This is all procrastination from writing, you realize. Somebody should kick me.

I was thinking (a dangerous yet fortunately rare occurrence) about the recent fandom go-round about warnings, which is iteration #392 in what is likely an endless culture clash. If you want to catch up on the thrash, check out metafandom's warnings tag. In this post I share the evolution of my own thinking about warnings, and a decision I've taken because of this most recent discussion.

I hated warnings on fic at first. I didn't want them as a reader, and as a writer I didn't want to tip my hand to my readers. I didn't even want to state pairings for some stories, because, well, what if I wanted the events to be surprising? This was my first clue that I was being a bit silly, because I'm as pairing-focused as anybody when choosing which fic to read. I'd probably be grumpy if a fic I thought was headed in the direction of OTP Bert/Ernie suffered a sudden twist and ended up as disliked Big Bird/Ernie. Then I realized that in addition, I didn't particularly want to read Bert and Ernie performing certain kinds of sexual acts. Not only did I want the pairing indicator, I also learned to appreciate warnings.

Later, while contemplating a warning for hurt/comfort on a story, I had a minor insight that most of you have no doubt shared. "Warning" is the wrong word, most of the time, for what is a story content label. Was that a warning for h/c? Only if you hate h/c. Otherwise, it's a happy indication of desirable content.

Story headers aren't about spoiling the content; they're about reader strategies.

"Do I want to read this story?" we ask. The header, if it's doing its job, answers the question. What's the fandom? Who wrote it? Which characters are featured? What's the general tone: fluffy, gritty, action-laden, angsty, unremittingly dark, with major character death? If it depicts sex, how explicitly and what sort of sex?

Once I understood that, I was reconciled with the fandom habit of warnings. In fact, I try to think of the content labels as "tags" instead of "warnings". A value-neutral term fits their use within fandom better. The oft-given example is of kink fic, where the tag "bdsm" would be a warning for some readers and an advertisement for others. It's a content descriptor. Content descriptors help the reader find stories that are interesting, and avoid stories that aren't.

What's my function as a fan writer? What am I here to do? My function here is to be an entertainer, and making it easy to match up readers with fic they'd like can only help me do that. My deathless prose can stand up under the burden of being tagged and categorized. And if I'm clever, I can assign the labels without compromising the emotional impact I want the stories to have on my readers. You can find the stories you crave; I can find the readers I crave. Everybody wins.

Let's return to the current thrash about warnings for trigger issues. Trigger issues, as several brave posters have made clear, are not the same as fic preferences. I can choose casually between this hurt/comfort flu fic and that angsty mpreg epic. Somebody with a trigger issue might need to know that the mpreg angst comes from an incident of sexual violence, and need to know with an urgency that I can't really imagine. I can read the first page of each story and bail if I'm not in the mood for it. The person who's triggered doesn't have the luxury of choice. By the time they realize the fic contains something problematic, it's too late.

I think of myself as the sort of writer whose stories don't really "need" warnings, because I don't go into the sort of gritty territory that lots of other writers do. I am not likely to write what fandom whitewashes as "non-con" as entertainment. Aren't labels enough? Well, possibly, if I remember that sometimes, a content label really is a warning and not just a tag. If, say, I were to write about the aftermath of the violence that occurs in my fandom's canon (say, "Becoming" part 2), then guess what! I'm right in that triggery territory.

I think the peanut allergy analogy works well here, though I realize it was originally proposed by a writer hostile to the idea of warnings. Here's the connection it makes clear to me: There are people walking around with a condition that might cause them grave distress. Their situation is invisible to other people and, sadly, many people don't take it entirely seriously. But they'll have an anaphylactic reaction if they eat something containing peanuts. The burden of self-protection ultimately rests on the person with the allergy, but that burden can be lightened with some considerate behavior from the people around them.

I, as a writer, wish to have a positive, happy, mutually beneficial, and all-round satisfying relationship with my readers. I like you, oh reader, and I want you to have fun. I want you to trust me to take you on an emotional ride. If my story make you cry, or feel tense, or get angry, it'll be because that was the emotional experience you wanted when you started reading. You'll be able to avoid stories that might give you an emotional experience that neither one of us wants you to have. Everybody wins.

Okay. Now that I understand triggers a little bit, I know to put warnings on fic that needs warnings. Warn for what? I keep in mind that most of the trigger-causing scenarios are going to involve the word "assault". Sexual violence, physical violence, direct depictions of abuse, direct discussion of suicide or other self-harm. Warn for those, and I'm 90% of the way there.

The problem is that I, as a fic writer, cannot possibly predict everything that might trigger someone. Does this mean I give up on warnings? No. It just means that both writers and readers need to know the system isn't perfect.

