How to screen a book for content warnings and triggers (with video)

How to screen a book for content warnings and triggers (with video)

Picture this. You’re excited about reading a certain book. Lo and behold, your library has a copy! You check it out, rush home, and cozy up with it on the couch. The book starts off great—OH JOY. You eat a celebratory bar of chocolate and congratulate yourself on your literary taste. 

BUT…

At the 30 percent mark, you start sniffing something rotten in the plot. By the 40 percent mark, you strongly suspect that the stench is coming from the book’s very core. Halfway through, you receive undeniable proof of the story’s decay. 

Then, you’re faced with the question that every reader hates: DNF or finish? By now, the book has gone sour, but you’ve already invested time into it! Ugh…

Has this ever happened to you?

It has happened to me more times than I’d care to admit.

Movies have ratings, but books don’t, so…

How can you find content warnings for books BEFORE you start reading? 

It’s actually not that difficult, time-consuming, or painful. 🎉

You will likely spoil some plot points during the vetting process, but it may be worth it if you’re sensitive to certain things or if you must avoid specific triggers to maintain your mental health.

Speaking of trigger warnings…

Trigger Warnings vs. Content Warnings

What’s the difference between a trigger warning and a content warning? Or are they the same thing? 

They overlap, but they are NOT quite the same thing. Here’s the difference:

Trigger: Something specific that is closely associated with trauma or addiction, such as child abuse, rape, panic attacks, and drug use to name a few. A trigger can provoke a negative reaction, such as panic, depression, or relapse.

Content warning: Something more general that readers may want to know about before diving into a book, such as explicit violence, sex, or language. Content warnings aren’t as closely tied to trauma like trigger warnings are, and they’re subjective (a matter of personal preference). What I consider a content warning might be a selling point for someone else.

Some publishers have adopted the practice of including trigger warnings in the book’s front matter. This has been the subject of many a hilarious meme because these warnings often read like the small print on your prescription meds. A page-long list of triggers can make you question whether or not you’ll need therapy if you read the book.

But many books don’t have trigger warnings listed, so how do you find out about them? I’m going to give you a few resources for finding trigger warnings as well as content warnings in books.

How to find trigger warnings in books

There are two helpful websites dedicated entirely to documenting trigger warnings in books. 

This is incredibly helpful if you know that you need to avoid certain types of content.

Also, from what I can tell, both of the websites that I mention below try to avoid major spoilers by listing the triggers only, without any context.

Trigger Warning Database

Trigger Warning Database contains a long list of books and the trigger warnings associated with each. You can navigate the database by title or by trigger. The site is administered by two librarians, and they rely on the help of authors, publishers, and book influencers to grow the database. 

From the About page: This website, this database, is a place for readers like us. It’s for readers with triggers, readers on their own trauma recovery journeys, readers who just want the safe, enjoyable reading experience they deserve.

Pros: 

  • Nicely organized and designed with a large and growing list of books. I was able to find popular titles published within the year.
  • Easy navigation
  • Miraculously ad-free

Cons: 

  • The search bar is hard to find at the very bottom of every page. 
  • The warnings are limited to triggers and don’t extend to general content warnings. 
  • The database may not contain the book you’re looking for, especially if it’s brand-new or low-profile.

Here’s an example of the page for Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross, published in 2023. Compare it with the page below from the other site.

Book Trigger Warnings

Book Trigger Warnings is a wiki-style site that contains a large number of book titles and the triggers, tropes, and representations associated with each. The site is administered by two individuals and relies on community assistance to grow the database. 

From the About page: “Our goal here at BTW is to create a central place for readers to visit and check for specific triggers, tropes, representation and/or controversies that may factor into their decision to pick up specific book.”

Pros: 

  • Large selection of books in the database. I was able to find popular titles published within the year.
  • The search bar does a great job of returning Google-familiar results.
  • They attempt to document “tropes, representations, and controversies” in addition to triggers.

Cons: 

  • The website isn’t aesthetically pleasing and has poor navigation—just rely on the search bar. Also, it contains ads. 
  • The warnings are limited to triggers and don’t extend to general content warnings. 
  • The database may not contain the book you’re looking for, especially if it’s brand-new or low-profile. 

Here’s an example of the page for Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross, published in 2023. Compare it with the page above from the other site.

How to find content warnings for books

We all have certain types of content that we’d rather avoid if we can help it, and it’s all subjective. What I find objectionable another reader may find enticing. 

Content warnings = tricky

The best way to find content warnings for books is to search reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I suggest these two websites NOT because I think they have the best reviews but because they have the most reviews, quantity-wise. These reviews vary in quality, as you’d expect, but with such a huge quantity available, you should get a decently accurate picture by reading enough reviews to get a general consensus. 

