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New Feature? Content Warnings, please and thank you!

What I really want/need next from Vocal

By Donna ReneePublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 8 min read
New Feature? Content Warnings, please and thank you!
Photo by Ricky Kharawala on Unsplash

Dear Vocal and all my fellow Vocalites,

I really want a clear and consistent way to provide and receive Content Warnings here.

I know… this one tends to bring out strong feelings on both sides. Hang in there please and hold judgement and comments until the end?

Especially with the new HORROR Challenge open now, my notification feed is full of stories that I, and many others, might not be able to read. People are also sharing their links with me after reading my own submission and I really do want to read them! But...I really don't want to read stories that might give me severe flashbacks or panic attacks or send my anxiety spiraling.

"Come on. It’s literally called HORROR. What do you expect?"

Yes, that is true. Even some of the Limerick challenge and Purple Clouds challenge entries have been surprisingly upsetting and dark though!

“Just don’t read it are an adult and can make your own decisions!”

Thanks for that… if your title was “Violent Assault Surprise” or if it was subtitled “Children Die Horribly In Fire” or if you left a little note at the beginning saying something like, "Hey don't read this if you don't want to hear about xyz" I probably just wouldn’t read it then… but that isn’t what 99% of us do with our stories. We don't want to "spoil the surprise" or risk turning off a reader before they even start.

3/23/23 EDITED TO ADD THIS - This is coming up in the comments so I’m putting it here too. You only have to be 13 years old to have an account on Vocal. We aren’t all adults here.

"If you get that triggered by little things like that then you just need to go to therapy."

Yes, I know. I do go to therapy. I don't particularly want to go through exposure therapy on Vocal every day though. The physical world is hard enough.

If you have a visceral reaction to the term “Content Warning” or “Trigger Warning” I actually do understand.

As a writer who very much enjoys plotting twist endings and unreliable narrator surprises, I hate the idea of Content Warning spoilers too. But I also sometimes really, really need them.

“No one has ever complained about me not having a trigger warning, so it must just be you.”

Ok…but that could be because people are afraid to tell you and they assume you'll react poorly or maybe they just quickly stop reading your story when they hit the disturbing content, and don't leave a comment at all.

I’ve only asked an author to please add one one time and it took me nearly an hour to work up the nerve to do it. There have been dozens of other times that I have been furious or disappointed or upset or just sad that there were no warnings.

I've also talked to some other writers and readers on here that wish they had been warned before reading certain pieces. I've seen people leave content warnings or heads up notes for their pieces when posting them on Instagram or Facebook but leaving them out of the actual Vocal piece itself. I have a friend who will give me a heads up to avoid certain stories if she happens to read something before I do...and I do the same. So, no, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who would like this feature.

"Trigger Warnings don't even work though, I saw that somewhere."

I've read those articles too. I also know that taking away someone's ability to decide whether or not to read certain material is not something I want to do to anyone.

Some people feel that Trigger Warnings or Content Warnings in academic settings in particular are being used as an "out" to avoid having to read important assigned work. That is not the case here. We all can choose what we want to read or not to read here at Vocal and it isn't going to impact our grades. There is also no rating system or good way to weed out content though either.

This is not about coddling the “snowflakes” and taking away your artistic freedom. Trust me, most readers are not honestly wanting to hear the punchline of your joke or know about the twist in your story before they read it.

If the punch in your punchline is domestic violence, or the twist in your story is suicide, or your innocuous story ends with terrible violence to animals or tortured children…you really need a content warning.

Vocal is a wonderful place but it is an absolute minefield for individuals with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and many other things. If you don’t feel this way or can’t possibly understand how reading a story could have a significant impact on someone's mental health....well, I am genuinely happy for you and hope it stays that way in your life forever.

I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of stories and poems at this point and written nearly 50 myself. I think I have seen less than 10 content warnings of any kind (probably including my own actually). I have also wrestled with how to provide them in my own writing here on Vocal. The Community Guidelines do prohibit some types of content, but much is allowed and there is a lot left up to interpretation. There is no policy that I have been able to find regarding providing Content Warnings.

