Should Editors Give Trigger Warnings?

6776874168_b8d516c3a6_bI was catching up with some reading of magazines I haven’t had time to get to (for months), when I came across an article on trigger warnings at the university level (“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, September 2015, pp. 42-52). I am surprised at how different the expectations are today on a college campus than when I attended college 50 years ago.

One examples given in the article was a demand by some law school students that “professors at Harvard not […] teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in ‘that violates the law’) lest it cause students distress” (p. 44). Having gone to law school myself, I wondered how that would work. How could a professor ignore the subject of rape or abuse (spousal or child) in a class on, for example, criminal law, criminal procedure, or constitutional law? How will these future attorneys make it in the real-world practice of law where “violates” is a commonly used word? And what about their clients? How well would a rape victim (or a rapist) be served by a lawyer who doesn’t acknowledge the word rape?

But that got me thinking about editing. Not once in my 32 years of editing have I given a warning at the beginning of a manuscript. Have I been remiss? Have I neglected to take into account the sensibilities or sensitivities of my client or my client’s author?

Of course, I also have never received a warning that the manuscript contains explicit descriptions of things that would not make for everyday conversation in “polite” society. Have my clients or my clients’ authors been remiss by not warning me of the horrors to come should I proceed with editing their manuscript?


I am currently editing a book that requires a heavy editing hand, just the opposite of what I was told when I was hired (“It only needs a very light edit.”). Should I put a warning at the beginning of each chapter, one that says:

WARNING! Read the edited version of this chapter with caution. You may be offended by the number and type of queries added and corrections made to your manuscript. They might cause you undue stress, especially if you perceive it as an attack on your language skills rather than an attempt to help you improve your manuscript.

Okay, perhaps the warning needs a little work but the idea is conveyed. What if a person needs to be warned about literature?

WARNING: William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venicecontains blatant anti-Semitic text that may offend you. As this text is foundational to this course on works by Shakespeare, perhaps you should consider taking a different, potentially less-offending course.

Or a about a book that focuses on a genre of literature?

WARNING: In this book on 19th-century American literature of the South, words that are politically incorrect today and that might remind you of slavery and/or second-class status are common. If such words deeply offend you, perhaps you should consider reading a different, potentially less-offending book.

Or about the contents of a book discussing history?

WARNING: Since the beginning of recorded history, slavery has been a prominent part of history. Consequently, slavery is discussed in this book. If a discussion of slavery deeply offends you, perhaps you should consider reading a different, potentially less-offending book.

Perhaps, then, editors need to warn clients that the perfect manuscript the client submitted was found to be imperfect, so the client should be prepared to deal with the stress that the discovered imperfections may cause.

Then, again, perhaps clients owe editors a warning that editing a manuscript may be stressful.

I understand that the traumas some people have experienced are such that reliving those traumas can be exceedingly painful and that some subjects trigger that reexperiencing. The goal of trigger warnings is commendable; I just wonder how well those who require trigger warnings to deal with life on the college campus will be able to deal with work life after college, when the shelter college affords is no longer available.

I also wonder where the line is drawn. Are we not to talk about the Holocaust because it may trigger anxiety in someone who lost much of their family in the concentration camps? Do we not mention the Vietnam War because it may trigger posttraumatic stress disorder in a Vietnam veteran? Do we not discuss the march on Selma because it may trigger severe stress in someone by reminding them of the Ferguson events? Are we not to mention President Obama because it may cause severe stress in an ultraconservative Republican?

I know there are defenders of trigger warnings (see the comments to Trigger Warning: This Essay May Cause Mental Disturbance), but no one has yet defined the boundary beyond which trigger warnings need not be given. In addition, the argument always seems to be one-sided and focused on offering protection to the person that might be offended and ignoring everyone else. Yet the movement grows.

An article by Rani Neutill, “My trigger-warning disaster: ‘9 1/2 Weeks,’ ‘The Wire’ and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong,” (Salon, October 28, 2015), and the video of a HuffPost Live discussion at the end of the article are worth reading and watching.


In the end, however, the question remains: Should I offer the trigger warning about the editing or not? For now my answer is no, but if the trigger-warning movement keeps its momentum, the trigger warning will become a necessary tool in the editor’s toolkit because the future generation of authors will have grown up in an academic environment where such warnings were routinely given and so they will expect them everywhere, including on edited versions of their manuscript.

The question will be this: Will these new authors give warnings to editors that their manuscript might be poorly written and stressful to edit, or that it contains such potentially distasteful and stress-causing things as putting milk and sugar in tea or an allusion to sex between bees?

reposted with permission from An American Editor

images by

Wiertz Sébastien,

Nic’s events


  1. Will Entrekin6 January, 2016

    Having clicked through and then Googled the original article published in the New Yorker regarding trigger warnings and law classes, the problem seems to be one of a question of implementation, rather than of existence.

    I recently started using a personal example. Not long ago, I attended a lecture by Neil DeGrasse Tyson called “The Cosmic Perspective,” which featured a wide-ranging discussion of myriad topics. One of those topics was the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/01, and the image shocked me out of the otherwise immersive experience for a few seconds. I was in midtown Manhattan that day, and I watched Building 7 fall from the Hoboken Ferry late in the afternoon.

    I would have been grateful had the description of the lecture included a note that terrorism would be a topic covered (keep in mind, Tyson is known, as an astrophysicist, for his thoughts on science). That’s it. I’m not interested in preventing discussion of the event. I don’t want to avoid discussion of the event. I’m just thinking that, for me — and, I expect, for many — it would be useful if I could be mentally (and emotionally) prepared to discuss those things.

    But note that I think discussion should occur. Having read that Suk article, part of the problem seems to be that there’s no clear definition of “trigger warning” and “potentially traumatic material” — which seems problematic given that its context is the study of law, which one would think would require such things. In your examples above, the first sentences all seem useful, while the second suggesting consideration of another book, all seem unnecessary (and, even, perhaps, somewhat condescending, but perhaps that is because a lot of people think that using or offering trigger warnings is equivalent to coddling).

    To bring it all to editing, I’ll offer my first experiences with deep editing. I found a person online with vast experience in writing, publishing, and editing who offered freelance editorial services, and hired them for an edit. I tried to find the original email so I could quote it verbatim, but it looks like time mangled the formatting. I remember the comments included the note that I might want to take a few days with them, and that after I got done kicking some things, please reply and we might discuss some of the ideas and suggestions at greater length. I’m not sure the suggestion of a full rewrite was mentioned in that particular note, but it was for sure implied, and definitely did so later.

    Kind of a trigger warning for editing. And I read the edits, which were extensive, but they were right. And honestly, it might have been good to read that to open, to know going in that there were some really, really extensive suggestions and fixing some problems might require a ton of work. For one, I think it helped side-step my ego (no easy feat!).

    The result was that I realized if I wanted to be a better writer, I needed help. So I went and got an MFA, worked on the novel as my thesis, published it pretty successfully, and founded a publishing company.

    I hope that helps show how a trigger warning could open, rather than limit, a discussion. I’m not saying it’s universal, but so far I don’t think any of the examples have been, really.

  2. puzzled6 January, 2016

    And how do you deal with people who consider trigger warnings offensive?

  3. Chris Meadows6 January, 2016

    @puzzled: “Trigger warning: Contains trigger warnings.”

    1. Nate Hoffelder6 January, 2016


  4. CJJ6 January, 2016

    Trigger Warning!: “Entrance not for everyone”

  5. Bernard Speight6 January, 2016

    They are just too precious for words!

  6. puzzled7 January, 2016

    Can trigger warnings be considered micro-aggressions?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to top