NOTE: New books may not have very many reviews, so be sure to check the number of reviews the book has. There is no minimum number required, just know that the fewer the reviews, the smaller your data pool. For example, a new release may have 10 or fewer reviews.

Scroll down, and you’ll see a video that explains exactly what I do, click by click, to search the reviews on both of these sites. But first, you need to know what WORDS you’re going to search for.

First off, you can search for trigger words that you’re worried about, such as the word “abuse” and see what comes up. But I’m often interested in other things, so how do I find them?

Ask yourself “What do I need to know before reading this book?”

You’ve got a book in your hands, and you’re looking at it, flipping through the pages. But you’re not sure, so you say to yourself: 

  • “I want to make sure there’s no _____ in this book.”
  • “I don’t want to read it if _________.”
  • “This looks so good! But I’m afraid  ________.” 

Jot down the words that you used to fill in those blanks, and those are the words that you’re going to search.

Here are some example answers for a romance book. (It’s so easy to pick on romance—sorry!)

  • I want to make sure there’s no smut in this book.
  • I don’t want to read it if there are graphic sex scenes.
  • This looks so good! But I’m afraid it’s going to turn out to be trashy.

So, my search terms are smut, graphic sex, and trashy.

A little more advice. Your search terms need to be

  • words that an average reviewer might use. For example, you may have better luck with “spicy” than “explicit.”
  • flexible and creative. Use different variants and spellings of a word, and try synonyms. I often like to chop a word down to its base in order to get all variants with one search. For example, I’ll search the suffix “phobia” just to see what comes up. 

Two useful search terms: Content and Trigger

If you search the word “trigger,” you’ll likely see reviews that specifically call out trigger warnings. 

If you search “content,” you’ll likely see reviews that contain the phrase “content warning.” 

These are two very handy search terms to start with.

Lists of words to search

To help you get started, here are some word lists to jumpstart the flow of ideas. I hope that you won’t make judgments about me based on the words here. 😊I consider myself open-minded, but I know that I have conservative reading taste, so there you go. 

Use these search terms to find explicit content:

  • Spicy / steamy
  • Explicit
  • Excess / over the top
  • Sex / sexual
  • Bedroom
  • Open-door / open door
  • Infidelity
  • Cheat
  • Violent / violence
  • Blood
  • Murder / kill
  • Language
  • Curse / cuss / swear
  • F-bomb / F bomb
  • Inappropriate
  • Trash
  • Gutter
  • Filth

Use these search terms to uncover worldview or moral issues:

  • Worldview
  • Agenda
  • Messaging
  • Signaling
  • Representation
  • Politics / political 
  • Stereotype
  • Hype
  • Soapbox
  • Propaganda
  • Prejudice
  • Unfair
  • Hypocrisy
  • Preach
  • Bait
  • Publisher
  • Any relevant word that ends in -ism or -ist or -phobic

Use these search terms to discover how readers negatively reacted to the book:

  • Didn’t like / disliked
  • Disappoint
  • Overrated
  • Annoying
  • Boring
  • Don’t care
  • Waste of
  • Obvious 
  • Predictable

Good words? 😂

I’ve focused a LOT on negative stuff because our goal, really, is to decide if we need to disqualify a book from our reading life. But, there may be other positive search terms that you want to try in order to determine if a book is FOR you (and not against you).

For example, if I search the word “Christ,” that will return “Christianity” and “Christian,” which may be things that I’m looking for if I’d like to read a book with a faith element.

VIDEO: How to search Amazon and Goodreads for content warnings for books

You may already know how to do this, but if you don’t, here’s a 5-minute video that shows you how. 

Content Warning and Trigger Video by Michelle Watson

Use PluggedIn to get content warnings for books

I’d be remiss not to mention PluggedIn by Focus on the Family. This website is known for its detailed reviews of movies, TV shows, songs, video games, YouTube channels, and (yes) books—mostly for parents who want to help their kids make wise media choices. 

This site employs a Christian worldview.

It does a good job of reviewing a TON of popular books, but the list isn’t exhaustive. Naturally, they prioritize books that are likely to have more marketing and name recognition behind them—books that’ll register on a parent’s radar and possibly give them heartburn.

The site has a lot of kids’ books, but it does have teen- and adult-level books, especially those with screen adaptations. For example, I found Lessons in Chemistry and Dune.

Because the book reviews are divided into sections, such as Sex/Sexuality, Drugs/Alcohol, Violence, etc., it’s very easy to scan. Often, the final thoughts at the very end offer some good insights.

Tell me your thoughts

How do you find trigger and content warnings for books? What are some of your favorite websites and resources for this tricky task?