If there is, please share it with me in the comments!

But... if there is, well... we all suck at using it.

Some communities here, Psyche, for example, have some more useful tag options for stories that I have tried using as warnings of a sort. I have tried putting big bold warnings at the top of stories. I have written an Author’s Note as a heads up. I have even stopped myself from publishing several pieces because I don’t feel comfortable putting them out without a good way to do a heads up for more vulnerable readers.

And yes, Vocal SHOULD be a place where vulnerable readers can feel safe. Vocal should be a place where anyone can feel safe to participate. That really shouldn’t be something we are going to have to debate, right?

I don't think I should have to feel anxious about what I might stumble onto while reading a Tall Tails talking animal story or a Blue haiku. I also think that I should even be able to read some of your wonderful and thrilling stories in the Horror community if I want to without having to assume the risk of running across my specific triggers.

Here is the thing though, my own triggers are obvious to me. Other people's are not. I recently read something here where a reader mentioned wanting a heads up if there was injury to animals. I probably wouldn’t have thought of that! Stories with pregnancy loss or abortion are another that I know many would love a heads up about, but even just stories with healthy pregnancies can be very distressing to many readers. Someone else was noting that they don’t feel comfortable at all reading about any kind of sexual violence, especially when it sneaks up in the middle of an innocuous story.

And on and on and on…

"But my story depends on a surprise and a warning would ruin it!"

Fair and agreed. We need a way to do this that doesn’t “ruin it” for the writers or for other readers who are fortunate enough to have no triggers.

Here are a few things that I think could work.

1. Content Flags

We can already flag stories as spam or as violating community guidelines. Can we please have another flag option for Content Warnings? Not a punitive flag though or one that will report the story to the moderation team at Vocal...

Just something where the author, if they are willing (hopefully you will be!), can go ahead and flag anything that they know occurs in the story, and that readers can also flag if they come across it so that the next reader can be warned. This flag should ideally be a drop-down option that you have to click to see so that readers with no concerns can just read straight ahead while the rest of us, and there are MANY, can check the Content Warning drop down and see if this is a safe story for us to proceed with reading.

2. A Rating System

Authors could rate their story, article, or poem as another step in the submission process. This is very subjective and it doesn't help with the specific triggers part but it would at least let people know what kind of a ride they are in for, maybe? I'm probably going to blanket avoid anything that an author rates as R for example.

3. A Spoiler Alert Box

This was a suggestion I received when I polled some Vocal friends.

On Reddit and other forums, apparently you can easily hide some content that contains spoilers for shows or movies. Could we have a spoiler system but for Content Warnings instead? Something where the warnings are included at the very beginning of a piece but where you have to click something in order to actually read them. That way, no specific triggers are revealed unless someone feels the need to click to see them. That gives the author and the reader some control over the content spoiler side of things.

Here is a link to an article from Nerds Chalk discussing how to use the Spoiler tag and alert system on Reddit. It sounds complicated to me but I'm also not familiar with Reddit.


What do we think, friends? Would something like one of these ideas work?

What other ideas (other than "get over it" or "just leave") do you have?

Please and Thank You, Vocal and fellow Vocalites.


Donna Renee (and lots of other people)

PS The vast majority of authors and readers that I get to interact with on Vocal are kind, thoughtful, talented, wonderful people! I really don't think there is any malicious intent involved here at all.

PPS Also, just adding...I am absolutely not calling out specific stories here at all... if you think I am though, maybe you should consider adding a Content Warning? :)

PPPS If you are about to comment something mean at me, please go look at the cute feature photo first and get too distracted to leave your comment.

how toadvice

About the Creator

Donna Renee

Hi! Thanks for reading! My hobbies include making coffee, drinking coffee, and starting to write a story and then rage-deleting it when I get the slightest bit frustrated.


