Profanity and writing

At some point or another every writer will need to draw their own line on just how far they will go with profanity in their writing. There are arguments for and against it, of course, but in the end it comes down to the writer.

Some claim it adds an air of authenticity. Others claim its entirely unnecessary. Some find a way around it. But none of us can escape it entirely.

As a reader I’ve found I have a bit of a double-standard with profanity. It doesn’t bother me much when it’s in an audio book. But it makes me rather uncomfortable to see it in print. That’s probably because I hear profanity around me regularly, while I don’t usually read things where profanity is common beyond the standard few “weaker swear-words.”Profanity

But as a writer, I prefer to not use it, use weaker, highly-common words, or find substitutes. Not everyone can get away with that, of course. I mostly can because because I write fantasy. But eventually I intend to branch out and try other genres. I may need to take up the issue again and re-evaluate.

In the mean time, however, there are a few ways to get around using language that guarantees you’ll never let your mother read your book.

Refer to it – This works especially well in first-person stories. Rather than putting swear words in their actual speech, just tell the reader they swore:

Jacob swore. “That’s the last thing I needed to hear today.”

or

Jacob said something I can’t repeat in polite company. “That’s the last thing I needed to hear today.”

Let the reader be the one to summon up their own swear words for you. That way your language will always be appropriate to your audience.

Use fake swear words – People do it in real life, so why not have a character who uses fake swearing, too? Plus it can help define that character’s personality:

“Cheese and crackers!” Rachel said, then blushed bright red. Swearing was clearly something she needed help with.

or

“J. C. on a Harley!” Rocky muttered as the car sped away. “That idiot nearly killed me!”

Create in-world profanity – This can be a speculative fiction writer’s best friend. If you’re writing about different cultures and different worlds it can only add depth and realism to that world to create a vocabulary of swearing that is unique to that world. It may often even work better than actual swear words:

Dunlaren looked up, fire in his eyes. “The Fire-lord take you!” he hissed. “Take you and burn you forever in his forge.”

or

“By the Seven Pillars I swear it,” Canwell repeated emphatically. “May the Underworm take me if I lie!”

Your preference as a writer is something you will need to determine. For my part, I don’t feel that strong profanity makes a book any more “authentic” , and if it’s bad enough it’ll knock me out of the story and make me consider putting the book down. But that’s me.

Certainly it’s the “in thing” to be gritty and dark, or to “keep it real.” But we work in a medium that is not necessarily intended to present photo-realistic depictions of real life. Rather our job is to present the illusion of real life. A reader often won’t realize they’re not seeing profanity if the writer doesn’t give it to them.

But if the audience you write for expects it, then you’ll need to figure out for yourself just how much to give them, and how. You know where your line is. You know what is expected in your genre. But if you haven’t already considered it, you may want to take some time and decide what you will and won’t write in your work.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.

8 comments
moniquebucheger
moniquebucheger

I think this is a balanced post on this issue. My published books are geared toward the 10 & up crowd (middle grade)-- so it is easier to choose not to include profanity, than authors who write thrillers about human traffickers. However, I have a couple of adults in my books who don't hold my standards and they swear--only I have my characters react to the swearing rather than use the actual words in dialog. I figure people can fill in whatever blank they want--but I don't have to write something that may offend someone like me--who would rather not read profanity in anyone's books. I tell my kids that profanity isn't appropriate, so I can't imagine writing it for them, or their friends, or my kids' friends to have a permanent record of. To be fair, I found it harder to not use swear words in my family drama series--which is geared toward older teens and adults--when a few traumatic situations presented themselves. Even so, I wrote the scenes without profanity, mostly because I think the majority of people don't miss NOT reading swear words in an otherwise compelling story.. I have had several people tell me in person or write in reviews that they "are happy to have found an author that they can trust their kids with." At the end of the day--that means more to me than the "authenticity" of using profanity ever could. And like you said--"Rather our job is to present the illusion of real life. A reader often won’t realize they’re not seeing profanity if the writer doesn’t give it to them." Amen. :)

Chas Hathaway
Chas Hathaway

My rule of thumb for myself is to keep my work at a higher standard than even I myself live (or in this case, read). Obviously that doesn't mean my antagonists are "good," but if I would squirm reading a scene if it were someone else's book, even a little, I won't write it. There are several reasons for that, but the biggest is that I want to be force for good. I want to write stuff I can be proud of--stuff I can show my kids, my siblings, my parents, and my grandparents, and feel very comfortable having them read. I want to have something that when I leave this life, my work can continue to bless lives, inspire creativity, good character, and maybe in a personal way, change lives for the better. Life's too short to put out anything else.

Debra Erfert
Debra Erfert

Technically, profanity doesn't fit the slight swear words I very occasionally use. Profanity: blasphemous or obscene language. That isn't something I would ever include, no matter how intense the scene. Don't know about ol' Orson. I plan on sending my sons every book I release, and hope they read them. At least I'm sure their wives will!

Thom
Thom

I suspect a significant number of the readers here are religious and/or have been taught to avoid profanity in their own speech. And yet Orson Scott Card and other LDS writers have been known to throw in profanity to levels I'm not sure I would. I've also made a personal goal to never write something I would be uncomfortable letting my children read. For all I know I'm significantly limiting my marketability, but I'm okay with that. In the end we all have to decide what we're comfortable doing, and it's not necessarily an easy choice.

Debra Erfert
Debra Erfert

I write suspense for the adult audience. I haven't ever heard a cop use gosh, golly, darn or heck while chasing a bad guy. But I stay within a certain boundary with my swear words the very very, yes, very few times I do use them--if they're found in the Bible, then I don't feel so bad seeing them in print. Weirdly enough, I don't say them in real life without blushing and laughing so hard I cry. I will never, ever use the "F" word. If I see one in a book, I put that book down. I've done it before, and I will do it again. There are authors who seem to think that sentences aren't compete without a plethora of "sh" words, and "as-" words. For me, this a lazy and uncreative way of writing, although I'm sure there is an audience for it. medfreebipolar: there are so many other descriptions for the posterior, including buttocks, rump, rear, bum, rump, cheek, … I lost my really cool thesaurus, but I'm sure there are several more. Once you publish you book, it will always be there. Be sure about that word--no regrets.

medfreebipolar
medfreebipolar

I am grappling with this myself. I have ONE swear word in my book and it is bothering me whether to take it out. It is a well-places AS*, as in: I got a warm shot in the as* and the heat spiderwebbed its way into my brain. As it in early in the book, I don't want people to think it is the norm being the only one. Not sure what to do, but it is nice to know I am not the only one pondering this.

Donna K. Weaver
Donna K. Weaver

In most of my books there is some minor swearing, but I try and save the actual spoken words when it actually means something. Otherwise I say "He swore."