If you as a reader have a surprising or strong triggering issue, I suggest to you that it's wise to behave as if every fic might contain peanuts. If you trust the labels-- because of experience with the writer, perhaps-- then read with confidence. If the labels are absent or untrustworthy, find a strategy for discovering the content. A trusted friend who can read in advance for you, perhaps. Or ask the writer.

From my end as a writer, I will attempt to be considerate and tag my stories with content labels that cover what I know to be the major pain points. My goal is to be a trustworthy labeler. I will change my current habits to add "warnings: none" to fics that don't need warnings, to set expectations properly. When in doubt, ask me. I promise to answer honestly and sans snark. If I discover that a regular reader wants to know about something specific in advance, I'm happy to warn for that consistently.

One strategy I've seen that I respect is a note on every story posted that the writer only warns for two things, followed by a warning or a note that no warning is needed for that specific story. The reader then knows what's covered, what's not, and expectations are set and met by both sides. This goes a long way toward solving the problem, because I think unhappiness lies where the expectation mismatches are. Whatever strategy you choose, if you focus on setting reader expectations properly you're likely to avoid hurting people by accident.
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::warns for kicking::
Get back to work!!

No, actually. I just wanted to say I accidentally triggered a good friend by writing about night terrors. So you just don't know, but it's good to be thinking of these things. I should provide more warnings; you make a good case. (Of course, in the midst of a WIP I never know what might happen...)

Re: ::warns for kicking::
I don't think I've ever triggered anybody, at least not that anybody's told me. That would be distressing. The most upset I've ever caused a reader from a story (that I know about) wasn't about anything I'd ever think to warn for, but instead because the story's character issues touched home.

(icon edit)

Edited at 2009-06-23 11:49 pm (UTC)
But at least it's interesting procrastination. I just fold clothes.

I've been thinking about warnings a lot lately, because nearly all of my WIPs involve high school Buffy. My husband keeps telling me to just rewrite the stories - as if the seasons are interchangeable. But I think part of what attracts me to them is that they're dirtybadwrong.
Warn for it, and write on. Something drives us to write. There's something we chase. Just chase it. (Besides which, I like it too. As you know, Bob.)
I will change my current habits to add "warnings: none" to fics that don't need warnings, to set expectations properly.

I think that right there is a fabulous idea, and not just for setting expectations. As a reader, I have a longer list than some of the things that I'm just not interested in reading. However, it is much easier to search for fics with Kink/Trigger #1 than it is to search for fics without Kink/Trigger #1. After all, who labels their fic "does not contain Kink/Trigger #1"? You do (or you will here soon). Hurrah for you!
I solve the problem differently on my fic archive than I do here on LJ. There I go nuts and tag the fic with all the content indicators I can think of. If you're looking for my time travel stories they're easy to find. The problem is that I've put the tags lists for stories at the bottom of the story page itself. Not as easy to use for browsing. I am pondering a minor information redesign to make the tags more prominent. This will let you do what you want to do more easily.

Here on LJ, with this dual-purpose journal, I have to use the headers to do this job. Sloppier. But it does work.

This solves the problem for my stuff but not for all the rest of the world. Oh well. At least I can get my own ducks lined up.
Abuse doesn't have to be limited to the physical, either. Verbal can be just as devastating, and need the warning. It comes up more in HP fic, given Harry's background, but it can happen with Xander as well as other in Buffy.

Of course, as a reader with triggers, I have to know that there are times when I can deal with my triggers, and times that I can't, and read appropriately.
Yeah, the responsibility for self-protection does eventually rest on you. Though I, as your friend, will help as I can. For instance, remembering to warn for verbal abuse if I ever write a fic that goes deep into it.
I've always hated having to put warnings on my fics. Heck, my very first (and horrible) BtVS fic was one of those stories which should have a huge warning on it and I'm sure I turned off readers for ages with not having done so. But many of my stories depend on shock value or twists which I feel some warnings might hint at. I guess there is a balance. I appreciate warnings at times. I tend to avoid "fluffy" stories but folks rarely warn about such things. Chances are, the warnings will be what get me to read something since I tend to enjoy the darker stuff. I give vague warnings now, mostly of the nature "angst whore" or "pwp" to alert folks to possible questionable content.
Yeah, this is the whole thing about how most of the time, warnings are content labels. For some readers, the phrase "angst whore" isa big neon sign saying "read me!" and for others it's a sign that says "go somewhere else for the schmoop you're wanting right now". Sometimes I want vamp!Giles. Sometimes I want angel!Giles.

Hey. Wait. I don't know of any angel!Giles stories at all.
I agree with you. When I am about to read a fanfic, I want to know what it is about, because I am looking for a specific type of fic, and warnings help me decide whether or not to read a fic. Simple as that. It is just another way of summarizing, although I do realize that some people don't even want to do that.
I try to remember to put on my reader hat when posting a story, and give the right information about what's beyond the cut. There are a lot of ways to do that beyond a simple list of warnings-- the way I write the summary or the notes can be a big cue about what the story's like.