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Comments (69)

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  • Carol Townend13 days ago

    I write horror and sex stories. I also have PTSD but writing those stories helps me to face the monsters in my head. However, I do agree with some kind of content warning, not to a point where it puts readers off reading it, but so that it can give readers and young people a heads up before reading it. I think it would be good to see Vocal implement it, and your point is a valid one.

  • C. H. Richard28 days ago

    I actually read this story last month and wanted to come back to it until I made up my mind about how I felt about trigger/content warnings. When sharing a few of my stories on Facebook, I definitely shared that content maybe difficult for some people. Your article did make review my position and realized it was not enough. i did go back over several of my stories and added content/trigger warnings though for most I do prefer more generalized content warning; " story does contain violence not suitable." A couple of stories that are historical fiction I did add a more focused warning. I know I'm late with adding comments, but I do appreciate your voice on this matter. ❤️

  • Robbie Cheadleabout a month ago

    This is an interesting topic and debate. I didn't know that youngsters also posted here. Not much bothers me, but I am sensitive to other people's triggers. I will be more mindful of this in future. Thank you.

  • If we think along the lines of inclusion (which I try to do, hope I do consistently) then we need this. Some folks may not choose this platform because it does not provide them a "safe space" to work within. We want people to thrive and feel empowered. It may be difficult to understand if you don't deal with severe anxiety (raises hand) or have had an angry parent who doesn't realize how their words and actions are emotionally abusive (raises hand). I am fairly new to vocal and didn't even know that Content Warning was a thing until I saw it at the beginning of a few stories. I probably (my experience) will still read it anyway but it is nice to know what I am getting myself into.

  • L.C. Schäferabout a month ago

    I don't know how I feel about content warnings. 🤔 I don't feel especially strongly about them one way or the other. I think they can be a spoiler. Sometimes they can be a teaser. I think they are more appropriate on platforms like this than on novels. In one story I wrote, I felt guilty about the negative impact my words might have on some readers, and my character warned them to go away and have a cup of tea and not come back. That counts, right?

  • Novel Allenabout a month ago

    I avoid certain stories like they are literally the Plague, horror stories give me nightmares. I start reading and go 'nope, I'm outa here'. So totally agree with you. I tried writing horror, didn't taste well.

  • Danielle McGaw2 months ago

    I absolutely agree with this! There aren't exactly clear categories that you might need to stay away from so being able to add warnings would be a benefit to everyone.

  • Lisa Herdman2 months ago

    I absolutely agree with this, and hope we see better implementation in the future for it!

  • Sofia Joy2 months ago

    keep up the good work

  • Hamza Shafiq2 months ago


  • I'm glad you wrote this. I, too, have faced much trauma, but blessedly I have found my way past the PTSD and depression. Although I (we) rarely write much that is horrific, it does often touch on the darker side of things (often as a message to folks unaware that such dark things exist). Though we may not see this as something fearful to write, clearly others may see this differently. I wish there were a label above the story with any necessary warnings rather than needing to write such warnings within the story. Bless you - Anneliese

  • Zaroon khan2 months ago

    Good work

  • Ash Taylor2 months ago

    I very much do agree, and support this idea. I find it difficult to understand why some people are so vehemently opposed to using content warnings when for some people it could be the difference between having a normal day and having a serious panic attack and relapsing.

  • Abdullah2 months ago

    Nice sharing 👍🏻

  • R.C. Taylor2 months ago

    A lovely suggestion, Donna! I especially love the opt in/opt out option you mentioned.

  • Tom Jardine2 months ago

    Triggers, flags, whatever. Agree with your assessment.Most other media platforms use some form of alerts?

  • Lea Springer2 months ago

    I'm totally with you, Donna and a system of alerts would be beneficial. I don't understand the upswing in the horror genre lately and that includes films so I'm not a judge of what's good or bad but some is just plain gratuitous.

