An American Editor

January 6, 2016

Should Editors Give Trigger Warnings?

I 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 example 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 Venice contains 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?

Richard Adin, An American Editor




  1. Why are they called “trigger” warnings? Wouldn’t “trigger” evoke traumatic memories, too, for a listener who had previously been assaulted with a gun? Why are they called “warnings”? Doesn’t that evoke the idea of danger and the fear or anxiety that danger might produce?

    As for you question: No trigger warning is called for, at least not the way your phrased it. For one thing, why is an editor retained if not to clean up the infelicities and errors in a text? And may that not be perceived as an “attack” on the author’s “language skills,” if the author was defensive about his or her writing?

    When I encounter a manuscript in need of heavy editing, I tell the author or PM something along the lines of: “The manuscript has a lot of difficulties, some of them are low-grade mechanical problems (punctuation, spelling), but others are more consequential (factual errors, logical fallacies, etc.), and a few might be regarded as a national or ethnic disparagement.” (Yep, I actually had to point that out to the PM of a multi-author book that covered an international topic area.) I am polite, but I don’t shrink from pointing out errors and missteps by the author. It’s up to him or her to accept the corrections.


    Comment by Michael Brady — January 6, 2016 @ 7:08 am | Reply

  2. At this point, I think not. As much as the current trend in language, entertainment, politics etc. toward attempting to offend no-one seems to be gaining ground (as impossible as accomplishing that is), as an editor you have been engaged by the author or by an agent of the author to improve upon what the author has written. The relationship is one-on-one.


    Comment by Scott Bogue — January 6, 2016 @ 10:57 am | Reply

  3. I appreciate clients who give me a sense of what a ms. is about before I look at a sample (or the whole thing), because there are some topics I prefer not to handle, but I’m tough enough to cope if I have to skim something to find out what it involves in terms of topic or quality.

    I don’t see warning clients that an edit might be more extensive than expected as on the same level, although I have said things like, “This manuscript needs more than a light edit/proofread, which means it will take longer, and cost more, to do justice to your project. Please let me know if you would like me to continue.”

    In the realm of education, it might make sense to warn students that some material could be distressful, but I’m not sure I go along with letting them opt out of studying such material. Of course, the more this trend grows, the more likely real life might become softer, but I find that unlikely.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — January 6, 2016 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

  4. Anyone who supports the concept of trigger warnings is declaring that they would prefer to live in Disneyland rather than reality. Could somebody make a living out of renting cocoons? Cynicism could make it possible.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by michael dale — January 6, 2016 @ 8:22 pm | Reply

  5. Amazon has jumped on this idea — they will be giving warnings to consumers that books contain spelling or format or other quality control issues! See:


    Comment by Carolyn — January 21, 2016 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  6. […] what it portends for future college graduates. We previously discussed trigger warnings in “Should Editors Give Trigger Warnings?” and Heller’s article raises the question again and to a more worrisome (at least to […]


    Pingback by Worth Reading: The Big Uneasy | An American Editor — June 4, 2016 @ 9:59 am | Reply

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