human, too! Your editor probably doesn’t advertise their personal trauma or background on their website, so it’s a kindness to let them know about any sensitive material before you work with them. Some editors just prefer to work on less intensive topics, too.
Some editors have topics they won’t work on listed on their website (such as avoiding any material that includes sexual assault, or child abuse), or they may have a section in their contract about it, asking you to disclose up-front any material of that nature so they can decide if they’re comfortable working on it.
You might find that your editor is comfortable working on certain things so long as they aren’t described in great detail: your book might reference something like torture, but maybe it happens off-page. Or maybe the details are kept purposefully vague and underwritten. On the other hand, your book might be a horror novel, and you could have written quite a graphic gore scene. This is another reason why starting a conversation before you send over a manuscript can help – we all have a different capacity for certain things.
You may want to send your editor a full synopsis of the book, so you’ve covered all bases.
But aren’t content warnings just political correctness?
No, not really. The idea of “political correctness” is often the buzzword when it comes to things like content warnings. But books can be a visceral experience and an author can go to great lengths to ensure their work is realistic and emotive. If you’re writing about something as traumatic as rape, suicide, self-harm or other similar topics, that can cause genuine distress to someone who has either been through the situation, knows someone who has, or just doesn’t feel comfortable reading about such things in minute detail for the sake of their own mental wellbeing. Editors have to focus hard on every detail of a piece of writing, and it can make working on some topics we aren’t comfortable with even more intense.
It’s not really political correctness to inform your editor of any distressing material. It’s a kindness – and it also ensures you find the right editor for you and your work.
Content warnings make the editing process smoother
Giving your editor content warnings can help you in another way, too! Your editing process will be much smoother if your editor knows what they’re getting themselves into beforehand. If you hire an editor and say nothing about a graphic domestic violence subplot starting midway through the book, and your editor isn’t comfortable with it, it could lead to the job being cancelled. That would mean finding another editor who is a better match, which would take even more time and effort – and you’d still have to pay for the work the first editor did.
It helps both author and editor to be on the same page about content.
What are your experiences of trigger warnings? Have you ever seen them used in books, or have you given your editor warning beforehand that you’re covering certain topics?
If you’d like to work with me on your manuscript, check out my editorial services.