  • R. J. Rani2 months ago

    I'm with you on this article, Donna. I almost didn't open a single entry in the Horror competition because I'm (sadly) easily spooked. I enjoyed the ones I read... but then, there were some I couldn't finish because I felt bad. So, while it's my choice not to read, I also feel like I'm missing out on supporting the writers I love and their incredible stories. As others have mentioned, it would be nice to have some sort of rating system, so I can make a more informed decision about what to read (without too much being given away through specific content warnings). Thank you for tackling a topic that has likely been on a lot of people's minds! And congratulations on Top Story!

  • Samia Afra2 months ago

    Hmm, something to chew on. I'm guilty of these stories, but I wrote them two years ago. I wouldn't be opposed to tags.

  • valueappz2 months ago

    Nice sharing

  • Gal Mux2 months ago

    I agree. I think trigger warnings would be very helpful.

  • Brannan K.2 months ago

    I don't believe "triggers" are anybody but the individual's responsibility to manage. And yes, I say that as a veteran and somebody who now works in a profession where I am exposed to the worst effects of reckless human behavior on the regular; mangled bodies, drunk drivers, stabbings, child neglect, drownings, death, etc. I have images that I take to bed every night. Dreams that burn brightly behind my closed eyelids. I associate a common childhood toy figurine with a particularly nasty incident I experienced because it was present in the wreckage and destruction. I associate odors with it. Sounds. The heat of a car fire. Three lives that are no more. Fast forward to a pediatrician appointment and the wallpaper in the exam room depicts that same figurine. My kid thinks its cute, and all i csn do is sit and ruminate about it, a thousand yards away. Shall I raise a fuss because they didn't warn me and would have had no idea? Of course not. It's my duty as an adult to control my own emotions and impulses and reactions to stimuli. All that being said, my opinion is just that; an opinion. If they can do it reasonably for TV shows (TVMA, sexual conduct, drinking, violence), or have a rating system for films (R, PG, etc), I believe it's doable in a general, non-specific way. We can't presume to know or forewarn of every possible perception of an event that may cause somebody somewhere to think of or remember something distasteful. That's also not to say you can't be respectful if somebody raises an issue and asks for a personal warning from you on the next go round, if they are a habitual reader of yours, etc.

  • Cereal Oatmeal 2 months ago

    This might be solved if Vocal adopted the same tagging and content warnings that Ao3 uses, as they’re pretty straightforward and warn for major things while allowing authors to either tag additional things or choose not to warn

  • Alex H Mittelman 2 months ago

    Lol I actually agree about the warning, and it might actually help INCREASE readership, because people will think “warning: adult content! I’ll definitely read adult content!” So not only would it’ help you, it would also encourage people who like that stuff to read it! So, good idea!

  • Call Me Les2 months ago

    Very well laid out article. I can tell a lot of time and thought went into this. I don't agree however with the use of trigger warnings for fiction. I have used one once for a non fiction piece involving the residential school system. My issue is that they are too broad and too specific and leave loose ends. What is triggering to one person is not to another and I wouldn't want an author to be harassed for failing to identify everyone's triggers. I also wouldn't want those easily triggered to feel a false sense of security either only to end up upset. I would suggest instead a simple rating system like movies. G or PG or R. I realize this also leaves some debate for what makes a PG vs R rating but end of the day we need to allow for free expression and that includes authors delving into difficult topics. Vocal already has a policy to not publish extreme works and if a work slips through that is simply too violent or graphic the flag system is there to tell them to reevaluate it. This isn't to say I don't understand where you are coming from. I myself have ptsd and a variety of triggers but I wouldn't want someone else to feel they need to stress over their work before they publish it. #sensitivetopic could help and would not spoil anything and I've suggested that in GI. My other concern is that works flagged may be treated unfairly in contests or ignored by readers when the reality is the work isn't severe enough to warrant the flag but only to the person who flagged it. I welcome more discussion on the issues. Again I see where the need is there but the method doesn't feel right to me. Side note congrats on the top story! It's good to get people thinking more deeply.

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