Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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On Warnings and Other Content Notes

Recently, someone left my audience over finding something I wrote to be disturbing. There's nothing wrong with this; nobody likes everything and I sometimes write disturbing things, and the note was civil. However, the departing note appeared on the last of several posts below three rounds of warnings about disturbing content in bold red capital letters plus graybarred details. So now seems like a good time to talk about warnings and other content notes.


I write all kinds of things. I've tried most of the genres, moods, character tropes, plot shapes, and other literata that I've ever seen, including ones not even native to this dimension. I write a lot of fluff, and if you look at my Serial Poetry page, you can see that the upbeat series average higher popularity than the downbeat series. However, I also write some stuff that gets really fucking dark. I like poking dead things with sticks, crawling through muddy caves, and flipping over rocks to look at ooky things. This comic explains a key reason why I write darkfic. Since not everyone likes everything, and I don't want anyone to need eyeball bleach after reading my work, I have decided to use content warnings to the best of my ability and time.

When I write warnings, I try to list things that I know are triggers, along with things that some people just dislike reading. Over time, I've added a few particular to my audience, like "asking for help and getting it," or my writing such as "because the inside of Shiv's head is always a warning." Occasionally a reader will spot something and ask me to add a missed warning; that's usually easy to do. These detailed warnings customarily go in the graybarred area, because some people find that warnings spoil the story for them, and this lets me accommodate both needs. Sometimes I include other info outside the graybar, like whether or not skipping a piece would leave a gap in an ongoing storyline. If the whole poem is about a thing then I may not obscure it in a brief warning: "This poem is all about X, so if that's not your thing, you may want to skip it."

Some critics feel that warnings coddle readers and thus undermine their fortitude. In my observation, warnings enable readers to tackle difficult material that they could not otherwise read safely, and to avoid severe hazards, so they can go on with their entertainment or education instead of being constantly blocked by trigger reactions. Over time this strengthens their fortitude. My readers have followed me into some very dark alleys, trusting me to handle the material well and to make the trip worth it, and they may venture into more challenging territory as they learn their capacity, my style, and coping skills. Consider also that people with disabilities are more integrated in society than they were several decades ago, and we know more about certain disabilities and how to cope with them, so accommodations are spreading; this allows disabled people to accomplish more, which is good progress. We're also learning more about mental health in general and how things can benefit ordinary folks, like using a quiet room to cope with a bad breakup instead of slapping someone. Here's a discussion of how warnings interact with other social changes, which is a real mix of positive and negative points. I neither wish to batter people with painful ideas nor infantilize them, so I give them tools and choices. We label hazardous substances, with simple or complex details, so labeling other hazardous things makes sense. Nazism = DANGER-POISON! Do not swallow.

Certain things in my warnings have a spectrum. One of these is how I label the warning itself. In approximate order of ascending severity ...
Warning
Warning
WARNING
WARNING
WARNING
WARNING
The lower levels could upset fewer people at less intensity; it might be unpleasant but tends to fade quickly after exposure. If you see red letters, that means a higher level of hazard. The material could upset people in ways that might not fade after a few minutes and some comfort reading, but require more work to disperse.

Content may also be marked as "controversial," "disturbing," or otherwise fraught. The really fractious stuff will say something like "contains intense/controversial/etc. material" that "may disturb" or "is likely to disturb" "some," "many," or "most" readers. "WARN ALL THE THINGS" appears on content that is not only intense, but includes multiple motifs that are individually incendiary even before mixing them together. This matters because a person might be able to deal with one hit, or even two, but repeated hits on triggery topics can overwhelm even someone who rarely has that problem in reading. I use this most often if there are several triggers from the batch that most tagging sites require to be tagged (e.g. major character death, underage, nonconsent) or are otherwise widely considered to be stressful. Here is a detailed study of tagging on AO3, a popular fanfic archive. Occasionally I will also mark a piece as "not recommended for X" if it seems likely to upset certain people more than average. Of course, if X wants to read it anyway, that's their choice; some do and others don't.  I will not be offended if people skip stuff they don't want to read, bail out partway through it, or read it and dislike it -- providing any discussion of such is civil, as it generally tends to be.

My standard end phrase is "Please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward." Taste means think about what you like in general and what you are in the mood for today. Headspace means think about how high or low you are feeling right now, how challenging your day has been, and how many spoons you have. Especially difficult items may be marked along the lines of, "before deciding whether this is something you want to read." Nobody has to read everything; it's totally fine to nope out just from the warnings or after reading the first few lines. Robin might use up their energy on harsh environmental topics and avoid harsh sex/romance topics, while Pat does the opposite. My readers have often told me that they use the warnings more to decide when to read something than whether to read it. That's awesome. I want you to have fun, not land ass-deep in alligators unexpectedly. If you want to wade through alligators, that's fine too, but first put on whatever protective equipment you deem prudent.

The above phrases refer to subjective variables which I cannot know about my readers, but can remind them to consider. I expect my audience to be sensible, mature, and responsible about what they choose to read or skip. That's why I leave the choice in your hands, instead of saying "Don't read this if ..." like some writers do. Ultimately, it is always your choice; I'm just trying to give you enough info to make that an informed choice. It's much like a restaurant menu. So if you don't like spicy food, then it's prudent not to eat Carolina reapers or order a menu item with pepper stamps on it. If you decide to eat them anyway and get indigestion, it's your responsibility.

These are of course estimates -- sometimes people consider a nasty topic to be much softer reading than I expected because the emotional tone insulates against the action itself. When I get toward the end of this spectrum, though, it means that people should take extra care. I have, on a few occasions, written things that really hurt people, and while I'll drawer a story if I realize that it's too hazardous to release into the wild, sometimes things turn out to be harmful that I had no idea would do what they did. What I can do is tell folks when to watch their step if I know something is risky.

A challenge of this is that, as more writers use warnings in general, more readers begin to treat them as boilerplate and just stop noticing them. Someone who drives over train tracks every day may get hit by a train because they're so used to the track being empty at that time of day, they don't notice the flashing lights the one time a train is actually coming. Yes, I do use a set of stock phrases most of the time, because there is a limited number of ways to say the same thing and signal words are useful. No, it's not the exact same set of warnings on every piece that has a warning. The more intense the warning level, the more advisable it becomes to read the warnings even if you do not customarily do so. It's still up to you.

Thanks for being an awesome audience.
Tags: how to, poetry, reading, safety, writing
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